Tales from the Scriptorium III: Scribal doodles

PT1164 detail

When the scribes of Dunhuang were given bundles of paper to write Tibetan sutras on, they were allowed to lose a few sheets. If they lost more than their allowance, it was a serious matter. As I discussed a while ago, scribes could be punished with ten lashes per incomplete bundle, their property could be impounded, and their relatives could be imprisoned. I wonder whether this had any effect on the merit that the copying of the sutras was meant to generate.

Anyway, the sheets of paper that scribes were allowed to keep were called lektsé (glegs tshas), and several examples of them have survived in the Dunhuang collections. They provide a fascinating insight into the life of the scribes. Sometimes we see them practising their handwriting or writing drafts of letters. It seems that these sutra scribes were not very well paid, if they were paid at all. But they could use their scribal skills to make some money on the side by writing letters and contracts for those who couldn’t write. This practice became so common that letters and contracts were still being written in Tibetan long after the end of Tibetan rule in Dunhuang.

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Picture 2

But today I just want to look at one of the nicest bits of scribal scrap paper, Pelliot tibetain 1164, which is covered in animal doodles. According to the signature, it was the scrap paper of a scribe called Jeu Taklek (Rje’u Stag legs), unusual in that he seems to have been Tibetan rather than Chinese. Another inscription on the paper states (if I read it right) that these are “all the wild beasts of Shachu.”* Shachu was the name for Dunhuang at this time (Shazhou in Chinese).

Picture 3

I see an antelope, some kind of large bird, a horse, a pigeon, a dog (or fox) and a rabbit. You may see differently. Some of the animals, especially the dog/fox, have a lot of character…

Picture 3

This dynamic stance reminds me of the sketch of the otter on the back of a woodslip done by a soldier at the Tibetan fort of Miran, which turned up in a previous post here. And here it is again:

IOL Tib J 404 versoWhich makes me wonder, was there a tradition of animal-sketching among the early Tibetans?

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See also
Tales from the Scriptorium I: Expensive manuscripts
Tales from the Scriptorium II: It’s a scribe’s life

* The Tibetan seems to be sha cu rgya rang kun kun. The word rgya might just refer to the antelope.

Tsuguhito Takeuchi. 1995. Old Tibetan Contracts From Central Asia. Tokyo: Daizo Shuppan.

8 thoughts on “Tales from the Scriptorium III: Scribal doodles

  1. Hey E,

    On that inscription, I did find (with the google crutche) “sha cu rgya” at this entry in OTDO:


    Is this a meaningful match?

    They’ve linked this one to the IDP photo, which is really, like, way cool, excellent, amazing, or whatever you might want to call it. In the country I just came from they would call it flott, which I take to mean ‘really swell.’


  2. PS: I was thinking when John B., the one with the name that means ‘beauty’ in Italian, gets back from Mustang you might want to run that question about ” a tradition of animal-sketching among the early Tibetans” past him. I’ll bet he has an interesting answer! Well, if by sketching you would agree to include ochre-pigment cave paintings or scratches into rock surfaces…

    PPS: your links to OT text still aren’t working… Are they?

  3. Dan,

    Sorry for the late reply – somehow I missed your comments. I hope the links are working now.

    It does look like the sha cu rgya in Tib J 1383 is a good match, so perhaps the writing underneath the animal doodles is not a caption after all. Generally the legs tshas are covered in scribbles that have little to do with each other.

    And it’s interesting to make that connection to the petroglyphs that Mr Bellezza has photographed. Though most of these have a rather different character. Perhaps the bird in Fig.305 of “Zhang Zhung” is somewhat comparable….


  4. Hello, S.

    “Sha cu pa rang kun kun” should be scribe’s name who possessed this sheet. Sha cu pa rgya appears frequently in Tibetan secular documents, meaning “Chinese inhabitants in Shazhou (= Dunhuang).” Dang kun kun (I think that the fourth syllable should be read as dang but not rang) are apparently phonetic renderings of a Chinese name, like Duan Junjun 段君君.


  5. Thank you! You’ve solved the problem. And it’s interesting to know that there was a specific term for the Chinese inhabitants of Dunhuang. So it seems that the “artist” in question was, after all, Chinese.


  6. Dear S.,

    On the subject of doodles, even if these Antwerpian examples are centuries later than yours, you or your readers might like to also read, if they haven’t, this article available from JSTOR (for people with institutional connections only, I’m sorry to say):


    Stephen H. Goddard, Probationes Pennae: Some Sixteenth-Century Doodles on the Theme of Folly Attributed to the Antwerp Humanist Pieter Gillis and his Colleagues, Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 2 (1988), pp. 242-267.

    I’m not saying comparison is all that necessary, just that reading about motivations for doodles in other scribal cultures might help us wrap our minds around what could be happening here. Are these guys just trying to have fun? Are they afraid of blotching up the main page after a fresh dip into the inkwell, so first they ‘try’ the pen on a spare or scrap page? Could both motives be involved along with still others?

    Doodles are not really intended to be ‘seen’, so artistic ostentation is not such an issue. Or is it? Why do we find these things, apparently done artlessly and mindlessly, so charming, anyway?

    Are there more Dunhuang doodles you are keeping from us? Please tell!


  7. Thanks for the article link. There does seem to be something universally human about doodling. Having sat in many meetings and doodled, or watched others doodle (including a Western manuscript curator who spent an hour drawing a very accurate bicycle) I will venture that the primary factor in doodling is this: boredom. And let’s face it, copying out texts is quite boring.

    There are plenty of other doodled manuscripts. If you want to winkle some out for yourself, I suggest going to the Advanced Search page on the IDP database, clicking on the “Subject or Keyword” box, and then selecting “illustrated”.

    Here’s one of my all-time favourites, S.387, a Chinese scroll intensively doodled with decorations, calligraphy, faces, and animals (including a very interesting radiant rabbit):

    Click here.


  8. Thanks! That worked very nicely. And I’ve discovered there are still things I don’t know about searching the IDP database.

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