China and Inner Asia
Session Abstract: Gua! Cucurbitaceae comprise a humble yet vast plant family—melons, pumpkins, bitter melons, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, loofah, gourds. This panel draws attention to the versatility and ubiquity of gua not just as agricultural products, but also as symbols of cultural and political meaning. Four slices from modern China: Nicolai Volland opens up the history of an intellectual club in 1930s Shanghai that styled itself the Watermelon Society. Volland argues that the fruit served as a symbol of public conviviality, which extended intellectual conversation beyond rarified spaces—a democratic ethos of fruitful exchanges. Christopher Rea identifies time as a recurring motif in the use of gua/cucurbit metaphors. In literature, film, visual, and political culture, melons are ubiquitous as a symbol that the time is ripe for action, or as an image of a future cultivated to its full potential. Geremie Barmé brings us into the gardens of power, showing how Xi Jinping’s political symbolism draws on both Qing imperial and Maoist heritages, from the Kangxi Emperor’s melon patch to Mao’s study. In the twenty-first century, Xi projects an insidious vision of ruling as a process of cultivating and harvesting people and data alike. Shaoling Ma shows how cucumbers and watermelons bridge the rural-urban divide on the video-sharing website iXigua (Love Watermelon). Focusing on the archives of two countryside female vlogging celebrities, Ma discusses how melons function not just as object or image, but also as a digital platform for the “masses of melon-seed eaters” (chi gua qunzhong), that is, voyeurs.
Paper Presenter: Christopher G. Rea – University of British Columbia
Paper Presenter: Nicolai Volland – The Pennsylvania State University
Paper Presenter: Geremie R. Barme – Asia Society
Paper Presenter: Shaoling Ma – Yale-NUS College