Ben Marks - The Mao Mango Cult of 1968 and the Rise of China's Working Class
For 2,000 years, the peach was the iconic fruit of China, an auspicious symbol of good health and a long life. But from August of 1968 until roughly the fall of the following year, the mango was China’s most revered produce item, whose meaning was unwittingly bestowed upon it by none other than Mao Zedong.
Now an exhibition about the mango’s short-lived sanctification has opened at Museum Reitberg in Zurich, Switzerland. Continuing through June 16, 2013, the show is organized around more than 60 Mao-era mango items—from Mao mango medallions to textiles bearing mango imagery—donated to the museum by scholar and author Alfreda Murck, who also edited the exhibition’s catalog and will be speaking at the Capital Literary Festival in Beijing on March 2, 2013.
The circumstances leading to the mango’s prominence as a symbol of the working class have their roots in 1958, when Mao Zedong instituted a series of agricultural and industrial reforms known as the Great Leap Forward. Within three years, an estimated 30 million Chinese citizens were dead, most lost to starvation caused by the program’s ill-conceived and occasionally oppositional policies. By the early 1960s, with Mao’s credibility and popularity at an all-time low, a new initiative was needed to revive China’s economy, as well as the political fortunes of its beleaguered leader. That movement became the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966.
One by-product of the Cultural Revolution was the spontaneous formation of zealously pro-Mao student groups, whose young, idealistic members had not lost faith in their charismatic Chairman. If such devotion sounds naïve to 21st-century ears, then maybe it won’t come as a surprise that the first of these organizations was formed at a middle school in Beijing. Calling themselves the “red guards who defend Mao Zedong Thought,” the students received Mao’s personal blessing, which spawned countless other Red Guard units at middle schools, high schools, and universities across the country.
Though unified by their loyalty to Mao, these Red Guards units were often fierce and even violent rivals. The animosity between Red Guards peaked in the spring of 1968 at Qinghua (also spelled “Tsinghua”) University, where 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 and his teachings.
The skirmishes sent more than half the university’s students fleeing, and by late July, even Mao had had enough. On July 27, 1968, Mao sent 30,000 Beijing factory workers, dubbed the “Capital Workers Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams,” to interpose themselves between the Jinggangshan and the Fours in an orchestrated attempt to keep the peace. About half a dozen workers were killed and more than 700 others were injured, which prompted Mao to disband his beloved Red Guards the very next day.
Which brings us back to the mangoes. One week after Mao dissolved the Red Guards, on August 4, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Mian Arshad Hussain, and his wife met with the Chairman. It was not an especially momentous occasion on the order of, say, President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972. Rather, it was your basic, run-of-the-mill courtesy call from a foreign dignitary paying homage to a bigger, mightier neighbor. And because China is a gift-giving society, Mr. Hussain brought a case of mangoes with him, in the same way that you or I might stop off at the liquor store on the way to a party to pick up a bottle of wine so we don’t arrive empty handed.
The next day, Mao delivered a message to the workers, who were still stationed at Qinghua University, designating them as the “permanent managers” of the nation’s education system. Accompanying the message was the untouched case of Pakistani mangoes. In the days to come, much would be made of Mao’s “refusal to eat the fruit,” which was interpreted as “a sacrifice” on the Chairman’s part “for the benefit of the workers.”
In fact, says Murck, the truth may have been a good deal simpler. “Apparently,” Murck says, via Skype from her home in Beijing, “Mao didn’t like fruit. Mangoes are messy, so he would have needed someone to peel and slice them. It was an easy re-gift.”
Of course, that’s not how the workers saw it. For them, the mangoes were imbued with all sorts of power. They were the vehicle conveying a rare personal message from Mao, in which he thanked them for their heroism in the battle with the Red Guards. Even more auspiciously, the mangoes’ appearance coincided with the transfer of the Cultural Revolution’s stewardship from members of the nation’s intelligentsia (as personified by the student Red Guards) to its workers. Indeed, the mantra of the revolution soon became, “The Working Class Must Exercise Leadership in Everything.”
According to a 2007 article Murck wrote for the Archives of Asian Art, workers stayed up long into the night after the mangoes arrived, discussing their meaning and Mao’s intent. Most of the workers had never seen a mango before, or even knew what to call it, since the fruit was not native to this part of China. It must have seemed unimaginably exotic, which may help explain why in a photo of the workers at Qinghua standing amid their newly arrived mangoes, a calligraphic message in front of the fruit reads, “Respectfully Wishing Life Without End to Chairman Mao.” Thus, in just 24 hours, the mango had absorbed the meaning of the iconic peach, China’s most venerable symbol of immortality and long life... read more: