Zhang-Zhung language

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𑲄𑲮𑱵 𑲄𑲮𑲲𑱵
RegionWestern Tibet and Central Asia
Era7th–10th century[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3xzh

Zhang-Zhung (Tibetan: ཞང་ཞུང་, Wylie: zhang zhung) is an extinct Sino-Tibetan language that was spoken in what is now western Tibet. It is attested in a bilingual text called A Cavern of Treasures (mDzod phug) and several shorter texts.

A small number of documents preserved in Dunhuang contain an undeciphered language that has been called Old Zhangzhung, but the identification is controversial.

A Cavern of Treasures (mDzod phug)[edit]

A Cavern of Treasures (Tibetan: མཛོད་ཕུག་, Wylie: mdzod phug) is a terma uncovered by Shenchen Luga (Tibetan: གཤེན་ཆེན་ཀླུ་དགའ་, Wylie: gshen chen klu dga') in the early eleventh century.[2] Martin (n.d.: p. 21) identifies the importance of this scripture for studies of the Zhang-zhung language:

For students of Tibetan culture in general, the mDzod phug is one of the most intriguing of all Bön scriptures, since it is the only lengthy bilingual work in Zhang-zhung and Tibetan (some of the shorter but still significant sources for Zhang-zhung are signalled in Orofino 1990)."[3]

External relationships[edit]

Bradley (2002) says Zhangzhung "is now agreed" to have been a Kanauri or West Himalayish language. Guillaume Jacques (2009) rebuts earlier hypotheses that Zhangzhung might have originated in eastern (rather than western) Tibet by having determined it to be a non-Qiangic language.[4]

Widmer (2014:53-56)[5] classifies Zhangzhung within the eastern branch of West Himalayish, and lists the following cognates between Zhangzhung and Proto-West Himalayish.

Gloss Zhangzhung Proto-West Himalayish
barley zad *zat
blue ting *tiŋ-
diminutive suffix -tse *-tse ~ *-tsi
ear ra tse *re
fat tsʰas *tsʰos
girl tsa med *tsamet
god sad *sat
gold ? zang *zaŋ
heart she *ɕe
old (person) shang ze *ɕ(j)aŋ
red mang *maŋ
white shi nom *ɕi


Script type
Directionleft-to-right Edit this on Wikidata
ISO 15924
ISO 15924Marc, 332 Edit this on Wikidata, ​Marchen
Unicode alias

A number of scripts are recorded as being used for writing the Zhang-Zhung language:[6]

  • Marchen or Greater Mar script (Tibetan: སྨར་ཆེན་, Wylie: smar chen)[7]
  • Marchung or Lesser Mar script (Tibetan: སྨར་ཆུང་, Wylie: smar chung)
  • Pungchen or Greater Pung script (Tibetan: སྤུངས་ཆེན་, Wylie: spungs chen)
  • Pungchung or Lesser Pung script (Tibetan: སྤུངས་ཆུང་, Wylie: spungs chung)
  • Drusha script (Tibetan: བྲུ་ཤ་, Wylie: bru sha)

However, these scripts appear to have little existence outside of calligraphy manuals. One extant document, a seal originally held at Tsurpu monastery, is written in the Marchen script.[8]

In the words of McKay (2003: p. 447):

"There is also a Zhang-zhung alphabet, but despite its rather unusual appearance to anyone who is unfamiliar with the Indo-Tibetan ornate style of lettering known as lan-tsha, one observes that it is modeled letter by letter upon Thon-mi Sambhota's alphabet of thirty letters."[9]


Marchen script was added to the Unicode Standard in June, 2016 with the release of version 9.0.

The Unicode block for Marchen is U+11C70–U+11CBF:

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+11C7x 𑱰 𑱱 𑱲 𑱳 𑱴 𑱵 𑱶 𑱷 𑱸 𑱹 𑱺 𑱻 𑱼 𑱽 𑱾 𑱿
U+11C8x 𑲀 𑲁 𑲂 𑲃 𑲄 𑲅 𑲆 𑲇 𑲈 𑲉 𑲊 𑲋 𑲌 𑲍 𑲎 𑲏
U+11C9x 𑲒 𑲓 𑲔 𑲕 𑲖 𑲗 𑲘 𑲙 𑲚 𑲛 𑲜 𑲝 𑲞 𑲟
U+11CAx 𑲠 𑲡 𑲢 𑲣 𑲤 𑲥 𑲦 𑲧 𑲩 𑲪 𑲫 𑲬 𑲭 𑲮 𑲯
U+11CBx 𑲰 𑲱 𑲲 𑲳 𑲴 𑲵 𑲶
1.^ As of Unicode version 13.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points

Old Zhangzhung[edit]

F. W. Thomas suggested that three undeciphered Dunhuang manuscripts in a Tibetan script were written in an older form of the Zhang-zhung language.[10][11] This identification has been accepted by Takeuchi Tsuguhito (武内紹人), who called the language "Old Zhangzhung" and added two further manuscripts.[12] Two of these manuscripts are in the Stein collection of the British Library (IOL Tib J 755 (Ch. Fragment 43) and Or.8212/188) and three in the Pelliot collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale (Pelliot tibétain 1247, 1251 and 1252). In each case, the relevant text is written on the reverse side of a scroll containing an earlier Chinese Buddhist text.[12] The texts are written in a style of Tibetan script dating from the late 8th or early 9th centuries. Takeuchi and Nishida claim to have partially deciphered the documents, which they believe to be separate medical texts.[13] However, David Snellgrove, and more recently Dan Martin, have rejected Thomas's identification of the language of these texts as a variant of Zhang-zhung.[14][15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zhang-Zhung at MultiTree on the Linguist List
  2. ^ Berzin, Alexander (2005). The Four Immeasurable Attitudes in Hinayana, Mahayana, and Bön. Study Buddhism. Source: [1] (accessed: June 6, 2016)
  3. ^ Martin, Dan (n.d.). "Comparing Treasuries: Mental states and other mdzod phug lists and passages with parallels in Abhidharma works of Vasubandhu and Asanga, or in Prajnaparamita Sutras: A progress report." University of Jerusalem. Source: [2] (accessed: Monday March 1, 2010)
  4. ^ Jacques, Guillaume (2009). "Zhangzhung and Qiangic Languages". In Yasuhiko Nagano (ed.). Issues in Tibeto-Burman Historical Linguistics (PDF). Senri Ethnological Studies. 75. pp. 121–130.
  5. ^ Widmer, Manuel. 2014. "A tentative classification of West Himalayish." In A descriptive grammar of Bunan, 33-56. Bern: University of Bern.
  6. ^ West, Andrew (30 April 2011). "N4032: Proposal to encode the Marchen script in the SMP of the UCS" (PDF).
  7. ^ West, Andrew (2013-10-22). "N4491: Final proposal to encode the Marchen script in the SMP of the UCS" (PDF).
  8. ^ West, Andrew (1 January 2008). "Zhang Zhung Royal Seal".
  9. ^ McKay, Alex (2003). The history of Tibet, Volume 1. Volume 9 of International Institute of Administrative Sciences monographs The History of Tibet. Source: [3] (accessed: Sunday November 1, 2009), p.447
  10. ^ Thomas, F. W. (1933). "The Z̀aṅ-z̀uṅ language". The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (2): 405–410. doi:10.1017/S0035869X00074943. JSTOR 25194777.
  11. ^ Thomas, F. W. (1967). "The Z̀aṅ-z̀uṅ language" (PDF). Asia Major. 13 (1): 211–217.
  12. ^ a b Takeuchi, Tsuguhito (2002). "The Old Zhangzhung Manuscript Stein Or 8212/188". In Christopher Beckwith (ed.). Medieval Tibeto-Burman Languages. Leiden: Brill. pp. 1–11. ISBN 978-90-04-12424-0.
  13. ^ Takeuchi, Tsuguhito; Nishida, Ai (2009). "The Present Stage of Deciphering Old Zhangzhung". In Nagano, Yasuhiko (ed.). Issues in Tibeto-Burman Historical Linguistics (PDF). Senri Ethnological Studies. 75. pp. 151–165.
  14. ^ Snellgrove, David L. (1959). "Review of Giuseppe Tucci, Preliminary Report on Two Scientific Expeditions in Nepal, Serie Orientale Roma no. 10, Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (Rome 1956)". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 22 (2): 377–378. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00068944. JSTOR 609450.
  15. ^ Martin, Dan (2013). "Knowing Zhang-zhung: the very idea" (PDF). Journal of the International Association for Bon Research. 1: 175–197.

Further reading[edit]

  • Martin, Dan (n.d.). "Comparing Treasuries: Mental states and other mdzod phug lists and passages with parallels in Abhidharma works of Vasubandhu and Asanga, or in Prajnaparamita Sutras: A progress report." University of Jerusalem.
  • David Bradley (2002) "The Subgrouping of Tibeto-Burman", in Chris Beckwith, Henk Blezer, eds., Medieval Tibeto-Burman Languages. Brill.
  • Martin, Dan (2004). Zhang-zhung Dictionary.
  • Haarh, Erik. The Zhang-zhung Language: A Grammar and Dictionary of the Unexplored Language of the Tibetan Bönpos. Universitetsforlaget i Aarhus og Munksgaard, 1968.
  • Hummel, Seigbert and Guido Vogliotti, ed. and trans. On Zhang-zhung. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 2000.
  • Namgyal Nyima Dagkar. “Concise Analysis of Zhang Zhung Terms in the Documents of Dunhuang.” In Tibet, Past and Present: Tibetan Studies I, edited by Henk Blezer, Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden 2000, vol. 1, pp. 429–439. Leiden: Brill, 2002.
  • Namgyal Nyima (Rnam rgyal nyi ma). Zhang-zhung – Tibetan – English Contextual Dictionary. Berlin, 2003. Description: This new dictionary of Zhangzhung terminology from the Bön tradition of Tibetan religion includes 3875 entries drawn from 468 sources. These entries include Tibetan and English definitions as well as the citation of passages in which they occur with full bibliographical information for these passages.