Remembering the Cultural Revolution: Mao's Mangoes and Beyond

Wei remembers clearly the first time she tried a mango. She was six years old, from Dalian in north-east China, and just as she bit into the fruit her parents told her that it was the deceased leader Chairman Mao.

Confused, she spat it out. Wei now finds the story funny and has spoken in detail to her parents about their own memory of mangoes.

"They remembered reading about the mangoes in the newspaper. That was the first time they ever saw a mango," Wei tells me. It wasn't until the 1980s that they were able to try an actual mango - just before Wei did.

"They were very excited as it has such a strong flavour and of course associations with Mao," Wei explains.

Mangoes came to be linked to Mao in August 1968, when the Pakistan foreign minister visited Beijing and gave Chairman Mao a crate of mangoes. Mao re-gifted these mangoes to the Worker-Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams, who were being deployed into Tsinghua University to put down warring factions of Red Guards, the student militia that arose during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Wei - part of the balinghou - the generation born in the 1980s after China's opening up - is unusual in linking the mangoes to Mao. For most of her generation mangoes are just a fruit with no special connotations. But for an older generation - those alive under Chairman Mao - it's an entirely different matter.

"I remember the cult indeed!" says Roger Garside, who at the time was working at the British Embassy in Beijing. He says how he recently met a Chinese man who was a railroad worker in central China during the Cultural Revolution and this man cited the mangoes as an example of the absurdity and worship of Mao at the time.

The fruit, unknown to most in China outside of the tropical south, quickly took on new meanings. Shaped like the sun, they were seen as symbolising Chairman Mao. Even more so, they came with a message - the workers were now in charge, not the students.

"It's one of these moments where a specific object signals a huge transfer of power," explains Frank Dikötter, author of recently published book The Cultural Revolution.

Mango mania quickly ensued. The exotic fruit - around forty in number - toured the most important factories of Beijing. They were paraded around and photographed. The 1968 National Day Parade even featured the mango. When they started to rot, efforts were made to preserve them.

"One enterprising factory turned them into jam!" remembers Garside.

At the height of mango mania, mango candy, scented soap, vanity stands, wash basins, enamel trays, bed sheets, pencil cases and cigarettes were all available to buy. The mango label had great selling power.

"You have an immensely capitalist moment with the mangoes," says Benjamin Ramm, a writer, researcher and presenter of Chinese history, who spoke earlier this year about the mangoes on the BBC.

For Ramm, what makes the mangoes incredibly interesting, both as a chapter of the Cultural Revolution and as a piece of Chinese history, is that it's one of the very few occasions in China when history is initiated and interpreted spontaneously by workers. "It's really very rare," he says, adding:

"It's at once surreal and yet revealing of the Cultural Revolution. It tells you a lot about the hopes and aspirations of the Cultural Revolution, as well as the trauma."

According to Ramm, the mangoes - in many ways seen as representing the madness of the Cultural Revolution - were at the time seen as representing its end. Hundreds had been injured and five had died at Tsinghua as a result of the siege initiated by the Red Guards. The mangoes were interpreted as the violence's finish.

Though the mangoes might have symbolised the hopes of a peaceful transition, they could not escape the violence. Ramm provides two examples. The first is a skirmish that erupted in Guizhou Province, when armed peasants fought over a black and white photo of a mango. The next is more chilling. In a small village in Sichuan, a local dentist compared the mango to a sweet potato. He was accused of malicious slander, publicly humiliated and then executed.

It is these stories that are unlikely to make their way around China today. This May marks the 50th anniversary since the Cultural Revolution began. Scholars believe between one and two million people were killed during its ten year reign, which ended when Mao died on 9 September 1976.

While there have been some efforts over the years to discuss the Cultural Revolution, the turbulent decade remains deeply divisive within China. Several former Red Guards made public apologies for atrocities that they committed during the time, and one former Guard has even starting blogging memories of the period, but such candour is rare. More often the trend is to silence conversation - publicly and privately.

There is only one museum in China dedicated to the Cultural Revolution, located in a remote, rural area in Guangdong Province. The museum was built without official backing and while tolerated, commemoration events are often cancelled by the authorities.

No surprise then that the 50th anniversary is a quiet one in China. As yet there has not been a public acknowledgement by the Communist Party.

"The problem with the Cultural Revolution for Xi Jinping is that Mao wants to purge the party vanguard. He wants you to denounce party bureaucrats," says Ramm.

Dikötter takes this point further.

"Mao actively undermined the One Party State with the Cultural Revolution," he tells me.

Mao ruled supreme; the same could not be said of the rest of the Party. Dikötter adds that the memory of this period has been "abused" - it has been turned into a symbol of what no one wants to go back to.

Author Madeleine Thien also explores the Cultural Revolution in her forthcoming book Do Not Say We Have Nothing. She says that outside of China, "remembrance of that decade has a continuity; it's the defining political campaign, along with the Great Leap Forward, of Mao's revolution."

Thien doubts her book will ever be translated and available in Mainland China. That said, she still sees the Cultural Revolution as occupying an important, enduring position, even if conversations are muffled.

"Inside China, those memories are just below the surface, and the enforced amnesia has not reduced their power; perhaps the opposite. The closing of the Tiananmen Museum in Hong Kong, the use of Cultural Revolution tactics, including public shaming, are reminding us, now more than ever, that this history remains unfinished," says Thien.

As for the mangoes, it looks like curtain call for them. Even a cigarette company, which proudly displayed the mango at its centre, has recently been removed from shop aisles. Now your best chance of hearing their story is to traipse through an antiques market in the hope of finding some memorabilia, or to hope that an older generation will remember their story - and be willing to tell it.

A talk and films on Mao's Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution will be held at Asia House on 23 August 2016.