Mao's mango parade

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In 1968, our compound's Uncle Wang had the grand title of Revolutionary Messenger for the Telecommunications Post Office compound, Baotou, Inner Mongolia — which actually meant that he had to call out messages for the revolutionary meetings with his loud-as-a-thunder-clap voice during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976.

Chris Johnston cartoon shows Mao's head has a mango, and later rotten and decayed.Uncle Wang was a very old man. I knew two types of old people: those who were old, and those who were near death. If they smiled from time to time, they were old. If they did not smile any more, they were near death. Uncle Wang was the latter. Years later, I would find out he wasn't as old as I thought, he just looked that way. He had droopy puffy eyes like a basset hound. He was nearly as tall as my grandpa, who was 188cm. His back was slightly stooped but he walked with giant steps.

Uncle Wang's actual job was to deliver personal messages for the Compound, because we did not have telephones in our houses. The entire Compound only had one telephone — in his room. Three generations of residents had addressed him as Uncle Wang, even though he was related to none of us. He was well respected for doing a good job of delivering the messages with his gigantic voice.

On the evening of Monday 5 August 1968, Uncle Wang made a very important announcement. 'Revolutionary comrades!' he boomed. 'There is going to be a piece of important news on the Central People's Broadcasting Station — China's National Radio! Please come to the loudspeaker pole to listen to the eight o'clock news tonight!'

It was a warm later summer evening, gentle Inner Mongolian breeze blowing on our faces, when we all crowded near the loudspeaker pole on the oval in the centre of the compound. The sun still shone brilliantly. All 180 families who lived in our compound were there. Every adult worked for the same company Uncle Wang did — the Telecommunications and Post Office company. Very few people could afford a radio and hence the loudspeaker had been installed in the middle of the oval.

We stood around the pole with anticipation. My friend Lili and I, along with all our other friends, were running through and sometimes under the adults' legs. After the static sound of a clock beeping the hour echoed across the oval, the anticipated announcement began. 'The last beep was Beijing Time eight o'clock,' the reporter announced before the signature music reached our ears. Everyone stood erect and quiet. The male Xinhua news reader read the report in a dignified voice.

'The president of Congo gave our great leader Mao Zedong two mang guos. His Elderly sent the two mang guos to the workers out of love for the working class. This noble deed is worthy of celebration. Mao Zedong, His Elderly, is a truly great leader.' We all referred to honoured old people as 'His Elderly' or 'Her Elderly'. It was a mark of great respect. 'His Elderly', as a term, had attached to Mao Zedong especially during the Cultural Revolution.

 

"Our class captain was leading us shouting slogans: 'Long live Chairman Mao! Long live the Cultural Revolution! Annihilate the enemies!' Sometimes, the class captain failed to select the appropriate slogan for the occasion."

 

Aunty Li, one of the three well-known active revolutionary participants from the telecommunications company, spoke loudly to the crowd, which was excited to boiling point. 'It is truly exciting news! His Elderly's generosity is worthy of a celebration!' Everyone cheered and clapped at the mention of our great leader and his generosity. Eyes welled with tears, reflecting the golden glow of the light on top of the pole; hearts swelled with gratitude at his generosity. We were ecstatic — even though none of us had even the faintest idea what mang guos were, although the character guo suggested some kind of fruit.

'Revolutionary comrades,' Uncle Wang's voice echoed behind the crowd again. 'The leader of the company has asked you all to go to the hall and make a model mang guo for tomorrow's parade. Please participate with enthusiasm.' Everyone in the compound marched to the hall in high spirits. To my disappointment, my mother told my brother and me to go home. We would have to be up early to join the mang guo parade and we needed our sleep. Grandma was visiting us at the time. She looked after us whenever our parents had to join in activities such as this.

The following day was a cheerful August morning with hazy orange sunshine. Teacher Chen from the school said to my class, 'Our great leader, Chairman Mao, is such a selfless person; he did not eat the two mang guos himself, and instead he gave them to the workers. His action really touches our hearts. We ought to be loyal to His Elderly for the rest of our lives.' Silently, we all listened and felt excited.

After Teacher Chen spoke, Headmaster Zhang addressed the whole school assembly with his village accent. 'Chairman Mao is our thoughtful leader, and he is very busy with his work for the whole country, and yet he gets in touch with common people such as workers in the factories. We need to carry out His Elderly's Revolution the rest of our lives.' Headmaster Zhang had begun life as a peasant and had achieved his high position as headmaster courtesy of Chairman Mao's policies.

The weather was warm and the air smelt fresh as we marched on the wide asphalt road. Shops lined our journey up the main street of the city of Baotou. A slowly cruising truck led the parade. On top of it was a gigantic oval-shaped object made out of wires with paper glued over the outside of it. The strange object had an orange tinge in the middle creating the effect of a smooth orange ball.

The truck was followed by hundreds of workers from the Baotou Steelworks, both men and women wearing identical working uniforms of blue denim jackets, trousers and denim caps. The working suits replaced Mao's green suits for a while on the streets. Each had a tool-belt each dangling on their bottom, with pliers, a spanner and different-sized screwdrivers with colourful handles. They looked heavy to carry around, but the workers carried them with dignity.

My school was well known for having a good headmaster and being the most active school in carrying out the revolution. In light of this, we were the first school to follow the workers and we followed them with pride. The students made up a big part of the parade. We all strutted proudly with our red armbands around our left arms. My friend Lili and I were holding a red banner with the words: 'Long live the Mao Zedong's thoughts.'

 

"A woman in worker's uniform, who had overheard their disrespectful chatter, looked over with big wide-open eyes. 'Be quiet, you old women!' she growled. 'You are all counterrevolutionaries. Someone should report you to the state. You don't want to insult Chairman Mao's fruit, do you?'"

 

Students carried big drums on their fronts and had gongs strapped to their hands. One boy, our class captain, was leading us shouting slogans: 'Long live Chairman Mao! Long live the Cultural Revolution! Annihilate the enemies!' Sometimes, the class captain failed to select the appropriate slogan for the occasion.

We wore solemn faces as we chanted along with him. Our backs were straight and proud; our steps were brisk in time with the drumbeats, full of revolutionary vigour. And we sang our favourite song, 'Sailing the sea depends on the helmsman', which was a special song devoted to Mao Zedong: 'Sailing the seas depends on the helmsman / Life and growth depend on the sun / Rain and dewdrops nourish the crops / Making revolution depends on Mao Zedong's Thought. / Fish can't leave the water / Nor melons leave the vine / The revolutionary masses can't do without the communist party / Mao Zedong's thought is the sun that shines forever.'

We all wore our special uniforms, white blouses or shirts, navy blue trousers and black corduroy shoes. We had four students across, and many rows of other students behind, walking with importance past the spectators — mainly elderly women — who stood on the dirt paths smiling admiringly at us. I smiled cheerfully back at them. Suddenly, I saw my grandma and her friend, whom we called Su's Mother-in-law. She was from another village from Inner Mongolia. She was quite a humorous old lady; Grandma loved to laugh at her jokes. Grandma and Su's Mother-in-law became quite good friends while they visited their daughters, and they had picked up another elderly lady along the way to form a gang of three.

Grandma came over to me while we were marching on the spot at the city centre for inspection. 'What is a mang guo?' she asked.

'Shhhhh, lower your voice, Grandma,' I said quietly. I was embarrassed that she did not know what a mang guo was, even though I didn't know either. 'I think it is a fruit, from the character guo, but I don't know what mang means.'

Her new friend stepped forward to us, and said in her southern accent, 'It is a fruit, as big as a fist. It is very sour.'

'From the model on the truck, it is a mighty big fruit. How big do you think the tree would be?' said Su's Mother-in-law with a sarcastic tone.

A woman in worker's uniform, who had overheard their disrespectful chatter, looked over with big wide-open eyes. 'Be quiet, you old women!' she growled. 'You are all counter-revolutionaries. Someone should report you to the state. You don't want to insult Chairman Mao's fruit, do you?'

The three old ladies moved back to the crowd on the dirt path. They dared not retort, because the woman could indeed have reported them and they could have been in a lot of trouble. The government didn't like people who disrespected the Chairman in any way, or his fruit.

We all admired the uniforms of the workers as we marched by. After all, Chairman Mao gave the fruit to them, the workers. 'They look good, don't you think?' said a student girl in my line, pointing at the workers. We all knew that the workers in uniforms were the most trusted by the Chairman for now.

 

"I was going to university — being a worker did not appeal to me. Still, I could not tell anyone about my plan; being intellectual meant being beaten up and being branded as 'smelly intellectuals'. Naturally children did not look up to intellectuals."

 

While I liked their uniforms, I did not envy their tool-belts. I thought they did not look scholarly. I only admired people who looked more educated. I took my grandma's advice that I was going to university — being a worker did not appeal to me. Still, I could not tell anyone about my plan; being intellectual meant being beaten up and being branded as 'smelly intellectuals'. Naturally children did not look up to intellectuals. Not publicly anyway.

'Have you ever heard of such a fruit?' I asked the girl who had pointed to the workers' uniforms. Her mother was in charge of the local police station — a very high-ranking woman indeed. 

'No,' she replied, 'though my mother might know. I'll ask her.' She was always proud of her mother. Then she moved forward, and said to one of the older women in workers uniform, 'Aunty, do you know what a mang guo is?'

The woman looked us with concern and said, 'I don't know anything! Don't ask silly questions! You could get me into trouble by asking me.' She looked around her fearfully to see if anyone had heard her. We looked at each other guiltily. We all knew politics was not something we should talk about — but sometimes in the excitement we forgot. We also knew the fear of being reported. We all knew people who had been reported — and if children were reported their parents were punished.

Being talkative had caused lots of trouble for the ordinary people during the Cultural Revolution. My uncle Zhao, my father's friend, was purged as a rightist. The only thing he said was that the very small windows in the newly built houses looked like the windows of jails. 

 

*****

 

For months after the parade, the telecommunications company for whom my parents worked positioned the model mang guo on a platform in their building's main hall, with Chairman Mao's portrait hanging above it on the wall. Before each meeting, people went up to bow to Mao's portrait and the model mang guos. They silently asked Mao for revolutionary instructions in the morning and reported their revolutionary success in the evening.

Later I heard bits and pieces from different people about the two mang guos that were given to Mao Zedong and which he handed down to the workers. A mang guo was a subtropical fruit and very nutritious. It was hailed as the king of tropical fruit. In northern China, we did not grow this kind of fruit because of the cold climate.

I gave some more thought to it and the idea entered my head that when Mao gave the fruit to the workers he, just maybe, did not like the fruit. My father did not like fruit much and he never ate any apples. In fact, people in my grandma's village said that apples were like 'horse-fart bubbles'. My neighbour told me that in Inner Mongolia, we did not grow apples. The apples we had were imported from the southern part of China. By the time the apples reached Inner Mongolia, they had lost their crunchiness. The softness of the apple gave them the derogatory name.

 

"We looked at each other guiltily. We all knew politics was not something we should talk about — but sometimes in the excitement we forgot."

 

I had left this episode behind me and still did not know what a mang guo was until one day I was eating a mango in Australia. All of a sudden, it was like a window flashed open in front of me, and I realised the mang guo we were parading with was actually the same as the mango I was then eating.

Later I read about this incident from various sources and it was true that Mao did not like the fruit at all. Therefore he gave the mangoes to the workers. Why workers? Mao was a very clever political craftsman. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, he instigated the campaign of Red Guards to destroy the Four Olds — Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas.

Red Guards mostly consisted of teenage students and they did a very good job of smashing the Old Fours. Somehow they did too good a job, and it was reported back to Mao that the Red Guards were out of hand. He was very concerned and so utilised the strategy of sending the Red Guards to the countryside to receive re-education from the peasants. He began to promote the workers and, as a result, 'Work Teams' were organised and were sent to every company to push people in 'moving the revolution' forward.

Mao Zedong's personal physician Li Zhisui later wrote that the same factory workers held a ceremony to welcome the mangoes, and that this involved singing Mao Zedong's quotations. They even waxed the two mangoes and placed them on a table in their hall, intending to preserve them for their offspring. After the two mangoes had gone rotten inside the wax, they made real images out of wax so that they could still bow to the mangoes. It did not make any difference to them.

When Li Zhisui told this story to Mao Zedong, he laughed, and said, 'it does not hurt anyone if they blindly admire mangoes'. He was quite right. From then on almost every family had waxed mangoes on their dinner tables. There were also paintings of mangoes. Mangoes became the sacred fruit in China.

 

 

writerA child of 1960s Inner Mongolia, Melbourne based Zhiling Gao is a freelance interpreter, literary translator, language teacher, Mandarin broadcaster and author.

Topic tags: Zhiling Gao, China, communism, Mao

 

 

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Existing comments

There’s a long literary tradition of capturing, sometimes savagely and sometimes gently, in film or print, people – from small towns and from cities too – being people. But whether lacerating a flaw or unwrapping a dressing over a foible, the underlying principle seems to be that the god-shaped hole needs to be filled with something, and if only two waxed man guos are available, then two waxed man guos will have to do.
roy chen yee | 22 April 2019


Hey mang guo, mang guo Italiano/Hey mang guo, mang guo Italiano/Go, go, go you mixed up Sicialiano
Pam | 03 May 2019


The writer takes a little licence with this “embroidered” version of the story. Mao was indeed presented with two CASES of mangoes ?? which he then gave away to the people. So what ! mischievous inferences here . I too was around in the sixties and I remember the reporting in the Peking Review at the time.
philip thomas | 03 May 2019


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