The curious case of Pakistani mangoes in China

The king of fruits was a devotional object during the Cultural Revolution.
Updated 18 Jan, 2019 11:27am

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.

The text on this political poster reads: "The great leader Chairman Mao's treasured gift to the Workers' Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams of the capital - a mango." Circa. 1969, Landsberger collection.—All posters courtesy
The text on this political poster reads: "The great leader Chairman Mao's treasured gift to the Workers' Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams of the capital - a mango." Circa. 1969, Landsberger collection.—All posters courtesy

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, according to a news report in People's Daily, writes Andrew G. Walder in China Under Mao. Murck suspects Mao might not have expected the transformation of mangoes into a near-divine symbol.

A modern replica of a mango reliquary from the Landsberger collection.
A modern replica of a mango reliquary from the Landsberger collection.

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.

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.

Below a quotation by Mao is a pile of mangoes. The text on the red band reads: "Respectfully wish Chairman Mao eternal life!" Landsberger collection.
Below a quotation by Mao is a pile of mangoes. The text on the red band reads: "Respectfully wish Chairman Mao eternal life!" Landsberger collection.

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, writes Murck.

In another account from her book, 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.

Detail from the poster 'Forging ahead courageously while following the great leader Chairman Mao!', 1969. Landsberger collection.
Detail from the poster 'Forging ahead courageously while following the great leader Chairman Mao!', 1969. Landsberger collection.

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.

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Author Image

Mehreen Jamal is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Arkansas. She specialises in gender and cultural history of Pakistan.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (37) Closed

Jan 14, 2019 05:31pm
Wowww!! What a nice story
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Jan 14, 2019 06:29pm
very interesting!
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Jan 14, 2019 07:02pm
What a fascinating tale from the days of the Cultural Revolution!! I do feel sorry for Dr. Han the bourgeois dentist who lost his life for comparing the Mango to an "ordinary" root vegetable such as the sweet potato (shakarkandi). It appears that even wax replicas of the Pakistani Mango (the King of Fruit) were idolized.
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Tariq, Lahore
Jan 14, 2019 07:07pm
Nice tale from the 'then' Iron Curtain.
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Jan 14, 2019 07:37pm
Mango, the fruit of the kings. Yummm!!!!
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Jan 14, 2019 08:13pm
Amazing journalism. Truly enjoyed the story.
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Dua Aly
Jan 14, 2019 09:49pm
interesting !!
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Jan 14, 2019 09:50pm
@Munir - Yes it appeared on BBC, but a few years before that it was in the Telegraph newspaper. Before that it could be someone else.
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Syed irshad ali shah
Jan 14, 2019 10:11pm
Credit goes to dawn that they published this article and of course the author. Although most of Pakistani students in China know abt this story but for Pakistanis it’s new historical knowledge abt pakchina friendship. Yes it’s true, Chinese and Pakistanis know little abt this. Needs authentic references from Pakistan and Chinese governments and should be added this history in our school and colleges syllabus
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Jan 14, 2019 10:29pm
It is a story not so much about the mangoes but the divinity that Mao had been raised to.
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Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
Jan 15, 2019 04:54am
Mangoes might have gone from Pakistan to China but there was one more commodity that had come from China to India & Pakistan: Tea. Now we can not live without a cup of tea in the morning.
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Jan 15, 2019 05:23am
A good read.
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Jan 15, 2019 05:27am
@Munir Grapes are sour - no it is the mangoes. The writer never claimed it to be original. There is also a reference to the author, Alfreda Murck. Now you think, all the chain of references should have been given ?
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Random Indian
Jan 15, 2019 05:34am
Are Pakistani mangoes available in China today? Mangoes are grown in Yunnan province of China, except they are probably awful compared with the Indian/Pakistani varieties.
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Mohammad Razi
Jan 15, 2019 05:58am
In 1968 I was working on a Pakistani Ship. The ship M.V Kader was chartered by China, when we arrived in Tienstein a large crowd of people welcomed us at the dock. There were buses as well to take us to see the model of the mangoes which was on displayed in a big hall. There was long line up of people to see the model of the mangoes but we were ushered in the hall without any delay. After the visit we were taken to a dining hall where in the buffet I counted little more than 55 main dishes and countless side dishes. Interestingly the soup was the last item. We were overwhelmed by the love of Chinese people which they showed us. Thanks dawn and Ms. Jamal reminding me an almost forgoton time of my life.
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Shehryar aziz
Jan 15, 2019 08:45am
That's why even in snowfall and -15 degree C, I can easily get mangoes at any nearby fruit shop in China :D
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Vasanth Pai
Jan 15, 2019 10:22am
@Tariq, Lahoreno.sir..iron curtain was USSR. China was known as ye Bamboo Curtain
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Simple Logic
Jan 15, 2019 11:57am
This is amazing. I'm sure it's all true even though it almost reads like fiction and at times satire.
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Jan 15, 2019 01:53pm
Pakistan mangoes are king.
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Jan 15, 2019 06:39pm
Will have to visit Pakistan between May and July and check out their Chausa vs the Indian Alphonso, and Langda and Daseri.
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Asher Bilal
Jan 15, 2019 08:01pm
Very interesting ...never heard this before
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Jan 15, 2019 08:54pm
Zabardast! Lovely story.
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Jan 15, 2019 08:55pm
All the comments about the taste are good. What are the annual Pakistani Mango exports to China? Let's discuss once you have an answer.
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Jan 15, 2019 09:52pm
Researchers cover a single event/incident several times. How many books are here about the partition of sub-continent? or about any other incident? Why? and why would people read them? Because, every researcher add something of his/her own in their piece. Reading different perspectives, broaden intellectual growth. Peace!
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Jan 16, 2019 01:06am
The word "mango" that we use in English, comes from a Tamil word "manga". Mango is mentioned in many Tamil literatures for 2000 years or more. It is mentioned in Tamil old literatues as "Three fruits : Ma Pala Vazhai" ie Mango/Jackfruit/Banana - a piece of each must be placed during lunch and dinner. Please don not appropriate it as Panjabi! :)
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Jan 16, 2019 08:23am
The king of fruits is Durian not Mango
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Jan 16, 2019 07:09pm
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Jan 16, 2019 08:41pm
Superb story
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Jamil Soomro, New York City
Jan 16, 2019 11:01pm
Very true Pakistan does hold the Crown of these wonderful Mangoes.Unfortunately they are not available here in New York City.
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Jan 16, 2019 11:43pm
@Rabbi Ovadia Yosef you mean black tea from the British.
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C M Naim
Jan 17, 2019 04:15am
She does refer to a book, and gives the author full crdit.
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Jan 17, 2019 04:37am
@Rajesh , Last year there was a boom of Pakistani "Anwar Ratoor" mango brand ( I do not know the reason)Estimated export was around $ 17 Million. Even though China grows mangos in Yunnan province but they are #3 as compare to Pakistani mangos to a #10 scale. I feel very sorry about Dr Han who compared the mangos to sweet potatoes and was executed by those with blind following of "Mo".
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Jan 17, 2019 09:20am
@Salman Yes ' references should have been clearer. She should be censured by her university for plaigarism.
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Mir Jehan Zeb,MD
Jan 17, 2019 09:40am
Nothing comes close to Pakistani mangoes.
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Jan 17, 2019 09:47am
Story confirms my regard for this king of all fruits. Nice story.
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thomas benjamin
Jan 17, 2019 10:50am
Is mango rivalry between India and Pakistan still alive?
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Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Jan 17, 2019 11:40am
I am mango grower in southern Punjab. Have most of the varieties grown in subcontinent. Have tried India varieties whenever had an opportunity. Frankly, there is no match for Pakistani mangoes. I feel sorry for Chairman. He went down without having one.
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