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Book Review: Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution – Alfreda Murck (ed.)

Ford, G. (2013). Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution, edited by Alfreda Murck, Asian Review of Books, 7 September.

In August 1968, Mao was presented with several boxes of fruit by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister. The consequence was mango mania. Mao didn’t eat the fruit—or even pass it on to his cronies; rather he chose to instruct his bodyguard Wang Dongxing to distribute the fruit to the Worker-Peasant Thought Propaganda Teams then in the late stages of suppressing the excesses of the student Red Guards at Qinghua University in what was to prove one of the terminal acts of the Cultural Revolution.

These teams had been sent in by Mao to pacify the students, but they encountered violent resistance with five workers killed and 731 seriously injured. In the circumstances, the gift was taken by the Propaganda Teams as a token of Mao’s benevolence and more importantly proof that the “political line” had changed definitively in their favor.

It was a signal that the students Red Guards had lost out to the working class who were now back in charge. It was not long before the students were being shipped to the deep countryside to learn the lessons of defeat. In the meantime mangoes became iconic. The half-rotten originals were pickled in formaldehyde and put on display as treasures. But there were just not enough to go round, so plastic and wax copies were made to distribute around the country. Millions of workers and peasants ended up standing on roadsides for hours in all weathers to glimpse plastic mangoes being driven past at speed.

The mango made it onto Mao badges, on floats in the National Day parade, in textile and household goods design and there was even a Mango brand of cigarettes and eventually a film “The Song of the Mango”. But the Pakistanis lost the plot entirely and dispatched one hundred different varieties of mangoes and one hundred mango seedlings to Beijing within weeks of the initial gift. The Chinese were bemused.

Mao’s Golden Mangoes consists of two parts. The first is a series of six separate essays by a mix of Chinese and non-Chinese authors on the different elements of this bout of capriciousness and mass hysteria. These range from the parades themselves including details of Mao’s discussions with Beqir Balluku, head of the Albanian Party of Labour’s delegation to China—if only the Albanians had beaten the Pakistanis to the fruit bowl it might have been Okra rather than mangoes—to Qinghua University’s political trajectory, from the cultural precedents in China of food as metaphor—red chili pepper had been an indicator of revolutionary spirit in 1958 when Mao challenged a visiting Soviet Delegation to consume a red pepper to prove their socialist credentials—to recollections of the unrolling mango fever in the Beijing No.1 Machine Tool Plant.

The second part is a catalogue of Alfredo Murck’s private collection of mango memorabilia that was exhibited at the Museum Rietberg in Zurich. Apart from the artifacts mentioned above there were pencil boxes and sweet wrappers, quilt covers, trays, mugs and washbasins, plus teaching materials for schools like the paperback How to Sketch a Mango. The whole spasm was over within eighteen months as Mao moved on to return power to the Party—underpinned by Army backing—and allow them to inaugurate the bloody revenge meted out to Mao’s erstwhile loyal rebels.

This fascinating book preserves one of China’s fits of insanity that demonstrates all too well my favorite Nietzsche dictum that “Madness is rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.”