Embalming Mao

This is a rather droll and must-read account of how Mao’s body ended up being embalmed a la Lenin

China’s politburo, once they were sure Mao was dead, ordered his body to lie in state for two weeks. Then, on a whim, they decided to have him preserved for all time, even though the Chairman had signed up years before to be cremated.

The Chinese doctors knew nothing of embalming and because of strained international relations they got no help from the Russians, who were the experts in the field. The Vietnamese, too, refused to divulge their trade secrets – perhaps no loss since by then Uncle Ho’s nose had rotted away and his beard had fallen out.

Mao’s personal physician sent an underling to scour the library of the medical academy for books on embalming. As a back-up he had the Institute of Arts and Crafts make a lifelike Mao effigy, just in case the embalming was botched.

It very nearly was. The library book recommended draining the body and injecting 16 litres of formaldehyde, but in their anxiety the doctors pumped in 22 litres. Mao’s face swelled like a ball and his ears stuck out at right angles. His skin turned slimy and formaldehyde oozed out of his pores like sweat.

The piece’s wry humor becomes more side-splitting with each paragraph. It concludes:

Within a minute or two, we are past the Chairman and into an anteroom where China’s new capitalist future confronts us. The crowds rush the counters which display assorted merchandise of dubious taste. There are Mao badges, Mao busts, Mao watches and Mao cigarette lighters that play The East Is Red when you flick them open. At the rear of the building, rows of stalls offer the same range plus soft drinks, stuffed toys and Fuji film.

In deference to history, we invest in a set of Chairman Mao tea caddies and a Mao wall hanging that can double as a tea towel. A set of 32 Mao badges mounted on cardboard is a bargain at only $2. Wording on the box describes the contents as “Great-Man Badge Album of Screen Style”.

Old-style socialists may feel a twinge at the whole experience but, let’s face it, the capitalist road these days leads to the very steps of Chairman Mao’s resting place. If only the Russians could embrace the market economy as efficiently, Lenin, too, would be raking in the roubles.

They don’t even tell us the author’s name, but he’s fiendishly good.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

My girlfriend found The Private Life of Cairman Mao (albeit it in Chinese) missing only a few of its 90+ chapters. The first chapter details how immediately after Mao’s death, his doctor was ordered to embalm the body and the problems this entailed, as well as a pretty grotesque description of the effects his methods of trial and error with formaldehyde. We were both amazed to find this incredible book online. Although 650+ pages, I couldn’t put my copy down and read it all in 3 days.

October 22, 2004 @ 8:32 pm | Comment

Damn. I’m on the verge of holding the author of that piece liable for me nearly choking to death on my mug of Earl Grey tea.

It is amusing, in a macabre kind of way.

October 23, 2004 @ 6:22 am | Comment

Umm, yeah, I was going to point you towards ‘The Private Life of Chairman Mao’ as well. That first chapter where he decribes packing his bags the day Mao died because he was sure he’d be sent to prison immediately – it’s an image that’s stayed with me.
The stories in the book are fascinating. Unfortunately, imoh, the writing isn’t.
Anyway, I just wanted to share that I personally own three Chairman Mao lighters that play ‘The East is Red’. They also flash little lights. Hours of entertainment.

October 24, 2004 @ 10:28 am | Comment

Back in ’88, the Mao viewings were closed for a couple of weeks. Local rumor had it that one of his ears had fallen off during the daily viewing.

I remember that the picture everyone had to take was of the mausoleum from inside the KFC that had just opened off the square. You got one of the ultimate icons of communism framed by Colonel Sanders’ head and the KFC name in the front glass. Except that it was still Kentucky Fried Chicken back then. I don’t even know if that KFC is still there, but I guess there are even more ironic photo opps in Beijing these days.

October 24, 2004 @ 8:56 pm | Comment

Asia by Blog

Asia by Blog is a twice weekly feature, posted on Monday and Thursday, providing links to Asian blogs and their views on the news in this fascinating region. Please send me an email if you would like to be notified of new editions. Previous editions ca…

October 25, 2004 @ 12:54 am | Comment

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