Cucurbits and junk characters

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Christopher Rea came to Penn a few weeks ago and delivered this lecture:

"From Zhuangzi’s Gourd to Cinderella’s Pumpkin:  Gua 瓜 as a Vehicle for the Imagination"

(2/22/24)

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 calabash. Gua —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 MeiJourney 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 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.

Here are some photographs of the cucurbitaceous corners of my office, with Chris holding a bottle gourd from my collection that he took to Harvard for a lecture the next day and then brought back to settle in his office at UBC in Vancouver.

During his talk at Penn, Chris showed this gourd-related sinoglyph that nobody among the thirty or so people in the room — most of them advanced students and teachers who were native speakers of Chinese — knew the sound or meaning of, though I could roughly surmise both its sound and meaning, viz., ráng / niáng; "flesh / pulp" (maybe with a touch of "rind"), but neither of which I was certain of, and guessing at what I thought might be its phonophore, though I was by no means sure of its exact sound, then speculating what I suspected might be its primary semantophore ("gourd") and secondary (superfluous) semantophore ("clothing; coat"), and smooshing them all together:

This is a freak character.  It has no practical purpose.  It may occur in an ultra-large dictionary like Kangxi (1716), which has 47,043 characters, but nobody knows for sure what it means or how it is pronounced.  It is an excrescence on the sinoglyphic writing system.  This is true of over half of all the extant hundred thousand plus sinoglyphs collected by the most obsessive hanziphiles.  Consequently, in emulation of junk DNA,  I call them "junk sinoglyphs".

One of the characteristics of cucurbits is that they have enormous numbers of seeds.  So, next time you're mindlessly nibbling on watermelon seeds or pumpkin seeds, think of how many Chinese characters there are.  Their number is limitless, and people keep creating new ones in a game of endless oneupmanship.

The economist, Rick Harbaugh, wrote a paper for my first international conference on Characters and Computers (1991 [see the book by that name edited by me]).  It was a demonstration of the status enhancement value of the proliferation of Chinese characters.  I was very enthusiastic about his paper and really wanted to include it in the book, but he wasn't ready to go with it at that time.  In later years, I repeatedly tried to get him to publish it in Sino-Platonic Papers or elsewhere, but he wouldn't submit it anywhere.  I think that hanziphiles (including perhaps he himself!) would take it as a swipe at the sinoglyphic writing system, and he didn't want to be a party to that!

Selected readings



8 Comments »

  1. Rangrang said,

    March 30, 2024 @ 3:31 pm

    Seems to be a fancy version of 瓤

  2. Frank L Chance said,

    March 30, 2024 @ 3:58 pm

    See also the Japanese expression "Hyōtan kara koma" 瓢箪から駒 "a pony from a gourd" meaning a silver lining to a surprising cloud, a good result from what might have been disaster. Just another gourdy expression.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 31, 2024 @ 6:56 am

    When I show the character pictured above in the middle of this post to learned Chinese, they make the strangest sounds.

    When I show the character pictured above in the middle of this post to unlearned Chinese, they don't make any sounds.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    March 31, 2024 @ 8:59 am

    Junk DNA (non-functional DNA)

    =====

    Junk DNA (non-functional DNA) is a DNA sequence that has no relevant biological function. Most organisms have some junk DNA in their genomes—mostly pseudogenes and fragments of transposons and viruses—but it is possible that some organisms have substantial amounts of junk DNA.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junk_DNA

    =====

    Two eminent specialists on junk DNA:

    1. Tomoko Ohta (Tomoko Harada) — National Institute of Genetics; North Carolina State University

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomoko_Ohta

    2. Yukiko Yamashita — MIT

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yukiko_Yamashita

    "Whitehead Institute Member Yukiko Yamashita Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences"

    Written by Merrill Meadow, Whitehead Institute (4/24/23)

    Francis Harry Crampton Crick, the eminent molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist who was the co-decipherer of the helical structure of the DNA molecule, along with others promoted the idea that transposons were examples of selfish DNA and were responsible for the proliferation of junk DNA.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Crick

    N.B.: About half of the DNA of higher organisms is trivial or permanently inert (on an evolutionary timescale). (source)

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    March 31, 2024 @ 9:23 am

    "Junk DNA (non-functional DNA) is a DNA sequence that has no relevant biological function" — with enormous respect to the two eminent specialists in this field, and speaking as one who has only the average layman’s understanding of how DNA, RNA, chromosomes, etc., work, I nonetheless wonder whether one might reasonably re-phrase the quotation with which I introduced this comment by "Junk DNA (non-functional DNA) is a DNA sequence that has no relevant biological function to the best of our current belief.".

  6. wanda said,

    March 31, 2024 @ 4:59 pm

    "Junk DNA (non-functional DNA) is a DNA sequence that has no relevant biological function to the best of our current belief." We positively know that big chunks of that DNA has no current function because we know where it came from and that it currently does not do what it originally was supposed to do. It's very hard for our cells to distinguish functional and nonfunctional DNA and the costs of carrying extra DNA that doesn't do anything is pretty low, so junk accumulates.
    1. There are viruses who work by inserting their DNA into our genome. There are very large chunks of our genome that derive from viruses doing this and that still resemble viral DNA but that are mutated and can't actually make virus. From the number of mutations we can actually figure out when these viruses were active.
    2. There are sections of self-replicating DNA called transposons. They encode a protein that copies its own DNA and inserts it elsewhere in the genome. As you can imagine, it doesn't take a lot of this is get out of hand. Like 50% of our genome is some flavor of transposon.
    3. There are things called pseudogenes. These were functional in our ancestors but are mutated so that nothing is made from them any more. Usually these are genes that aren't bad, we just don't need them so none of our ancestors died when they were mutated. For example, the enzyme L-gulono-γ-lactone oxidase (GLO) makes vitamin C. In primates, this is a pseudogene that is broken. It got mutated 40 million years ago, but primates didn't notice because they ate so much fruit. Nobody noticed this until certain primates started going on long sea voyages without access to fresh food and getting scurvy. The remnants of the gene are just sitting there in our genome not doing anything.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 4:56 am

    « "Junk DNA (non-functional DNA) is a DNA sequence that has no relevant biological function to the best of our current belief." We positively know that big chunks of that DNA has no current function because we know where it came from and that it currently does not do what it originally was supposed to do ».

    Fair enough. But is it possible that it now does something (something beneficial / malign / neutral) that it was not originally supposed to do ? Would we not need to create genetically engineered humans lacking some or all of this "junk DNA" and then allow them to procreate for many generations before we could be certain that it really is junk ?

  8. David Marjanović said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 10:25 am

    We positively know that big chunks of that DNA has no current function because we know where it came from and that it currently does not do what it originally was supposed to do.

    Oh, better yet: the experiment has been done. Large amounts of junk DNA have been cut out of the genomes of lab mice, and the resulting mice seem altogether normal.

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