China's great leader waxes implausibly

Teresa Poole
Wednesday 07 January 1998 01:02
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Chairman Mao's embalmed body went back on display yesterday when his renovated mausoleum reopened. The Great Helmsman still looks like a Madame Tussaud's reject, finds Teresa Poole as she asks spectators their views of Mao - man, God, or waxwork ?

The 50-year-old woman from Inner Mongolia was not impressed. It was her fourth time paying her respects to Chairman Mao, her previous visits being in the Eighties. As she emerged from the mausoleum in Tiananmen Square yesterday, she explained: "It's not like the original one. The ears look dark. And, before, the face was fatter; now it's sunken in a bit."

Mr Li, a 63-year-old Peking party member who had visited Mao more than 10 times, disagreed: "They did not change anything with his body; it is preserved very well."

Mao Zedong's embalmed body was back on public display yesterday when his mausoleum reopened after nine months of renovations. To The Independent, the Chairman looked just as waxily implausible as ever, like a Madame Tussaud's reject. Not that there was time for a proper inspection.

As before, the line of visitors was kept constantly moving by stern soldiers, 20 feet away from the glass-coffined body. In the gloomy orange light, the head and shoulders protruding from the hammer-and-sickle flag looked a distant descendant of flesh and blood.

The vast, square mausoleum, constructed in eight months after Mao died in September 1976, had received 110 million visits when it closed for renovations on 1 April last year. One hour after reopening yesterday morning, some 4,500 Chinese had filed through.

But it remains a mystery what the workmen have been doing. The body looked the same, and the walls seemed to have benefited only from a coat of paint. One visitor suggested the air-conditioning systems had been overhauled. Perhaps the rumours had been true - that Mao, who had 22 litres of formaldehyde pumped into his corpse when he died - had been "leaking".

Mao's doctor, Li Zhisui, presented a vivid account of the embalming in his memoirs, after the Politburo overruled Mao's wish for a cremation. "His skin was shiny and the formaldehyde oozed from his pores like perspiration," wrote Dr Li. The embalming took a year. "A tube inserted into Mao's neck would allow the team to replenish the formaldehyde at periodic intervals." No other Chinese leader has been embalmed; last year Deng Xiaoping's ashes were thrown into the sea.

Last September, Bao Ge, a Shanghai dissident, wrote a public letter to the government suggesting Mao was cremated. But Mr Bao is now in exile - and Mr Mao is far too profitable to be given a decent burial.

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