The momentary madness of Mao's mangoes
February 22, 2013 9:28 AM   Subscribe

For 2,000 years, the peach was the iconic fruit of China, an auspicious symbol of good health and a long life (Google books). 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. (via Presurfer)

In the early years of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Chinese youth, known as the Red Guards, were a formative force in the uprising against the bourgeois. But different factions ended up competing against each-other, leading to violent clashes (Google books). On July 27, 1968, a Mao Zedong's thought propaganda team of workers entered Bejing's Tsinghua University to disseminate Chairman Mao's latest series of instructions, and to quell the fighting. The Red Guard was disbanded, due to the infighting and widespread chaos they caused.

In an unrelated event, Pakistan's foreign minister and his wife met with Chairman Mao to pay their respects to their powerful neighbor. As a good-will gesture, a gift of mangoes were given to the Chairman. What followed was a re-gifting of unplanned significance.

Apparently, Mao didn't like fruit, or at least he found mangoes to be messy and not worth the effort, so he sent the lot to the workers who had helped end the fighting at Tsinghua University. There, they were received as exotic gifts, and a sign of the Chairman's blessings on the workers, shifting prestige from the educated youth.

Some groups tried to preserve their mangoes in formaldehyde or wax, and treated as though they were religious relics. And because you can never really get away from consumeristic tendancies, mangoes showed up on everything from pencil boxes to vanity mirrors, reliquaries for wax mangoes, plus posters and pictures a-plenty. But after a year, the mango craze faded, and most people tossed out their mango memorabilia.
posted by filthy light thief (14 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. What an amazing story. I found it hard to believe it wasn't just a satirical piece about the insane excesses of the Cultural Revolution.
posted by yoink at 9:37 AM on February 22, 2013

Why is that aluminum pencil box rusty?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:48 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow, what a great story. Best of the web. thanks!
posted by milestogo at 10:20 AM on February 22, 2013

I know I should try to resist seeing Monty Python references in everything, but it's hard not to think of The Shoe is the Sign while reading about this.
posted by Curious Artificer at 10:23 AM on February 22, 2013

Talk about the cult of personality.
posted by arcticseal at 10:39 AM on February 22, 2013

This is brilliant, filthy light thief.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:06 AM on February 22, 2013

Not only a fantastic subject, also a great post, thanks filthy light thief! I hope nobody minds me sidetracking this post on the niche subject of 'Great Leaders and their Fruits', but for years I've been wondering about Brother Fidel Castro and his Giant Strawberries. I could swear I saw a film at the IDFA documentary Festival, way back in the nineties. It was about the ambition of Castro to create basketball sized strawberries and such. (probably inspired by those hokey photo collages of farmers and their gigantic vegetables). Can't find anything about it and have been wondering since. It could have been a mockumentary, it could have been the drugs, I don't know. If there is one crowd in the world that could enlighten me, it would be on the here.
posted by ouke at 12:05 PM on February 22, 2013

In a weird way, this piece gave me just a glimmer of terrifying insight of what it must have been like to be Mao. A fan club pops up and he visits them and all of a sudden there are hundreds of them, and when he tries to use them they turn rabid and begin warring among themselves....he regifts a small tribute to him because it's not to his taste and within weeks people are literally selling reliquaries to contain replicas if his gift...imagine trying to just walk around in the world knowing every footstep might spark and earthquake....I mean, obviously Mao cultivated the cult of personality around him and used it. But in someways I think even the being who is worshipped isn't in control of the religion.
posted by Diablevert at 12:18 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

All those mangoes, the finest in the world, uneaten. It's an arctic London evening in February and I'm weeping a little.
posted by tavegyl at 1:35 PM on February 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Good Boy Peach Mango.
posted by homunculus at 6:16 PM on February 22, 2013

This is a fantastic post -- thank you! I love these little reminders of how crazy the Cultural Revolution was, beyond the usual unsubtle ones. On my bookcase, I've got a copy of the commentary on the Analects of Confucius by the 1974 Worker-Peasant-Soldier class of the Peking University department of Philosophy. Spoiler alert: Confucius is the bad guy.
posted by bokane at 8:16 PM on February 22, 2013

A fan club pops up and he visits them and all of a sudden there are hundreds of them, and when he tries to use them they turn rabid and begin warring among themselves

Hmm, that's... not exactly a strong potted history of the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards were not really a fan club, Mao didn't "try" to use them as such, and they were rabid from the beginning - and warring among themselves almost from the begginning, and especially after Li Shaoqui's ouster.
posted by smoke at 9:12 PM on February 22, 2013

All those mangoes, the finest in the world, uneaten. It's an arctic London evening in February and I'm weeping a little.

I'd go a step further; You have not had a real mango unless you've had a Pakistani mango. They are not just the best: they are qualitatively a different fruit.
posted by legospaceman at 4:10 AM on February 23, 2013

legospaceman, as a loyal Pakistani, I can only agree.

A little more context in response to the Collectors Weekly's slight note of bemusement regarding the original gift of mangoes:

Aam diplomacy (aam is a pun: it means both 'mango' and 'ordinary' or 'plain old')

Mango diplomacy

More on mango diplomacy

Mango diplomacy fails

Exploding mangoes (NYT)

I heartily recommend A Case of Exploding Mangoes to anyone who wants a real flavour of what it was like growing up in Pakistan in the 80s.
posted by tavegyl at 11:28 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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