Monday, April 13, 2009

Mao's Body, The Science Museum, and Hutongs

This weekend I went to go see Mao Zedong's body and the Beijing Museum of Science. Today we went to the Hutongs.

Mao's body is housed in a building in Tiananmen Square, south of the Forbidden City. When Mao died in 1976, his body was immediately preserved (although he wanted to be cremated). When they preserved the body, they didn't really know what they were doing, so they pumped him too full of formaldehyde. They soon corrected their mistake, but not before they made a wax copy just in case. To house it, the leaders tore down a gate in Tiananmen Square and built a building to house his body*. 

The building itself isn't anything unusual, and the architecture is standard Chinese. There was a long line to get in, but it went quickly because you're not allowed to loiter when you see the body. The building has two rooms: an entrance room and the body room. The former was really big. There were flowers everywhere (which you could purchase outside in the line), and flanking the back wall was a mural of mountains shrouded in clouds. In the centre of the mural was a stone statue of Mao, sitting with his legs crossed. Then we entered the body room. The best way I can describe it was creepy. It was much smaller and darker than the first room. In the centre was a glassed in section where the body was, with two guards standing watch. Mao was laying in his box, wearing a Mao suit, and on the lower half of his body was a green blanket that had a big red square patch with a yellow hammer and sickle on it. I don't know if it was the real body or the wax copy, but it looked shiny. As we exited the room, we came upon the exit, but not before we went through the ultra-ironic capitalist souvenir shop. It cracked me up that literally right outside the tomb of the founder of Communist China was a shop selling souvenirs. But heck, that's China! (as a side note, there was even a Starbucks in the Forbidden City up until a few years ago) By the way, I'm sorry but I don't have any pictures of this experience. I didn't have my camera anyways, but no taking pictures of Mao's body. Also no hats and no noise.

The Science Museum was slightly less interesting. Carolyn and I were bored on a Saturday, so we decided to go here. I'd wanted to go for a little while, and it seemed like a good thing to do. It was mildly interesting, and at least it wasn't a showcase of how amazingly awesome and superior Chinese technology is, which I have to say I was kind of expecting. There were sections that felt like commercials for Lenovo and BMW, but what are you going to do? It turned out to be okay. There was a section on how we need to ween ourselves off fossil fuels, which was cool. There was a thing on the Olympics and the Olympic torch, which of course left out the part about the protests in London, Paris and San Francisco. Other than that, it was basically your standard science museum, although I think I like the one in Boston better.

The Hutongs were really interesting. If you didn't know, the Hutongs (literally "alley") are one of the last remnants of Old Beijing. They're low lying buildings with courtyards that people live in. A better description of them can be found here. The controversy surrounds the fact that the government of Beijing has become infamous for tearing down these historic alleyways in favor of high rises or shopping centers, often while giving residents little to no advance notice or without adequate compensation. This is what we went to today, and it was pretty sad. The word "demolish" was spray painted everywhere, and you could see that the process was already underway. Several walls had whole sections that were on the floor, and by that I mean the bricks they were made of were on the ground instead of in the wall. It's sad because these dilapidated buildings are peoples' homes, not just cultural relics (the favorite word in China for anything and everything ancient and historic). I wish the government would treat the Hutongs with as much respect and admiration as they do the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, hopefully before it's too late.

*I find it a common theme in the history of Communist China that they really love to tear down old buildings in favor of new things. The city walls, that building, the Hutongs, all were/are being torn down to build more modern things. Even the Forbidden City was at risk of being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

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