Kathasaritsagara (the Ocean of Story)

by Somadeva | 1924 | 1,023,469 words | ISBN-13: 9789350501351

This is the English translation of the Kathasaritsagara written by Somadeva around 1070. The principle story line revolves around prince Naravāhanadatta and his quest to become the emperor of the Vidhyādharas (‘celestial beings’). The work is one of the adoptations of the now lost Bṛhatkathā, a great Indian epic tale said to have been composed by ...

Betel-chewing has been known in Southern China from a very early date, and in all probability owes its existence to the introduction of Buddhism.

One of the early references is to be found in Nan shih, the biography of Liu Mu-chih (ob. 417), which was compiled in the seventh century.

In c. 15, fol. 2 v° we read[1]:

“Mu-chih used to go to his wife’s brothers’ house to sponge on them for meals. His wife was ashamed of this, but could not stop it. Mu-chih still went, and after the meal asked for areca-nut (pin-lang). Mu-chih [wife]’s brothers laughed at him and said: ‘Areca-nut makes food vanish [ i.e. accelerates digestion], that is why you are always hungry.’”

In T‘ang shu, the history of T‘ang, a.d. 600-900, is a description of the country of P‘an-p‘an in the Southern Sea, where “at all weddings they make presents of areca-nut.”

We get further information from Ling-wai-tai-ta, in which the author’s preface is dated 16th November 1178. In a paragraph on pin-lang (c. 8, fol. 3) he says:

“The fruit grows on the leaves, fastened to them in clusters, as on willow twigs. When gathered in the spring it is called juan-pin-lang (or soft areca-nuts), and is commonly known as pin-lang-sién (or fresh areca-nuts); it is then good to chew. When gathered in the summer or the autumn and dried it is called mi-pin-lang (or rice areca-nuts). Preserved in salt it is called yen-pin-lang (or salted areca-nuts). Small and pointed nuts are called ki-sin-pin-lang (or chicken heart areca-nuts), large and flat ones ta-fu-tzï (or big bellies).”

The above passage was repeated verbatim by Chau Ju-Kua in his Chu-fan-chī,[2] who describes the pin-lang as coming

“from several foreign countries,[3] also from the four districts of Hai-nan; it is likewise found in Kiau-chi. The tree resembles the coir palm.... When chewed, these nuts have the effect of preventing eructation. In San-fo-ts‘i they make wine out of the juice.”

He also borrows from Ling-wai-tai-ta in saying that the Customs at Canton and Ts‘üan-chóu derive an annual income of several tens of thousands of strings of cash from the trade carried on in this product by foreign ships. The “fresh nuts” and “salted nuts” come from there, whereas the ki-sin and the ta-fu-tzï varieties come mostly from Ma-i [the Philippine Islands].

In a chapter on Hainan Chau Ju-Kua describes the island as having mountains covered with areca- and coco-nut-palms, and that the areca-nuts are “extraordinarily plentiful.”

The great Chinese encyclopaedia, T‘u Shu Chi C‘êng, has several references to areca-nuts and betel-chewing. In quoting the passages it must be remembered that the encyclopaedia consists of long extracts or précis from Chinese works en masse, and not of comprehensive articles, such as are found in similar Western works.

Thus the Hsi han nan fang ts‘ao mu chuang states that

“Betel-nut is grown in Lin-i [Cambodia or Cochin China], and the natives prize it highly. When entertaining relations by marriage, this is the first thing they offer them, and if it is not produced when they happen to meet, bad blood will ensue.”

The above statement is repeated in Ch‘i min yao shu and other works. Pên ts‘ao kang mu describes the climate of the southern regions as very damp,

“and unless areca-nut be eaten, there is no way of warding off malaria.... The inhabitants of Ling-nan [Kuangtung and Tongking] use areca-nut in place of tea as a prophylactic against malaria.

Its virtues are fourfold:

  1. it can make sober men drunk;
  2. it can make drunk men sober;
  3. it can still the pangs of hunger;
  4. it can give an appetite for food.”

The above translations have been kindly made for me by Dr Lionel Giles, and are from xx, 285, of the T‘u Shu Chi Ch‘êng. (See his Index to the Chinese Encyclopædia.)

With regard to the use of the areca-nut in Chinese funerals, De Groot explains[4] how a kinsman or friend of the family clears the way through the streets at the head of the procession. When anything obstructs the passage, such as a stall of goods for sale, or a load set down by a coolie for rest, he requests the owner to remove it, at the same time offering him, by the hands of a coolie who follows at his heels, a piece of an areca-nut and a little wet lime-dough, wrapped in one or two siri leaves. This coolie, who wears no mourning, carries a basket of these articles for distribution. In Southern China the chewing of betel and siri as a stimulant seems to have been very common in bygone centuries, but it has now almost entirely died out, being supplanted, it would appear, by tobacco- and opium-smoking. Nevertheless, probably as a survival of those good old times, it is still customary for any man living at variance with another, in case he desires to apologise and accommodate matters, to send some of these articles to the latter’s house, like a flag of truce; and it would be considered highly improper on the part of the party to whom the hand of reconciliation is tendered in this way to refuse to accept the same. This fully explains why betel and siri are also distributed at funerals. Indeed, the clearer of the road confesses himself in the wrong with regard to the person whom he disarranges, and accordingly he immediately makes his apologies. In many instances, clearing the road is simply entrusted to the coolie alone; at most of the plainer funerals it is entirely omitted. At burials of the highest order it is customary to station men along the road to distribute siri leaves and areca-nuts amongst the notable persons walking in the procession.

Though most of them do not partake of these drugs, it would be inconsistent with good manners to refuse to accept them. So most men just hold them between their fingers, or give them away to the coolies or anybody who likes them.

In the Chinese Materia Medica, pp. 46-47, G. A. Stuart refers to the usually accepted theory that the Chinese name for areca-nut, pin-lang, is a transcription of the Malay pinang, but states that one authority, Li Shih Chen, says it means “an honoured guest,” and that the characters in question are used because of the practice of setting the betel-box before guests.

The betel-vine is said to grow in South China as far north as Szechuan. The leaves are used in Yunnan as a condiment.

Areca-nuts form one of the chief exports from Hainan, where there are large groves of the areca-palm, especially at Aichow and Lingshui. The trees are planted some fifteen feet apart, and bear fruit from the age of ten to ninety years. Their most prolific period is between their fifteenth and thirtieth year, when one tree will produce seven or eight hundred nuts, valued at about forty cents. Large herds of cattle are allowed to roam at will through the plantations, and their manure serves to fertilise the soil. The groves are said to be the seat of malaria, especially at the season when the trees are in flower. Hainan nuts are superior to those from Siṅgapore, which are imported for the purposes of adulteration.

In recent years it appears that the areca-palm is cultivated in Hainan only on a very small scale compared with the extensive cultivation in Indo-China. The Chinese soil and climate are not so suitable for its growth, owing to the excessive presence of moisture.

Apart from the use of areca-nuts in Southern China for chewing, and their connection with various ceremonies, such as weddings, etc., to which we have already referred, they are also eaten in different ways. They are generally cooked with chicken essence and served at the end of a meal as dessert, or else they are sliced thinly and rolled up in green herbage, accompanied by slices of fresh coco-nut.

In the years 1922-1924 the average tonnage of imported areca-nuts was 3175, while the export for the same years was 1219.

Footnotes and references:


I am indebted to the Rev. A. C. Moule for this translation, and also for the two following references.


Translated and annotated by Hirth and Rockhill, pp. 213-214.


In a report on the trade of Canton in 1834 (p. 451) it is stated that most of the “betel” imported into China came from Java, Malacca and Penang.


Religious System of China, vol. i, 1892, pp. 153-154 and 205.

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