Dragons, Monk’s Caps, and Butter Tea: The Duomuhu

7 minute read

A first glance at the object below is likely to strike one with a sense of curiosity. Firstly, the unique truncated form this vessel takes is probably not a shape most of us are accustomed to seeing in the liquid containers that we use at home today, or even among displays of other vessels in museums.

An intricately decorated vessel with a handle, spout, and a cap. The handle is in the shape of a dragon, the spout emerges from the mouth of another creature, and the vessel cap looks like one worn by people. There are intricate carvings of dragons throughout the body of the vessel.

Figure 1: Side profile of a 多穆壶 (duomuhu), made out of repousse brass, with bronze spout and handle. Tibet. Donated by Lady Caroline Schuster. MAA 1947.771.

Secondly, the imposing dragon motif in this object, carved onto the body, the handle, and even the base of the spout, is an unmissable feature that clearly speaks to some form of auspicious symbolism.

A collage of two images of detailed views of the duomuhu. On the left is a close-up of its cap, showing the carved face of a dragon. On the right is a detail of one side of its body, showing similar carved faces of dragons.

Figures 2 and 3. Left – A detail of the cap of the 多穆壶 (duomuhu), featuring the image of a dragon head. Right – A detail of its side profile, depicting two dragons. Tibet. Donated by Lady Caroline Schuster. MAA 1947.771.

The MAA catalogue describes this object as an ‘ewer of truncated, conical shape’, acquired by the donor Lady Caroline Schuster and her husband Arthur Schuster on their visit to Tibet, before being accessioned into MAA’s collections in 1947. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, an ewer is ‘a large jug with a wide spout, especially from ancient times’. This jug is indeed large, standing at 30 centimetres tall, but it has an interesting S-shaped narrow spout on the side to pour its contents. I had a feeling that rather than a simple, unassuming ewer, this distinctive vessel probably belongs to a specific class of Tibetan vessels.

A quick look at similar-looking objects in museum catalogues from Taiwan and China, as well as private collectors’ websites, gave me a clear diagnosis of the mysterious vessel – this is a 多穆壶 (duomuhu), marked by its distinctive truncated form, monk’s cap feature on the top, S-shaped spout, and dragon-shaped handle.

The monk’s cap feature is named after its resemblance to the headpieces worn by Tibetan Buddhist monks. There is a similar class of Tibetan ewers known in Chinese as 僧帽壶 (sengmaohu), literally ‘monk’s cap ewers’. But while they share the monk’s cap feature with the 多穆壶 (duomuhu), the 僧帽壶 (sengmaohu) lack the signature S-shaped spout and straight truncated body of the 多穆壶 (duomuhu). In contemporary contexts, 多穆壶 (duomuhu) are used in Tibet largely only on special occasions to serve བོད་ཇ་ (bod ja) which is Tibetan yak butter tea, or alcohol.

A top-down view of the cap of the duomuhu.

Figure 4: Top-down view of the monk’s cap feature of the 多穆壶 (duomuhu). Tibet. Donated by Lady Caroline Schuster. MAA 1947.771.

Before we get into the history of the ewer, some etymological issues should first be clarified. The 多穆壶 (duomuhu) is named after either the Tibetan butter tea churn མདོང་མོ (mdong mo), or the Mongolian milk tea vessel домбо (dombu). The precise origins of the ewer are still contested, although many contemporary Chinese academics argue that a Mongolian origin is more plausible. It is, however, known for certain that the form of the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) became relatively standardised when it and other artefacts of Tibetan Buddhist material culture were appropriated by the early Qing emperors and mass produced in China proper during the Manchu-led Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Its name was probably acquired through the transliteration of the Tibetan མདོང་མོ (mdong mo) or Mongolian домбо (dombu) into the Manchu domo or dongmo and then, as the Beijing dialect of Mandarin started becoming the lingua franca of the Qing, the Mandarin name 多穆壶 (duomu-hu, hu being a suffix meaning ‘vessel’), became the most widely used in referring to this class of ewers.

I thus use the ‘Chinese’ name 多穆壶 (duomuhu) here not to elide the object’s Mongolian/Tibetan origins, but as a lingua franca term that foregrounds how its history is constituted by a complex system of interactions between these different ethnic groups. Man Zeyang further discusses the ambiguities surrounding the Tibetan and Mongolian ‘equivalent’ terms for 多穆壶 (duomuhu), which in contemporary use refer more commonly to the prototypical tea-brewing vessels from which the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) developed.

On coming across the specific 多穆壶 (duomuhu) at MAA I wondered: how and why exactly did this Mongolian/Tibetan-influenced ewer become such a significant category of drinkware in the history of the Chinese empire? We might begin by considering how the form of the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) shifted over different dynasties, and then reflecting on what this tells us about the changing relationships between the Han, Manchu, Mongolian, and Tibetan people across the Yuan (1271–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1912) Dynasties.

The earliest known ewer resembling the standard 多穆壶 (duomuhu) form is a Yuan dynasty blue-white porcelain ewer at the Capital Museum in Beijing. During this time 多穆壶 (duomuhu) were generally simpler in design and smaller in size, taking on ‘nomadic features’ meant to emulate a simple, mobile, and nomadic lifestyle. Significantly, we may observe that the monk’s cap feature is at this point located adjacent to the handle, in contrast to our object in question which has its monk’s cap feature located on the same side of the spout. The reason why 多穆壶 (duomuhu) emerged and became more widely produced in China during this period was probably because the Yuan dynasty was ruled by a Mongolian royal family, who instituted Tibetan Buddhism as the state religion. Given the popular theory that 多穆壶 (duomuhu) were based on the Mongolian домбо (dombu) milk tea vessels, it is understandable why they first emerged in the Yuan.

In the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) however, the case was drastically different. There have been very few reliably dated 多穆壶 (duomuhu) dating to the Ming dynasty, and there are no records that show the Ming administration making use of these vessels. This suggests that they went out of production then. We can directly link this to the change in administration; the Ming was ruled by Han people, who had a different policy towards the people on the borders than the Yuan administration before. Shen Weirong highlights how the Ming elite had an attitude of ‘accommodating barbarians from afar’, seeing Tibetans and Mongols as two of eight barbarian peoples who had to be differentiated from the civilised Han people. The Han elite and commoners rejected many aspects of Tibetan culture, condemning Tibetan Buddhism as evil magic, and regarding Tibetan monks as troublemakers, while Mongols were deemed threats to the Ming state since the Ming dynasty was founded after the overthrowing of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty.

It is surprising, then, that there are in fact a few 僧帽壶 (sengmaohu) which date to the Ming dynasty. These mostly originate from the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402–1424), one of the only Ming emperors who actively sought to improve Ming-Tibet relations, inviting Deshin Shekpa, the fifth Karmapa, to the imperial palace and bestowing on him various gifts of religious significance. Such 僧帽壶 (sengmaohu) were manufactured in Jingdezhen, China’s ‘Porcelain Capital’, and were most likely used in ceremonies hosted at the palace when receiving esteemed guests from Tibet. But the absence of 多穆壶 (duomuhu) is curious indeed. Perhaps 多穆壶 (duomuhu) were deemed too similar to the Mongolian домбо (dombu), and thus stigmatised and banned along with all other aspects of Mongolian culture?

An illustration in which a leader is having a big meal, seated on platform, with two large umbrellas on either side of him. Servants are shown all around carrying food and drinks, a sword, laughing, or with their hands closed as if praying or begging.

Figure 5: 额亦都招九路长见太祖 (Eyidu invites the chief of the Jiulu to meet Emperor Taizu of Qing, Nurhaci). In the bottom left corner of the painting, there is a table holding food and drink in a 多穆壶 (duomuhu). A page from 满洲实录 (Records of Manchuria, 1635). Source: Anonymous (2022). Start from Nie Shi Town and conquer the world!. Sohu.

Towards the late-Ming, a Manchu painting (see bottom left) depicts 多穆壶 (duomuhu) still being in use among the Manchu people inhabiting the Northeast region. In this painting, the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) is now as tall as about ⅓ of a person’s height. The spout seems to have become longer and curved too. The painting shows the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) being used to serve drinks at a banquet. This suggests that at this point, it had already acquired significant prestige and was regarded as a status symbol to be present at important occasions. As another group of people who were deemed as barbarians by the ruling Han, the Manchus kept 多穆壶 (duomuhu) culture alive, perhaps silently communicating their solidarity with the Mongols and Tibetans.

In the succeeding Qing dynasty (1644–1912) ruled by Manchu people, the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) experienced its most dramatic growth in popularity and production. The Manchus carried the culture of 多穆壶 (duomuhu) into this next dynasty. Notably, the Kangxi Emperor (1654–1722) revived Tibetan Buddhism due to his personal interest in Buddhism and Tibetan culture. With the introduction of the tributary system, elaborate and intricate goods like the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) became even more important as they served as gifts exchanged between the royal administration and the Tibetan elite to establish good relations. As such, it is natural that it was during this period that the decoration of 多穆壶 (duomuhu) flourished, incorporating prominent colourful and texturally-diverse Qing porcelain styles like the 素三彩 (susancai or tri-colour). 多穆壶 (duomuhu) made from metal and clay also became fashionable. All these were mostly produced in Jingdezhen.

It is also here that we begin to see the monk’s cap feature of the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) becoming located on the same side as the spout. Why did this change occur? Some theorise that this is for practical reasons. Perhaps people realised that the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) was prone to spillage, and moved the monk’s cap feature to help catch any potential spills. However, Yang Xiaoyu’s theory is more interesting. He hypothesises that this monk’s cap feature resembles the Five-Buddha Crown worn by senior Buddhist monks, and the decision to move the monk’s cap feature towards the front of the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) could be inspired by how the Five-Buddha Crown is worn on the front of the forehead. This is certainly possible considering the high prestige associated with Buddhism and its material culture at this point in time.

Next, under the Qianlong Emperor’s (1711–1799) rule during the Qing dynasty, the design elements of the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) continued to be further developed. The monk’s cap feature expanded in size, and Buddhist motifs became even more explicit and commonplace. For instance, this 多穆壶 (duomuhu) features the Buddhist Eight Treasures interwoven throughout the body of the jug in the 粉彩 (fencai) style, a style of painting pastel colours on top of the glaze known in the West as famille rose, popular during Qianlong’s reign. The inclusion of overt Buddhist imagery suggests the increasing use of the ewer in monasteries as 法器 (faqi) or Buddhist ritual instruments at a time when the emperor was ordering the construction of several new temples and monasteries. During this period, dragon-shaped handles and spouts also became more popular, as dragons symbolise power and grandeur in Tibetan Buddhism, further cementing the status of the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) as a Buddhist artefact.

A collage of two images showing dragons on the handle of the duomuhu (left), and at the base of the spout (right).

Figures 6 and 7. Left – Dragon-handle of the 多穆壶 (duomuhu). Right – Dragon at the base of the spout of the 多穆壶 (duomuhu). Tibet. Donated by Lady Caroline Schuster. MAA 1947.771.

After the reign of the Jiaqing Emperor (1760–1820) who succeeded the Qianlong Emperor, 多穆壶 (duomuhu) became less common both in the empire and in the peripheral regions. There is little academic writing on why this was the case. I think that this was because the next Daoguang Emperor’s (1820–1850) reign was a period of political tumult both externally and internally, marked by the First Opium War (1839–1842) and the start of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864). War and chaos probably made it difficult to transport fragile ceramic goods like the 多穆壶 (duomuhu), or perhaps these vessels were categorised as impractically opulent use of resources during wartime.

Today, 多穆壶 (duomuhu) are seen as rare and prized collector’s items in China due to their expansive historical value and symbolism. Among Tibetans, the more accessible forms of 多穆壶 (duomuhu) are wooden and metal ones, the former of which is typically used to serve བོད་ཇ་ (bod ja) at home, while the latter is more commonly used to serve alcohol during important ceremonies like weddings. It is likely that the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) in MAA’s care had also served the same purpose given its material, and considering its relatively muted religious symbolism compared to the Qianlong-era ones.

Questions of where it originated and how it arrived at MAA aside (for this see Mark Elliott’s post), the 多穆壶 (duomuhu) is a beautiful item symbolic of the connections between the different ethnic groups in and around China, and certainly tells a captivating story about how these relationships have evolved over time.


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