Read an Excerpt
The Chairman Is Dead
I gazed with ghoulish fascination at the withered, waxen corpse. The infamous domed forehead and rounded cheeks looked weary and wrinkled, a far cry from the jubilant, plump jowls of the propaganda posters. The embalmed cadaver of Chairman Mao lay swaddled in military uniform, his hands crossed over his chest. An orange lamp beamed through the semidarkness onto his shriveled, death-stiffened skin. His face glowed like a ghastly candlelit pumpkin.
A hushed awe filled this inner chamber of the mausoleum. Nobody spoke above a whisper. The room quivered with palpable excitement. My heart was beating faster than usual; a perverse thrill tickled my skin. I felt a morbid compulsion to stop and stare at the macabre spectacle, at the mortal remains of this man who had, to such catastrophic effect, held ab- solute power over the most populous nation on earth. A few decades ago, a single suggestion from that formaldehyde-plumped mouth could have spelled the slaughter of a man; the disastrous economic strategies that evolved in that glowing amber head had dealt a tortured death to tens of millions. Yet beneath that taut, unyielding skin had also breathed a man who had, against incredible odds, inflamed such passion and loyalty in his people that a vast and diverse country had united and, with almost no material resources, had overthrown the foreign superpowers that threatened it.
The embalming of Mao’s corpse had been an anxious affair, according to his personal physician, Li Zhisui, who recorded the procedure in his book The Private Life of Chairman Mao. The problem was that neither Li nor anyone else in China had attempted to preservehuman flesh before. Li himself had visited Stalin’s and Lenin’s remains some years previously and had noted that the bodies were shrunken. He had been told that Lenin’s nose and ears had rotted and had been rebuilt in wax and that Stalin’s mustache had fallen off. The medical team played for time by pumping Mao’s corpse full of formaldehyde.
“We injected a total of twenty-two liters,” Li wrote. “The results were shocking. Mao’s face was bloated, as round as a ball, and his neck was now the width of his head. His skin was shiny, and the formaldehyde oozed from his pores like perspiration. His ears were swollen too, sticking out from his head at right angles. The corpse was grotesque.”
The terrified medics–who could have been executed for desecrating the semidivine cadaver–tried to massage the liquid out from the face and down into the body, where the bloating could be covered with clothing. One of them pressed too hard and broke a piece of skin off Mao’s cheek. In the end, they managed to restore his face to something approaching normal proportions, but then the Chairman’s clothes wouldn’t fit on his body, and they had to slit the back of his jacket and trousers in order to button them up.
Before carrying out the permanent preservation of the body, Li sent two investigators to Hanoi to find out how Ho Chi Minh’s body had been treated. When they arrived, however, the Vietnamese officials refused to divulge their secrets and wouldn’t allow them to see the corpse–though someone revealed confidentially that it hadn’t been a great success. Ho’s nose had already decomposed, and his beard had fallen off.
In the end, Li worked out a method whereby he removed Mao’s internal organs and filled the cavity with cotton soaked in formaldehyde while another group worked day and night building a pseudocorpse out of wax just in case it all went wrong and they found themselves in need of a fake.
I wondered whether the body that lay before me was in fact the real cadaver or the waxen substitute. It was nearly thirty years since Mao’s death; the pickling process had clearly been experimental at best. It seemed entirely possible that the real corpse could have long since rotted away and been quietly replaced with a skilfully crafted effigy.
But I wasn’t allowed to linger. A dark-suited official insisted that the line of pilgrims keep moving. Silently, I filed with the busloads of fellow tourists out of the dim mausoleum of the past and into the bright white light of contemporary Tiananmen Square.
“Follow me! Quick-a-ly!” A Chinese man dressed in a slightly soiled sweatshirt, baggy black jogging pants, and scuffed pumps hollered at a white-haired Western tourist who stood in the line that snaked around the cubic concrete mausoleum. Amid the bedlam of loudly jabbering, camera-wielding daytrippers, the tourist nervously clutched his bag to his hip. The Chinese clasped the shoulder of the tourist’s jacket and tried to pull him out of the line. The tourist looked terrified.
He needn’t have worried; I had been through the same charade just a few minutes earlier. Bags were forbidden in the mausoleum, and the left-luggage office was on the other side of one of the busy roads that flanked the square. Seeing my bag, the man had grabbed me.
“Follow me! Quick-a-ly!”
We had hurtled through the square, dodging anorak-clad couples and fraught family groups. I was already struggling to keep up when Pumps had thrown himself into the multiple lanes of traffic that thronged the perimeter road. I had balked.
“Quick-a-ly!” Pumps had shrieked across the belching fumes and honking horns.
Fearing for my life, I had followed as speedily as I could until, a few yards further on, we had reached the checking room.
Pumps had grabbed my bag.
“Ten yuan,” he had said. “Quick-a-ly.”
I had fished it out.
“And ten yuan for me,” Pumps had commanded.
This was the new China, a place where you had to move fast, because time was money. It was a world that Mao, had he woken in his mausoleum a short distance away, would never have recognized. Gone were the communes; the “iron rice bowl”–the state system that guaranteed lifelong employment–had been melted down and sold for scrap. In its place came “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” where the entrepreneurial spirit was not only permitted but actively encouraged. “To be rich is glorious,” Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, had pronounced. After the famines and fear of recent years, the Chinese had leapt at the opportunity to create wealth.
Tiananmen Square had been central to the cult of Mao. It was here that he stood in October 1949 and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic to the enthusiastic cheers of a hopeful, war-weary nation. The largest public square in the world, this vast expanse of gray paving stones and rigidly rectangular monuments and buildings covers an awe-inspiring hundred acres. It was originally built–in less imposing form–during the fifteenth century as the gateway to the Forbidden City, from where the imperial dynasties ruled. But in the late 1950s, Mao decided to enlarge the square, to re-create this ideological landmark in his regime’s own image. It was to be massive, imposing, immovable–and a uniform gray.
Mao was determined that the new square should be ready for the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic. Work started in November 1958; with the anniversary celebrations scheduled for October 1 the following year, the renovations had to be completed in just ten months. A labor force of twelve thousand “volunteers” was conscripted. They worked around the clock in shifts of up to sixteen hours to clear the land; they built the Great Hall of the People, whose auditorium would seat ten thousand, and the banquet hall, where up to five thousand diners would feast.
Things had changed. In the twenty-first-century square, Mao’s monuments still stood, but they were surrounded by Beijingers’ flying kites; fashionably cut jeans and tailored jackets in purple, red, and pink took the place of the blue Mao suits of yore.
In the roads around the square where, in the 1960s, the Chairman had come to inspect parades of up to one million Red Guards and to sanction their merciless ransacking of the country, shiny new BMWs and Volkswagens now streamed. Car sales in China were set to rise 80 percent in 2003 alone. Sparkling expressways shimmered through the industrial haze–in just ten years, China had built enough new roads to circle the equator sixteen times. In Shanghai, the new Maglev train was whizzing a fraction of an inch above its magnetic tracks at a staggering 260 miles an hour. Two hundred and fifty million Chinese were jabbering into cell phones.
Here in Beijing, crumbling hutongs–Beijing’s ancient alleyways–were being controversially razed to make way for the clean, green city that China’s capital is determined to become in time for the 2008 Olympics. The city wasn’t settling for a simple face-lift. It was having Botox, a nose job, and silicone implants to boot. In order to look at its best for the Games, Beijing was undergoing every cosmetic treatment on the market. Entire residential areas had been torn down and parks built in their place. Last time I had visited the city, two and a half years earlier, Beijing had three beltways; now there were six. In 2002 alone, two million trees had been planted. Everywhere I looked, sand and cement dust filled the air. Workers wielded picks and shovels. China was under construction.
Way above my head at this very moment, on the morning of October 15, 2003, China’s first man in space quite literally had stars in his eyes. As I stood and stared at Mao’s pickled corpse, Lieutenant Yang Liwei was gazing out at the cosmos, perhaps tucking into one of his specially prepared space snacks as he settled into another orbit of the earth. The thirty-eight-year-old ex—fighter pilot had spoken by radio to the Party leaders; he’d chatted with his wife and eight-year-old son. Tomorrow, after twenty-one hours and fourteen orbits, China’s newest hero would come back down to earth, and then soar into a rather different universe as a lustrous celebrity. He was, as he said, feeling good.
Yes, yes, so the Russians and Americans had sent astronauts into outer space forty-two years earlier. The cynics were blathering that this escapade was a scandalous waste of money for a country in which many people lived scarcely above subsistence, and that human space adventure had gone out of fashion with A-line skirts (and they were talking about the first time). But the Chinese didn’t care, for their motherland had entered the space age. After decades of instability, strife, and starvation, China had recovered. Now she was announcing to the world with billowing jets of rocket fuel that she was a force to be reckoned with.
Alongside the economic and technological change ran a newfangled cultural revolution. Differences in attitudes between mothers and daughters in today’s China were blowing the customary intergenerational disputes into another stratosphere. In 1980, it was reckoned that a modest 15 percent of Beijingers had indulged in premarital sex. Twenty years later, the figure had reached 80 percent. Divorce was booming. In this country, where the insidious influences of barbarians from abroad had previously been so tightly controlled, sprawling internet cafés were springing up in every town. The Chinese could access the Web sites of international newspapers; the more affluent apartment blocks had cable TV and CNN.
From the Trade Paperback edition.