One reason I can tell my India book is almost done is that I keep finding things that are interesting, but too detailed or particular to go in the book. But they can go in this blog!

I’m reading Colleen Taylor Sen’s Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, which is pretty good. At one point she writes

The Sanskrit names of several Indian foods contain the element china, indicating their Chinese origin, including peaches (chinani), pears (chinarajaputra), lettuce (chinasalit), and cinnamon (dalchini, or Chinese bark).

Sounds good, except when I checked a Sanskrit dictionary to get more scholarly transliterations. None of these words appears there. Other words are given for all but ‘lettuce’.

Time for some Googling.  I find Sen’s claim repeated in several places. But then I find an old book which has this to say:

The Sanskrit names here given for the peach and the pear seem to be known only from this narrative. Later authorities tell us that these fruits are indigenous in the country, and the whole story of the hostage is possibly invention.

What hostage?  Well, it’s too good a story not to repeat.

When Kanishka was reigning the fear of his name spread to many regions so far even as to the outlying vassals of China to the west of the Yellow River. One of these vassal states being in fear sent a hostage to the court of king Kanishka… The king treated the hostage with great kindness and consideration. …The pilgrim proceeds to relate how Peaches and Pears were unknown in this district and the part of India beyond until they were introduced by the “China hostage”.

The story is not impossible, but we should be extremely skeptical, not least because this is precisely the kind of story people love: tracing a cultural change not to some nameless trader, but to a colorful celebrity, here the son of a far ruler with an inexplicable fear of an Indian monarch. Plus we have the non-confirmation from the lexicons.

All this is a good reminder to approach sources with caution, and to wonder how many normal-sounding statements in history books are based on things as shaky as this. However, it doesn’t affect my book at all— it takes too much space to explain what turns out not to be a fact at all.

Still, there’s more to say! The “old book” I found is called On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, 629-645 A.D., by Thomas Watters, 1904.  Yuan Chwang is the “pilgrim” referred to in the cite above.

But who is he?  Turns out he’s none other than 玄奘 Xuánzàng, who some readers may remember from my China Construction Kit, and whose trip to India inspired the Míng novel Journey to the West. I’m tempted to read Watters’ book, because I’m curious to know more about Xuánzàng’s actual trip, as opposed to the mythological joyride of Journey to the West. Bookmarked for later!

It’s a great thing, by the way, that scholars have finally standardized on pinyin, because Chinese names used to be murder for scholars. Not a few historians of India didn’t get the memo, as they still refer to “Hiuen Tsang”. Other variants include Hiouen Thsang, Hsüan Chwang, Hhüen Kwân, and Shuen Shang. What a mess. Contrariwise, it’s very nice that even a century-old book like Watters uses a Sanskrit transliteration almost identical to what we use today.

Oh, what’s that about Chinese mangoes?  That’s the literal translation of chinarajaputra. (Well, rajaputra literally means ‘prince’, but it’s also a word for mango, so if you did need a word for ‘pear’, ‘Chinese mango’ makes more sense than ‘Chinese prince’.) (But the real Sanskrit word for ‘pear’ seems to be amritaphala.)