Chairman Mao’s Memorial Souvenir Shop
I was wrapped in a floor-length down parka, resembling nothing so much as a walking sleeping bag, yet I was still shivering from the impossibly cold wind. A stern Chinese man wearing what appeared to be military garb was barking what I perceived to be orders in a loud and unexpectedly high voice. The voice was muffled by my brand-new Big Bird-yellow earmuffs, purchased from a street vendor in another futile attempt to ward off the cold. I wasn’t about to remove the muffs, and it didn’t matter if I heard him clearly anyway since he was speaking Chinese and I couldn’t understand a damn thing he was saying. I was beginning to wonder why I was here, freezing my earmuffs off in Tiananmen Square.
A hyperactive young boy had been racing around, but snapped to attention upon the guard’s orders. The boy smiled at my obvious confusion and shoved me into the line, now structured with four people abreast. I sensed that we were preparing to march. This was all the more unusual considering the fact that we had not witnessed Chinese people in a queue anywhere. The Chinese we had witnessed seemed to prefer to huddle and herd en masse, as opposed to lining up in an orderly fashion. Not here. Here they were like a drill team, or at least a well-trained high school marching band.
More shrill barking orders from the guard, and the child, along with many others, ran full speed toward a wooden cart that I now saw was selling multicolored flowers wrapped in cellophane. The others in line all appeared to be Chinese, mostly parents with children. None seemed interested in this activity in the slightest, rarely speaking to one another and by all appearances unaffected by the brutal cold. The children ran back from the cart, clutching their flowers tightly.
Bark-bark-barking, then march we did, in a formation of sorts around the square. About the time I decided that this was really getting too weird, we halted. A flat cart had been rolled out, near the entrance of the hall where Chairman Mao Zedong’s body resides. We started marching again, and as we filed past the flat cart, people laid the flowers, still wrapped in cellophane, on the cart apparently as a tribute to the Chairman. After the full line passed the cart, I glanced back and saw that they were wheeling it directly back over so the flowers could be resold to another group of loyal citizens of the PRC. Well played.
When we finally entered the Memorial Hall, I saw one sign in English, and it simply said, “QUIET!” Apparently they didn’t want chatting on the queue. The Chinese seemed reverent, reflective even, as they quickly and noiselessly filed past the crystal coffin. The body is rumored to be wax, and I would not doubt it, based on my admittedly brief viewing as I herded though the Hall. Despite the rather inhuman look of him, many of the Chinese people seemed genuinely moved, as if their lord and savior were lying in state in front of them.
And then, as quickly as we were in, we passed through another door and – WOW. Every imaginable type of souvenir, trinket or bauble bearing Chairman Mao’s face was lined up for sale on tables just outside the door of the Hall. It felt so tacky, so capitalist, so AMERICAN, after this display of religious reverence. Perhaps they would say they are being pragmatic; people want to remember the experience of seeing the Chairman, so why not provide them a remembrance (for a price)? After all, every museum sends you through the gift shop on your way out the door.
Thus was the China I visited: a land of contradictory values, where capitalism no longer appears to be a dirty word; where a shoeless man holding a chicken coop pedals his rickety bike past young girls in Prada popping out of the supersize shopping mall; where The Great Leader, deified by a segment of the populace, is being used to shill coffee mugs and key chains, air fresheners and refrigerator magnets.