Bottle gourd is the common name for the calabash. It has a multitude of uses and is considered extremely auspicious in both Chinese and Japanese cultures.
Chinese gourd symbolism
In Chinese, the gourd is called hulu (葫芦). The first character hu (葫) is the homophone of the word “to protect or guard” (hu 护) and the word for “blessing” (hu 祜). In the olden days, hulu were tied onto the back of small children, in case they fall into a stream, river or sea. The hulu is popular as a charm to ward off evil spirits and diseases.
In Chinese mythology, many Taoist immortals (such as Iron-Crutch Li) were depicted as holding a gourd. Besides using the gourd as a container for liquors, magic elixirs or medicine, the immortals also used the gourd to suck and confine evil spirits to it. Hence, the gourd is believed to have the ability to absorb negative energy in the surroundings.
Hulu, the Chinese word for gourd, has other auspicious associations as well. Its pronunciation is very similar to fulu (福禄), which means “happiness (or good fortune) and high official rank”. The trailing gourd vines are called wan dai (蔓带), which sounds like “ten thousand generations” (万代). By linking the above words together will result in the phrase “fulu wan dai”, meaning “good fortune throughout the generations”.
As the gourd contains many seeds, the Chinese also associate it with “Hundred sons, thousand grandsons” (百子千孙). The gourd, therefore, symbolizes fertility as well. (Note: To the ancient Chinese, having generations of descendants to carry on the family line is an important aspect of filial piety.)
The number “8” is the most favourite number of the Chinese. The Cantonese pronunciation for this number is fatt (发), which implies “to prosper”. Since the shape of the gourd resembles “8”, the gourd is regarded as an auspicious object.
Additionally, the shape of the gourd is likened to Heaven and Earth united; the top part of gourd being Heaven and the bottom Earth. This represents completeness and harmony.
In ancient days, travellers stored water or potions in bottle gourds. As water is essential to life and without it the travellers cannot survive the long journeys, the gourd earned the name of “Giver of Life” for its role in the storage of water.
Old men in those days were also frequently seen carrying gourds on their backs. Gradually, the gourd became associated with good health and longevity.
There is a Chinese idiom “xuan hu ji shi” (悬壶济世), meaning “practise medicine to relieve the pain and sufferings of others”. Literally translated, it will be “carry pot to aid the world”. The pot “hu” (壶) is the ancient Chinese reference to the bottle gourd.
The phrase “xuan hu ji shi” often appears in the congratulatory message or plaque for the opening of a new clinic, especially Chinese physician clinic. Hence, the bottle gourd hulu becomes closely related to Chinese medicine and is a popular logo of Chinese pharmaceutical companies and traditional Chinese medical halls.
[Note: The above idiom arises from the story of Fei Chang Fang (费长房).]
Japanese gourd lore
Known as hyotan (瓢箪) in Japan, the earliest records of gourd can be found in Nihongi, the Chronicles of Japan (completed around 720 C.E.).
The hyotan was described as having power to confound the mizuchi (poisonous water serpent) of Kahashima River. It was also portrayed as a magical object that can be used to capture the giant catfish (believed to be the cause of earthquake).
Such depictions appeared in many old prints and paintings, as well as in folk festival rituals and religious rites and rituals. One antique painting, the “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd”, is the greatest masterpiece of Josetsu, a Zen priest.
In the 16th century, Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Japan’s second “great unifer”) adopted a water gourd as the symbol for his banner. A big gourd was tied upside down to the top of the flag-pole, and additional small gourds added to it after every victory. It is called "Sen nari hisago ", meaning “the thousand gourds”. Hideyoshi came to be known as “The Lord of the Golden Water Gourds”. Since then, the gourd became a famous symbol of victory.
Besides serving as flasks for water, sake and medicine, the gourds were especially used as seed containers. The seeds stored in the gourds were said to have always bloomed successfully, signifying happiness and success.
The Japanese believe that a set of three gourds is auspicious, and a set of six gourds brings you good health and safety.
Small bottle gourds are commonly used as protective amulets for children and the elderly.
Gourd in feng shui
Being so rich in symbolism, the hulu gourd is considered a powerful feng shui enhancer and cure for problems relating to health, longevity, fertility, prosperity, and so forth.
“How to use hulu gourd in feng shui” provides details on the various feng shui applications of the gourd.
© 2012 pinkytoky
Ms. April on July 26, 2012:
your page is awesome!