In 1999, on his first state visit to China, Hugo Chávez had a special request. Venezuela’s late president wanted to pay his respects at Mao Zedong’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. By way of explanation, Chávez told the assembled journalists afterwards: “I worship Chairman Mao.”
In the years that followed the Venezuelan leader repeated the sentiment each time that he returned to Beijing, even if his Chinese hosts seemed a trifle embarrassed by such gushing praise.
And this week the bond between the Great Helmsman and El Comandante showed signs of enduring even beyond the grave, after a plan was announced for Chávez to be embalmed, just like his Chinese hero.
For his supporters, Chávez would be joining an elite group of corpses that earlier underwent the pickling process, including Lenin – who started the trend in Moscow in 1924 – Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il (in Pyongyang) and Ho Chi Minh (in Hanoi).
Mao, much like Lenin, didn’t actually want to be preserved and put on public view. Instead his wish was to be cremated, according to his doctor Li Zhisui. As Li tells it in his book The Private Life of Chairman Mao, the decision to embalm Mao was taken by the Politburo in the hours immediately after his death.
Having no experience of how to preserve a corpse, and unable to turn to the Russians for help because of the Sino-Soviet split – Li then had to work out how best to proceed with the help of a book from the Library of Medical Sciences. It recommended draining the body and then injecting 16 litres of formaldehyde. Terrified of failing, Li added a few extra litres to boost the effect.
“The results were shocking. Mao’s face was round as a ball, and his neck was now the width of his head,” Li recalled. Fortunately, after a few hours of careful massaging, Li managed to return the deceased leader to more normal dimensions. And if he is to be believed, it is the real Mao and not the back-up waxwork ordered from the Academy of Arts (as a sensible precaution) that is lying in Tiananmen today.
As some of the online discussion demonstrated this week, many Chinese agree with Mao’s original request to be kept out of the public eye. “Don’t learn from Mao, it’s so much better to be buried,” wrote one Sina Weibo user, while another warned that “worshipping corpses is a mental disease”.
A third comment queried what Mao’s enduring presence (well done, Dr Li) said about China’s place in the world. “The Soviet Union, China, North Korea and now Venezuela. Is that really where we see ourselves?” it despaired.
Then again, scratch Venezuela from that list. In a bizarre U-turn on Thursday the acting president Nicolás Maduro lamented that Chávez’s embalming was unlikely to occur. He noted that experts from Russia and Germany had said the corpse had already deteriorated too greatly. “It will be very difficult for this to happen,” Maduro conceded.
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