Beer and the Buddhist monasteries of Dunhuang (10th century in China)



Dunhuang in the Tarim basin during the 10th century

Complete study


Beer in Dunhuang


Beer in Dunhuang
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Buddhism conquered another land of choice in the north of India, in the Tarim basin to the west of China, at the beginning of our era. The Kushan Empire contributed to its flourishing in this region of the world. Monasteries blossomed, Buddhist communities proliferated, actively supported by the local political powers. Several pilgrims in search of Buddhist teachings and texts crossed this region as early as the 4th century on their way to India (Faxian, Xuanzang, ...).

Between 1905 and 1910, archaeologists and sinologists of various nationalities discovered an extraordinary treasure trove of manuscripts in one of the Mogao caves, a very ancient Buddhist site encompassing dozens of cave-sanctuaries dug into a cliff in the oasis city of Dunhuang (Uighur Autonomous Province of present-day China) and decorated with murals.

Their deciphering and study has led to the reconstitution of an archive dating from the 10th century. It contains accounting records of the expenses and receipts of grain, cloth, oil, etc. of several monasteries in Dunhuang. These day-to-day or annual accounts are full of details about the daily life of Buddhist monks and nuns, their lay servants and the religious dignitaries who ruled the monasteries.

These economic archives reveal a surprising fact: religious and lay people made beer their daily beverage. This is true for the laity, peasants, pastors, craftsmen and merchants who all live even indirectly from the cultivation of cereals (millet, barley, wheat), the main economic resource of the region. But Buddhist discipline (Vinaya) recommends abstinence from fermented beverages.

Why do nuns and monks drank beer so often? They share communal meals or banquets watered down with beer, organise religious ceremonies that end with beer drinking. Buddhist dignitaries themselves do not disdain sharing a beer horn, going to a tavern or receiving political emissaries with jars of beer.

The accounts of the monasteries deciphered and studied by Éric Trombert provide the first steps towards an answer[1]. The Buddhist communities are major economic players, fully integrated into the multicultural society of a region crossed by the Silk Road. Its main economic resource remains cereal growing (millet, wheat, barley). Beer is one of its expressions. It is at once a daily beverage, a beverage for exchanging work against payment in kind, a beverage laden with cultural values (sowing or harvest festivals, beverage offered during diplomatic receptions), and even a sacrificial beverage.

According to the texts, monks and nuns own nothing except their clothing and a bowl of alms. In contrast, the saṃgha, the inalienable and permanent property of the Buddhist community, owns everything (monasteries, sanctuaries, farmland, granaries, mills, families, slaves, etc.). The saṃgha is a source of prosperity, of relative economic autonomy from the secular authorities, and of endurance through political turmoil. This socio-economic reality explains the a priori divergent picture depicted by the Dunhuang archives about beer. In everyday life, the Buddhist sphere and the secular world are intertwined and closely dependent[2].

On brewing beer ratios according to social status
Beer brewing ratios in Dunhuang

In addition to the great Buddhist celebrations that punctuate the year, during which beer flows freely, other less solemn occasions are attended by collective meals and distributions of beer drunk by monks, nuns, monastery dignitaries and their lay staff. Beer seems to be the only fermented beverage consumed in the Dunhuang region, as it is in the whole of China. We learn in passing that both men and women specialise in brewing and trading beer.


1.    The volumes of grain processed into beer by the monasteries.

To brew beer (酒, jiu), most people in Dunhuang use husked millet (mi) from the two unhulled species (men and su), then wheat and barley combined in the same category (mai = wheat/barley), or wheat alone (xiaomai), or barley alone (qingmai = naked barley, damai = dressed barley), or a mixture of these three cereals (Trombert 1999, 178-179).

Two full annual accounts are available for the years 924 and 930. Expenditure on grain for brewing beer during these two years amounts to 27.5% and 22.4% respectively of the total grain used for food purposes.

Annual grain account of the Jingtu monastery for the years 924 and 930 (Trombert 1999, 133-135)
Year 924 For food (1)  42,4 hl 58%
For beer (2) 16,3 hl 23% (27,5% 1+2)
Other uses of grain* 14,5 hl 19%
Total expenditure  73,2 hl   
Year 930 For food (1) 60 hl 37%
For beer (2)  17,4 hl 11% (22,4% 1+2)
Other uses of grain  85,2 hl 52%
Total expenditure  162,6 hl   
  * Vinegar, bran for animals, barter of grain for goods, ...


In 939, the monastery of Jingtu consumed 33.6 hl of grain for beer during a year of major building work which resulted in a higher consumption of beer. It remains within the same range in relation to the total volume of grain used for food. In 942, the same monastery spent between 9% and 15% of the 384 hl of grain spent in the year on beer.

The proportion of grain used for brewing beer has remained relatively steady over the years. However, the volumes of beer are small in absolute terms. If we estimate that one litre of grain produces about 3 litres of beer with the brewing method described below (How do we brew in Dunhuang?), an average expenditure of 20 hl of grain corresponds to 6000 litres of beer/year, or 16 litres/day, a tiny volume compared to our modern consumption. A large monastery like Jingtu has between 10 and 20 monks plus servants. Although beer is shared between monks and servants, the former drink moderately or not at all outside of banquets and Buddhist celebrations held by their community.

    The detailled study :  The volumes of grain processed into beer by the monasteries


2.    Who brews beer in Dunhuang?

Monasteries obtain beer in three ways: brewing beer on their own (臥酒, wo jiu), buying beer from 'professional' brewers (沽酒, gu jiu), and bartering grain for finished beer (苻本臥酒, fu ben wo jiu, delivering/transferring [the] base/material [to] make the beer).

The first two means, making or buying beer, break down as follows for the year 924:

 Litres of grain split between brewing and buying beer for the year 924 (Trombert 1999, 138)
Year 924   Brewing Buying beer Total %
Millet 732  534 1266 73%
Wheat/barley 258 0 258 15%
Crushed wheat/barley 210 0 210 12%
Total  1200 534 1734 100%
69%  31% 100%  

The three means, making, buying or bartering beer, break down as follows for the year 930:

Litres of grain split between brewing, buying beer and bartering grain for the year 930 (Trombert 1999, 138)
Year 930   Brewing Buying beer Grain barter Total %
Millet 624  216 378 1218 75%
Wheat/barley 405 0 0 405 25%
Total  1029 216 378 1623 100%
64% 13% 23% 100%  


Millet is the grain of choice when a monastery wants to buy beer or barter grain for its beer equivalent. In both cases, the beer is brewed by specialists or traders who use the millet to brew beer that they supply to monasteries or sell in taverns or stalls to their customers.

For the monasteries, home brewing is still the main way of obtaining beer (69% to 64% of the annual grain volume). It is brewed with millet or wheat/barley from their granaries. These two types of beer reflect different qualities, with wheat/barley beer being considered superior. Some brews mix millet and wheat/barley, while others use only barley or wheat. The latter categories of beer are the most highly regarded, judging by the social status of the recipients.

Those who brew the beer purchased or bartered for millet by the Buddhist monasteries are families who have been entrusted with this office by the political authority. The brewers have their own premises (dian) to brew, sell and serve beer on the spot to the craftsmen employed by the monastery. Some accounts from 982 state that musicians, monks and monastic rectors went to drink beer in a beer shop (jiusi). There were several such shops in the city of Dunhuang at the same time:

" 36 litres of wheat/barley to go to Chongzi's shop to buy beer " and " 30 litres of millet to buy beer at Zhao's shop " (Trombert 1999,139).

Jiusi (酒司), "beer-office", can be translated as "brewery", since beer is brewed and sold there exclusively. The people in charge of it are called jiuhu (酒戶), lit. "beer-family". In the 8th-9th centuries, jiuhu referred to families who owed beer duties to monasteries. In the 10th century, these jiuhu are also peasants, small civil servants (yaya), modest masters of vinaya, the Buddhist discipline.

These jiuhu, suppliers of beer, were economically and socially dependent on the monasteries and political authorities who bought beer, but could also provide the material (grain, jars, fuel, ferments) and the premises (dian) for brewing. There were also millers (weihu) and oil pressers (lianghu) attached to the service of the monasteries (Trombert (1999,141). An account of 982 records about 30 loans of millet and wheat/barley to nine different people for brewing beer, beer suppliers but also 3 falü, small ecclesiastical dignitaries of the Jingtu monastery.

The female brewers Yang the Seventh and Ma the Third are named in the accounts as responsible for the grain supplied by the monastery to brew beer in return :  

Yang the Seventh: "On the 11th of the 9th month of the year gengyin (990), we went to the Beifu estate; we supplied 1260 litres of millet as jiuben to Yang the Seventh, and 1260 litres of millet as jiuben to Cao Fuyuan, and 300 litres of hemp seed for autumn milling " (Trombert 1999, 139 et 174).

    The detailled study :  Who brews beer in Dunhuang


3.    How is beer brewed in Dunhuang?

The brewing method is amylolytic ferments (qu, 麴). They are made by mixing a paste of cooked grains with roots or stems of plants that harbour microscopic fungi rich in amylases. When the mycelium of these fungi has covered the grain pellets or cakes, these are dried. When brewing, these ferments are mixed with the batch of cooked grains. At the same time, they liquefy this mixture (saccharification of the starch) and trigger the alcoholic fermentation of the released sugars.

These dry beer-ferments (beer starters) can be stored for several years. They were traded actively and profitably in the form of whole or powdered cakes. The Tang dynasty strictly regulated this trade, which was a source of profit for the imperial state. In the early 9th century (the time of the 1st Tibetan rule (787-848), an account mentions patties (bing, 饼) of beer ferments. "[Expenditure] 6 litres of wheat/barley, 6 litres of millet, two cakes of ferment (qu liang bing, 麴两饼)". The purpose is illegible (Trombert 1999,155-157). There are two possible explanations for the use of these beer-ferments: 1) they are used to brew beer according to the usual brewing method 2) these ferments and the 12 litres of grain are used to make new beer ferments. It is indeed common practice to crumble ferment patties to make new ones. This is a convenient way to inoculate 12 litres of cooked grain to replenish the beer ferments stock.

Who makes these beer ferments? This essential question remains unanswered for lack of explicit mentions in the monastery accounts. One of the accounts of the departmental granary of Shazhou (P. 2763 R° 3) mentions beer-ferments (qu) supplied with grains to brew beer. But these same ferments are not found in the expenses. We can infer that they were made on the spot and not bought from ferment sellers. Is this the general rule for Dunhuang monasteries?

The table provided by the Shazhou granary is exceptional: "Supply of foodstuffs made before the 12th month of the year chen (788) to the kitchens in charge of banquets to make beer: 32 piculs 2 bushels 4 sheng" (Trombert 1999, 178. 1 picul=60l, 1 bushel=6l, 1 sheng=0,6l). He gives two deliveries of beer ferments by means of which one can estimate the proportion of ferments/total grain volume after their distribution among the 5 brews: no. 1 = 22 litres, no. 2 = 44 litres (due to the volume of the grains), no. 3 to 5 = 38 litres each. For the first 2 brews, 12% ferment is used, in the last 3 9.6%.

This table reveals another surprising piece of information: the proportion of the different grains is perfectly regular. The Dunhuang brewers mastered their recipes.

Standard proportions of grains to brew beer for the Shazhou banquet kitchens, excluding beer ferments.
  Hulled millet Barley Flour Bran
1st and 2nd brews 37% 37% 11% 15%
3rd, 4st and 5st brews    74% 11% 15%


The high proportion of bran in these brews is noteworthy. The husks of millet or barley grains carry wild yeasts. The bran also prevents the fermented mash from being compacted and hard to sieve through the cotton, wool or silk fabrics used at the time.

Cereal bran, mixed with ground grain, is also used to make vinegar (cu 醋) in Dunhuang: 180 litres used in the 924 annual account (Trombert 1999, 134). Cereal hulls also harbour acetic and lactic acid bacteria.

    The detailled study :  How is beer brewed in Dunhuang?


4.    When and why do we drink beer in Dunhuang?

The economic activities of the laity in connection with the monasteries.

Many craftsmen and peasants work for the monasteries and receive compensation in kind: grain, beer, cloth, oil, etc. The examples below also show cases of brews made by mixing barley/wheat + millet:

In 939 for lumberjacks: "When felling timber at Jiang Suohu estate, 3 litres of wheat/barley and as much millet to make beer" (Trombert (1999,149).
"For the food of the monks when felling wood to make beams at the Wu Xiangzi estate, 3 litres of flour, 6 of coarse flour, 4.5 litres of wheat/barley and 4.8 of millet to make beer. For the woodcutters at the Luo dutou estate, 3 litres of wheat/barley and 3.6 litres of millet to make beer" (Trombert (1999,149-150).

For the shepherds: "For the shepherds, 45 litres of millet and 9 litres of wheat/barley to make and buy beer three times" (Trombert (1999,150).

Image of ploughing painted on the south wall of the cave 85

For harvesters, monks or laymen in 970: '36 litres [of grain] purchase of a jar of beer to quench the monks who harvested the wheat/barley fields of the Canal estate' (Trombert (1999,167).

Les repas s’accompagnent presque toujours de bière selon un rapport normal 3 / 1 entre nourriture et boisson (Trombert (1999,170). Sashen ceremonies stand on the borderline between the economic activities sponsored by the monasteries and the religious function of the monks. The construction or repair of a mill, a craftsman's workshop, a sowing, a harvest, a shearing of sheep, various agricultural works all call upon the monks to bless the beginning or the completion of these undertakings (Trombert 1999,165). These saishen do not take place without brewing beer for the attendees. Possibly some of this beer is used for sacrificial libations (see below).


The religious activities of the buddhist monasteries.

Beer is especially brewed and drunk collectively during strictly religious and Buddhist festivals and ceremonies such as the festival on the 8th day of the 2nd month in honour of the Buddha (in the middle of winter) and the Avalambana in honour of deceased souls (from the 14th to the 17th day of the 7th month, in the middle of summer). Other celebrations have a secular character such as the Lunar New Year, the Lantern Festival, the Cold Eating, the Winter Solstice. They provide an opportunity to drink beer.

Eric Trombert was able to isolate the expenditure for the annual ceremonies of the Buddhist calendar for the years 924 and 930[3]. The expenditure on grain for brewing beer is significant compared to the expenditure on grain or oil consumed for purely food purposes.

Details of the expenditure of grain to brew beer during the festival on the 8th day of the 2nd month are known. This beer rewards and feeds the laymen, monks and nuns who make the preparations, repair the Buddha statues, canopies, banners, processional carts, etc. that will be displayed and will paraded during the ceremonies.

The Avalambana in honour of the departed souls is coupled with an evening preaching. The monastery brews beer on the 15th of the 7th month for the Buddhist dignitaries and lay people in attendance (Trombert 1999,165).

The lean banquets (zhai) of the monks are also watered with beer (Trombert (1999,161). In 930: "2100 litres of wheat/barley ground into flour to make beer (weimian wojiu) for the lean banquet of the monks of the accounting meeting on the 2nd year [changxing era]" (Trombert (1999,154). Similarly, the reading of Sūtra given in different parts of the city on the 12th month (Trombert (1999,160).

Beer is not only the beverage of collective meals. It serves as a sacrificial offering, integrated into the rites that are closely related to the agrarian cycle. Beer offerings are made during the Cold Eating and the Winter Solstice, two celebrations inherited from the Chinese religious background and integrated into the Dunhuang calendar. Beer symbolises the abundance of grain, the hope of the coming harvest and the rebirth of nature at the winter solstice under the benevolence of the agrarian fertility deities. One brews "beer for sacrificial offerings and prayers (jibai jiu)" (Trombert (1999,164).

The Alang (prince-governor of the Dunhuang district) buys beer for the trays of offerings to the deities of the Chinese pantheon and the great figures of Sinicised Buddhism. Funeral rituals include beer as an offering beverage, whether the deceased is secular or religious, a jar of beer in one case or the equivalent of 18 litres of grain in another (Trombert (1999,166).

The diplomatic activities of Buddhist monasteries.

Foreign dignitaries, Cave 85, Tang dynasty 618–907 CE.

Beer jars or horns are offered to Buddhist or lay dignitaries on certain codified occasions. A beer horn welcomes a senglu (middle-ranking cleric) from nearby Shouchang. The beer horns seem to have meant "welcome" and "brotherhood". They are also distributed among teams of workers or as a beer ration to nun-cooks and men who have sewn skins.

Beer jars are given as ceremonial gifts. "On the 6th of the 11th month of the 4th qingtai year (December 937), Longbian general administrator of the dusengtong (saṃgha) of the Shazhou region and his two acolytes Huiyun and Shaozong thank the sikong [prince-governor of the Dunhuang region] for sending them seasonings and two jars of wheat/barley beer" (Trombert (1999,152).

In 982, the Jingtu monastery bought beer 'to be served to the prefect's wife or daughter'.

The detailled study :  When and why do we drink beer in Dunhuang?


5.    How is beer drunk in Dunhuang?

Man throwing a pot on a wheel (cave 85, Lankavatara Sutra on the eastern ceiling slope of the main chamber)

Beer is brewed, sold and probably consumed in jars whose capacity can be estimated according to the average volumes of grain, most often multiples of 42 litres (Trombert 1999,143). After hulling (millet), crushing, boiling the grain and adding the beer ferment to them, the final volume of the fermented batch is between 50 and 60 litres. This is probably the volume of a large beer jar or 2 small ones containing 25-30 litres.

An account of the general administration of the saṃgha dated in the middle of the 10th century provides an equivalence between grains and beer jars: '2100 litres of wheat/barley crushed into flour (wei baimian), and 1008 into sifted flour (wei luomian) to make 30 beer jars' (Trombert (1999,154). It must be assumed that only the sifted flour was used for brewing: 1008 litres/30 = 33.6 litres of flour/beer jar. Again the estimated capacity of a beer jar ≈ 40-50 litres after brewing the flour.

The accounts of two brewers working for the Dunhuang government in 887 indicate that a weng jar of beer was exchanged for 36 litres of grain (Trombert 1999, 151, n. 27). In 970, the accounts of a monastery indicate '36 litres [of grain] for the purchase of a jar of beer' (Trombert 1999, 167). In both cases, we are dealing with a smaller jar.

Drinking collectively from these jars involves the use of a straw or beer-pipe to draw out the liquid portion. In contrast, drinking individually from cups or bowls involves diluting and filtering the fermented and clarified mash beforehand.

There is a third way of drinking beer: the beer horn. It obviously reflects the share of pastoral activities in the regional economy of the Tarim basin. Drinking horns are part of the domestic but also honorary tableware. Nothing is known about their origin (goat, cattle, antelope?). Antelope horns are part of the ceremonial gifts, along with perfumes, aromatics and jade (Trombert 1999, 152-152). Perhaps decorated or engraved, they contain only a few litres of beer.

The Dunhuang lay administration 'spent a horn of beer for the people who sewed the skins' (Trombert 1999, 152-153, quoted above). On the 27th of the 11th month of 930, a horn of beer was served to welcome the senglu from Shouchang (Trombert 1999,163-164). In the 2nd month of 982, the rector Li of a monastery was given a horn of beer to oversee the sowing of wheat/barley (Trombert 1999,167, n. 58). Some ācārya[4] nuns worked for 2 days to prepare a feast and each receive a horn of beer (Trombert 1999, 173).


    The detailled study :  How is beer drunk in Dunhuang?




[1] Trombert Éric (1999). Bière et bouddhisme : la consommation de boissons alcoolisées dans les monastères de Dunhuang aux VIIIe-Xe siècles. Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie, vol. 11, 1999. Nouvelles études de Dunhuang. Centenaire de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. pp. 129-181.

[2] The Buddhist faith is not in question, as the number of caves used for prayer and meditation, or their decorations financed by rich donors, proves. For Buddhism, there are several degrees of perfection according to the individuals in one of their existences. There are also different ways of living with non-Buddhists. Dogmatism and conversions by violence are not part of its arsenal. The economic history of Buddhism in China has been studied by J. Gernet (1956) Les aspects économiques du bouddhisme dans la société chinoise du Vè au Xè siècle, Publications de l’EFEO, Vol XXXIX, Paris.

[3] Trombert Éric (1996). La fête du 8ème jour du 2ème mois à Dunhuang, in De Dunhuang au Japon. Etudes chinoises et bouddhiques offertes à Michel Soymié, (J-P Drège éd.), Hautes Etudes Orientales 31, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris, 25-72.

[4] ācārya are spiritual teachers or preceptors.

18/06/2012  Christian Berger