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Throngs still crowd to see Mao's embalmed body

BEIJING—Mao Zedong is a national hero in China—but to some Chinese his steadfast allure also presents a business opportunity.

On all but the most inclement days of the year, tens of thousands of Chinese line up in central Beijing at Mao Zedong's memorial hall to walk past a likeness of him lying in waxy splendor.

Nearly three decades after his death, his embalmed body lies in a crystal coffin, draped by the red flag of the Communist Party, looking rosy-cheeked and rested. Authorities claim it's the actual body, not a wax effigy, and the dim lighting and distance from the coffin make it hard to offer an assessment.

Most provincial Chinese visitors, wearing the clothing of poor farmers, come with an attitude of reverence.

"As the songs we sang in our childhood go, there was no new China without Chairman Mao," said Xia Xinchun, a visitor from Henan province to the granite memorial hall in the center of Tiananmen Square. "I admire him a lot."

It can take one to two hours in line to gain entrance. As visitors enter, they're asked to spend about 37 cents each to buy plastic carnations to place at the foot of a huge white statue of Mao. The flowers are later gathered and resold.

Others also seek to make a profit off Mao, who despised capitalists.

Chinese cities have restaurants with Mao themes that specialize in the spicy cuisine of his native Hunan province. Mao trinkets, hats and little porcelain statues also are widely hawked.

Gui Ying, 54, runs a market stall crammed with Mao pictures, posters, ceramic statues and other artifacts. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Chinese everywhere had Mao's picture on their walls, read his books, heard his quotations on public loudspeakers and wore his image on pins.

"Most of my customers are foreigners, especially Americans," Gui said.

Many older Chinese visit, too, and ask for the prices of this and that.

"I know clearly they are not true customers," Gui said. "They probably have the same thing in their home and just want to know the price."

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(Fan is a special correspondent in Beijing.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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