Pakistanis have long been familiar with the mango. Perhaps rightly labelled as the national fruit, it is repeatedly accused of causing a party in one’s mouth and permissible chaos in one’s hands. Often touted as the king of all fruits, the obsession with mangoes dates as far back as the sixteenth century where Akbar is said to have planted a mango orchard consisting of 100,000 trees in eastern India.

Given the abundance of mangoes in the region it can be argued that, overtime, the fruit has acquired an unremarkable status; but in the late 60s, 2,000 miles away in China, the Pakistani mango once managed to draw a tremendous cult following. Here is how it happened.

The Cultural Revolution of China was a sociopolitical movement that spanned over a decade. Launched in 1966 by Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, the movement had massive effects on Chinese society.

Concerned with an increasing ideological impurity among the party leadership, the possibility that China might follow in the footsteps of Russia which would result in further stratification of the Chinese society, and a growing fear that other members of the party were preparing to marginalise Mao and take on a leading role; the movement called for a purging of the "Four Olds": old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.

An important aspect of the Cultural Revolution was the formation of the Red Guard, an armed revolutionary youth organisation mobilised by Mao for the purpose of eradicating anti-revolutionary elements and promoting Maoist thought. Mao’s often vague proclamations which generated an array of interpretations by members of the Red Guard, led to its factionalism. The verbal and as well as physical conflict between the factions culminated in the spring of 1968 at Qinghua University where two opposing factions, the Jinggangshan Corps and the Fours, engaged in what became known as the Hundred Day War.

Taking notice of the violent interaction, Mao sent 30,000 Beijing factory workers to the university in order to restore peace, and after some casualties, the workers succeeded. 

A week after the commotion at Qinghua University, on August 4, 1968, Mao welcomed former Pakistani foreign minister Mian Arshad Hussain and his wife. As a diplomatic gesture, the foreign minister presented Mao with a case of mangoes, a fruit which was largely unknown in China. Refusing to eat the mangoes himself, Mao re-gifted the case to the factory workers, who were still stationed at the university, along with a note of gratitude.

Receiving the unanticipated gift directly from the Chairman sparked great madness and jubilation among the factory workers.

According to art historian Freda Murck:

‘Noone in northern China at that point knew what mangoes were. So the workers stayed up all night looking at them, smelling them, caressing them, wondering what this magical fruit was.’

After an exciting debate regarding what should be done with the case of mangoes, it was decided that each of Beijing’s most important factories, that supplied workers to the team at Qinghua University, should receive one mango. So as the workers returned to their respective factories they took along with them the case of Pakistani mangoes to be exhibited and revered.

One might make the ingenious assumption that the workers who had restored peace at the university, and were personally thanked by the Chairman for it, had somewhat amplified the importance of this exotic fruit given their recent triumph. But the acknowledgement that the mangoes received in the factories, as well as in other places, must have been a sight to behold.

One factory tried to preserve the fruit by bathing it in formaldehyde, another tried to control its decay by sealing it in wax. Some carefully positioned the mango in a glass box before placing it on an altar so the workers of that factory could march by and pay their respects to this astoundingly peculiar fruit.

Another factory that noticed that the mango had begun to rot, boiled it in a huge tub of water - and each factory worker was allowed to drink one teaspoon of the heavenly broth. One factory that decided to send this mystifying fruit to its sister factory in Shanghai, specially chartered an aeroplane for it.

A poem published in the People’s Daily, the official medium of the party, read as follows:

‘Seeing that golden mango, was as if seeing the great leader Chairman Mao. Again and again touching that golden mango, the golden mango was so warm.’

Wax and plastic replicas were sent out on special lorries to tour the different provinces, and were awarded to workers to be displayed in their homes. China saw a huge increase in the production of mugs, mirrors, washbasins, plates, and other memorabilia decorated with mangoes along with sayings from Mao. Mango-brand cigarettes also became a bestseller.

According to Mrs Murck; one dentist in a small village, who made the despicable mistake of comparing the mango to a sweet potato, was not only publicly humiliated but also arrested as a counterrevolutionary, found guilty, and executed.

The awe-inspiring fruit also became the cynosure of China’s National Day Parade in Tiananmen Square in 1968.

Along with Mao, the cult of Pakistani mangoes died in 1976 after enchanting the Chinese society for around eighteen months.

While the Cultural Revolution is largely remembered for the circulation of The Little Red Book, the socioeconomic upgrading of the rural population, the diminishing quality of education across China, propaganda through the arts, and the persecution of millions; historians have largely discarded this particular chapter as an odd fixation. But the cult of the mango was one of those rare occasions when culture was developed by the working class rather than being transmitted from the elites. During a time of great turmoil, mangoes became symbols of peace, kindness, and compassion.