Examining Object

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  1. Jeset, C. A Technical Note on the Tibetan Method of Block Carving. 61, 83-85, Article no. 102.
    2. Traditional Tibetan Writingand Accounting Tools. from http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/indiv/eastasian/starrnews/Tibetan_writing_tools.html
  2. 3. Reynolds, Valrae. From the Sacred Realm: Treasures of Tibetan Art from the Newark Museum. Prestel. New York, New York.

 

4. “What Tibetan Cultural History Has to Offer” Published by
the China Tibet Information
Center. Available from:

http://www.tibetinfor.com/tibetzt-en/xzbz/Used%20for%20daily%20lives/m12.htm

 

5. “China mines Tibet's rich resources” By Abrahm Lustgarten. Available from:

http://money.cnn.com/2007/02/20/magazines/fortune/lustgarten_china.fortune/index.htm

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Except for the conch symbols at the ends of the sheath, it
is not heavily decorated. Former officials of the local government of Tibet and
intellectuals stressed the need for their sheaths to be decorated and
ornamented. Unlike the pen “case,” another artifact in the online collection,
this sheath is focused more on utility. The pen has to be protected so it can
be used, and the lack of decoration means that it was probably used by a layman
monk or government official who did not have such a high rank. The fact that it
was made out of iron as well does not mean much in terms of its worth, for iron
was and still is a popular material throughout the region of Central
Tibet.

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The ends of the sheath are marked by conch-link looking
symbols. The conch shell is one of  Buddhism’s eight auspicious symbols. In
the Indian Vedic epics, conch shells have the power to banish evil spirits,
scare away enemies, and avert natural disaster. As a result, such a symbol
meant the ability of its beholder to free or empower a people. The pen, the
tool of an educated Tibetan, could have been viewed as such a weapon to fight
against evil. Conch trumpets were also said to have been able to spread their sound
far and wide, quite similarly to how Buddhist teachings were disseminated far and wide across Tibet, in China, and India as well. The pen was a tool for disseminating information in the form of written
communication, not sound. Perhaps that is why the conch shapes are appended to
the ends of the sheath.

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It is apparent that this black iron pen sheath was created
in a way that reflects the Tibetan environment, religion, and educated
community. Looking at all the details of the sheath, we can truly understand
that such artifacts allow us to understand a variety of elements of Tibetan
culture.

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The two hooks on the two parts of the sheath are located so
that the string can connect the two pieces. Therefore, when the cap was taken
off, it would remain connected as the user wrote. The thread on the current
sheath is not the original, for such material would have been difficult to
maintain. However, a string must have been present when the sheath was
originally used for there would have been no way to connect the two parts
otherwise. The holes are a bit large for just any type of string, so it is
likely that it was made out of the wool of a sheep or yak. Nomadic Tibetans are
known to have used all parts of the animal, and it was common practice for the
woold and hair of yak and sheep to be used toward making threads.

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While there is no decoration, it is clear that this sheath
has been hit a few times and utilized in a variety of environments. The pen
must have been  carried to many places
and used in multiple locations outside of a monastery, academic, or
professional setting. For example, the indentation in the cap of the sheath
could mean that the sheath was hit against a rough surface. Perhaps the user,
while traveling across the plateau, bumped into a rock. The sheath, mostly
likely tied onto the user in some way shape or form, would have also been hit
as a result of the collision. Iron is not deformed easily, so some type of
destructive action must have occurred to create such a mark on the sheath. Secondly,
the rust implies that the sheath was carried outdoors in damp weather. This
furthers our understanding of the sheath being used to protect writing utensils
as educated Tibetans traveled and spread information across the Central
region.

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This twentieth-century pen sheath was originally found in Central Tibet (Ütsang), and is currently stored in the Rare Books
Collection of the C.V.  Starr East Asian
Library in Kent Hall. The sheath’s multiple parts as well as the wooden writing
utensils do much more than describe the medium through which one conducted
written correspondence. Like a pocket protector or SpaceSaver pencil case, this
sheath reveals how much literate Tibetans valued their ability to transfer knowledge and communicate with the rest of their society and neighbors. Writing was an art that was obtained through delicate training in the monasteries, so it is without a doubt that
such a case was necessary to protect such a treasured possession. When he worked as
a Collection Specialist at Columbia University's C.V. Starr East Asian Library in 2006, current Columbia Tibetan language professor, Tenzin Norbu Nangsal, purchased
this object and many others of its kind, near Lhasa, Tibet. This is important, for large iron reserves are located near Lhasa. With
all of the details about this relatively simple administrative tool combined, we will see that we obtain a deep insight into the values and traditions of Tibetan culture. We also obtain an understanding of the sheath’s owner, for such a tool was specific to its user. Writing tools were always the private
property of the user, who made them or had them made in order fit his specific needs.

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Unlike other administrative tools in the collection, there is no metal clasp
on this pen sheath. This could further imply that the tool was used for utility
purposes and was not supposed to be a work of art. There are bulged holes for
the threads to interlock the cap of the pen and the body of the sheath. Thus,
while the point of the clasp would have been to keep the two parts of the
sheath together, the thread serves a dual purpose: to fasten two parts of the
sheath (cap and sheath) together and to allow its user to wear the sheath on his or her wrist.
Once again, there is an implication in this lack of a method for connecting the
two parts: the sheath was clearly used by an educated person, however this individual was not of an
extremely wealthy background.

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The sheath is made purely out of iron. Such a metal protected the wooden

pens from erosion as the monks traveled across Tibet. Currently, Tibet
hosts over a billion tons of high-grade iron, and it is for
these massive resources that China
has attempted to take overtake Tibetan lands in order to offset its own natural resource and
financial deficits. Because of these large amounts of iron, international
attention has been brought to the region. At least six major Canadian and
Australian mining companies have invested in China’s investments to operate and
obtain iron from across the Tibetan plateau. It should also not be a surprise
that Tibet has become China’s main victim in the country's vigorous pursuit for more iron. After all,
China
is the world’s largest importer of iron ore. Last year, it imported 326 million
tons of iron in order to drive its steel mills, construction projects, and auto
industries. Another important implication from Tibet's massive iron reserves is that the
price of high-grade iron has tripled in the past couple years; as a result,
development costs have also risen tremendously across the world. 
The main way to decrease these costs would be to find more iron; Tibet is the
answer. Tibet is the
solution which prevents China
from having to legally import iron from other countries; thus reducing any import costs it would otherwise have to pay. Currently, the  railway from China to Tibet leads to Lhasa,
an iron-rich region in Central Tibet. This
region can also be designated as the reason why China will always want to maintain a "leash" on Tibet and use its resources to
benefit itself as the burgeoning world power.

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When examining the other objects in the
collection, I found the other administrative tools to be the most similar in
design and purpose. The message board (samta)
was composed of a few large slabs of wood held together by a wide piece of leather.
The seal also had the shape of a conch. Administrative tools were probably
tools used mostly by monasteries or government officials; these are two
institutions which attempted to widely spread their message. All the administrative tools establish identity and provide a means of communicating information. The seal clarifies the identity of the sender, and the message board is held together lightly, so it can be transported. Thus, the purpose of the message board was not just to sit in the monastery but possibly to teach and educate, or to conduct business transactions as well.

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While the flat wooden writing utensils are relatively unmarred, it is
interesting to take notice of their edges. Three edges on both pens are clearly
sharpened, and the fourth corner is a bit dulled. The three sharpened edges could reveal the high
frequency with which these pens were used. I imagine writing often dulled the
edges of the pen quickly; thus, in order to save resources the author would
utilize all three edges of his pen. When all three edges became dull, then the
author would pull out his knife and sharpen his tool again. The fourth blunt
edge would probably have been used similarly to our modern version of an
eraser. The blunt edge could blur out any stray marks; unlike our eraser, this
“blunting” tool probably would have created an indentation in the paper upon
which the author wrote. The wood would actually scrape off layers of the paper
in order to erase the writing which already took place.

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The shorter lower part of the sheath serves as its base and also as the "container" for the pen. The the longer upper part serves as the cap of the pen. In order to utilize the pen, one would have to remove the longer part of the sheath. The author could then write holding the bottom part of the sheath. This means that
the pen would be fastened inside of the bottom sheath component.  This probably made it easier for the author to
write, for holding a sharp piece of wood would probably have interfered with
his writing efficiency. Moreover, holding the pen in the bottom part of the
iron sheath also probably prevented the pen from getting lost or damaged.

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The two flat quadrilateral pieces are actually the writing utensils. It
makes sense from visual perception that these are made out of wood. While in
modern times, our pencils are made out of compacted scraps of wood, these
“pencils” are made out of pure wood. Tibetan forests are the home of forests
full of birch trees (in Tibetan, the word is ‘stag-pa’). It was also possible
to have bamboo trees imported into the region from Tibet, however it does not look
like our pens were made out of bamboo. The wood is a firm wood and most likely
made out of birch, for that would be the best material to prevent the pen from being damaged when worked upon. 

Iron Pen Sheath

Object Details

Object Use: 
Administrative
Material: 
Iron | Metal (generic) | Wood
Notes: 
Tibetan term: Smyug sgrog. Currently in the Rare Books Collection, C.V. Starr East Asian Library.
Cultural Region: 
Central Tibet (Ütsang)
Date Range: 
20th
Image Date: 
2008