How Mao Accidentally Turned Mangoes Into Divine Objects of the Cultural Revolution

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Ah, the mango: Sweet, colorful, and juicy. While all these qualities are fine and good, there was a short period of time when an entire nation elevated the humble fruit above mere smoothie fodder and into the rarefied air of sacred object. In the late 1960s, mangoes briefly became the most celebrated and revered symbol of Chairman Mao's munificence to the working class of China, and it all happened because Mao was a re-gifter.

Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly tells the odd tale of the "cult of the mango," which itself came to symbolize the fervent and contentious years during China's Cultural Revolution. After the disastrous and famine-producing Great Leap Forward of the late '50s and early '60s, Mao Zedong and the communist party desperately tried to regroup and win back the hearts and minds of the People's Republic. Their new movement, The Cultural Revolution, began in 1966 and aimed to expel the bourgeois capitalist influence Mao insisted was still corroding China.

Pro-Mao student groups dubbed "Red Guards" — who were egged on by Mao himself — became impassioned to the point of competitiveness. Different Red Guard factions clashed to prove their devotion to the Great Leader and, in 1968, their ferocity boiled over at Qinghua University. According to CW, "two oppositional cadres, the Jinggangshan Corps and the Fours, engaged in what became known as the Hundred Day War, hurling stones, spears, and sulfuric acid at each other in a bitter struggle to prove their obsequiousness to Mao."

Now, Mao loved himself a good display of fervid Mao devotion, but even he thought the Red Guards were going overboard. He ordered 30,000 Beijing factory workers to put an end to the fighting and, after some casualties, they succeeded. This marked the dissolution of the Red Guards, but it also inadvertently put China's great mango craze into motion.

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One week after the commotion at Qinghua University, Mao welcomed Pakistan’s foreign minister Mian Arshad Hussain and his wife. This was a pretty standard meeting between neighbors, and Hussain brought a box of mangoes and gave it to Mao as a gift. At the time, China didn't have many mangoes and Pakistan was swimming in them, so the gesture wasn't exactly anything to write home about. According to scholar Alfreda Murck, “Mao didn’t like fruit. Mangoes are messy, so he would have needed someone to peel and slice them." So Mao did what anyone else would do in that situation: he re-gifted the mangoes. Mao sent the box of fruit, along with a letter of thanks, to the Beijing factory workers who were still stationed at Qinghua University.

Upon receiving the mangoes, the workers were astonished. Here was a box of exotic fruit they had never seen before and, even more amazingly, it was a gift originally intended for Mao himself. He sacrificed his own hunger to honor them, they thought, and the mango became a symbol of Mao's benevolence and appreciation of the working class. The fact that they received this incredible gift after they vanquished student groups did not go unnoticed. It had to have been Mao's way of saying that the working class would be the focus and drive of the new China, not the intelligentsia.

When they were told to get back to work, they split the mangoes up and each of the eight factories that had contributed workers to the Qinghua University clash got one.

The factories tried to preserve their sacred mangoes by bathing them in formaldehyde, encasing them in wax, or sealing them in glass. When a mango began to rot, one factory turned it into a broth and workers lined up to drink a teaspoon and imbibe its power. Wax mangoes started to be given as gifts and prizes to especially deserving workers, and the legend of the mango spread quickly.

Towns would have parades dedicated to the fruit. Not many people knew exactly what a mango was, but when they saw a wax simulacrum being escorted through the streets and wildly revered, they quickly learned that this fruit meant business. Alfreda Murck writes that when a mango celebration came to a small Fulin village a local dentist didn't see what was so special. He exclaimed that it just looked like a sweet potato and, for his insolence, "he was arrested as a counterrevolutionary." The man was found guilty and executed.

In 1968, China’s National Day Parade featured a massive float designed to look like a bowl of mangoes. It was proudly whisked through Tiananmen Square and solidified the fruit as the symbol of the People's Republic's gratitude for and dependence on the working class.

However, mango madness, like the fruit itself, began to rot. People moved on, and after a little more than a year, mangoes lost most of their status. Relics of the mango's importance remain, though, and last year, the Museum Reitberg in Zurich held an exhibition of plastic and wax mangoes and other mango-related tchotchkes from China's brief obsession.

It may have gone overboard, but you were briefly at the top of the food chain, mangoes. Back in the blender with you.

[Further Reading: The Mao Mango Cult of 1968 and the Rise of China's Working Class]

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July 22, 2014 - 3:00pm
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