Korean words for "bottle gourd"

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I spent much of the summer in Vermont ensconced in a hermit's cottage reading, writing, and, of course, running through the Green Mountains and verdant woods.  When I left last week to come back for the fall semester at Penn, I brought with me about fifty bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) that had been abandoned by the side of the road.

My purpose in bringing so many bottle gourds back to Philadelphia is that I wanted to give them to the new graduate students in my department.  It has been my habit for many years to present something exotic / esoteric and regionally meaningful to the students in Asian studies.  Usually it's edible, such as camel's milk cheese from Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, but sometimes it's more on the edifying side.  Such is the case with this year's bottle gourds. 

How so?

In Asian culture, aside from being edible, bottle gourds are fraught with symbolism and a surprising array of functionality.  For example, wandering physicians and Daoist / Taoist priests could employ them to carry medicines and potions.  They are often seen in anime and other films about pre-modern times.  The double bulge of the bottle gourd shape is still used to make little medicine bottles dispensed by contemporary hospitals.  See also the discussion below for the meaning "dipper".

Bottle, calabash, chinese, drink, gourd icon - Download on Iconfinder

As for the cosmogonic and anthropogonic mythic implications of bottle gourds, see:

Victor H. Mair.  "Southern Bottle-Gourd (hu-lu) Myths in China and Their Appropriation by Taoism." In Chung-kuo shen-hua yü ch'uan-shuo hsüeh-shu yen-t'ao-hui (Proceedings of the Conference on Chinese Myth and Legend). Han-hsüeh yen-chiu chung-hsin ts'ung-k'an (Center for Chinese Studies Research Series), No. 5. Vol. 1 of 2. Taipei: Han-hsüeh yen-chiu chung-hsin, 1996. Pp. 185-228.

Now, diving into their linguistic facets, the Chinese word for "bottle gourd" is húlu 葫蘆, a word that just sounds funny and joyful, at least to me.

(BaxterSagart): /*[ɡ]ˤa  C.rˤa/ (Zhengzhang): /*qʰaː|ɡaː  raː/

In Japanese, it is hyōtan / ひょうたん / 瓢箪.

I was surprised to learn that the Korean word for bottle gourd is the short, simple, single syllabic "bag 박".

How could Korean have such a diminutive, unimpressive word as "bag" for the exalted "bottle gourd; calabash"?  I was expecting a Sino-Korean word, since conservative estimates of the proportion of such terminology in Korean are about 50%.

So I asked Bob Ramsey what the story is with the Korean word "bag" for "bottle gourd".  His reply:

Koreans do have the word 葫蘆, read 호로 (horo), at least in written sources. But the colloquial modern word for 'gourd, calabash' is, as you say, 박, which, as best I know, is a native Korean word. In Middle Korean, the word had a high tone (marked by Sejong (1397-1450) as a "去聲" ["falling tone"]). Now, that short native word is also the source of 바가지, the common word for the everyday utensil used as a dipper (made originally by splitting and hollowing out a gourd but now usually made out of plastic!) 

Still, why do you think Koreans would be obligated to use a Sino-Korean word for such a thing? After all, Koreans use native words for all sorts of agricultural products, including such things as 'rice' (both cooked and uncooked) and 'barley'! A native Korean name for a cultivated plant is not unusual. 

Now, I confess that I myself have often wondered about the origins of the names for plants cultivated in Korea. Many have distinctive phonological (tonal) shapes, something that has piqued my curiosity even more. I know that tobacco (that is, the plant itself) reached Korea from Kyushu (and the shape of the Korean word shows that origin). But chili peppers also came from Kyushu in the sixteenth century, and that Korean word has a Chinese origin. Moreover, many plant products must have reached Korea through China, and so you'd expect maybe that the plants would have brought the names with them and have Sino-Korean names. However, 'persimmons' and 'pears'–and 蘿蔔 [VHM:  "radish"]–don't. They all have what appear to be native Korean names! 

Korean seems to be especially rich and diverse in the sources of its words, particularly for plants.

Beyond the interesting assortment of names for "bottle gourd" in East Asia, what really attracts me to this curious plant fruit is its association with my favorite ancient Chinese text, Zhuang Zi 莊子 / Chuang Tzu (Master Zhuang) (ca. late 4th c.-early 3rd c. BC).  For a complete translation, see Victor H. Mair, tr., Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998; first ed. New York:  Bantam, 1994); also available as Zhuangzi Bilingual Edition, translated by Victor H. Mair (English) and Minci Li (Modern Chinese) (Columbus:  The Ohio State University Foreign Language Publications, production of the National East Asian Languages Resource Center, OSU, 2019) — this is actually a trilingual edition, since the 736 pages volume also includes the original Classical Chinese version.

In the fifth (and last) section of the first chapter, "Carefree Wandering", we find this passage (pp. 7-8):

Master Hui said to Master Chuang, "The King of Wei presented me with the seeds of a large gourd. I planted them and they grew to bear a fruit that could hold five bushels. I filled the gourd with liquid but its walls were not strong enough for me to pick it up. I split the gourd into ladles but their curvature was so slight they wouldn't hold anything. Although the gourd was admittedly of huge capacity, I smashed it to bits because it was useless."

"Sir," said Master Chuang, "it's you who were obtuse about utilizing its bigness. There was a man of Sung who was good at making an ointment for chapped hands. For generations, the family occupation had been to wash silk floss. A stranger who heard about the ointment offered him a hundred pieces of gold for the formula. The man of Sung gathered his clan together and said to them, 'We have been washing silk floss for generations and have earned no more than a few pieces of gold. Now we'll make a hundred pieces of gold in one morning if we sell the technique. Please let me give it to the stranger: After the stranger obtained the formula, he persuaded the King of Ngwa of its usefulness. Viet embarked on hostilities against Ngwa, so the King of Ngwa appointed the stranger to the command of his fleet. That winter, he fought a naval battle with the forces of Viet and totally defeated them [because his sailors' hands didn't get chapped]. The king set aside a portion of land and enfeoffed him there.

"The ability to prevent chapped hands was the same, but one person gained a fief with it while the other couldn't even free himself from washing floss. This is because the uses to which the ointment was put were different. Now you, sir, had a five-bushel gourd. Why didn't you think of tying it on your waist as a big buoy so that you could go floating on the lakes and rivers instead of worrying that it couldn't hold anything because of its shallow curvature? This shows, sir, that you still have brambles for brains!"

Chuang Tzu not only had such an attitude about the lowly / exalted bottle gourd, he had it about all things in the universe.  That is why I was overjoyed to find fifty abandoned specimens, large and small, that I could bring back to Penn and talk about their wondrous names and applications with our students.


Selected readings


  1. SR Lee said,

    August 30, 2023 @ 6:37 pm

    Wow, I learned so much from this. Growing up in Korea, I knew that 박 was a native Korean word, alongside the term 박속같다 ("akin to the inside of a 박") to refer to someone with very fair skin or teeth. I wonder if the 박 was a popular plant grown on the roof of thatched houses before/during the Choson dynasty, since it is often drawn in this way in folk paintings and children's books.

  2. Chris Button said,

    August 30, 2023 @ 7:01 pm

    An earlier thread that would fit nicely in the selected readings:


  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 30, 2023 @ 7:40 pm

    @ Chris Button:

    Thank you! How could I have forgotten that essential post? Have added it now.

  4. Sam said,

    August 30, 2023 @ 8:37 pm

    Fascinating stuff. I just learned myself about the use of 호로 as a gourd. Anecdotal, but I think most modern Koreans today would recognize it more from the summer time snack 탕후루. I wrote a little bit about that in a blog post a few weeks ago if anyone's curious:


    Apparently from the same Hanja origin, so I'm wondering why the vowels flipped? 오오 to 우우.

  5. Ronan Maye said,

    August 30, 2023 @ 10:17 pm

    Fifty? That's quite a find! These past years 冰糖葫蘆 has become widespread in Asian groceries now, but they're only named for the shape of hulu since they're actually made of hawthorn. When I first heard the name I was confused because I was expecting a gourd and all I saw was berries.

    I always loved that particular Zhuangzi story. It strikes me as the counterpart of his story about the warped tree that lives a long life because it's too useless to be turned into a tool. I believe the theme of this story (about the 葫蘆) is that you might find a marvelous but unexpected use in something that seems useless. The image of floating in a river with gourds is just glorious. On the other hand, the story about the tree has the theme that uselessness can protect you since nobody will bother to exploit you. I guess Zhuangzi's tree was lucky that nobody found a wildly creative use for it.

  6. M. Paul Shore said,

    August 31, 2023 @ 6:05 am

    Three questions:

    (1) For your Vermont summer (near Dartmouth College, I’m assuming, based on your recent mention of a recent visit there), did you bring along a small collection of Sinological and other reference works? Rely on the resources of the Dartmouth library and perhaps other libraries? Rely mostly on the Internet?

    (2) When the “man of Sung” refers to “a few pieces of gold”, is there any possibility that he means “per year”? Or does he definitely mean “in the whole history of our family silk floss washing business”?

    (3) Does anyone know of an ancient writing earlier than this Zhuangzi ointment story that mentions applying a monetary value to intellectual property and paying for that property in a commercial transaction? I’m wondering whether it could be the world’s first mention of that concept. If that were the case, it’d be ironic, since modern Chinese society and government have often shown such a casual disrespect for the interests of the creators and/or owners of intellectual property. (Of course an anti—intellectual-property zealot might say something like “China, having recognized the potential of intellectual property as an item of commerce two-thousand-plus years ago, has now advanced beyond that mindset”—a claim of societal advancement that I’d strenuously disagree with.)

  7. Frank Chance said,

    August 31, 2023 @ 10:35 am

    A Pony from a Gourd – 瓢箪から駒 – hyōtan kara koma
    There were so many surprising things to learn from your post on gourds that the traditional Japanese phrase “A Pony from a Gourd” immediately came to mind.
    There are at least three possible interpretations for this phrase. The first is more or less literal, coming from the story of a Chinese Daoist Immortal who had the magical power to imprison a horse in a bottle gourd, like a genie kept in a bottle. Instead of calling an Uber, if the Immortal needed transportation he could simply release the horse from the bottle and ride off on it.
    The second meaning derives from the first. Apparently, it is surprising that the Immortal could keep his hours in a gourd hanging from his waist, so the phrase comes to mean a good but unexpected result. Think for example of going to a restaurant and finding that the fare is not only much more delicious than you expected, but also very inexpensive! That’s like a pony from a gourd!
    The third meaning is a kind of twist on the other two. It refers to a joking remark that turns out to be completely accurate. This usage turns on the similarity between the pronunciation of the word for a gourd, hyōtan, and the word for a joke, jōdan 冗談.

  8. Keda Wang said,

    August 31, 2023 @ 4:36 pm

    Thank you for the gourds and the story! It's also one of my favorite parts in "Carefree Wandering." I'm not a new-coming grad student, but I am very interested in the gourds as I read the email and this post. I'm coming back to Penn next week, so I hope there's still some left there.

    On seeing the Korean word 박, I was suddenly reminded of the term 瓟 or 瓟瓜, which appears in a (probably) Early Han verse that was compiled in the Verses of Chu:

    As a native speaker of Wu Chinese, my guts intuitively tell me that 瓟 is a checked-tone (entering-tone) syllabus like /boq/; and as I look it up in Cantonese or Japanese dictionary, it indeed reads bok6 or はく (ばく). Although apparently this character has long faded away from practical daily use.

    (but in Taiwanese a gourd is still commonly called 匏, 匏仔: https://sutian.moe.edu.tw/zh-hant/su/7007/#9727)

    No idea what 瓟 initially meant in the Early Chinese language in the southern region, but the radical 瓜 and the term "瓟瓜" indicate that it is likely to belong to the gourd family or cucurbits. And the context "援瓟瓜兮接糧" seems to say that it could be used as a container of grains or crops. If we take the risk to refer to later annotations, Kwang Yun 廣韻 has it that 似瓠可爲飮器 ”it's like a 瓠 and can be used as a liquid container" (in 肴-庖) or 瓜瓝也(in 覺-雹).

    — it's noted that the 瓠 mentioned here is precisely the character that was used in most extant versions of "Carefree Wandering" in Chuang Tzu to refer to a gourd. By the way, its Early Chinese reconstruction (瓠 /*ɡʷlaː/ in Zhengzhang; Baxter-Sagart is similar) also features a ɡʷl- starting. (cf. 瓜/*kʷˤra/ 壺/*ɡʷlaː/) (see https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=45944)

    The definition in the latter entry 瓜瓝也 would lead us to look up 瓝. This character was also recorded in Early Chinese texts like 爾雅. And it's exciting to see there's a note in 太平御覽 that goes "瓝,步角切", which more reliably indicates that, at least in Medieval usage, it would sound like bok (which is intuitive since it's also in the homophonous subgroup of 雹 in Kwang Yun)

    These two characters are not reconstructed in Baxter–Sagart, neither by Zhengzhang, but if you look up their medieval homophone 雹 it is constructed as /*C.bˁruk/ (B-S) or /bɣʌk/ (Zhengzhang).

    The discussion above is not meant to imply that 박 is probably a Sino-Korean word – it's arrogant, arbitrary, and Sinocentric to think so, and I know absolutely nothing about the history of the Korean language. But I suppose the above information at least suggests that there might have been two sets of Chinese characters describing a certain type of gourd family plants in Early Chinese:

    (I) 瓜, 瓠 which is very likely related to 壺, 壺蘆, 葫蘆 in later Chinese, and 호로, later 후루, starts with a consonant cluster that sounds like kwr-, qr-, gwl-, and has no coda. "kwru"

    (II) 瓟, 瓝 which is probably related to 匏, 匏仔, 蒲仔, 匏瓜, 蒲瓜 or even 瓢葫蘆(?) in later Chinese, even 瓢箪(??) in Japanese, starts with something like bˁr, and ends with a coda -k. "brʌk"

    And whether this (II) "brʌk" was relevant to 박, and whether it would cognate or relate with other Eurasian languages is far beyond my knowledge.

    p.s. We all know that 박 (known to English-speaking world as Park) is one of the most common surnames in modern Korea; and I was curious and tried to search for its origin and found out that it's also related to a gourd legend! https://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/%EB%B0%95_(%EC%84%B1%EC%94%A8)

  9. Nhan Hong said,

    August 31, 2023 @ 4:49 pm

    We, Vietnamese, call this variety of gourd (bầu) Hồ Lô.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 31, 2023 @ 5:25 pm

    @Keda Wang

    Thanks for all of your valuable observations and information.

    There are still about ten bottle gourds left in my office. Unfortunately, they are not the best specimens, which have all been picked clean, but a few are still passable, some even especially quirky in a way that would probably have endeared them to Zhuang Zi.

    Stop by to pick one up!

  11. Taylor, Philip said,

    September 1, 2023 @ 2:24 pm

    "it is surprising that the Immortal could keep his hours in a gourd hanging from his waist" — his hours or his horse, Frank ?!

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