arrow grid linear view icon
The College of Arts Sciences

When a Mango is So Much More: Reflections on the CAPS Class of ’17

Thu, 06/15/2017

Remarks by Andrew Mertha, Professor of Government and former CAPS Director, at CAPS Commencement Ceremony, May 28, 2017


To the parents and other family members, friends and hangers-on, and, most of all, to the class of 2017—congratulations!  You have all passed a huge milestone within your personal lives and have taken an important step toward meeting your career goals. I am delighted to have played a part in it, however slight, whether it was

  • Amanda Williamschauffeuring Amanda Williams to and from (and to and from again) Washington, D.C., to Ithaca;
  • watching Derek Maseloff, whose bringing a French horn to the Great Wall somehow eases the ridicule I felt when I brought an inflatable sink with me during my first trip to China.  I am comforted to have a fellow traveler in Derek;
  • interacting with Sarah Harris, who lights up every room with her incredibly positive energy, and who has been a pleasure to work with ever since she and I met at a CAPS social years ago;
  • having the opportunity to teach not one but two classes with Max Alaghband, whose wisdom was on full display last Saturday when, despite being lactose intolerant, he said, “Isn’t it time for cheesecake?”;
  • Anna Kookwatching Anna Kook evolve from simply an incredibly smart and talented student into somebody on the cusp of an inevitably fascinating career in journalism.  Anna, my only advice for you at this—or any—point in your career is: “use the krama”;
  • hearing with pride about Matt McGee channeling his inner war criminal at the model UN earlier this semester; or
  • Cole DeVoy and Matt McGeeconsuming tarantulas, crickets, and ants—in a lovely cream-based pepper sauce—with Cole DeVoy.

You get the picture. 

I graduated from college exactly 30 years ago, and I had little immediate ambition beyond getting a nine-to-five job (so that I could exorcize the evils of homework) and planning for what would hopefully be my next year in life, in China.

That year—1988 to 1989 (in the dreamlike city of Chengdu), when I was a student of Chinese and a teacher of English at 四川师范大学 —would be the year I fell in love with China…and with the woman who ultimately became my wife, in roughly that chronological order.  But they are both life partners.

pandasIt was a year when I went to a China everybody imagined as a fanciful land of bamboo and pandas and returned from a China of student movements, tanks, and bloodshed.

protester and tanks in Tiananmen Square, 1989I went from student to de facto informal spokesperson, and it was in that new role—judging from the endless questions from well-meaning and largely ignorant people (when it came to China) who were otherwise extremely well-educated and well-informed—that I realized how important and how rare a genuine knowledge of China actually is.

Clearly, we hadn’t moved far from the same dire straits of know-nothingness that ultimately motivated Michael Zak to found the CAPS program after he saw how US ignorance of China’s history and geopolitical ambitions (or lack thereof) led us to the tragic misadventures in Indochina.

I think one can objectively say that in today’s domestic and international political worlds, substantive knowledge is an extraordinarily valuable, rare, and therefore prized commodity.  If President Trump can fundamentally change his mind about the Sino–North Korean relationship after ten minutes with Xi Jinping, think of how much he can learn from a CAPS student!

Xi Jinping, president of the People’s Republic of China, with President TrumpIf ever the world outside needed China expertise, if ever our two countries needed the deep knowledge that only a small elite of individuals—exemplified by our CAPS graduating class of 2017—possesses, it is right now!

But, and because, as my students know, non sequiturs are a key pedagogical resource of mine, allow me to digress into lecture mode, one last time. I would like to provide a brief Chinese political history lesson that revolves around a particular object of reverence—the mango.  Or, a mango.  A particular mango.  Well, to be exact, about 40 particular mangoes.

I am going to draw extensively from a wonderful non-bylined BBC article from February 2016, “China’s Curious Cult of the Mango,” with passages below in italics.

In 1966 Mao Zedong launched his frontal assault on the Chinese Communist Party, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (无产阶级文化大革命), in which he mobilized high school and college students to physically attack people in the Party accused of “taking the capitalist road.”

By 1968, however, the country was on the brink of civil war, as various Red Guard factions fought with each other as well as the initial targets of the campaign. 

Realizing that things had gotten out of control,

Mao sent 30,000 workers to Qinghua University in Beijing armed only with their talisman, the Little Red Book. The students attacked them with spears and sulphuric acid, killing five and injuring more than 700, before finally surrendering. Mao thanked the workers with a gift of approximately 40 mangoes, which he had been given the previous day by Pakistan's foreign minister.

They had a huge impact.

Chinese workers with Mao's gift of mangoes"No one in northern China at that point knew what mangoes were. So the workers stayed up all night looking at them, smelling them, caressing them, wondering what this magical fruit was,” says art historian Freda Murck, who has chronicled this story in detail.

"At the same time, they had received a 'high directive' from Chairman Mao saying that henceforth, 'The Working Class Must Exercise Leadership in Everything.' It was very exciting to be given this kind of recognition."

This marked a fundamental shift in power, signaling the beginning of the end of the “radical phase” of the Cultural Revolution and the resumption of order.

Zhang Kui, a worker who occupied Qinghua, says that the arrival of one of Mao's mangoes at his workplace prompted intense debate.

“The military representative came into our factory with the mango raised in both hands. We discussed what to do with it: whether to split it among us and eat it, or preserve it. We finally decided to preserve it," he says.

…Wang Xiaoping, an employee at the Beijing No. 1 Machine Tool Plant, received a wax replica [of a mango]. The fruit itself was destined for higher things.

"The real mango was driven by a worker representative through a procession of beating drums and people lining the streets, from the factory to the airport," says Wang.

The workers had chartered a plane to fly a single mango to a factory in Shanghai.

When one of the mangoes began to rot, workers peeled it and boiled the flesh in a vat of water, which then became "holy"—each worker sipped a spoonful. (Mao is said to have chuckled on hearing this particular detail.)

"From the very beginning, the mango gift took on a relic-like quality—to be revered and even worshipped," says Cambridge University lecturer Adam Yuet Chau. "Not only was the mango a gift from the Chairman, it was the Chairman."

…The workers surmised that Mao's gift was an act of selflessness, in which he sacrificed his longevity for theirs.

Little did they know that he disliked fruit. Nor were they concerned to learn that Mao was simply passing on a gift he had already received. There is a tradition in China of re-gifting. It may be regarded as vulgar in the West, but in China re-gifting is widely seen as a compliment, enhancing the status of both the giver and the recipient.

The mangoes also proved to be a gift to the propaganda department of the Communist Party, which quickly manufactured mango-themed household items, such as bed sheets, vanity stands, enamel trays, and washbasins, as well as mango-scented soap and mango-flavored cigarettes. Massive papier-mâché mangoes appeared on the central float during the National Day Parade in Beijing in October 1968. Far away in Guizhou province, thousands of armed peasants fought over a black-and-white photocopy of a mango.

Why is this important? 

Besides being a hell of a story, it represents a key turning point in history, one in which you have class warfare between students and workers in China that heralded the beginning of the end of one of the most horrific political experiments in history.  The world did not turn on a mango; but the worm had indeed turned, as Mao's plate of mangoes went on to change history.  This provided the first step in which the Red Guards were demobilized throughout China, and the initial steps toward reconstituting state and society in China could be undertaken.  This is a fairly obscure part of Chinese history that many Chinese do not know about.  But CAPS students do!  Indeed, CAPS students also realize the importance of history and historical resonance when it comes to interacting with China.

The mango story also underscores the complexities that occur when a policy is made from on-high in Beijing and ordinary cadres and regular people have to interpret how to implement it.  Do we eat the mangoes or do we worship them?  Do we demonstrate economic development to Beijing by slavishly publishing GDP figures, or do we seek to improve our local citizens’ quality of life?  Understanding how these ambiguities are translated into political behavior and action in China is something that CAPS students do.

The story demonstrates further the great importance of political, and other types of symbolism, in the Chinese context.  Many Americans dismiss these, to our peril and detriment.  Key trade negotiation outcomes between the US and China have been accomplished by the realization that the US could trade symbolism for substance, as China values the former much more than the US does.  Recognizing their importance and significance is something that CAPS students do.

And this story provides the opportunity for a vocabulary lesson, a key part of the CAPS experience—that is, advanced Chinese language study: “re-gifting,” or zhuansong (转送).  But, more than that, it illustrates the variability of cultural norms: in the US, re-gifting is a no-no.  In China, 转送 is perfectly appropriate.  This language ability and cultural fluency is something that CAPS students do, because they have to, to graduate.

And, finally, it illustrates the spirit of CAPS students.  In September 2016, I went to the Beijing Antique Market 潘家园with two of the students in this room, Cole and Matt, and I remarked on a plastic mango produced during the Cultural Revolution that was in a glass display case, saying plastic mango under glasswhat a wonderful piece of MAOabilia it was.  It turns out that Cole and Matt went back to the market and purchased it on the down-low. Matt transported it back to Ithaca, and they presented it to me as a birthday present last month.  It is the best thing that any student has ever given me!

But, there’s a bit more to this story.  That same evening, the three of us and one other CAPS alum, Sydney Gehrking, went to have Beijing duck in the Qianmen area of Beijing.  Although it was kind of touristy, it was ever-so-slightly off the beaten path.  I was therefore just a little dismayed that Matt and Cole found it so exotic, vis-à-vis their China experience thus far.  To me, it suggested that genuine China experiences for these younger scholars are even more elusive than ever and that places and set pieces that I could take for granted two decades ago, or even ten years ago, were lost to the winds of time.  At some point over dinner, I must have mumbled my disappointment that such experiences seemed so far out of reach.  It was, therefore, immensely gratifying to receive an email a few weeks later from Matt saying:

On a different note, the gang went to Xinjiang for the National Week holiday and we spent a night in a Kyrgyz village on the Sino-Tajik border. It was an interesting experience for a number of reasons, not least of which was the signpost in the middle of the village. I'm not sure how well you can zoom-in on the picture, but the sign details personal information about everyone living in the village, including their ID number, their livestock, and why they're poor (the most common reason is Quēfá zījīn [缺乏资金], or “lack of funds”). Just thought you'd find this interesting.

sign on road to Kyrgyz village on the Sino-Tajik border

Interesting.  Hell, yes.  And immensely gratifying.

You cannot imagine how happy I was to receive that email—how hopeful it made me!  It demonstrates the can-do spirit of each of these amazing individuals, these “young China hands.” 

And you cannot possibly imagine how proud I am of the entire CAPS 2017 graduating class.  I will miss them terribly!  I kind of already do.

To close, let me thank the graduating class of 2017 for reminding me over and over again why being your professor is by far the best job in the world.  Teaching you has been a hoot-and-a-half; a labor of love (minus the labor); and, most of all, a genuine and profound privilege. 



Professor Andrew Mertha giving Remarks at CAPS 2017 Commencement