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Mao’s Number One Secret Project

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

Complaints about brazen counterfeiting have been a constant topic of small talk among foreigners in Beijing for decades. China’s judiciary now prosecutes intellectual property theft, but mainly where it involves protecting the innovations and patents of Chinese high-tech companies. Some defrauded businessmen believe that China’s pirates are even culturally encouraged. According to this legend, imitation is considered a special form of respect paid to the better product. Such nonsense is still propagated in brochures aimed at improving cross-cultural understanding of the Middle Kingdom.

Urkunde der Anerkennung für das Imitat des Tors des Himmlischen Friedens in Peking.
This certificate praises the building planners involved in the construction of the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing. It was offered for sale at an antique market 20 years ago.

One thing, however, is true: China’s traditional craftsmen acquired masterful copying techniques over centuries. Unfortunately, they have also perfected the art of passing off their imitations as genuine. A hundred years ago, sinologist Richard Wilhelm wrote: “In China, the ratio of fakes to genuine objects has been estimated at two to one. I consider this estimate very optimistic and would like to raise it at least to 999 to one, and still call this figure very modest.”

As early as 1800, Immanuel Kant knew how tricky China’s counterfeiters were. “They cheat in a very artificial way,” he said pointedly: “They can sew a torn piece of silk so nicely back together that the most attentive merchant does not notice it; and they patch up broken porcelain with copper wire pulled through in such a way that no one is initially aware of the breakage. He is not ashamed when he is affected at the fraud. but only in so far as he hath thereby shown some clumsiness.”

As a correspondent, I often came across cases of incredible copying. The most ingenious trickery was pulled off by China’s leadership under Mao Zedong in December 1969. By order of the Politburo, the 66-meter-long, 37-meter-wide and 32-meter-high old Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tianan’men), now the landmark of the People’s Republic, was torn down to its foundations and rebuilt. The operation, disguised as “Secret Project Number 1” (一号机密工程), lasted 112 days.

For a full 30 years, Beijing passed off its copy as the original. It was rather by chance that I discovered the secret. Around the year 2000, I discovered a document at an antique market in Beijing’s Baoguangsi Temple. It shows a photo of the Tian’anmen Gate and four characters: “In memory of the reconstruction”. In Mao’s handwriting, it reads, “Take great care in design and construction. There are bound to be mistakes and failures in construction. They must be corrected in time. Mao Zedong, February 4, 1970.”

In 1999, the newspaper “Capital Wind” reported on Beijing’s “No. 1 secret construction project”.

While researching, I came across the new Beijing newspaper “Capital Wind” (都市风). Its first issue appeared on January 7, 1999, under the headline, “Why is the Tian’anmen Gate 87 centimeters higher?” It revealed how the gate was dismantled in the winter of 1969 and rebuilt by April 1970. However, it was said to be 87 centimeters higher than the original because of larger roof gables.

Construction despite the greatest Adversity

In 1969, China was on the brink of war with the Soviet Union. Mao had wreaked havoc with his Cultural Revolution. Beijing, however, had another concern. Construction experts had alerted their leadership the year before that the Ming-era Tian’anmen was beyond repair. Its wooden structure, including 60 supporting pillars up to 12 meters high, was rotten, its foundations had sunk due to the falling water table, and the structure had been cracked by the 1966 earthquake in Xingtai, 300 kilometers away. In short – the highly symbolic gateway from which Mao had proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949 was in danger of collapsing. In an emergency meeting, the Politburo agreed to demolish and rebuild it.

Logistically, the secret operation turned into a nightmare. From December 12 to 15, 1969, the “largest shell in the world” was first constructed from spar fir wood, glued together with woven mats of reed and stabilized with steel pipes on the floor. Bamboo mats closed the roof as a lid. Inside, a network of hot water pipes fed from a boiler behind the gate ensured a working temperature of 18 degrees, while outside temperatures were below zero.

From the outside, the gate looked like a packed giant ark. A rare photo was published by a Beijing daily newspaper in April 2016 in a comprehensive report on the covert operation.

No one knew what it was about

Even the construction manager at the time, Xu Xinmin, and experts in the imperial style of wooden construction, which did not require nails, such as Yao Laiquan, or the master carpenter Sun Yonglin, now reported. The demolition took seven days. Each beam was noted where it sat and how it once sat, and thousands of photos were taken. Up to 2,700 construction soldiers, including artisans, carpenters, painters and joiners, camped in the parks behind the gate.

Mao demanded that no “customs be changed in the reconstruction. The construction managers, who later received Mao’s certificate as a memento, obtained dry wood from old demolished Beijing city gates. Ebony wood was supplied by the army of China’s subtropical island of Hainan. They had the huge supporting beams imported from Gabon and northern Borneo. Beijing spared no expense. Six kilos of gold leaf were needed for the murals alone. 216 factories and institutes from 21 provinces in China participated in the supply. No one was told what was involved.

China’s rulers demonstrated their absolute power to keep their projects secret for years and still bring them to success under the most adverse conditions. Beijing still understands this political art today.

For this, even a Mao was willing to jump over his shadow. His socialist China adhered to ancient geomantic traditions when lucky charms were found during the demolition of the Tian’anmen Gate. They had been deposited centuries ago in a miniature cedar box in the exact center of the roof gables during the topping-out ceremony. Mao had a 17-centimeter-high and 12-centimeter-wide jade-like marble stone inscribed in gold placed in the same spot: “Rebuilt: January to March 1970”.

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