Polly Evans ' s itinerary for China was simple: travel by luxurious high-speed train and long-distance bus, glide along the Grand Canal and hike up scenic mountains. Instead, the linguistically impaired adventurer found herself on a primitive sleeper-minibus where sleep was out of the question; perched atop a tiny mule on a remote mountain pass; and attempting a dubious ferry ride down the Yangtze River. Polly was getting to know China in a way she ' d never expected ' and would never, ever forget.
From battling six-year-olds in kung-fu class to discovering Starbucks in Hangzhou, Polly relives her Asian adventure with humor, enthusiasm, frustration, and determination. Whether she ' s viewing the embalmed cadaver of Chairman Mao or drinking yak-butter tea, this is Polly ' s eye-opening account of a culture torn between stunning modern architecture and often bizarre ancient mysteries ' and of her attempt to solve the ultimate gastronomic conundrum: how exactly does one eat a soft-fried egg with chopsticks.
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September 26, 2006
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Excerpt from Fried Eggs with Chopsticks by Polly Evans
The Chairman Is Dead
I gazed with ghoulish fascination at the withered, waxen corpse. The infamous domed forehead and rounded cheeks looked weary and wrinkled, a far cry from the jubilant, plump jowls of the propaganda posters. The embalmed cadaver of Chairman Mao lay swaddled in military uniform, his hands crossed over his chest. An orange lamp beamed through the semidarkness onto his shriveled, death-stiffened skin. His face glowed like a ghastly candlelit pumpkin.
A hushed awe filled this inner chamber of the mausoleum. Nobody spoke above a whisper. The room quivered with palpable excitement. My heart was beating faster than usual; a perverse thrill tickled my skin. I felt a morbid compulsion to stop and stare at the macabre spectacle, at the mortal remains of this man who had, to such catastrophic effect, held ab- solute power over the most populous nation on earth. A few decades ago, a single suggestion from that formaldehyde-plumped mouth could have spelled the slaughter of a man; the disastrous economic strategies that evolved in that glowing amber head had dealt a tortured death to tens of millions. Yet beneath that taut, unyielding skin had also breathed a man who had, against incredible odds, inflamed such passion and loyalty in his people that a vast and diverse country had united and, with almost no material resources, had overthrown the foreign superpowers that threatened it.
The embalming of Mao ' s corpse had been an anxious affair, according to his personal physician, Li Zhisui, who recorded the procedure in his book The Private Life of Chairman Mao. The problem was that neither Li nor anyone else in China had attempted to preserve human flesh before. Li himself had visited Stalin ' s and Lenin ' s remains some years previously and had noted that the bodies were shrunken. He had been told that Lenin ' s nose and ears had rotted and had been rebuilt in wax and that Stalin ' s mustache had fallen off. The medical team played for time by pumping Mao ' s corpse full of formaldehyde.
' We injected a total of twenty-two liters, ' Li wrote. ' The results were shocking. Mao ' s face was bloated, as round as a ball, and his neck was now the width of his head. His skin was shiny, and the formaldehyde oozed from his pores like perspiration. His ears were swollen too, sticking out from his head at right angles. The corpse was grotesque. '
The terrified medics ' who could have been executed for desecrating the semidivine cadaver ' tried to massage the liquid out from the face and down into the body, where the bloating could be covered with clothing. One of them pressed too hard and broke a piece of skin off Mao ' s cheek. In the end, they managed to restore his face to something approaching normal proportions, but then the Chairman ' s clothes wouldn ' t fit on his body, and they had to slit the back of his jacket and trousers in order to button them up.
Before carrying out the permanent preservation of the body, Li sent two investigators to Hanoi to find out how Ho Chi Minh ' s body had been treated. When they arrived, however, the Vietnamese officials refused to divulge their secrets and wouldn ' t allow them to see the corpse ' though someone revealed confidentially that it hadn ' t been a great success. Ho ' s nose had already decomposed, and his beard had fallen off.
In the end, Li worked out a method whereby he removed Mao ' s internal organs and filled the cavity with cotton soaked in formaldehyde while another group worked day and night building a pseudocorpse out of wax just in case it all went wrong and they found themselves in need of a fake.