When you live in a great city like Beijing, it’s easy to forget to be a tourist too. We recently resolved we weren’t going to find ourselves at the end of our time here rushing around with a checklist, so we’re making a point of doing, every now and then, the sort of things we’d want to do if we were only here for a week.
Of these experiences, one of the most memorable was our recent visit to the Mao Mausoleum, or more properly the “Chairman Mao Memorial Hall”. When Mao died in 1976 his body was embalmed, as Lenin’s and Ho Chi Minh’s had been before it, and put on display in a glass coffin. It’s a popular site of pilgrimage for Chinese visitors to Beijing.
The Mausoleum was purpose built, incorporating materials from all across China. It stands at the south end of Tian’anmen Square, close to Qianmen subway station. Admission is free, “on production of appropriate ID.” We weren’t asked to show our passports, but since you’re required by law to carry ID at all times, you’d be taking a chance going into central Beijing without it anyway.
We’d read about lengthy lines, about people waiting for 60-90 minutes while locals shoved in front of them, and we’d prepared our kids accordingly, but arriving at 10.30 we waited only a couple of minutes to pass through security. This might be due to the fact that it was the first day back at work after Golden Week, but it’s also possible that turning up at dawn, as most guidebooks advise, is a false economy. (Though bear in mind that the Mausoleum shuts at midday!)
Security is of course tight. You’re not allowed to bring any bags, cameras, or bottles (even water!) inside, and you’re instructed to turn off your phone. There is a place to deposit bags, but it’s outside the Mausoleum, so you don’t want to queue for an hour and then find yourself turned away. The best strategy is just to travel light: we brought no bags, and drank a bottle of water on the subway.
While Mao’s legacy is debated by historians, to the Chinese government and people he remains a venerated figure. I’d spent some time impressing on my kids that jokes or misbehavior would not be appreciated. In the event, though, the quiet and solemnity of the place and the visitors were more impressive than any parental warnings.
Flowers are sold outside, which many Chinese visitors buy to place on a statue of Mao in the vestibule. From there, the crowd is divided and passes to left and right of the coffin. Attendants keep the line moving, and it takes perhaps thirty seconds before you’re outside once again.
It’s an odd, and oddly moving experience. Perhaps it will seem morbid to some, but I’d recommend it as an insight into the relationship of ordinary Chinese people to their nation’s recent history.
After visiting the Mausoleum, it’s well worth having a look at the Zhenyangmen Gate immediately in front of you. Admission is RMB 20 (RMB 10 for children), and there’s an interesting display about the history of Beijing’s inner fortifications, as well as great views over the heart of the city.