The strange history of the sweet potato

"Taiwan is in the shape of a sweet potato. So we call ourselves ‘Son of sweet potatoes’ (<em>Hanji ah gyen4</em>, in Taiwanese)"
By Trista di Genova

The following is my interview with my Taiwanese friend, the famous guy, WuBai, about a mysterious vegetable that is central to Taiwanese identity and consciousness (台灣意識 Taiwan yishi), as well as a staple in their diet since time immemorial – the sweet potato.

WuBai: We have many sayings about [this vegetable] because the island of Taiwan is in the shape of a sweet potato. So we call ourselves ‘Son of sweet potatoes’ (Hanji ah gyen4, in Taiwanese)

Trista: How many types of sweet potatoes are there?

WuBai: How many? What do you mean how many?

Trista: You know, some are yellow, or white…

WuBai: Right right. Some are red. The most common sweet potato is yellow sweet potato.

Trista: Did you know there’s a difference between yams and sweet potatoes?

WuBai: I know … what is the difference?

Trista: I forget. Google it.

A sweet potato by any other name tastes just as sweet; and is just as nutritious.
WuBai: (googling it): Yam doesn’t taste sweet, a bit bitter, and white. Sweet potato is usually yellow and red. The yam is native to Africa and Asia (monocot family Dioscoreaceae); the sweet potato is a different species (genus Ipomoea), originating from North America.

Trista: I’ve heard Taiwan people have many expressions about sweet potatoes. Tell me all the ones you can think of.

WuBai: Expressions? You mean saying?

Trista: Yes.

WuBai: (Taiwanese) Hanji gew lang3 buh lin jing 3 / Fantzu jiu ren mei ren qing 番薯救人無人情
Translation: Sweet potatoes rescue people without favor.
Meaning: Sweet potatoes help a lot of people to survive, but after they get rich they forget about it, forget that cheap shit. It helped a lot of people in that era. Kind of like burning bridges. The meaning is not about the potato, but how people think of the potato. It can help you a lot but we ignore them.

Trista: Okay, give me another one.

WuBai: Hanji m gyah leh toh nwah, jig yew khio-khio dai-dai tuan 3 (in Taiwanese)
In Mandarin: 番薯無驚入土爛 只求枝葉代代傳Fantzu bu pa lu tu lan 4, zhe chiou yeh-yeh dai-dai chuan 3
Translation: Sweet potato is not afraid of rotting in the mud, it only asks that its leaves go on into the next generation.
Meaning: If you put a sweet potato in the mud will be rotten, right? But a sweet potato is not afraid of it. Although it’s rotten, its leaf will grow up and still have another sweet potato; the leaf is used to propagate it.
When I was like 10, I heard this saying about someone going against the Kuomintang. They were saying, ‘I’m not afraid, I don’t care if I die or not, but just want the spirit of the movement to be continued.’

WuBai: Those people who came to the island in 1945 we call ‘taro’; as in, “We’re sweet potato, you’re taro.”

Taro, another tuber found in many Southeast Asian cultures, and an important staple.
Trista: But taro has been here a long time in Taiwan, too.

WuBai: I don’t actually know the reason, it’s just a comparison. They are similar but different. My feeling was because usually those people from China, the soldiers, usually their head looks just like a taro. But that’s my feeling.

Trista: Okay, give me another one.

WuBai: Bei jia hanji lo bi kieuo deh wu (in Taiwanese) / Mandarin Chinese: 欲吃番薯, 路邊撿就有 Xiang chi fanshu, lu bian jian jiu you.
Translation: When you want to eat sweet potato, you can find it on the side of the road, and there’s no value to it.
Meaning: The sweet potato is easy to get; it’s everywhere. You can find it by the roadside.
Usage: For stuff that’s everywhere, very common. I have a friend who’s very smart, but many people are. It’s like the expression, “A dime a dozen.”

Trista: How do you translate ‘fanshu’?

WuBai: Fanshu – stupid foreigner; a ‘foreign potato’. Everybody except the Chinese are fan; foreign, it’s a racist word that means ‘barbarian’. This word looks down on foreigners, racist. Like ‘nigger potato’; it’s a word the Chinese used against everybody else. In Taiwan we only have hanji; Chinese they say di-gua, ‘ground melon’. The Taiwanese word for sweet potato is hanji; it translates to “foreign potato.” Taiwanese speaks the ancient Chinese, from thousands of years ago.

Trista: Why ‘foreign potato’?

WuBai: Because it’s not originally from China, maybe Arabic or Holland. I think maybe this fruit is not local. I don’t know why we call it Hanji. But the meaning of character is ‘foreign’ stuff. Like we call the Dutch hong fan, ‘red foreigner’ — because their hair is red.

Trista: Who uses the word ‘fanshu’?

WuBai: The Chinese, they use both fanshu and digua . Hanji is the Taiwanese word, Chinese don’t use it. We only use it for the sweet potato. Fan in Taiwanese is han, huan , actually; we also use ‘fanshu’ sometimes. Taiwanese and Chinese both call it ‘fanshu’ because we learn Mandarin Chinese in school.

Trista: So when Chinese or Taiwanese say fanshu, they’re saying something like ‘nigger potato’?

WuBai: Yes, potato, not melon (like in ‘digua’). I think it is a yam.

Trista: I’m so confused. When do the Chinese people use fanshu, and when do they use di-gua?

WuBai: They have several names for it in Chinese.

Trista: They have more names than that?!

WuBai:(googling again): Yeah, just found out, gan shu, and hongshu (紅薯). That means the same thing.

Trista: They use it interchangeably, fanshu and digua?

WuBai: Yes, because China’s a big country, so every province has a different dialect for what to call a sweet potato.

Trista: Taiwanese people are so goddamned confusing… and confused.

WuBai: School doesn’t teach us this; I learned from my life experience.

Trista: So does anybody in Taiwan actually distinguish between the types of sweet potatoes and yams, farmers even?

WuBai: No. Only the researchers, probably.

Trista: So when did the sweet potato come to Taiwan? Who brought it here?

WuBai: It came from China, through Fujian. I think they brought it 400 years ago. People brought some vegetable seeds here. There must be some proof of this somewhere. But I’d have to go to the library. Japanese call them gansu, too, same as Chinese. In the Japanese language, words originally came from China 2000 years ago. So they call it gansu, that means 2000 years ago Chinese call them gansu already.

Trista: If hanji means ‘foreign potato’, basically Taiwanese people are calling themselves ‘foreign yams’!

WuBai: Yep.

Trista: That’s kind of messed up logic, especially when applied to a movement for an indigenous, separate identity from the Mainland.

WuBai: Yes, it started about 20 years ago. It’s like ‘Amerigo’ –> America –> americano!

Trista: Right. So I think we’ve solved the mystery of the sweet potato.

WuBai: Yeah, the mystery vegetable.

3 thoughts on “The strange history of the sweet potato

  • September 17, 2018 at 5:31 am
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    2000 years ago there most likely wasn’t a word for sweet potato in China because sweet potato is a New World Crop and wasn’t known in China till like earliest around 600 years ago.

    Reply
  • November 19, 2014 at 5:09 am
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    Nice! I’ve been wondering if the 番薯 is a sweet potato imported during the 17th century by the Dutch (who would have sweet potatoes from the Americas at that time), or if it is an indigenous yam, or what it is. Your conversation with Wubai may not have given a definitive answer, but it was informative nevertheless.

    Reply
  • May 21, 2014 at 12:17 am
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    The sweet potato would have been grown by the aboriginals in Taiwan. That is probably why they called it Fan Shu in Taiwan.

    Reply

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