Not long ago, international film stars Mel Gibson and Jet Li visited Taiwan. While they were here, both were given Tibetan dZi ("zee") beads reportedly worth millions of NT dollars.
Some years ago the world was stunned when a China Airline plane crashed in Nagoya. The disaster, however, would prove to be a boon for the dZi bead market in Taiwan. One of the crash's two survivors, a Mr. Chen, speculated during a television interview that he may well have survived because he was wearing a "nine-eyed" dZi bead amulet.
Guardians against evil, expellers of bad karma, bringers of health, wealth and good fortune. . . .What exactly are dZi beads? Religious artifacts or commercial goods? And how should we view the fad for them in Taiwan?
On a busy street in the Chenchung district of Taipei, a peddler selling statues of the Buddha Sakyamuni and other Bodhisattvas has laid out his wares. Incense smoke swirls as Buddhist chants drone from a cassette player. Aside from the various crystal balls and bracelets, the items most attracting people's attention are the oblong Tibetan dZi beads with their white-lined designs set against black backgrounds.
Which are authentic?
"This string of small tiger-striped dZi beads can ward off misfortune and ensure a life of peace. Each bead is NT$500 and you can have ten for NT$4500," explains the peddler to passers-by. "This nine-eyed bead is a 100% authentic old dZi bead! It's priced at only NT$20,000!" Gesturing to the Bodhisattvas, as if to attest to his veracity, he continues, "I am a Buddhist devotee and sell dZi beads to do good, not to make profits. I have a friend who would price a similar one at NT$1.8 million and cut a deal at NT$900,000!"
To demonstrate their marvel, he picks up two of them about the size of his thumb. He holds them together and then moves them apart. The tips of one's fingers seem almost to feel their magnetic forces, attracting and repelling. Once he has got a potential customer in his thrall, he stresses that dZi beads are natural precious stones in tune with the magnetic forces of the universe and many thousands-or even tens of thousands-of years old.
"If you put one on now, you'll start to feel thirsty after a while, which means that your metabolism and blood circulation are speeding up. Don't worry-after three days you'll have adapted. Then the bead will keep you healthy and even help you lose weight. Do you want it? You won't find it at this price anywhere else."
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At a small suburban boutique selling "authentic Tibetan dZi beads" a sign out front announcing "Father's Day Sale, 50% Off" pricks one's interest.
"Here we only sell 'new dZi beads' that have just been mined high in the Himalayas where the Earth is closest to Heaven," says a saleswoman wearing an elegant qipao gown. "Their magnetic field is particularly strong." With smooth motions she picks up an earth-sky-door dZi bead: "This bead has a magnetic field of 50 gauss. It can strengthen your physical constitution, and it's on sale for just NT$17,000!"
Can these new beads actually be considered real dZi beads? "Of course, the new ones are better than the old ones! After several thousand years of being worn by so many people, the old beads' magnetic fields are greatly diminished, and they're 'unclean.' You're best not to wear them," warns the salesclerk, with an appropriately alarmed expression.
* * *
On most days you can find D. Namgyal, known as "Taiwan's wealthiest Tibetan," at a Tibetan Buddhist cultural artifact center on the second floor of an East Taipei apartment building. His small office, which provides just enough space to turn around in, is packed with dZi beads of numerous kinds, both old and new. With these he tests his visitors' powers of discernment.
An ugly plastic bag contains more than a hundred new dZi beads of various types: earth-sky door, tiger stripes, double eyes, triple eyes. . . . The authentic old ones go from NT$50,000-100,000, whereas the new ones he sells wholesale for as little as NT$300 apiece. Even for a top-of-the-line, exquisitely antiqued nine-eyed dZi bead, with the erosion (usually the distinguishing feature of an old bead) marvelously reproduced by hand, the price is only NT$5000.
But these couldn't fool someone who really knows his stuff. "No matter how modern technology develops, there's no way to make a new one look like an old one." A statement like this, which even an avid collector wouldn't utter lightly, is simply a statement of fact for Namgyal, who started going to the Himalayas to collect dZi beads with his father as just a young boy. Namgyal makes his living in the wholesale trade of new dZi beads, for which orders are made in units of 10,000. The smooth and transparent double earth-sky-door dZi that hangs over his breast, on the other hand, is a family heirloom with which he wouldn't part no matter the price (someone once offered him NT$1.8 million for it, in vain).
As little as NT$300? As much as NT$1 million? Old beads that dispel evil? New beads that cure illness? In Taiwan's religious artifacts market, dZi beads are the subject of the most legends and also the most debate. They became hot sellers seven or eight years ago and have yet to cool down. After the Nagoya crash, frequent-flying businessmen competed with each other to buy dZi beads, among which nine-eyed dZi beads are particularly valued as "guardians against evil of all stripes." A single one of these beads can now cost upwards of NT$1 million. When the Dalai Lama came to Taiwan last year on a spiritual visit, Tibetan Buddhism received many converts. His trip also renewed the rage for dZi beads.
The controversy surrounding dZi beads stems from their mysterious origins more than a millenium ago and also from the beautiful legends that have been passed down about them over the centuries in Tibet, that ancient kingdom in the snow.
"A pure dZi bead is not a thing of the human world," asserts Namgyal. "We Tibetans believe that dZi beads were originally a kind of insect. They were living things. From time to time, they would appear lying next to each another in the grass. If you tried to grab them with your hands, they would escape by boring down into the earth. Hence you would have to use something unclean, say a woman's dress [in the typical recounting of this legend they use sand] and cover them. Then they wouldn't move and you could grab them."
Namgyal still remembers his father saying that the family's yak had once given birth to a nine-eyed dZi, and that "when it gave birth, it mooed at the top of its lungs like it was giving birth to a calf." Many Tibetans believe that yaks and sheep often eat dead dZi-bead bugs when they graze, and herders thus hope to obtain dZi beads.
What's more, because authentic dZi beads are so hard to come by, Tibetans sincerely believe that they are "jewelry dropped from Heaven by the gods." Namgyal firmly believes in these legends of stones dropping from Heaven. "New dZi beads are worked from 100 percent agate, but old dZi beads are different. Their composition is only 80% agate, 15% other minerals and 5% substances "that are not of this world."
Stories of stones dropping from Heaven can be traced back to a Buddhist sutra that records a Himalayan legend about an evil spirit who would from time to time descend to the world of men to cause plagues and disasters. Fortunately, a benevolent god took pity on the humans and cultivated its powers in Heaven, causing the beads to fall from Heaven. Those whose good fate it was to obtain one would thus be protected from misfortunes and all kinds of evil. Different variations on this same basic legend are found all over Tibet.
Whether dZi beads are spiritual bugs or stones fallen from Heaven, they bring good karma to those who own them. Since having a dZi bead can bring good fortune, health and wealth, affluent Tibetans have long been avid collectors of these legendary jewels. As long as 1300 years ago, The New History of the Tang Dynasty recorded that Tibetans liked to wear dZi beads, "a single one of which could be traded for a horse." From this you can see the high value that was placed on them.
In 1959 the Chinese communists invaded Tibet, and the Dalai Lama and leading officials fled abroad. They took much valuable jewelry with them, including coral, amber and turquoise, as well as many mysterious dZi beads with their stunning contrasts of white on black. Yet what exactly are dZi beads? The beautiful legends of ancient peoples clearly aren't enough to satisfy obsessive Western archaeologists, who have long been working to uncover when and how dZi beads were made, and how they have been passed down over the ages. Archeologists hope one day to crack this millennia-old mystery.
Regrettably, up to now Western scholars haven't been able to verify much, and dZi beads are still largely cloaked in mystery.
Chang Hung-shih went to America to study earlier this decade and happened to come across a dZi bead in a Californian antiques market. He bought it and became fascinated with dZi beads, and has since published the first Chinese-language book about them. He points out that archeological study of ancient artifacts can be divided into four basic parts: study of the material, of the environment (including tools and factories), study of references in ancient records (of formulas or manufacturing techniques) and examination of the actual artifacts themselves. Although many dZi beads have been passed down, attempts to trace them back to their source yield nothing. They exist seemingly in isolation, as if snapped from a chain, with no links to their past.
"Since Tibetans believe that dZi beads are gifts from Heaven, they naturally wouldn't dream of trying to manufacture the beads themselves, and they don't investigate where they actually come from," Chang notes. Consequently, "In the only place in the world where you can find true dZi beads, Tibet, no-one believes that they are manmade."
Nonetheless, after looking through all the classics, Chang Hung-shih believes that the most believable legend is that of the Persian King's Treasure. Legend has it that about the year 700, during the rule of the Empress Wu in China, the demigod King Gisa led Tibetan soldiers to a string of impressive military victories, including an out-and-out conquest of what would later become Persia. When the Tibetan king visited the treasure storerooms in the Persian palace, he discovered many rare treasures, and those he regarded as most precious were dZi beads, "which danced in the palace." Taken as the spoils of victory, they were brought back to Tibet to reward the soldiers. The records even state the exact numbers of beads: "There were 50,600 of the most valuable Nectar dZi beads, and 390,000 of the next most valuable, the three-eyed dZi bead. . . ," quotes Chang Hung-shih from the records.
If this is true, then were dZi beads originally Persian? Perplexingly, although there are numerous archeological finds of ancient Persian beads, no beads yet discovered there have resembled dZi beads. Chang conjectures that perhaps Gisa took the Persian artisans back to Tibet, where they manufactured dZi beads using Himalayan materials and Tibetan religious designs. The artisans gradually died off, and their skills were lost, so that production ceased.
From a technical standpoint, dZi beads also defy explanation.
"Generally speaking, based on the production process, dZi beads ought to count as a kind of "etched agate" [agate to which alkaline metal has been applied and heated to create a surface for etching designs]," Chang Hung-shih explains. Etched agate is not rare, and as early as 4000 years ago, Mesopotamian artisans knew how to make carnelian "lined beads" (which are a coarser form of dZi beads and sometimes known as chung dZi beads), by which white lines are inlaid in black or red agate. Today, you can buy imitation carnelians in the Kuanghua Jade Market.
Yet, while carnelian beads may also be classed as etched agate and while there are no problems involved in heating the stone, its white surface grows indistinct over time. DZi beads are different.
"The etching process for true dZi beads is extremely sophisticated," says Chang Hung-shi. Using modern scientific analysis, the process for making dZi beads has been determined to be somewhat different than that used to create carnelian "chung dZi" beads: First, the surface of the agate must have been coated with an alkaline dye that when heated would have turned the entire surface white. Then a second dye would have been applied that could be used to draw the dark-lined designs. Finally, the beads were heated once again before becoming what we know today as dZi beads.
What makes people most curious about this process is that the white dye must reach a temperature of 1300 C* before it can dye the surface of the agate, but agate is quite unstable at such high temperatures. So unless there were some means of lowering the pressure, it would have been impossible to prevent the agate from shattering.
"The problem is that pressure-reduction technology is extremely complicated, and in the West it wasn't until the industrial revolution in the 19th century that research into these sort of techniques started. How did people go about manufacturing these beads 1300 years ago?" asks Chang, who studied science and engineering but nevertheless doesn't completely dismiss the idea that "dZi beads were gifts from Heaven." Although some legends say that the agate for dZi beads turned white when it was dipped in a solution made from a mysterious Himalayan water plant, exactly what plant was it? With no leads to follow, it's anyone's guess.
What marvel and mystery surround these small beads! Nevertheless, if you broaden the focus, and look at their cultural significance, you will discover that the passing down of "eye-shaped decorative beads" is a phenomenon common to Egypt, Mesopo-tamia, India and China. All of these lands have had "eye-bead cultures."
In accord with the description in the Buddhist sutras of the omnipresent "five poisonous evil eyes," the ancients believed that seeing an "evil eye" would bring about disaster and misfortune, or cause one to have evil thoughts or fall into the traps of jealousy and reproach. Using an "eye for an eye," as it were, the ancients created various eye totems, which appeared on homes, temples and even coffins. They also made various kinds of charms and ornamental beads and wore them at all times.
Chang uses the term "the evil-eye-resisting triumvirate" to explain dZi beads: First, the round designs are themselves eyes- "good eyes" to scare away and repel the "evil eyes," warning all misfortunes to keep away. Second, the square designs symbolize a shield resisting the power of evil eyes. Third, the sharply angled tiger stripes represent power to fight back with great strength. The Tibetans use "eyes" to describe the white-lined designs on dZi beads. The higher the number of eyes, the greater its powers. The legendary 13-eyed dZi bead allows one to attain whatever one desires and is, thanks to its great number of eyes, without rival.
Warding off evil, eye beads have been important to many cultures. In ancient Egypt eye beads were placed in royals' tombs to accompany them in the afterlife. In the 19th century, a single African Bodom bead could be traded for seven slaves. And in today's international bead market, dragonfly glass beads from the Warring States era in China, which are just as renowned as dZi beads, are avidly sought after by museums.
Considering their value as antiques, dZi beads, which were seemingly dropped across Tibet like flowers scattered by a fairy, have sold for consistently high prices because of their age, their limited number, their high level of artistry, and the difficulties posed in their manufacture. Chang Hung-shih remembers that in a Californian antiques market in the early 1990s, a perfect nine-eyed dZi bead went for US$40,000, the same price as a BMW 525 sports car, whereas in Taiwan, a similar quality nine-eyed dZi sold for US$100,000.
"Prices on the international market are based on reasonable considerations. The extra US$60,000 was paid in Taiwan due to the mystery surrounding dZi beads and religious considerations," Chang explains.
Bearing the masses' sins
Indeed, if you ask people in Taiwan why they like dZi beads so much that they are willing to pay huge sums to have the honor of "hosting them," one suspects that technical difficulty and cultural meaning won't be among most people's answers. Repelling evil, fostering health and bringing wealth are the three goals of most dZi bead enthusiasts. And more than a few people can offer proof from their own experiences of dZi beads' occult powers.
A long-time Buddhist devotee and volunteer at a cancer ward at Taiwan National University Hospital, Mrs. Chen had long had trouble sleeping and had great difficulty getting rid of her feelings of fatigue. Then a friend suggested that she take a look at some commercials on cable television advertising new dZi beads. At first she tried a dZi bracelet she bought for several thousand NT dollars, but nothing happened. Then she bought an earth-sky-door dZi bead for over NT$10,000, and "the result was that as soon as the sun comes up, my body feels much more relaxed," says Mrs. Chen.
The most remarkable incident occurred when Mrs. Chen was participating in a Buddhist retreat. After reciting sutras, there was a period for meditation. Chen, an elderly woman, has sciatica, and her legs go numb after sitting for any length of time. But because everyone else during the meditation period was quiet and still, she didn't dare disturb the peace by moving much. In desperation she took the dZi bead off her wrist and jammed it between her crossed legs. "It was like a vegetarian turkey taken from the freezer that begins to thaw from the direction to which it is exposed to the air: my two legs began slowly to recover sensation starting from where they were closest to the bead." Mrs. Chen felt overcome by joy, a joy that she still feels today whenever she recounts what happened.
The tiny Lu Mei-li, who goes to Tibet on buying trips every year, is famous in the Taiwan dZi bead market for handling old dZi beads of the highest quality. She has a varied clientele. Some of her customers are entrepreneurs who hope that dZi beads will bring them great wealth, others are parents sending children to study abroad who hope that a dZi can protect them in a foreign land. Once one of her businessman customers had an affair, and the wife bought a dZi bead, hoping it would get her husband's affections back. Even Buddhist monks, who must bear the great sins of the masses, come to her for dZi beads that will ward off evil.
Beads for head cases
It's hard to assess for certain whether the occult powers of dZi beads are real, but the book Curing Your Heart with Buddha by psychiatrist Yu Chien-kuei attempts to explain the popularity of dZi beads in Taiwan from a sociological perspective. He compares the rage for the beads to the scams involving the charlatan Buddhist master Song Chi-li who sold doctored photographs of light emanating from his head or the enormous sums spent on Buddha pedestals by the Taiqimen sect. "Strange beasts," he says, "come out during times of social crisis." Modern people, with their numerous desires, are hard to satisfy and often lack peace and happiness. Yu Chien-kuei doesn't deny that these supposedly supernaturally charged beads might effectively spur "psychological healing." But from personal observations, he conjectures that a much higher proportion of those who make attempts at occult empowerment fail.
As a practicing psychiatrist, Yu has noticed that the proportion of his patients using these sort of occult objects is much higher than in the population at large.
"People who wear dZi beads, crystals or amulets costing hundreds of thousands of NT dollars are still anxiety ridden. How can one believe that they work?" Yu asks doubtfully.
Apart from the issue of dZi beads' supernatural powers, there is also the problem of whether a dZi bead is even a dZi bead, for dealers are constantly trying to fob off fakes on unsuspecting customers. This question of authenticity can be a further psychological burden on those whose original interest in dZi beads was to ward off evil and thus attain peace of mind.
"For every ten people who come to me for authentication, nine end up disappointed and leave mad," says Ted Cheng, executive manager of Buddhist Chen De Plaza, who helped to stir up the rage for dZi beads in the early days and became famous last year when he was commissioned to make a gold throne for the Dalai Lama to use in Taiwan. As reproduction techniques in Taiwan have improved, fakes have flooded the market, throwing it into turmoil.
Ted Cheng points out that because people in Taiwan have been avid collectors for many years, the supply of authentic old dZi beads long ago dried up. Namgyal, who has a team of 50 or 60 people working for him in Tibet and Sikkim widely seeking dZi beads, says of prettier nine-eyed beads: "It's hard to come across one of them a year." Many businessmen have a special love of earth-sky-door beads, which are supposed to bring wealth. But fewer than ten a year can be brought back from Nepal. With too few beads and too-high prices, most dZi bead traders have gone out of business. Instead of opening a shop for regular hours, many now just show beads on appointment to familiar customers. It's getting harder every day to make a living selling antique dZi beads.
High prices, fake beads
"People in Taiwan have money, and they have long been collectors of fine things," says Namgyal. The demand in Taiwan has been amazing, and the prices have steadily drifted upward. Every so often there will be rumors about some tycoon buying another dZi bead worth millions. The latest gossip is about a 13-eyed dZi bead going for an outrageous sum. Though no-one seems to have personally laid eyes on the bead, vivid descriptions of it are passed by word of mouth. These rumors push dZi prices even higher.
It is reasonable to conclude that these 1300-year-old beads are only going to get rarer and rarer. And no matter how high the prices, sellers and buyers are, after all, agreeing on them. Yet the situation is quite different for the new dZi beads that have flooded the market. These are mass produced using modern technology, and an unlimited number can be produced. It only costs about a few hundred NT dollars to make one of them, yet they are often sold for prices resembling those of old dZi beads. Whether using the word "fake" instead of "new" might constitute a more honest business practice has long been debated by dZi bead traders.
What's even worse than selling new beads for a high price is when dealers cheat unknowledgeable consumers by selling them new beads and claiming that they are old. Such traps are laid everywhere, at Buddhist supply shops and jewelry stores, in the back alleys and on the broad avenues. Ted Cheng and D. Namgyal have had the same experience in making authentications for friends: the vast majority turn out to be fakes. "Friends have spent hundreds of thousands of NT dollars. I don't want to hurt them too much, so I say there's nothing wrong with buying new beads-just ask a Tibetan Buddhist master to invest it with some power." Namgyal can't deny that although people in Taiwan are wealthy, they can at times be "quite foolish."
The manufacturers, who toil day after day with agate and chemical dyes, feel at a loss when hearing about the unscrupulous practices of dealers.
Huang Hao-chuan, whose Fann Jia Enterprise claims to make "Taiwan's best dZi beads," says, "We just believe that dZi beads are a kind of jewelry, a totem, a kind of manufactured product. We do our best to make them as well as we can. We don't ask about what happens to them after we ship them out, about what kinds of claims dealers make about them."
Privately, Huang will scold friends, "You shouldn't cheat people with sensational speeches, making them go broke!" Huang notes that "those who can buy dZi beads are rich anyway, and they spend money for peace of mind. As long as the buyer is happy, why should other people want to remove the veil of mystery?"
The difficulty of distinguishing between the real and the fake has in the past few years spread overseas. Con men from Taiwan and mainland China have purchased new dZi beads and then brought them to Nepal or Tibet, where they convince old women to gussy themselves up and pass through the Barkhor in Lhasa, which is packed with tourists. Taiwanese inevitably come over to ask them about their beads, and the women pretend to be reluctant to sell before they finally make a deal. Taiwan consumers perhaps think that they are safe in the "homeland of dZi beads," but they don't realize that they can travel for thousands of miles and still not be safe from the traps laid by Taiwan's shysters.
The tragic song of dZi beads in Tibet
DZi beads weren't originally part of Han Chinese culture, and the rage for the beads is likely to recede just as fashions for other antiques have. The twisting of Tibetans' own customs, on the other hand, is causing people great regret.
"Traditionally, unless people meet with particularly unfortunate circumstances, no one in Tibet would part with dZi beads lightly," Namgyal explains. In order to purchase a dZi bead, many businessmen will wait until Tibetans are building a house and take a bead to a bank as collateral. Then these businessmen will work with coconspirators in the local government to force them to pay back their loan early. Finally, the Tibetans get scared and reluctantly use the bead to pay back the mortgage.
After fake beads made their way to Tibet, Tibetan businessmen copied outsiders and started selling fake beads. Namgyal has heard about an old farmer who sold 20 yaks for one nine-eyed dZi bead: "It never occurred to people in the countryside that dZi beads could be manufactured. He wouldn't even have had a doubt." Namgyal mentions that there are frequent stories of Tibetans attacking or murdering those who have cheated them.
What's more, it is a tradition among middle-class Tibetans that dZi beads must be part of a bride's dowry. Many Tibetans, however, can not resist the allure of the high prices offered by Taiwanese. They want to sell, but they also worry that their daughters will lose face when marrying. "The result is that they sell the most expensive lotus, nectar or nine-eyed dZi beads, and when their daughter marries they buy some cheap two-eyed dZi beads which they put in necklaces," Namgyal explains. The result of many people doing this is that the price for two-eyed dZi beads is now higher in Tibet than in Taiwan. Some sink even lower and save face by giving their daughters fake dZi beads.
A thousand-year-old tradition has proved helpless in the face of a ten-year fashion. Taiwan's business practices have unintentionally "subverted Tibetans' belief in the beauty of their own culture, completely undermining the dzi's value in Tibetan society," says Ted Cheng.
The dZi bead, that precious, mysterious jewel of the Snow Kingdom, is now a reflection of human greed and blindness. The rage for dZi beads in Taiwan is truly unsettling. The only question is, if dZi beads really had souls, would they be shedding tears too?