World in a Gourd

February 2, 2023 By arne hendriks Off

Pumpkins, for one reason or another, are able to ignite our imagination. Just think of Cinderella and how in this fairytale a pumpkin turns into a coach and back into a pumpkin again. Perhaps its relative largeness within the vegetable kingdom enables the telling of stories of shape- and size-shifting. Especially the giant kind, so popular within the giant vegetable growers community, expresses plentitude while allowing a physical experience of what it would be like to shrink towards a world of abundance. This is why at The Incredible Shrinking Man we frequently engage in act of ‘Pumpkin-hugging‘. Sounds and feels a bit strange, but it works. Pumpkins teach us things.

In the ancient Chinese folktale “The World in the Gourd” a giant pumpkin serves to represent an ideal world and the cradle of knowledge of nature. According to legend an official named Fei Jiang Fang witnesses how an old man, who sold herbs in the market, shrinks himself and slips into a gourd to sleep. When Fei Jiang Fang confronts him the next day, the old man invites Fang to come with him. Inside the gourd is a universe in itself with a sun, a moon, stars, a blue sky, mountains, woods and grasslands, temples and palaces. The old man calls this realm “the world in the gourd”. Fang and the ‘Gourd elder’ enter into the depths of a mountain where, after passing several tests of character, Fei Jiang Fang gains the knowledge of plants and herbs. Upon his return to ‘reality’ he becomes a taoist and pharmacist famous for his ability to cure sickness. The story resonates until this day as dried gourds are often still used as containers for drinks and herbs and are believed to embed the essential powers of remote and isolated mountains.

Some stories describe Fei Jiang Fang as a magician able to shrink himself as well as things so he could collect them in his gourd. It is believed that the taoist tradition of cultivating small trees, perhaps even the notion of the garden itself as an idealised small version of nature, are taoist attempts to memorise his legacy and be more like Fei.