The Chinese culture of “Wen-wan” (items with cultural symbols) began during the Han Dynasty (BC 200) and flourished throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties (AC 1368-1644, -1912). It was during this time that individuals would visit “Wen-wan” markets to purchase objects such as ‘hand therapy walnuts’, olive carvings or other hand strings made from valuable timber (often referred to as “Wen-wan” hand strings). Since then, a new type of “Wen-wan” hand string named “Bodhi bead” has appeared in markets and has become increasingly popular with its origins intricately linked to both “Wen-wan” and Buddhist culture. Beads are made using seeds or fruits from different plants, and through application of various processing methods (Li et al. 2014).

In Buddhism, the word “Bodhi” means “awakening” and was transliterated as Pu Ti in Chinese. Originally, Bodhi beads were used by Buddhists as a prayer tool for counting the number of prayers chanted while reciting mantra (similar to other prayer beads used by other world religions) (Li & Luo 2003). Nowadays, buyers in China use Bodhi beads as ornaments, collectibles or high-grade gifts. As a result of the market hype, the price of Bodhi beads has risen quite quickly, especially for beads which have been traditionally collected by people for many years.

In China, the most popular and expensive types of Bodhi bead are ‘traditional types’ such as “King Kong” and “Moon and Stars”. “King Kong” is made from the seeds of Elaeocarpus angustifolius Blume and it may be the earliest Bodhi bead which came to China from India. In India seeds of E. anugstifolius were called “Rudraksha” in the local language, meaning “eye of Shiva”. Usually, morphological characteristics of Bodhi beads are connected to its religious meaning. For example, the furrow of the hard and rugulose endocarp of “King Kong” are believed to symbolize the austere life expected of worshippers and different numbers of furrows represent different meanings (Lee 1998; Dublin 1987). “Moon and stars” is the hard and dense seed of Daemonorops jenkinsiana (Griff) Mart. The “Moon and stars” name reflects the small holes as the moon (ruminate endosperm), while the tiny black dots represent stars (seed embryo position) covering the seed’s surface. Unlike, “King Kong” it is believed that this type of Bodhi bead likely originated from native Chinese Buddhist culture (Li et al. 2014).

Bodhi maket

Bodhi market in Tibet. “Moon and star”, “Phoenix eye” and other beads are shown in this photo.

Today, Bodhi beads are made using various seeds and some fruits of plants. Between 2012 and 2013, we studied fifty-two common types of Bodhi beads and found that these items were made from 47 species (including 2 varieties), with most types belonging to the plant families Arecaceae and Leguminosae (Li et al. 2014).

Bodhi bead

“Eighteen seeds” Bodhi: it was made from the seeds of 18 different plant species including Afzelia xylocarpa, Choerospondias axillaris, Choerospondias axillaris, Eucalyptus exserta, and Lithocarpus corneus.

For the most part, seeds from members of the Arecaceae have ruminate endosperm and an undivided exocarps. These morphological characteristics combined with different processing methods has led to the development of different Bodhi bead styles. For example, part of the exocarp stuck to the ruminate endosperm of Caryota maxima’s seed forms a kind of filamentous pattern, as a result this type of Bodhi bead is called “Gold Thread”. The Bodhi bead “Bodhi Root” is made of the fruit of Corypha umbraculifera L. Upon removal of its peel and seed coat, a translucent, milky and hard endosperm is revealed. “Money Rat” Bodhi beads have three small holes which are the three germ pores at the base of bony endocarp of Syagrus romanzoffiana (Cham.) Glassman. The fruits of Wodyetia bifurcata A.K.Irvine have a fibrous mesocarp which in turn led to the name “Countless Ties” Bodhi bead.

Unlike members from the Arecaceae, seeds from Leguminosae species can be used directly to make Bodhi beads due to their very colorful, shiny and smooth texture. For example, the red “Red Heart” is made from Adenanthera pavonina L., the steel gray “Moon” is made of Caesalpinia bonduc (L.) Roxb., while the orange “Sun” is made of Caesalpinia major. Certain morphological characteristics have attracted buyers, for instance seeds from Afzelia xylocarpa (Kurz) Craib have hard, yellow, and intumescent seed stalks which can be used for carving.

Although there exists a diverse array of Bodhi beads available for purchase, those which become dark in color gradually and turn more glossy over time when cared for and carefully preserved are sought after by collectors as their value will increase. For instance, old Bodhi beads are known to present a jade-like texture especially in bead types such as “King Kong”, “Moon and stars” and “Bodhi Root”.


Picture of a prayer bracelet made from “moon and stars” bodhi

Nowadays, the value of Bodhi beads is far beyond the average cost of seeds used in agriculture, possessing a market value that is similar to other “Wen-wan” items such as olive nut carved beads or valuable wood beads. Although People want to buy and collect Bodhi beads for wearing or as an investment, the botanical source of Bodhi beads are often ignored. For example, our survey of local markets and e-commercial platforms located in China (six provinces total: Tibet, Yunnan, Fujian, Zhejiang, Beijing, and Guangdong) revealed that one endangered (Latania loddigesii Mart, Xian-Zhi) and two critically endangered species (Dracontomelon macrocarpum H.L.Li, Grimace; Cycas revoluta Thunb, Buddha-mind) are currently being sold (Li et al. 2014). In light of growing popularity for ‘Bodhi beads’ greater efforts are needed to monitor the conservation status as well as trade of species currently being sold.


Li Feifei in Tibet

Li Fei-fei is a scientist at the State Key Laboratory of Environmental Criteria and Risk Assessment, Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences. She received a PhD degree at the Sun Yat-sen University in China. As a postdoctoral researcher at the Minzu University in Beijing, China, she studies ethnobotany in the Tibetan region, focusing on the relationship between beliefs and biodiversity conservation.


Posted by Christina Turi