Forbidden Fruit: Plundering the Meanings of Melons in Modern China
1: Seed, Vine, Flesh, Peel, Globe: Melon as a Time Metaphor in Modern China
Saturday, March 26, 2022
10:30am – 12:00pm EST
Location: Conv. Center, Room 303B
Christopher G. Rea
University of British Columbia, Canada
The late Qing press warned that foreign powers in China would “carve it up like a melon” (gua fen). In the earliest surviving Chinese-made film, Laborer’s Love (1922), a fruit-seller signals his amorous intent by “splitting a melon” (po gua), a centuries-old metaphor for taking a woman’s virginity. Watermelons loom large in utopian imagery, from the cornucopian agricultural themes Great Leap Forward posters to the children’s cartoon book Little Smarty Travels to the Future (1980), in which one massive sphere takes 10 minutes to halve with a chainsaw. Nowadays, students cramming for exams “roll the melon until it is reduced to a pulp” (gun gua lan shu).
Breaching rinds, getting entangled in vines, planting seeds, enjoying pleasures of the flesh—melons roll through popular, literary, and political culture as a metaphor of significant durability and variety. How do modern Chinese usages and associations compare with those found in Europe and the Americas? This study draws attention to two types of gua symbolism: one related to time—time ripe for action, or the anticipation thereof—and another to cultivation, in which the ripe melon represents the ideal product of civilizing labor. It further traces modern melon metaphorical resonances with a literary tradition, in which today’s courtier might—should things go poorly—become tomorrow’s melon farmer.