Zhang-Zhung language

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Region Western Tibet and Central Asia
Era 7th–10th century[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xzh
Linguist list
Glottolog zhan1239[2]

Zhang-Zhung (Tibetan: ཞང་ཞུངWylie: 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་ཕུགWylie: mdzod phug) is a terma uncovered by Shenchen Luga (Tibetan: གཤེན་ཆེན་ཀླུ་དགའWylie: gshen chen klu dga') in the early eleventh century.[3] 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)."[4]

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.[5]


Languages Zhang-Zhung
Direction Left-to-right
ISO 15924 Marc, 332
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་ཆེནWylie: smar chen)[7]
  • Marchung or Lesser Mar script (Tibetan: སྨར་ཆུངWylie: smar chung)
  • Pungchen or Greater Pung script (Tibetan: སྤུངས་ཆེནWylie: spungs chen)
  • Pungchung or Lesser Pung script (Tibetan: སྤུངས་ཆུངWylie: spungs chung)
  • Drusha script (Tibetan: བྲུ་ཤWylie: 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 9.0
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. This identification has been accepted by Takeuchi Tsuguhito (武内紹人), who called the language "Old Zhangzhung" and added two further manuscripts.[10] However, Dan Martin questions the wisdom of identifying the language of these texts as a variant of Zhang-zhung.

Two of these manuscripts are in the Stein collection of the British Library and three in the Pelliot collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale. In each case, the relevant text is written on the reverse side of a scroll containing an earlier Chinese Buddhist text.[10] 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.[11]


  1. ^ Zhang-Zhung at MultiTree on the Linguist List
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Zhangzhung". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ Berzin, Alexander (2005). The Four Immeasurable Attitudes in Hinayana, Mahayana, and Bön. Study Buddhism. Source: [1] (accessed: June 6, 2016)
  4. ^ 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)
  5. ^ Jacques, Guillaume (2009). "Zhangzhung and Qiangic Languages". In Yasuhiko Nagano. Issues in Tibeto-Burman Historical Linguistics (PDF). Senri Ethnological Studies. 75. pp. 121–130. 
  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. ^ a b Tsuguhito Takeuchi (2002). "The Old Zhangzhung Manuscript Stein Or 8212/188". In Christopher Beckwith. Medieval Tibeto-Burman Languages. Leiden: Brill. pp. 1–11. ISBN 978-90-04-12424-0. 
  11. ^ Takeuchi, Tsuguhito; Nishida, Ai (2009). "The Present Stage of Deciphering Old Zhangzhung". In Nagano, Yasuhiko. Issues in Tibeto-Burman Historical Linguistics (PDF). Senri Ethnological Studies. 75. pp. 151–165. 

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.

See also[edit]