China closes Mao mausoleum at least 8 months for repairs Many speculate closing is permanent, body removed

April 05, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING -- The massive stone mausoleum containing the preserved body of Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung closed this week for repairs that officials said will take at least eight months.

But will it reopen? And if so, will it be moved from its dominant position in Tiananmen Square?

The committee responsible for the mausoleum -- where Mao's flag-draped body has rested in a crystal sarcophagus since 1977 -- insists that the refurbished tomb will reopen early next year.

But as the cultist fervor of the Mao era recedes in a country that is now run more by committee than by charisma, some have suggested that it might be a good time to make a symbolic break with China's troubled revolutionary past.

Rumors abound that the rehabilitation is really a removal.

"It would be a good thing if it closed forever," said Fei Wangxia, bTC 30, a Shanghai real estate agent. "It would mean that the feudal thing is vanishing and that China is really progressing."

There was widespread opposition to constructing the tomb when it was first proposed after Mao's death in 1976. Mao himself had asked to be cremated and had signed a 1956 "no embalming" pledge circulated among the leaders.

Deng Xiaoping, his successor, made no secret of his disdain for the hulking tomb at the center of China's most sacred square -- which, in the dynastic age, was also considered the epicenter of all human life on Earth.

Significantly, Deng's body was cremated, as he instructed, after his Feb. 19 death, and his ashes were scattered at sea.

The official explanation for the closing of Mao's tomb was that the building badly needed repair, what with more than 110 million people having come to see the chairman's corpse.

"We needed to do some renovation on the interior," said a Mao Memorial Committee spokesman. He responded haughtily to suggestions that Mao's body might be moved, possibly to his hometown of Shaoshan in Hunan province, where a villager has built another Mao mausoleum complete with an empty crypt.

But in the days leading to the April 1 closing, tens of thousands of Chinese flocked to the capital to view the body -- from which, like a jack-o'-lantern, an eerie orange glow diffuses -- of the man who led China's revolution but whose rule was also marked by political purges, famine of unimaginable horror and the terrible 10-year Cultural Revolution.

Pub Date: 4/05/97

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