Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution, a new exhibition at China Institute Gallery, will reveal how the mango became a potent and unexpected propaganda symbol, providing both a political message and an object of emotional identification in the late 1960s in China. The exhibition will be on view from September 18, 2014 – April 26, 2015, and most of the 80 objects will be shown in the U.S. for the first time. A full color catalogue will accompany the exhibition.

In 1966, Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in China as a mass movement. He called upon school and university students to create a new society, eradicating everything that had belonged to the past. The young people accepted this task with enthusiasm and rapidly plunged the country into chaos. Two years later, Mao decided to bring the movement back under control of the Party. But officially he pronounced that from now on the working class would be leaders in everything. It was at precisely this time that Mao received a basket of mangoes, an unfamiliar fruit in China, as a gift from the visiting Pakistani foreign minister. That night, Mao ordered that the fruits be presented to the workers. The mangoes were quickly seen as a temporary political symbol of Chairman Mao’s benevolence and love for the people and became the focus of cult admiration.

“Mango fever” hit China in 1968 as images of the fruit entered popular culture. Illustrations and photos of mangoes appeared in publications, paintings, posters, and badges, as well as on everyday objects such as mirrors, quilts, and enamelware. Wax mango models were displayed in glass boxes, printed in red with Mao’s quotations, to express respect and esteem for him. By showcasing over 80 mango-related objects, Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution will explore the interaction of material culture and politics during this period.

The mango imagery appeared for about a year. After 1969, the mango disappeared from the active symbolic repertoire of Chinese politics.

“Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution is the first exhibition in the U.S. to document this unusual moment during one of the most tragic times in Chinese history,” notes Willow Weilan Hai, Director, China Institute Gallery. “These events cannot be forgotten and hopefully each review of them will ensure that history does not repeat itself.”

The exhibition includes photographs, posters, and magazines of the period as well as reliquaries with wax or plastic mangoes; and objects such as enamelware, quilt covers, mirrors, and candy wrappers. A clip from the 1976 propaganda film, Song of the Mango (with subtitles) and a film produced for the exhibition, Mao’s Mango – A Propaganda Symbol of the Cultural Revolution will also be on view in the Gallery.

This exhibition is organized by the Museum Rietberg Zürich, and is curated by Alfreda Murck, an American independent scholar living in New York, and Alexandra von Przychowski, Curator of Chinese Art, Museum Rietberg Zürich. The China Institute Gallery showing of the exhibition has been expanded to include loans from private collectors including Judy Manton.