The Mao Mango Cult of 1968

A shift in the political focus in China coincided with a box of mangoes in 1968, which led to a year-long fad that equated mangos with China's leader Mao Zedong. The rejection of the overzealousness of the Red Guards gave way to the promotion of the working class as the vanguard of communist idealism. And the mangos just happened to be in the right place at that time.

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.  

So mangos became a powerful symbol of Mao worship. The fruit was added to posters, dishes, and textiles. The original mangoes were preserved in reliquaries for proper veneration. There are even cases of people who were arrested for not showing the proper reverence for mangos! Some of those mango items are now part of an exhibit in Zurich about the era. See some of them and read the whole story of the Mao Mango Cult at Collector's Weekly. Link

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