"Dividing up the [Chinese] Melon, guafen 瓜分": The Fate of a Transcultural Metaphor in the Formation of National Myth

  • Rudolf Wagner (Author)


This study sets out to join a discussion which tests a number of assumptions current in the study of conceptual history. These assumptions are: Conceptual history can only be studied within a given language; concepts are articulated in abstract words, and other forms such as metaphors only serve to explain, but have no standing of their own; the sources for conceptual history are core texts with great authority often written by authors of great intellectual consequence; concepts are part of an environment of other concepts, but their reality fit and their institutional connection (promotion, ban) are not part of conceptual history. The test case is the use of the Chinese term melon-division, guafen, for the partition of a state.

The study traces the early uses of guafen as a term for “partition;” its stabilization in this function; its negative valuation through association with the partition of Poland, and its systemic use in international law. It then follows the history of the new guafen notion in China since the 1830s as a concept and a historical prospect. None of the narratives of China’s guafen ever gained discursive hegemony, in part because the country’s partition did not materialize. Unwilling to let go of the powerful guafen narrative, however, the reformers, who used the term according to their changing local agendas, adjusted their story: division did not materialize even in 1900 when China’s standing was lowest and foreign troops had occupied the capital. Instead, an invisible partition into zones of influence was taking place. The reformers used new media, including the cartoon, to “translate” the Western image of a Chinese cake being divided into a literal rendering of a melon being cut up, although the image was now badly suited. The poor fit notwithstanding, guafen was also taken up by the early Communists. It eventually became the PRC master narrative of China’s relations with the Powers (Russia, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States), a narrative only occasionally and indirectly challenged by artists such as Zeng Fanzhi. The result is that none of the traditional assumptions about conceptual history can stand the test.

The study provides evidence advancing the notion that concepts in the form of words, metaphors, and images cross cultural and language borders through “translation.” The result is the formation of a transcultural and translingual vernacular for words, metaphors, and images that is largely invisible on the surface but retains strong links over time among the connected items.


Academic discipline and sub-disciplines
Transcultural Studies, Chinese Studies
Type, method or approach
transcultural conceptual history
partition, guafen, late Qing Chinese history, metaphors, concepts, international law
How to Cite
Wagner, R. (2017). "Dividing up the [Chinese] Melon, guafen 瓜分": The Fate of a Transcultural Metaphor in the Formation of National Myth. The Journal of Transcultural Studies, 8(1), 9–122. https://doi.org/10.17885/heiup.ts.2017.1.23700