Tibetans and Fish – Part II: "Do Tibetans Eat Fish?"

High Peaks Pure Earth has translated an essay from WeChat on Tibetans and fish which follows on from last week’s post “From Taboo to Eating Fish”.
The post below titled “Do Tibetans Eat Fish” was published on June 16, 2017 by a WeChat Channel called “Elephant Magazine”.  The piece takes quotes and snippets from other websites and documents and is presented in several parts under various subheadings.


Tibetans and Fish – Part II: “Do Tibetans Eat Fish?”
By “Boye Niyang”

Do Tibetans eat fish? Why is it commonly believed that Tibetans do not eat fish? How do Tibetans perceive eating fish nowadays?
Many Tibetans who live in Chinese areas would have had the following dinner party experiences: someone proposes to order fish, with another one immediately reminding that they should not order fish since there are Tibetans at the table. In this scenario, if a Tibetan suggests that it does not matter and she/he also feels like eating fish, they will probably end up having a controversy.
For many people, Tibetans are forbidden from eating fish, just as the pork taboo for Muslims and Jews. Many books on Tibetan culture include this point as common sense. Quite a few Tibetans also claim that they do not eat fish.
Is fish a taboo food common to Tibetans?

Muslims do not eat pork, Tibetans do not eat fish, Manchurians do not eat dog.
What are the reasons?
Tibetans do not eat fish:
There are two reasons for the bold and simple Tibetan people not eating fish. Firstly, Tibetans have the custom of water burials, in which the deceased is placed on a wooden raft, freely flowing in the river. Tibetans believe that their ancestors eventually were eaten by fish in the river. Therefore, they do not eat fish; otherwise it would be like eating their own ancestors.
The main reason is that Tibetans believe in Buddhism. The double golden fish is one of the eight auspicious symbols, referring to transcendent and liberated Buddhist practitioners. It is a symbol of recovery, eternal life and rebirth. Fish is a mascot for Tibetans. A totem. There are many great rivers on the Tibetan Plateau.

The History of Tibetans eating fish

In fact, Tibetans eat fish and this history is very long.
As early as the neolithic era, there are traces of residents on the Tibetan Plateau eating fish. Fish skeletons were unearthed in the neolithic ruin at Karub in Kham; they are very likely to be carp from the Yellow River.
At the Khochu neolithic ruin, located in the northern suburb of Lhasa, they also found fish bones in pits (used for household waste by ancient people) that were left by Khochu residents after consuming the fish meat.

Records from the Excavation Reports of the Khochu Ruin

Besides farming and animal husbandry, another important livelihood for Khochu people was hunting. Their stone tools included spearheads and arrowheads; bone arrowheads and bronze arrowheads were also found, all of which were important tools for hunting. A significant amount of animal skeletons have been unearthed from the ruin, with species mainly including white-lipped deer (Cervus albirostris), Cervus elaphus wallichii, musk deer, boar, Equus kiang and waders. All of them were games by the Khochu people. Fish bones (not yet authenticated) were also found in several pits, which should serve as evidence for Khochu people eating alepidotes from the Lhasa River. It shows that fishing was also a means to making a livelihood at the time.
Pits in the the Khochu Ruin

Besides archeological evidence, there are also records of ancient Tibetans eating fish.
There is a story of a Tubo Queen eating frogs (fish) in “The Clear Mirror on Royal Genealogy”:
King Drang-nyen Deru, the son of Trinyen Zungtsen (the 28th Tsanpo), married Chimza Lugyel from Darpo… Queen Lugyel was quite beautiful at the beginning, but grew wane and sallow over time. The King was confused and asked: “How beautiful were you when you first came! How have you become like this without any illness?” The queen answered that I suspected it was because here I could not find one single food item common in my hometown. The King said: “If so, it is better to get some soon and store it here.” Therefore, a trusted servant girl was sent to bring back a lot of fish cooked in yak butter. The queen hid it in a cupboard and ate it secretly. Soon, she became stunning again.
“A Scholar’s Feast”  added that the Queen’s hometown Darpo is the “region of eating frogs”, where people also eat fish and refer to fish as frog.
It shows that although the region of the Royal family did not have the habit of eating fish, people in the queen’s hometown Darpo still liked it very much.
The ancient Tibetan medical manuscript “Long Volume” that was found in Dunhuang, warned patients of various illnesses and not to eat fish, which conversely implies that eating fish was quite common in Tibetan society at the time. For example:

When swollen and bleeding from tiger or leopard bites or scratches…… Recommended diet: do not eat rotten fish and beef.

Burns: repeatedly rub every inch of the whole body with nasal mucus…… Pay attention to the diet. Do not eat venison, fish, bison meat, chives, garlic etc.

The “Long Volume” also records therapies for fishbones stuck in one’s throat, which also shows that it was quite common for Tibetans to eat fish at the time.

If a fishbone is stuck in the throat, an effective way is to prepare and drink a decoction of capercaillie throat, peas and mugwort. Eating otter meat can also help. If still not effective, buccal administration of thin slices scraped from the Antelope horn may work. If things like bones, fishbones, wood or grass are stuck in the throat, get a piece of cotton or remainder of weaving Persian Kam, slightly tear it into a ball of the size of a walnut and tie it to a string. Have the patient to swallow the ball and move the neck around, hitting it with your hands repeatedly, while holding the other end of the string. Repeat four times and the object in the throat will slide down. If gastric juice comes up, pull out the ball immediately; the stuck object will thus also be taken out. (Non-professionals please do not imitate.)

Until now, the habit of eating fish still exists in the Tibetan Plateau. There are even fishing villages. For example, most people in Junba village along the downstream of Lhasa river are still fishermen.

Junba villagers fishing in the documentary “The Third Pole”

The Village head of Junba being interviewed.

That being the case, how did the belief of Tibetans not eating fish come about?

Why do some Tibetans not eat fish?

It is not completely a rumour that Tibetans do not eat fish. Indeed, many Tibetans do not eat fish or even see it as a taboo for various reasons.
According to some rumours, the reason is that there are hardly any fish in the Tibetan areas.
This argument is not correct. There are more than 150 species of natural fish found on the Tibetan Plateau. Some large lakes have rich fish resources, although not all fish is edible.
In the Tibetan Plateau, schizothorax, one of the few toxic freshwater fish, is the biggest genus in terms of species and stock. Eggs of most of the known species of schizothorax are toxic and no effective antidote exists as of yet.
We once accidentally ate the eggs of schizothorax during fieldwork. Soon we suffered from vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness and intense stomachache.

Biologists’ fieldwork experience in the Tibetan area.

Although schizothorax that have had their gonads taken out possess high nutrient value, however, Tibetans might not have been aware of this, since they have mainly relied on agriculture and husbandry. It is possible that rumours of eating fish causing malignant spirits in stomach rose from the experience of food poisoning.
However, nowadays schizothorax processed by cooks have become a popular dish among tourist in places like Nyingtri.
Bahe fish (Ptychobarbus dipogon, belonging to a subfamily of schizothorax) from the Nyang River and the Basum Lake is said to be delicious, with a tender texture and rich flavour.

The second biggest genus is the Triplophysa of the Balitoridae family. Although it is not toxic, its size is relatively small, only 100-150 mm in length, and thus quite difficult to catch. In some Tibetan regions, this fish is even regarded as a “worm” that is not edible.
Edible fish is not common in Tibetan areas and concentrated in very limited places. Even in regions with relatively more lakes and large rivers, unless it was difficult to develop agriculture and husbandry, residents rarely chose fishery as means of livelihood given its low return due to the slow growth of fish in the cold water of the Plateau.
Only in places like Junba village, with its unfavourable conditions for agriculture and husbandry, has fishery existed for generations.
The village head of Junba introduces the local environment.

Some religious ideas and customs have also impacted the fish taboo.
Before Buddhism was introduced to the Tibetan area in the 7th century, the main religion was Bon. Lu, the underworld deity in Bon, is believed to have lived in water such as fountains, rivers or lakes. It is a “spirit-” like body of a different form, with its image often being associated with animals like fish, frogs and snakes.
Lu is also a malignant spirit, which will punish people if disturbed or offended: the least serious consequence is to grow ulcers; the more serious consequence is to bring misfortune to the whole family. Due to their awe of Lu, Tibetans try not to disturb living things in water, to the extend of not even touching frogs and snakes.
The Lukhang Temple in the Lukhang Pond of Potala Palace exists to worship Lu, but not the kinds of dragons beaten by Nezha as in Chinese folk religion.

After becoming popular in Tibet, Buddhism is also a factor in Tibetan people’s fish eating habit.
Buddhism does not advocate taking lives. Tibetans believe taking lives will bring about bad karma. However, it is impossible for Tibetans to strictly follow this doctrine, as meat is an important nutrient source. In this case, eating beef and lamb, compared with fish, can reduce the number of lives killed, since the meat of a cow can sustain a family for some time while several fish are barely enough for even one meal.
Therefore, although principally “no killing” applies to all animals, in practice fish is most protected.
The custom of freeing captive animals influenced by Buddhism also somewhat constraints Tibetans in catching and eating fish.
In Tibetan areas, this custom is seen as an important way of accumulating merits through virtuous acts. Tibetans often set free animals for certain religious festivals for prayers. Once the animals are released, they can return to nature, freed from being killed or traded.
Traditionally, the most common animal to be freed are goats. People mark such goats by painting their horn in red or by tying colourful ribbons to it.
Goat to be freed

In this custom, fish is also an important and economical animal, because by releasing fish, a higher number of lives can be saved.
However, it is impossible to mark fish when setting it free. It is unavoidable that they will be caught again. As a result, many Tibetans try not eating fish. Eating fish is particularly sensitive during religious festivals like Saga Dawa where freeing captive animals is common.
Tibetans freeing young fish at the riverside.

Water burials in some Tibetan areas also represent one reason. However, this custom is not very widespread and areas where it is practiced are limited.
Chen Quzhen, Tibet Private Notes: Macrophylla Wild Dream Dust, Chapter From Chengdu to Kham (now Chamdo)

One day, I went to Tawu. It was still early when we arrived, so I wandered to the suburb with my companion. The landscape was picturesque: a dozen of houses scattered in a sparse wood surrounded by fine and beautiful grass. Outside of the wood, there was a wide creek, 4-5 (Chinese) feet wide, shallow but clear, with many big fish swimming and jumping. We were just thinking about dinner and thus caught some for food. But then I wondered how could the fish grow to such numbers and size when so many people resided here. Didn’t they eat it? I asked the interpreter and learned that it was because of the Tibetan funeral custom. Tibetans do not put the deceased in coffins, instead there existed three other kinds of practices. Celestial burial involved hacking the corpse into pieces, feeding it to vultures, while lamas chanting prayers. Cremation is to burn the corpse. Water burials is normally for people of the low and poor class, who throw the corpse into river for fish and turtles to eat. This is why Tibetans do not eat fish. We all stopped eating fish after hearing this.

Over such a long period of not eating fish, Tibetans are not good at cooking or preparing it. They even no longer see fish as food, just like Northern Chinese regard wild game in Cantonese cuisine as zoo animals and refrain from eating them.
However, this Tibetan custom is gradually changing as the surroundings changed.

Tibetans Also Eat Fish

The Tibetan food culture has not stayed static in the face of the prospering of the market economy, which brought about development to logistics, trade and the food industry.
An abundance of choices of living fish and canned fish can now be found in supermarkets and farmer markets in Tibetan cities, food markets and shops selling seafood in small towns, and even in grocery shops in rural and nomadic areas.

Seafood market in Lhasa

More importantly, restaurants have long been opening in the whole of Tibet–especially Sichuan restaurants–so cooks from outside Tibet have served as a solution to the issue of Tibetans not willing to kill fish and not being good at cooking it.
Restaurants in Lhasa

Tibetan people’s change of attitude towards eating fish is particularly obvious among urban dwellers and young people studying and working outside of Tibet.
Grilled fish restaurant in the Barkhor, Lhasa

Nowadays, Tibetans’ attitude towards eating fish is not a homogenous and collective ethnic taboo as in the time of the Tubo Queen, but rather, exists due to various reasons, like Buddhist beliefs, habits or simply dislike of the taste, which are more personal choices instead of ethnic taboos. Taboo in Tibetan Buddhism is partially the reason but it is not compulsory nor covering the whole Tibetan area. This is what distinguishes it from the pork taboo among Muslims.
Therefore, next time when you eat together with Tibetan friends, there is no need to reject fish for them or be surprised by them eating fish. If some people still insist in forcing a “Tibetan cultural taboo” on others, please share this article with them and suggest them to follow the “Elephant Magazine” WeChat Channel.

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