tea and pot in ancient China

Tang-era pot showing Islamic influences; possibly used for tea

About a thousand years ago in present-day Afghanistan, the Islamic scholar al-Bīrūnī described tea and pot in his Book of Pharmacy.  Some of al-Bīrūnī’s notes on tea:

  • tea (chai) is a Chinese word for a herb drunk with hot water
  • tea grows at high altitudes in China and Nepal
  • the Chinese desiccate tea leaves and store them in a cube-shaped container; they also make tea tablets
  • white tea is the most excellent variety of tea, but also difficult to find; varieties of tea, from the rarest to the most commonly available, are white, green, violet, grey, and black teas
  • tea is important medicine: tea purges bile through the gastrointestinal system (a cholagogue), negates effects of liquor, purifies the blood, and abates fevers [1]

Al-Bīrūnī also preserved a traveler’s description of the economy of tea and pot in China:

the king of China resides in the city of Yanjū.  A big river like the Tigris traverses through this city.  Both sides of the river are studded with wine sellers’ tenements, kilns, and shops.  People flock there to drink tea, and do not take Indian cannabis clandestinely.  The king of the place receives the capitation tax, and the public cannot transact the sale of tea, since both tea and wine are the possession of the king.  He who transacts business in salt and tea without the king being aware of it is awarded the punishment due to a thief.  And the people there slay the thief and eat his flesh.  Profits from such places go to the coffers of the king and such profits equal those accruing from gold and silver mines. [2]

This text probably describes the major Chinese city Yangzhou, which is on the banks of the Yangtze River.[3]  Arab and Persian merchants were living in Yangzhou in the eighth century.  That the Chinese king earned high revenue by controlling trade in tea, wine, and salt is probable. That’s particularly probable for tea because it was a popular, attractive product: people flocked to Yangzhou to drink tea.

What about the observation that people “do not take Indian cannabis clandestinely”?  A variety of cannabis (pot), called Cannabis indica, is native to India.  Cannabis has been consumed in India for thousands of years. Cannabis use in India, however, seems to have been associated with sacred festivals.  Al-Bīrūnī’s description suggests that, unlike in India, pot in China was consumed popularly like tea.

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[1] Based on trans. Ahmad & Said (1973) pp. 105-6.

[2] Id. p. 105.  The Chinese drank a wine made from rice.  An Arab travel account from about 850 preserves a similar description:

The {Chinese} Emperor also reserves to himself the revenues which arise from the salt mines, and from a certain herb which they drink with hot water, and of which great quantities are sold in all the cities, to the amount of great sums.  They call it Sah (Chah / Chai), and it is a shrub more bushy than the pomegranate-tree, but it has a kind of bitterness with it.  Their way is to boil water, which they pour upon this leaf, and this drink cures all sort of diseases.  Whatever sums are lodged in the Treasury arise from the poll tax, and the duties upon salt and upon this leaf.

Trans. Renaudot (1733) p. 25 (capitalization modernized).  In the mid-eighth century, the Chinese writer Lu Yu wrote a monograph on tea, The Classic of Tea.  That work also suggests that tea was highly popular in China.

[3] Another possible location is Guangzhou, which is on the banks of the Pearl River.  Arab and Persian merchants also resided in Guangzhou in the eighth century.  However, the reference to Yanjū seems phonetically closer to Yangzhou.


Aḥmad, Muḥammad ibn and Hakim Mohammed Said. 1973. al-Biruni’s book on pharmacy and materia medica. Karachi: Hamdard National Foundation.

Renaudot, Eusebius, trans. 1733. Abū Zayd Hasan ibn Yazīd Sīrāfī. Silsilat al-tawārīkh.  Translated from Arabic as: Ancient accounts of India and China, by two Mohammedan travellers, who went to those parts in the 9th century.  London, Printed for S. Harding.

COB-73: fluorescent enlightenment

Dan Flavin, untitled (to Helga and Carlo, with respect and attention); exemplar of fluorescent enlightenment
The twentieth century was the Age of Fluorescent Enlightenment.  Society progressed beyond the Dark Age of candles with idiosyncratic patterns of melting wax.  The decisive embrace of enlightenment came with fluorescent lights.

Leading twentieth-century bureaucratic artist Dan Flavin made his artistic reputation working with commercially available fluorescent light fixtures.  Drawing upon funds from the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, the Hirshhorn Museum in 2010 purchased Flavin’s masterpiece, untitled.  Flavin meant this work to be “suggesting the possibility of infinite repetition.”  The best bureaucracies realize that ideal in the face of insistent failure.  They have the persistence of the insistent hum of fluorescent lights.

What makes untitled exceptionally memorable is that, rotated imaginatively ninety degrees, it figures a career ladder.  That figurative career ladder is set against a background color evoking Yves Klein’s career-making International Klein Blue.  Bureaucrats both engage in infinite repetition and imagine themselves climbing ever higher on a regular career ladder.  To appreciate the essential bureaucracy of this paradox, one must interrogate bureaucratic time and praxis, as have important twentieth-century bureaucratic artists Hanne Darboven and Ali Kazma.

Out of 108 Flavin sculptures held in art collections, 65 are titled untitled.  That’s a poignant tribute to bureaucratic regularity.  Another 19 of Flavin’s sculptures are entitled Monument for V. Tatlin, or slight variations thereof.  V. Tatlin of course is the towering Russian architect and artist Vladimir Tatlin, creator of Tatlin’s tower.  Tatlin has had tremendous influence on twentieth-century bureaucratic artists.  Flavin takes Tatlin’s ideals to a level of bureaucratic realism that Tatlin would have appreciated, had he lived long enough to experience the Brezhnev era.  All bureaucrats around the world today, who sit day in and day out bathed in fluorescent light, appreciate the progress to the Age of Fluorescent Enlightenment that Dan Flavin has so repeatedly represented.

In other bureaucratic issues this month, Tremble the Devil observes that Barnes & Noble’s entire fiction order is controlled by one nameless, faceless bureaucrat.  That makes business sense.  Bureaucrats understand fiction better than non-fiction.

PandoDaily covers an interview with SecondLife founder Philip Rosedale.  SecondLife is a virtual world in which participants can create any kind of life for themselves.  PandoDaily reports:

Rosedale said one of the biggest surprises he had building SecondLife was how when given total creative license, most of the houses just looked like ones in Malibu. Most people just covet the things they know, he says.

In other words, most people cherish bureaucratic ideals.

The scholarly journal PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review recently dedicated an issue to bureaucracy.  The introductory article, entitled “Bureaucracy: Ethnography of the State in Everyday Life” forthrightly acknowledges oversights and failures of anthropologists:

anthropologists have been slow to treat state bureaucracy as a site for ethnography, and bureaucrats as participants in a complex social arena. … The work of administration takes place in the fluorescent-lit rooms of drab office buildings where thousands of bureaucrats type streams of information into outdated computers or file handwritten notes in inaccessible archives. From all appearances, this is not an arena of political action at all.

This description gets the details right (fluorescent-lit rooms, etc.), but misses the fundamental cultural point.  Bureaucrats are not petty, axe-grinding politicians like academics.  Bureaucrats focus on doing their jobs.  Bureaucracy, however, is an excellent site for ethnography.  A leading institution of bureaucrat anthropology has been engaged in participant-observer field reporting on bureaucracy since 2006.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here.  Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.

al-Bīrūnī's Book of Pharmacy: two perspectives

The prolific scholar and polymath al-Bīrūnī dictated his Book of Pharmacy (Kitab al-Saydanah) about 1045 in present-day Afghanistan.  A copy of that manuscript made in 1076 begins with an encomium:

The Kitab al-Saydanah has been indited by a great philosopher, a scholar of immense magnitude, a master of erudition, a master of wisdom, an example for his followers and the contemporaries, an axis round which profound axioms and observations revolve, the circumscriber of the apparent and the hidden, a past master of knowledge derived from observations, a possessor of high station among men, a mathematician besides whose work that of his predecessors — either before or after Islam — pales into insignificance, a personality that is both unique and singular, and worthy of reverence and exaltation, Sayyedonā-wa-Mawlānā, a great teacher, Abū al-Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī, may God vouchsafe on him eternal repose, and shower blessings on his grave!  May God be pleased with him and accord him a place among the exalted and blest! [1]

This manuscript was copied in 1154.  Some additional text was then appended:

From the commencement of this book down to the nineteenth part, the authorship seems to have been that of a man who displays madness, lack of sapience, (an array of) unauthorized opinions, an unbalanced mind, insanity, foul temperament, disturbance, and superstition, and whose pseudonym is Dew Dast.  I have done my best to introduce whatever corrections and emendations I could, but, despite the best of efforts, could not achieve it to my satisfaction, since the copying was extremely bad and it was riddled with mistakes.  I have lavished a great deal of time on this work.  Whatever errors I could detect, I have corrected and, wherever I came across an egregious shortcoming or defect, I made it good.

I have stated this so that the readers may know whose fault it is, so that they may not attribute it to the author or someone else.  God alone knows best. [2]

Current scholarly evaluations decisively rate al-Bīrūnī as brilliant, rather than insane. The contrasting perspectives, however, are more interesting than one being correct, and the other, wrong.

The opening encomium is in the style of scholarly praise in the early Islamic world.  Such praise isn’t just the piling up of extravagant epithets.  Describing al-Bīrūnī as a “great philosopher” links him to Greek knowledge.  Al-Bīrūnī quotes extensively in his work the Greek authorities Dioscorides, Galen, Oribasius, and Paulus Aegineta. Master of erudition and wisdom suggests detailed study of the texts produced through centuries of Islamic scholarship.  Al-Bīrūnī frequently references Islamic scholars who have preceded him.  The epithet “past master of knowledge derived from observations” seems to acknowledge, with its adjective “past,” that al-Bīrūnī was then old, blind, and nearly deaf.[3]  Al-Bīrūnī’s text contains detailed observations of the natural world.  These observations al-Bīrūnī evidently made when he was younger and in better health.  Describing al-Bīrūnī as a mathematician emphasizes that al-Bīrūnī also had aptitude for abstract thought.  Al-Bīrūnī’s writings cover mathematics, astrology, pharmacology, geology, history, and the people and culture of India.  His scholarly work is of remarkable range.

Al-Bīrūnī scholarly range is evident even within his Book of Pharmacy. Discussing the term for apothecaries, al-Bīrūnī quotes hadith and Arabic poetry, and then moves on to the origin of the Arabic word saydanani:

Some etymologists have held that saydanani is a longish worm having so many legs that it is almost impossible to count them, since they are of various sizes, big and small.  On this basis they have held that the work saydanani comes from this worm, as in this art several kinds of drugs, big and small, are the tools of the apothecary.  This exercise in etymology is absolute foolish and baseless talk.  Probably what is implied is the insect that enters the human ear and which is called by some al-arba’wa al arba-in (forty-four) and by some others as-saba-wa-al-sab’in (seventy-seven).  I once had the occasion to count the legs of this insect; they came to two hundred and forty.

A scholar who would count 240 legs on a insect is a serious scholar indeed.

The appended disparaging text seems to be concerned with orthodoxy.  Accusing al-Bīrūnī of presenting “unauthorized opinions” and “superstition” presumes that al-Bīrūnī’s should present only authorized opinions and scientific facts, as recognized at that time.  Al-Bīrūnī’s text, in contrast, brings together a wide variety of material with historical and encyclopedic dimensions.  That intellectual scope seems to have subsequently fallen out of favor.

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[1] Trans. Said (1973) p. 1.

[2] Id. p. 344.  This apparently was writing of Shaikh Imam Muhammad bin Zaki al-Ghaznavi. Other text from the introduction describes technical difficulties with the manuscript: illegible words, orthographical errors, apocopations, transpositions, and transformations of words.

[3] Id. p. 9.  Al-Bīrūnī also describes himself as being eighty years old.


Said, Hakim Mohammed. 1973. Abu-‘r-Raiḥān Muḥammad Ibn-Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Al-Biruni’s book on pharmacy and materia medica 1. /ed. with English transl. by Hakim Mohammed Said. Karachi: Hamdard National Foundation.

manufacturing outrage by stripping context

Rooster head from Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads


US ‘the enemy’ says Dotcom judge

Key context within article:

“Under TPP and the American Digital Millennium copyright provisions you will not be able to do that, that will be prohibited… if you do you will be a criminal – that’s what will happen. Even before the 2008 amendments it wasn’t criminalised. There are all sorts of ways this whole thing is being ramped up and if I could use Russell [Brown’s] tweet from earlier on: we have met the enemy and he is [the] U.S.”

Judge Harvey’s remark is a play on the line “we have met the enemy and he is us” by American cartoonist Walt Kelly.

Communication analysis:

The judge is witty and has a sense of humor.  Manipulators and partisans have manufactured outrage by taking the judge’s statement out of context.  The judge withdrew from the Dotcom case. Perhaps he judged that reasoning about such matters is impossible.  That’s a highly unfortunate communications industry development.  Ease of manufacturing outrage points to a future of insipid, soporific communication.