Why you should care

Because this is how you know propaganda works.

The 5-foot-tall warning sign in front of the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Beijing is thorough: no instant noodles, no cameras, no soda cans, no handbags, no cigarette lighters, no meandering cats, no electric bikes, no wayward scooters, no open-toed shoes, no this, no that. Bring only your eternal love and crocodile tears for the Great Helmsman of China. You — and the dead Communist leader to your right — will be under close watch, but it’s also a prime spot to people watch.

While a mausoleum may not sound like a lively attraction, this particular one is a people-watching paradise. The embalmed corpse of Chairman Mao lies within a crystal coffin in the heart of Tiananmen Square, but I’m not here to ogle his sunken cheeks or his stygian aura. I’m here to observe his flock of fanatics, all elbowing to get into Mao’s final resting place, a multistory cinder-block building that’s kept under lock and key. All I have to do first is pass through three security checkpoints, a few pat-downs and a wall of stone-faced guards.

They spend 60 minutes somberly shuffling forward in a miles-long queue just to get a 60-second glimpse of the Great Leader.

Every day, thousands of visitors — mostly Chinese — come to pay their respects in a cross-country pilgrimage of sorts. They spend 60 minutes somberly shuffling forward in a miles-long queue just to get a 60-second glimpse of the Great Leader. Stately security personnel are stationed every few feet, reminding me that this is no laughing matter. Yet I can’t help but gawk at the the group of gung-ho grandmas who shove me aside to get a closer look at the casket surrounded by glass. Then, like the flip of a switch, they keel over, sobbing — and I mean a sudden downpour — at the sight of Mao in the flesh. Others around me bow down, clutching bouquets of fresh-cut white flowers to be laid at the base of Mao’s statue. Once we reach the end, they take a minute to regain their composure before hightailing it to get back in line and do it all over again.

It’s a shocking sight, especially once you factor in the mixed legacy of Mao that belies the theatricality of it all. The founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao helped build modern China during his rule from 1943 to 1976. He’s celebrated for ending a bloody civil war and nixing imperialism from a massive country, putting it on a path towards renewal and world power. But his legacy is marred by the famine of the Great Leap Forward and the systematic violence of the Cultural Revolution, through which his policies caused the death of tens of millions of people. Today, many have a complicated view of Mao: a charismatic leader who reformed his country but also a ruthless one who wreaked atrocities on his people. But “love him or hate him, the one thing that’s really associated with him is strength” during the rise of China, says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California, Irvine.

There are portraits of Mao hanging everywhere, from the local KFC to the ancient Forbidden City, as a lucky charm — and his perfectly preserved body is revered by millions in China. Outside the mausoleum, I perch near the stairs and watch crowds of mourners go from gloom to glee beneath the sunny sky. I start to ask one teary-eyed woman who has dropped to her knees if she needs help getting up. But before I can open my mouth, she leaps up, a smuggled selfie stick in one hand, and snaps a quick pic of herself in front of Mao’s mausoleum.

People can be so entertaining.

An earlier version of this story misstated Mao’s relationship to the Communist Party of China.

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