By Elaine Dunn -
The Chinese love fruits, fresh fruits. It is no surprise, then, that many fruits are charged with symbolism, each specifically representing longevity, wealth, prosperity, fertility, etc. Of the ones that have achieved iconic stature are peaches, oranges, pomegranates and grapes. And then, there’s the mighty mango. Mao’s mango.
During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, idealistic middle school, high school and university students throughout the country learned the sayings of Chairman Mao Zedong by heart. They adored Mao and carried his red-cover book of sayings - the famous little red book - with them everywhere and called themselves Red Guards. Their mission was to defend Chairman Mao’s thoughts. Mao completely encouraged their fervor.
Not only did these Red Guards relish in destroying everything that linked or belonged to the past, they harbored animosity against other groups in their zest to demonstrate their supreme support of Mao.
In the spring of 1968, the rivalry between two particular units of Red Guards based at Tsinghua University - the Jinggangshan Corps and the Fours - came to a head. In vying for Mao’s “blessing,” they threw stones, spears and acid at each other, attempting to prove their group was more loyal to Mao and his teachings. This was known as the Hundred Day War.
By late July, however, even Mao had had enough of the bickering and turmoil created by these two groups. Their skirmishes had caused more than half the university’s students to stay away. On July 27, Mao sent 30,000 workers from eight Beijing factories to the Tsinghua campus to restore order and keep peace. Unfortunately, several workers were killed and approximately 700 were injured. The following day, Mao ordered the Red Guards disbanded immediately
OK, so how does the mango figure into all this?
In August 1968, a Pakistani delegation headed by its foreign minister visited Mao. The delegation presented Mao with a basket of mangoes. Mao does not like fruits. In addition, he considered mangoes messy. So he decided to regift the mangoes to the surviving peacekeeping workers. The mangoes went to those workers still stationed at Tsinghua University who, by then, were known as The Worker-Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams. The Tsinghua workers then sent one mango each to the seven factories where the other peacekeeping workers were recruited.
The mango is not a native fruit of northern China. Back in the 1960s, the country was in the throes of famine, thanks to Mao’s Great Leap Forward initiative of the 1950s to modernize China. Food was scarce. Fresh fruit even scarcer. Most mainland Chinese had never heard of, let alone seen, a mango. So when the mangoes appeared on campus, it created quite a buzz. It was an even bigger deal since they were a gift from their supreme leader, Chairman Mao! Little did they know about the casual regift! The workers interpreted the gift as Mao’s “sacrifice (in not eating them himself) for the benefit of the workers.” To give the event added importance, the mangoes also arrived with a message from Mao telling the workers they were now “permanent managers” of the nation’s education system!
They workers at Tsinghua University placed a sign that read, “Respectfully wishing Chairman Mao eternal life” amidst the blessed mangoes. Holding up their little red books, they posed for a photo to commemorate the occasion. And with that, the mango became the icon du jour of the working class! The symbolic shift of Cultural Revolution power from the intelligentsia (student Red Guards) to the working class was a done deal. By the end of the year, the ex-Red Guards were sent to the countryside to undergo “reeducation” by the poor and lower-middle class peasants in the “Up to the mountains, down to the villages” campaign. Talk about a reversal of fortune!
The common tropical mango had now achieved deity stature. Different approaches to preserve it for posterity were carried out with varying degrees of success, or not at all. One factory immersed their mango in formaldehyde. Another encased theirs in wax. Some put theirs inside glass vitrines for workers to file pass and view it. All were revered. Supposedly, when the one encased in wax started to turn black and rot, it was gently peeled and boiled in a giant pot of water, and each worker got a sip of the broth! Eeewe.
Mango mania took a strong hold. All sorts of mango memorabilia were mass-produced, from buttons to posters to mugs to plastic and wax mangoes enshrined in clear vitrines. The vitrines had inscriptions of Mao quotations and expressions of respect and esteem for him. Even everyday items such as vanity mirrors, washbasins, trays, pencil boxes, material for quilts all incorporated this new political symbol. On Oct. 1 1968, the National Day parade included a float that resembled a huge basket of mangoes, which spawned many posters with Mao looking upon the marching workers with the saying, “Forging ahead courageously while following the great leader Chairman Mao!”
Mango-items became an integral part of popular culture. Plastic and wax mangoes in vitrines were distributed to many factory workers to bring home as a reminder of Mao’s regard and love for the working class. Wax mangoes toured the country and were to be observed with utmost reverence. It was said that an unimpressed dentist from a village was put to death because, upon seeing the wax replica, he commented that the mango was nothing spectacular.
And as unexpected and sudden as its rapid rise to cult status, the mango’s iconic symbolism was short-lived. By fall 1969, people’s obsession with it had all but faded away.
In the spring of 2013, Switzerland’s Museum Reitberg in Zurich held an exhibit titled “Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution.” On display were some 60-plus mango items that were donated to the museum by Alfreda Murck, a scholar at Beijing's Palace Museum who currently lives in New York, curated the exhibit.
This exhibit, with additional mango tchotchkes on loan by private collectors, is now at the China Institute Gallery in New York City and will be there until April 26, 2015. There are photographs, posters, and magazines of the period as well as reliquaries with wax or plastic mangoes; and objects such as enamelware, quilt covers, mirrors and candy wrappers. A clip from the 1976 propaganda film, “Song of the Mango” (with subtitles) and a film produced for the exhibition, “Mao’s Mango – A Propaganda Symbol of the Cultural Revolution,” also will be on view in the Gallery.
The China Institute has organized related programs such as art lectures and a series of documentaries and films about the Cultural Revolution during the exhibit. Details about these programs are available at www.chinainstitute.org/gallery/exhibition-related-programs.
This is the first time the exhibit is on display in the U.S. Willow Weilan Hai, director, China Institute Gallery, noted that the exhibit documents the unusual moment during one of the most tragic times in Chinese history. “These events cannot be forgotten and hopefully each review of them will ensure that history does not repeat itself, she said.”
Photos and images for this article are provided by :
The collection of the Museum Rietberg Zürich, courtesy China Institute Gallery, New York, and
Part of the International Institute of Social History (IISH) or Stefan R. Landsberger collection plus http://chineseposters.net