Watermelons, Birds, Buddhists and a Vietnamese Legend
“The Tale of Watermelon” (Tây qua truyện 西瓜傳, now referred to in Vietnamese as “Truyện Dưa Hấu”) is well known to Vietnamese today.
The story is about an official by the name of Mai An Tiêm who was purportedly employed by one of the Hùng kings. Mai An Tiêm, the story goes, was from a foreign country, and had been purchased by the Hùng king when he was a young boy. When Mai An Tiêm grew to become a man he was entrusted with various duties by the king. In due time he became wealthy and arrogant, and stated that “Everything here is because of my previous life. It is not because of the beneficence of my master.” For this lack of gratitude, the Hùng king exiled Mai An Tiêm to a remote island.
After arriving on the island, a white pheasant flew in from the west and dropped some watermelon seeds. Mai An Tiêm planted them, and then became wealthy by selling this delicious fruit to merchants. Not knowing what this novel fruit was called, Mai An Tiêm named it the “western melon” (tây qua 西瓜) since the white pheasant had arrived from the west.
As far as we know, this term for watermelon (tây qua 西瓜) was coined not by Mai An Tiêm but by some Chinese. The watermelon was a fruit which was apparently introduced to the Chinese world from areas in Central Asia, from where it gets its name as the “western melon,” and was first mentioned by a Chinese writer in the tenth century.
In the early fifteenth century, when the Ming occupied Vietnam, they recorded information about the fruits that were available there, such as lychee, longan, coconut and banana, but did not mention watermelon (see the 安南志原).
So the “western melon” was a fruit that appears to have become known in Vietnam relatively late. At the time this story created, it may not have actually existed yet in the region.
Why then would someone write a story about watermelons? Perhaps because that person was inspired by popular Buddhist writings from the coastal areas of what is today southeastern China.
There is a type of Buddhist moral stories known as “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷). These stories sometimes talked about the benevolence of bodhisattvas like Guanyin (Quan Âm in Vietnamese).
There was, for instance, a popular story about Guanyin called the Precious Scroll of the Watermelon (Xigua baojuan 西瓜寳卷), in which Guanyin, disguised as a mendicant monk, rewards a man for his kindness by giving him watermelon seeds that then make him wealthy [Chün-fang Yü, Kuan-Yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 436].
Along the southeastern coast of what is today China there was also a form of Guanyin known as the Guanyin of the Southern Seas (Nanhai Guanyin 南海觀音). In her iconography she was traditionally often represented accompanied by a white parrot that sometimes held prayer beads in its beak [Marsha Wiedner, ed., Latter Days of the Law: Images of Chinese Buddhism, 850-1850 (Lawrence: Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas; Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 163-166 and 168].
In “The Tale of Watermelon,” Mai An Tiêm states that “Everything here is because of my previous life” – a very Buddhist concept.
Perhaps the watermelons and the white pheasant were also Buddhist as well.