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Special Presentation featuring Christopher Rea – From Zhuangzi’s Gourd to Cinderella’s Pumpkin: Gua 瓜 as a Vehicle for the Imagination
February 27 @ 5:00 pm – 6:15 pm
Speaker: Christopher Rea, Professor of Chinese, Former Director of the Centre for Chinese Research, University of British Columbia
Moderator: David Der-wei Wang, Edward C. Henderson Professor of Chinese Literature, Harvard University
The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi tells us that one remedy for a lack of imagination is to take your gourd for a ride. Confucius makes a point about usefulness by comparing himself to a gourd (or is it a melon?). Gua 瓜 (cucurbits)—which include gourds, melons, pumpkins, squash, and bitter melon—abound in Chinese philosophy, art, poetry, historiography, and storytelling, notably in late imperial novels such as Jin Ping Mei, Journey to the West, and Story of the Stone. Why? Christopher Rea argues that gua have several qualities that account for their enduring popularity in the figurative imagination, including their sound, shape, seasonality, variety, and abundance.
This talk shares examples of how the cucurbitaceae—a vast family that is as diverse in its metaphorical usages as in its species—has been used in Chinese and other contexts as a vehicle for the imagination. The humble gua 瓜 has been used to represent ideas of consequence, both physical—human anatomy, China, the earth—and conceptual—moral peril, wealth, glory days. Gua are a vehicle for rethinking the taxonomies that drive cultural historiography, the distinctions scholars make between here and there, this and that. In particular, this talk will focus on why gua associations tend to be overripe, and on how Chinese (and non-Chinese) sources have used melons and their kin to represent time itself.
Christopher Rea is Professor of Chinese and former Director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia. He is the creator of the Chinese Film Classics Project, whose website ChineseFilmClassics.org hosts the world’s largest online collection of early Chinese films with English subtitles, as well as film clips, essays, links, and an online course on early Chinese films. The websiteand the course are companions to his book Chinese Film Classics, 1922-1949 (Columbia, 2021), which has a Chinese edition forthcoming. Rea is also the author of the Levenson Prize-winning The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015; Rye Field, 2018) and the co-author of Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project That Matters to You (and the World) (with Thomas Mullaney; Chicago, 2022), which is also available in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Polish. He is currently working on a second volume of The Book of Swindles (Columbia, 2017) and on a cultural history of gua 瓜.