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Mao’s mangoes

01:10 AM April 16, 2015

NEW YORK CITY April may be, as T.S. Eliot once wrote memorably, “the cruelest month,” one that breeds lilacs out of a dead land. As I take in the dreary scene out my window, with the trees still bare when there should now be hints of green on its branches, and the ground a uniform shade of monotonous brown, the sky a dull gray, it is rather hard to believe spring has sprung. And where are the birds? For all intents and purposes, the land is dead. And lilacs would be a welcome sight.

And yet, this is all a prelude to the life that soon will burst upon us, the sap that flows through all of nature will rise to the surface, heralding new beginnings from the ashes of the previous cycle. And April is also prelude to the harvest month of May, when the fertile earth rewards us for our patience, offering its varied yields, whether it be rice or wheat or corn, but most especially its fruits.

I associate May, as I suspect is true for a lot of Filipinos, with fiestas and with mangoes. I usually shy away from any display of chauvinism, but when it comes to mangoes, I can’t help but extol the superior qualities of our mangoes. I have tasted mangoes from Florida, Haiti and the Caribbean, India, and Mexico, and while these are quite tasty, they don’t come up to the standard, say, of the Guimaras or the Cebu mango. Incidentally, the most prized mangoes in Mexico are referred to as Manila mangoes, specimens of which were likely brought to that country on board one of the galleons on the Manila-Acapulco run during the Spanish colonial era.

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Not only are Philippine mangoes the sweetest and smoothest, but also apparently a couple holds the record for the world’s biggest mango from northern Mindanao. Included in Guinness’s world records, that fruit weighed in at a hefty 7.57 lbs., and came from a tree that Mr. and Mrs. Sergio Bodiongan have, one that has produced on average mangoes that weigh two kilos, or more than four lbs. each. According to the Guinness website, these mangoes are of the Florida Keitt variety, a perfectly serviceable but nondescript term. I prefer to think the carabao label would be more apt.

Serendipitously I found out about an exhibition on mangoes and Mao Zedong at the China Institute on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, just a few blocks from Hunter College, where I teach: “Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution.” That crazed decade, from 1966 to 1976, saw Mao Zedong set in motion a movement to purge the country of capitalist and traditional revisionist elements and so restore a pure Communist ideology to its preeminent position. This was a time when the bourgeoisie were humiliated, intellectuals persecuted, cultural treasures vandalized if not destroyed, and property seized arbitrarily. Millions of Chinese suffered.

Not accidentally it elevated Mao Zedong to the status of unprecedented power, when he could do no wrong. This was when the Red Book, or “Quotations from Chairman Mao and Selected Works of Mao Zedong,” came out, of which close to a billion copies were printed. To the Red Guards, made up mostly of students and initially the vanguard of the movement, the Red Book was the Bible and every utterance of his was treated as those of a deity. Mao was God in a godless ideology.

In 1968, two years after the start of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong received mangoes as a gift from a visiting Pakistani delegation. The Chairman in turn sent the mangoes to “Worker Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams.” (There seems to be no record of whether Mao ate any of the mangoes and what he might have thought of them.) Mangoes were unknown in northern China at the time and attained the status of a cult item mainly because it was the Chairman who had sent them.

As the exhibition makes abundantly clear, the golden-yellow fruit transcended its earthly origins transformed into a relic bestowed upon the masses in an act of benevolence by Mao. They were not to be eaten so much as to be adored. There are black and white photographs of workers gazing at a wax model of a mango in their midst, with all the reverence fervent Catholics might regard a sliver of the cross upon which Christ was crucified.

The actual mangoes that started to rot were placed in containers of formaldehyde, to preserve them. In a kind of Warholian scenario, mango images and replicas proliferated—all intertwined with either images of Mao or his sayings or both. They were ubiquitous: plastic mangoes in vitrines, mangoes depicted in quilts, on badges, in posters, even in floats. One blown-up color photo shows an October 1, 1968 National Day Parade at Tiananmen Square, where a contingent of workers is shown as they march by, and clearly visible are these floats of mangoes. With her fruit-heavy headdresses, Carmen Miranda would have fit right in!

One of the wall texts reveals a little-known fact, at least to me, that on her visit to the PRC in the 1970s, Imelda Marcos, perhaps aiming to duplicate the wildly successful reception given to the Pakistani delegation’s gift, presented a basket of mangoes to Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife and omnipotent cultural commissar. She in turn sent some to the workers at a factory. But apparently while received politely these mangoes were hardly treated with the same reverence and awe Mao’s mangoes were—a telling indication that the head of the Gang of Four was not in the same league as her husband.

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There is no small amount of irony in associating the sweet, succulent golden mango with the dismal mass hysteria known as the Cultural Revolution, whose only fruits were widespread destruction, internecine struggles and the forced relocation of millions of people. In 1981, the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China, according to Wikipedia, described that whole period as “responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic.” By then the country and the Party were headed by Deng Xiaoping—one of the victims of the Cultural Revolution.

Copyright L.H. Francia 2015

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TAGS: Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China, Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping, Florida Keitt mangoes, Gang of Four, Imelda Marcos, Jiang Qing, Mangoes, Mao Zedong
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