No fruit in the world can replace the sweetness that mangoes fill in my life. When I am away from home, I am unable to find this same sweetness.
As a student of history, I discovered Pakistani mangoes were considered worthy of idolisation during a tumultuous moment in the 20th century: they were devotional objects during the Cultural Revolution in China in 1960s and 1970s.
Research has been done on how these mangoes played a significantly important role during that period. Art historian Alfreda Murck has a book-length study on Chairman Mao’s “golden mangoes”, which were in fact Pakistani mangoes.
On August 4, 1968, Mian Arshad Hussain, the foreign minister of Pakistan, visited China and gifted a crate of mangoes to Chairman Mao. But this became more than just a present. Mao was not ready to try this new fruit and reportedly displayed an aversion to it, so he decided to pass the mangoes to workers who were suppressing students occupying the Qinghua (Tsinghua) University campus.
The students were known as the Red Guards, a group of militant university and high school students formed within the umbrella of the Chinese Communist Party in 1966 to help Chairman Mao in his revolutionary adventures. But due to increasing factionalism and the destruction of the Chinese economy, urban life and educational institutions, Mao had asked them to retire to the countryside.
The factory workers, called The Worker-Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team, were asked to intervene on the party’s behalf. Mangoes were sent to the worker-peasants as a gesture of Mao’s gratitude for their efforts and when the gift arrived at the campus, it was received with enthusiasm.
People gathered around the precious fruit, singing with excitement. They had tears in their eyes. Mao might not have expected the transformation of mangoes into a near-divine symbol. Mangoes were seen as a tribute from the distant land, though no one knew that land was Pakistan. Murck states that workers stayed up late that night, eagerly touching and examining the mangoes – which they had never seen before.
When the workers returned to their factories, one mango was delivered to each factory. The mangoes were received with pomp comparable to ritual worship.
The king of fruits
Murck gives an example of one textile factory in Beijing. A huge ceremony was held at the factory to welcome the fruit. It was sealed in wax to last longer and placed in the auditorium. Workers in a line passed and bowed as they caught a glimpse of it.
The mango soon began to show signs of decay. The revolutionary committee at the factory peeled it and boiled the pulp in a huge pot of water. Another ceremony followed, similarly sacred. Every worker received a spoon full of that blessed water in which the mango had been boiled.
Similar incidents happened in other factories. Mangoes were preserved in several ways, one was placed in a glass box with an engraved picture of Mao, another was preserved in a jar of formaldehyde.
Wax copies of the fruit in glass cases were distributed or sold among the factory workers. The propaganda posters of the Cultural Revolution are filled with these images.
To spread the message, propaganda teams were sent to various parts of China with real and artificial mangoes on trucks. The mango trucks were received with drums and veneration. Everyone was excited to see what mangoes looked like.
A local dentist, Dr Han, after seeing a mango, compared it to sweet potatoes. This disrespectful statement to the sacred mango was judged to be blasphemous and he was arrested, paraded on the back of the truck and eventually executed.
Not all of Mao’s mango tales resulted in tragedy; mango-themed merchandise became popular among workers to demonstrate their support for the party.
A product line was introduced that featured mango designs. For the workers who did not receive the wax replicas, these products provided them an opportunity to show their admiration for Chairman Mao.
Mango-brand cigarettes were launched as well as enamel cups and trays with mango designs. For those who could not afford these items, there was a cheaper option of badges featuring mangoes.
Later, a film, Song of the Mango, with class struggle as its main theme, was produced in 1976 and featured Mao’s mangoes.
With Mao’s death in 1976, this mango fever lost its symbolic value from Chinese politics. Now, mangoes are a common fruit in China. I asked several young Chinese in their 20s and 30s, and they found this a fascinating tale of their history, one they are not taught in their schools.
The aura of the mango has faded away, but the history of Mao’s golden mangoes is a microcosm of the mass hysteria, personality cult, iconography, devotional symbolism and political tactics that spanned the Cultural Revolution in China.
There is no doubt why the mango is called the king of fruits, and with this historical narrative it is clear who owns the crown: Pakistan.
This article first appeared on Dawn.