Migrant Melon  瓜的迁徙

by Noel Zhang 章艺潇

DYNASTIC EGYPT—We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. (Nm 11:5)

民数记11:5  我们记得,在埃及的时候不花钱就吃鱼,也记得有黄瓜,西瓜,韭菜,葱,蒜。

Why is a western melon western? For me, the fruit I know in Chinese as western melon—and in English as watermelon—has become synonymous with hot summers in China, with the sound of black pips ricocheting in metal sinks against a drone of cicadas. When eating watermelon in the UK, my mind can’t help but think “it tastes better back in China”—although it’s difficult to say whether it’s because I miss eating watermelon in China, or if I miss the memories of eating watermelon in China. Yet its name—one of several fruits in Chinese named after cardinal directions—hides a curious history in plain sight, coming from the fact that the melon is not native to China at all, but taken from the so-called Western Regions (西域) in Central Asia, and as we recount through centuries of history, even further west along the banks of the River Nile in Ancient Egypt.


HAN CHINA—The great network of trade routes between east and west known as the Silk Road finds its beginnings during the Han Dynasty. Chinese diplomat Zhang Qian is sent on a mission in 138 BCE across the Gobi desert by the Han Emperor to seek out the nomadic Yuezhi tribe and forge an alliance against the vast Xiongnu empire to the north. He returns thirteen years later in 125 BCE with no alliance but with accounts of the western civilisations in Ferghana and Bactria, and even as far as Parthia and Mesopotamia. Between 104 and 101 BCE, seeking to seize the “heavenly horses” owned by the Great Ionian people of Ferghana Valley as reported by Zhang Qian, the Han dynasty lay siege and conquer their capital at Alexandria Eschate at the edges of the Ancient Greek world. Many city-states in Central Asia switch allegiance from the Xiongnu to the Han Dynasty in a region that becomes known as the Hexi Corridor as they return eastward following their victory at Alexandria Eschate and form the very beginnings of a route between China and Central Asia, then onto the Mediterranean and Egypt thanks to trade routes in those regions established by Alexander the Great two centuries earlier.

汉朝——丝绸之路始于汉朝,作为一条伟大的体系,它连接了东方和西方之间的贸易往来。 中国外交家张骞在公元前138年奉汉武帝之命穿越戈壁沙滩出使西域,寻找以游牧为生的月氏部落,并期待与其建交共同对抗北方匈奴。十三年后,张骞在公元前126年返回长安。虽然他没能将友军带回,但他带来了关于西方文明的故事,包括费尔干纳与大夏,还有遥远的帕提亚与美索不达米亚。在公元前104年和公元前101年之间,汉朝觊觎张骞讲述的坐落在费尔干纳盆地的大宛国所拥有的“天马”,出征位于古希腊边界的大宛国首都极东亚历山大城。当汉朝攻下极东亚历山大城胜利回归东方后,中亚的许多城邦都放弃与匈奴的建交,转而投奔汉朝。一道连接中国和中亚的路线由此建立了起来,一直通往地中海和埃及——得益于两世纪前在这些地区修建了贸易路线的亚历山大大帝。

TANG CHINA—The Silk Road across the centuries becomes not only a vehicle for trade, but for religious beliefs, technologies and languages. Buddhism had travelled from India to China and Japan while Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula into South and Central Asia. Among the religions of the Silk Road was Manichaeism, a missionary faith that co-existed with and incorporated tenets from Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Buddhism. Manichaeism grew out of the teachings of Mani, a third-century Iranian prophet living in the last Persian imperial dynasty of the Sasanian Empire. Mani’s visions spoke of a cosmological battle between light and darkness, with the universe built by the Father of Greatness out of the bodies of slain demons from the World of Darkness and the light they had stolen and swallowed. Within every plant, person, animal and so on exists this swallowed light called the Living Soul, and through wisdom and knowledge mankind could eventually redeem the Living Soul from our world and return it to the spiritual World of Light. A select class of those who practise Manichaeism called the Elect follow strict commandments and hence their bodies become divine instruments for liberating the Living Soul from fruit and vegetables by digesting them. Particular fruits like grapes and melons are considered rich with imprisoned light and favoured by Manichaeans.


By the time of the Tang Dynasty in China, watermelons have spread from Egypt where they were first cultivated along the Silk Road as far as Central Asia. Fruits native in Central Asia include peaches and apples, although apples are to be avoided by Manichaeans as the fruit that led Eve astray. Manichaeism does spread to China, but the Tang imperial court bans the religion in 732. The religion never fully disappears however—in 762, the Uyghur Khaganate based in Mongolia are hired to aid the Tang at Luoyang to defeat a rebellion against the dynasty; in Luoyang, the Uyghur khaghan meets four Manichaean monks, and brings back the religion to the khaghanate where it is made the official state religion a year later. As Manichaeans are sent to Mongolia from central churches in the likes of Ctesiphon all the way to Bukhara, watermelons are likely brought here via Manichaean outposts in Central Asia such as Turpan onto the Mongolian grasslands to be cultivated to support the transition from a nomadic lifestyle relying on beef, mutton and milk to that of Manichaean vegetarianism.

到中国唐朝时,西瓜已从最早种植的埃及沿丝绸之路传播直至中亚。 原产于中亚的水果包括了桃子和苹果,尽管因为导致了夏娃误入歧途,摩尼教避免食用苹果。 摩尼教确实传播到中国,但唐朝朝廷在开元二十年,即 732 年便取缔了该宗教。然而摩尼教从未完全消失——762 年,位于蒙古的回鹘汗国受雇协助唐朝在洛阳镇压反叛; 在洛阳,回鹘汗国可汗会见了四名摩尼教僧侣,并将宗教带回回鹘汗国,在一年后成为了官方国教。 由于摩尼僧侣是从泰西封、布哈拉等地的中央教堂派送到蒙古,西瓜很可能通过吐鲁番等中亚的摩尼教基地被带到了蒙古草原上种植,支持着从依赖牛肉,羊肉和牛奶的游牧生活到尊从摩尼教素食主义的转变。

LIAO CHINA—After the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907, Abaoji of the Khitan people makes himself emperor and by 916 sets up a Chinese-style dynasty called Liao across Northern China. While the Khitan people were based in Manchuria, close to the Korean border, they quickly expand westwards into the territory of various Mongolian tribes—in 908, against the Shiwei; in 912 the Zubu; in 919, the Khongirad. In 924, Abaoji pushes as far west and also north into Mongolia as the former Uyghur capital of Ordu-Baliq before returning south via what is now modern-day Ejin Banner on the Inner Mongolian plateau and then east to modern-day Bairin Left Banner where the capital of the Liao Dynasty Shangjing was built in 918. When Abaoji first arrived at the Uyghur capital in September of that year, it would have been the season in which watermelons were ripe on the Mongolian plateau, which he then brought back with him from his western expedition. Abaoji dies from illness in 926 and his second son Deguang succeeds the throne as Emperor Taizong of Liao. In 936, in return for aiding the founder of the Later Jin dynasty Shi Jingtang in his conquest of Northern China, Emperor Taizong is given the Sixteen Prefectures which includes modern-day Beijing and much of Hebei Province.

辽朝——公元907年,在唐朝灭亡后,契丹人耶律阿保机称帝,916年在中国北方建立辽朝。契丹人先前以靠近朝鲜边境的满洲为基地,他们迅速向西扩展到各个蒙古部落的领土——908年,对抗室韦族; 912年阻卜; 919年,弘吉剌。 924年,耶律阿保机向西北进军蒙古,到达回鹘汗国古都窝鲁朵八里,再通过现内蒙古高原上的额济纳旗南归,向东到达现巴林左旗并在公元918年在那里建造了辽朝都城上京城。当年9月耶律阿保机初访回鹘汗国都时,正是蒙古高原西瓜成熟的季节,他便将西瓜带回了上京城。926年,耶律阿保机因病驾崩,他的次子耶律德光继位成为辽太宗。936年,作为帮助后晋始祖石敬瑭征服中国北方的回报,辽太宗被授予十六州,其中包括现代北京和河北省的大部分地区。

There is wisdom to be found in the language of everyday rituals like the food we eat, and maybe by eating watermelon even when I’m in the UK I’m somehow continuing a centuries-long pilgrimage that the watermelon began—from west to east, and now west once again with my parents’ immigration. Food and culture are often the most immediate links to our heritage that immigrants have in the absence of more concrete foundations, and to ask why a western melon is western—or why a watermelon is not Chinese—is not to say that my memories of eating watermelon in my grandparents’ flat in Beijing are somehow invalid as a connection to my roots. What can we learn from the fact that Manichaean missionaries who brought the fruit to places along the Silk Road as much assimilated parts of the culture there into their own teachings as they left their own mark there? Heritage and belonging are a complicated matter after all—perhaps there’s understanding to be found even in the most ordinary of places.