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