Striking a pose in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace // © 2012 Gary Bowerman
The giant portrait of Mao Zedong at the Gate of Heavenly Peace overlooking Tiananmen Square is one of Beijing’s defining images. The painting marks the spot where Chairman Mao announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949. Thirty-six years after his death, interest in Mao’s legacy remains strong in China, where his face still adorns all currency notes.
Long gone are the days when Mao statues and propagandist slogans were ubiquitous on the streets, but Red tourism, named after the emblematic color of Mao’s Communist Party, is becoming increasingly popular in both Beijing and Shanghai.
Beijing’s top Red tourism site is the Memorial Hall of Chairman Mao. Located in Tiananmen Square, the mausoleum is surrounded by socialist realist statues depicting communist revolutionary scenes. Each morning, lines of people wait patiently to view Mao’s body in the Hall of Mourning. Visitors can enter for free, but they must show their passports.
The National Museum of China, one of the largest museums in the world, flanks the east side of Tiananmen Square. Inside, “The Road of Rejuvenation” exhibition narrates Chinese history through the eyes of the Communist Party. Combining photographs, murals, video collages and paintings, the first section — from the 1840 Opium War to the Chinese Civil War — is deliberately cast with drab black-and-white paneling and reportage. The second section, Mao’s Communist Revolution of 1949, is dramatically different, with vibrant Red-themed art and media extending to the present day. Neatly sidestepping the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the National Museum of China expansively details China’s achievements under communist rule, ranging from rapid urban growth to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and the country’s space program.
Clients can cap off a day of exploring Mao’s Beijing at Red Capital Residence, a small boutique hotel located in a quiet hutong (a neighborhood of narrow winding streets). The carefully restored courtyard dwelling is decorated with 1950’s posters and a collection of original Mao-era artifacts, including photos and furnishings. Clients can go underground to The Chairman’s Divan, a bomb shelter built during Mao’s regime that is now a small wine lounge, where the waitstaff wears Mao suits. The hotel also operates evening tours of Beijing in an old Red Flag limo, reputedly once owned by Mao’s wife.
The contrast of Shanghai’s rampant 21st-century consumerism with poverty-stricken China of the early 20th-century is vividly apparent at the Site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Located in a rebuilt shikumen (a style of housing that blends Chinese and Western design elements), the site is today an adjunct to the upscale Xintiandi shopping and dining district. Ninety-one years ago, on July 23, 1921, the Chinese Communist Party was established here by Mao and his cohorts. Now a museum, it charts the Communist Party’s struggle to overcome the legacy of imperial rule and colonial influence in China, as well as the subsequent armed war with the nationalist Kuomintang government that led to the founding of the People’s Republic of China under Mao’s leadership.
Longhua Martyrs’ Memorial Cemetery, in the southeast of Shanghai, is a pleasant park with a bamboo garden and rockeries. It has a dark history, however. In 1927, the Kuomintang government used it as an execution ground to eliminate communist revolutionaries. Giant socialist realist statues depict pro-Communist revolutionary struggles and, behind the memorial museum, is the Tomb of the Unknown Martyrs, a sculpture of a body half-entombed in the lawn with an arm extending upward in hope.
Shanghai boasts a multitude of art galleries, but the Propaganda Poster Art Center is one of most intriguing. Located in a basement apartment, it showcases a remarkable collection of Chinese political propaganda posters from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Many of the posters deify Mao and show him beneficently meeting with students, workers and peasants and exhorting the population to support his communist ideology and anti-U.S. rhetoric.
After seeking out the Red tourism sights, clients might be in the mood for retro-themed souvenirs to take home. Madame Mao’s Dowry is a small store on Fumin Road that is a treasure chest of “Maomorabilia.” Its shelves are stocked with framed propaganda posters and rare photos, plus furnishings, clothing and home accessories emblazoned with satirical updates of Cultural Revolution political slogans.