The JN Projects Blog

Mao's Mangoes

Q: When is a mango more than a mango?

A: In China, during the Cultural Revolution

In 2007 as the research fellow at the Palace Museum Beijing, Alfreda Murck published Golden Mangoes: The Life Cycle of a Cultural Revolution Symbol in Archives of Asian Art to tell the story of Mao’s Mangoes – an unlikely yet potent political symbol which came to signify the Chairman’s benevolence in the minds of the people.

In the article, Murck recounts the story of the Pakistani foreign minister gifting Chairman Mao a basket of mangoes during a visit to China on August 4, 1968. The following day, Mao Zedong ordered this basket of 40 mangoes to be distributed to Worker-Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda teams working to bring competing factions of Red Guards under control at Tsinghua University during a period of immense upheaval.

The mango quickly transformed into a popular symbol, adopted by propagandists to spread the message of Mao’s generosity towards the people. Further, individual mangoes were sent out to factories over the following weeks. From afterthought to object of veneration, the story of the mango is a little-known but highly revealing phenomenon from the Cultural Revolution in China (1966–76).

Following the publication of this article, Murck co-curated an exhibition, Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution, held at the Museum Rietberg, Zurich in 2013 and then in 2014  in New York at the China Institute, where it was seen by White Rabbit Collection’s Manager of Research. Featuring objects from Murck’s own personal collection, the exhibition showcased items bearing the iconography of the mango including posters, badges, wax models, sculptures encased in glass vitrines, fabrics and household goods such as enamel dishes and quilts. For a period of 18 months during the ‘mango craze’, mango imagery was so widespread it became a fixture in the repertoire of official state sanctioned propaganda.

The White Rabbit Collection Research Library at Dangrove has recently acquired the exhibition catalogue for Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution, offering essays, documentary photographs, personal reflections and anecdotes which provide unique insights into this intriguing phenomenon. The publication also contains the complete catalogue of the Alfreda Murck collection at the Museum Rietberg, with accompanying texts by Murck exploring the history of each artefact.

Shen Liang, This is a Book, 2011, oil on canvas x 12

The pursuit of new meanings, mythologies and symbols was central to the ambitions of revolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution. A stated goal of Mao’s was to oversee an end of the “Four Olds”, of “Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas” and a complete reconstruction of a new industrial worker-led, socialist society.

Qi Zhilong, China Girl, 2001, oil on canvas

Why would we collect such a book for the library of a twenty-first century art collection? Many artists represented in the White Rabbit Collection were born into the Cultural Revolution and their early lives were imprinted by its chaos and confusion. From Shao Yinong and Muchen’s Fairy Tales in Red Times, photographs of twenty-first century children from a special-needs school in Beijing who are represented in the enlarged, gaudily hand-coloured manner of Maoist propaganda posters, to  Shen Liang’s This is a Book series of paintings, and from Qi Zhilong’s China Girl to Bu Hua’s feisty red-scarved ‘Beijing Babe’, these artists reflect on the present-day through the lens of their past. Muchen says, ‘Even though I live in a modern world, I am still deeply troubled by the past.’

Shao Yinong and Muchen, Fairy Tales in Red Times – Black, 2003–7, hand-coloured photograph

Bu Hua, born in 1973 at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, laments this destructive transformation and the continuing disappearance of traditional Chinese culture. Her video animations depict the China of old and new, following her schoolgirl alter ego through surreal apocalyptic environments. Adorned in a red Young Pioneer scarf, Bu Hua’s protagonist navigates her way through the embers of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the tsunami of change wrought by the Reform and Opening policies of his successors. Bu Hua’s digital animations and graphic works reference this period of rapid culture reshaping and remaking.

Bu Hua, Beijing Babe Loves Freedom 1, 2008, pigmented inkjet print

In hindsight the remaining ‘Mango’ artefacts from this period seem quirky, kitsch and somewhat innocuous, and yet they represent a process of myth making congruent to the building of a new society. The exhibition catalogue for Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution is an important acquisition for the Research Library as it illuminates a period which has shaped the life and work of many artists within the White Rabbit Collection today.

Nichola Palazzi, Library Assistant

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