Friday, March 20, 2009

Tea in Tibet

The following is just a short note on tea in 17th century Tibet and the use of different tea brands as salaries given by the central Tibetan government to officials and employees, such as local and foreign craftsmen.
When reading original Tibetan sources of the 17th century it becomes obvious that quite a number of different tea brands were circulating in Tibet. The following brands are collected from the writings of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) and the regent Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho (1653-1705):

nag po
nag gsar
tA tshang / tA tsha
se hrug
khyim 'jug
ya ju / yA ju / yag ju / yags ju = the quality of yA ju was superior to 'u zi.
spu ja / spus ja
sha shan
'u zi = was regarded as tea of normal quality: dkyus ja 'u zi
zi ling spu ja = quality tea from Ziling
sa'an tsha / san tshA
ya ju za'u 'dres pa = Yaju mixed with Za'u
hu ja / hu ja nag po
zi ling nag ja = black tea from Ziling
rgya ja nag po = Chinese black tea
shir ja / shi ra ja /
stod ja
'jang ja / 'jangs ja = green tea???
ping cing spu ja / pi cing spu ja = quality tea from Beijing
gnam ja
ja ldur
se ljang
sog ja = tea from Mongolia
sha phing / sha bing
shan ja = sha shan
seng ja

Except nag po and nag gsar (= nag po gsar pa) these names seem to be Chinese names and consequently we find many different spellings in Tibetan texts.

Some of these brands had a higher value than others and the price of the different tea brands was fixed according the Lhasa market price (khrom thang).

While searching Tibetan eTexts of the 16th and 18th century it turned out that the above-mentioned brands do not occur in those texts. But it should be kept in mind that the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) and in particular the regent Sangs-rgyas-rgya-mtsho (1653-1705) were very precise in registering the different tea brands. Such matters were perhaps of no interest to other writers of earlier or later periods. May it be as it is, we think, that the list above can be used in dating documents from that period when other hints are missing. Such is the case with the She-bam-chen-mo, a collection of Tibetan legal material, from the second part of the 17th century.

The tea brand yA ju is recorded in the biography of PaN chen Dpal ldan ye shes (1738-1780), in the modern western book-style edition on p. 155 and elsewhere. Other tea brands in this biography are:

ljon ja (?)
rtse ja
gzhung ja 

In the Biography of Shakya mchog ldan we find two other tea brands (fol. 54b, 2-3):

ri shing
rkyang zi

rkyang zi seems to be "pure Zi ling tea"

(This reference was kindly provided by Volker Caumanns.)

More will follow in due course.


  1. Hi C. Busy at work? On Saturday, too? I wonder, did you ever read Berthold Laufer's The Story of the Pinna and the Syrian Lamb, Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 28 no 108 (April 1915), pp. 103-128? I hadn't read it until today. But sea silk (there's a wiki entry on it) is fascinating stuff, a fiber made by shellfish to anchor themselves in place, and a product of the Mediterranean that may have reached China in Han dynasty already. Wonder if it has anything to do with Tibetan chu-lug 'water sheep' J. Bellezza writes about? Thought you'd like to hear about this weird fabric. I wouldn't wear it, even if it is finer than silk.

  2. PS. Do you know what 'aquaeous silk' (chu-dar) is? The Yisun Chang dictionary says it is cloth made from chu-bal, 'aquaeous wool.,' and the latter it defines as a greenish root that forms in the water (and still elsewhere it says it's a synonym of 'turtle snot,' sbal-snabs, which I was thinking ought to be algae?). A schmoogle search for "chu-dar" came up with quite a few usages in Tibetan literature. Do you think it's possible that this is the same mollusk-derived material Laufer talked about?

  3. OOhh. Wait. This other article has a much more succinct discussion of sea silk, if you can get to it in JSTOR:

    Material for a History of Islamic Textiles up to the Mongol Conquest
    by R. B. Serjeant
    Ars Islamica, vol. 15 (1951), pp. 29-85.

    I imagine a lot of this 'material' will be interesting for Tibetanists who are puzzled about those medieval luxury textiles.

    What do we know about the use of ray skin on Tibetan knife & sword grips? There is an example HERE. (Not to change the subject, since it's about Tibetans having access to unusual aquatic artefacts.)

  4. Hi rT. Thanks for pointing this out to me. I found a few references of chu-dar, but it is not always clear, whether it is this kind of silk or something else. In one of the Zhal lce text we find me-dar and chu-dar. Other references are quite clear when chu-dar is combined with gos-sngon-po or so. See for example the reference in the Mkhas-pa'i dga'-ston.

    Thank you also for pointing out this article on the History of Islamic Textiles up to the Mongol Conquest. I'll try to get a copy.

    Slipperiness on knife and sword grips is a great disadvantage. See the Wikipedia site

  5. Water silk makes sense. The genuine original mollusk fiber cloth has a kind of dullish golden-brown sheen. I'm not sure it likes being dyed, although I suppose it's possible. Laufer doesn't say anything about changing its colors. He does have interesting things to say about weaving with bird feathers to make a kind of feather fabric, something popular for a brief spell in Chinese history.

    But fire silk? What kind of weavable fibers do you find in fire?

    Will contemplate it further.


  6. I've spent the better part of my life ignorant of shagreen, much to my chagrin.

    Sorry. Couldn't help it.

  7. Dear C-

    The Tibetan word for shagreen is supposed to be sag-ri, which would then be a borrowing of ultimately Turkish ("sagri"!) origin just like the European word. Jäschke's dictionary, as well as B. Laufer's article Loan-words (p. 478), as well as a medical dictionary, all identify Tibetan sag-ri as shagreen.

    Do you know of any actual usages of this word in Tibetan literature?


  8. Hi, rT. let me check my files for any actual usages of sag-ri. Will do it later the day. We exclude the occurrences in dictionaries and wordlists.


  9. One more thing: the site
    mentions how sea silk was dyed.
    "The sea-purple dye (indigo dibromid) is produced by specialised glands of the murex, an other mollusc with a twisted, fluted, spiked, hard shell." And "The dye gave hues ranging from light blue to bright pink, from dark crimson to blackish purple."

    DLV and mkhas-dga' mention "chu dar sngon po" on which text was written with inks made of silver or gold. Hopefully a sample will pop up once in a museum or private collection.


  10. Hi. rT. To lighten your chagrin, yes, the word sag-ri is actually used in Tibetan texts from the time of the DLV to Doringbandit. Mainly it occurs in connection with gifts given to the government or in the description of special items. such as "sag ri'i sgrog bzung" (which leaves me now lost with the meaning of "sgrog bzung" = handle? base part of an item? whatever ...)
    In Desi's gser-snye [DLVI], p. 770: sbo har bubs / sag ri bubs / mgo dkar snam bu'i cha pa / mdzod gos / sman rtse / byang dar rnams yug / ...

    Again, what is the difference between "yug" and "bubs"?

    bubs seems to be a larger sheet. Yug, of course, bundle.

    Well, some more puzzles adding to the chagrin of our increasing ignorance in nearly all fields.

    Best for now.


  11. I guess shubs is the usual for 'sheath' (mda' shubs also, which means 'arrow sheath' or quiver).

    Bubs, I think, has to be the same as sbubs, which does mean just about any kind of hollow that a creature might curl up inside of, or that some natural element could fill up, but in Dzogchen studies, it is often translated as 'sheath' even though they're talking about something that shrouds the natural illumination. Here's some references to that usage of SBUBS:

    Tulku Thondup, Buddha Mind, pp. 65, 79. sheath. Germano in J. of the In'tl Assoc. of Buddhist Studies, vol. 17 no. 2 (1994) 278. Jean-Luc Achard, L'Essence perlée du secret — Recherches philologiques et historiques sur l'origine de la Grande Perfection dans la tradition rNying ma pa, Brepols (Turnhout 1999), pp. 160-1.

    You know that Btsan-lha's dictionary is one of my favorites, and he defines it as bug-pa or bu-ga, which means 'recesses, holes,' but also he finds it to mean 'robes' in Old Tibetan Dunhuang documents. All consistent with the meaning of sheath.

    I've noticed yu thung, meaning a short handle.

    I have puzzled over the word mchang-zung in the past, which is spelled lots of ways, including chang-zung, 'chang-bzung, 'chang-gzung. It surely means 'handle,' but now I think more accurately it is limited to the 'grip' of the handle.

    I think sgrog bzung means the thing the button or hook fastens into in a piece of clothing. The sgrog-gu (refer to the late T.J.Norbu's article in "Tibetan History & Language" the Uray Festschrift, p. 384) is a small thing you use to fasten things with (a large sgrog might be a tethering rope for a horse etc.), and this works for buttonholes or loops of string for clothing-fastening hooks to hook into, as they do in much of traditional Asian clothing...

    I think it's amazing you could come up with actually usages of the word for shagreen. You should write up a blog on that fascinating stuff. I've seen bits of it on Tibetan eating knifes, but I'm not absolutely sure if it was the stringray leather or something else that looks equally creepy and kind of sticks to your skin, which like you say is the real point of using it.

    I was trying to think of other Turkish words that entered into Tibetan. I think chuba (chu-ba, phyu-ba) might really be one of them, although I hesitate, wondering what my Tibetan friends would have to say about this suggestion. Certainly the Thug banners on tops of Gönkhangs is a Turkic borrowing, both the thing and the word for it.

  12. Hi. rT. Thanks for the long comment. But the word is "bubs" and the context is in many cases a roll or bundle of leather or cloth. I checked this morning with Tsering Lama and he said, that "bubs" can mean one hide rolled up, or several hides rolled up in a bundle. According to him, "bubs" is more in quantity than "yug", but the exact connotation and difference between "bubs" and "yug" has still to be established. "sag ri'i bubs gcig" could mean one rolled up hide. The word sag-ri, by the way, occurs also in the section of the Kanjur production in the Desi's writings. Please, check out for sag-ri parts in a deluxe Kanjur, if you come accross a set in a monastery, library or museum.

  13. Dear C,

    I see you're right. I was bound to get my sheaths and bolts mixed up. But I just looked at the entry for 'bolt' in the Dharamsala dictionary (Dbyin bod tshig mdzod gsar ma), published in 2000, and you find there, as the 5th meaning, "yug gcig / bubs gcig /"

    I remember encountering yug, as a cloth measurement, quite a bit, but not so with the bubs.

    Are you speaking about the extremely fine silky and slightly gauze-like yellow material used to cover the dbu-lha of very fancy dpe-cha? Alright, I'll watch out for it. But is there a good reason to?


  14. Dear sku zhabs lags, right, yug can be a cloth measurement. Usually it has the shape of a square .