Friday, January 4, 2013

Tibetan For Kids: Let's Play "Sho"!

Mountain Phoenix' family playing Sho

Once in a while I go down to our basement to sort out old clothes and items we no longer use. Warm clothes and sturdy shoes go to Tibet. Old summer wear and kids' toys go to the Salvation Army or I try to sell them at a second-hand place and donate the earnings to a school in Tibet. My children love to accompany me on these cleaning-up operations as all sorts of forgotten toys reappear in the process and they play around with rediscovered toys while I sift through all the stuff.

During their latest basement adventure, our old Tibetan dice game set came to light, which my dad had made by hand. He and my granddad used to play it during happy family gatherings such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year. After they passed away, the thing somehow landed in my basement. With no one in my remaining family knowing how to play Sho I wanted to send the game to Tibet. But before I could put the game on the Tibet pile, the kids spied it: "Mami, di kharé rè? Khandres tsegorè? Ngantso tsenyi trosung – koooocheee!"

I explained that I didn't know how to play Sho. In my eyes it was a boring pastime for old men perhaps comparable to Boccia, which is what retired south European Polas play. - Well, if I didn't know, surely Aba knew how to play Sho? They insisted on taking the game upstairs to show their dad. To my surprise, he knew how to play the popular game from Central Tibet. And so he started to teach the kids.

These are the items you need for the game:
  1. A dice cup, the Shophor
  2. Plenty of sea shells, the Shobu or Dribu
  3. A round pad stuffed with Yak hair wool, the Shoten
  4. An underlay as buffer when the Shophor with the dice inside hits the Shoten: usually a saddle rug or Taden
  5. Two dice, the Sho
  6. Three different sets of coins (9 per set) for each player - the Lakhay
The rules of the game are straightforward: Each player selects his Lakhay, places them in the starting area and then puts the dice into the Shophor, shakes it well (sprug sprug btangba) and slams it on the Shoten. The next player lifts the cup to see what value (Shomig) you got; the highest roller goes first. It's played clock-wise with the player using the value of the dice to move their coin(s) forward. Since the game doesn’t use a board, the seashells serve as the counting stock.

The goal is to move each one's coins "home". On your way you must eliminate the other players by sending their coins back to the starting point or blocking their passage. Basically do things with your Sho Alter Ego that you are not supposed to do in real life as a well-behaved Buddhist, ha, ha! A very good description of the Sho rules is given on the website of Tibet Namchen Restaurant in Lhasa

We also found a free Sho App created by a Japanese developer. In order to sharpen their grasp of the rules of the game, the tactics and strategy, the kids are now occasionally allowed to play virtual Sho on the iPad. Here is a demo from Youtube. It’s really cute with the winner being cheered and accorded a good old Tibetan Khatag.

Technically, Sho is similar to a Parcheesi, a game I used to play as a kid. But the real thrill of Sho is not the game itself but the theatre coming out of the players during play. It’s packed colourful and humorous Sho terminology called sho bshas or Shobshè. Herein lies the real cultural wealth of the game because every region has its own Sho parlance, which is basically non-stop banter and witty humour that you unleash onto your playmates while you meaningfully shake the Shophor and let it hurtle down on the Shoten with your pitch getting higher and higher as the dice cup gets closer and closer to hitting the Sho-pad.

If you don’t have a witty saying ready, you simply go “dhig, dhig, dhig” as these guys in this Sho video from Youtube making yourself sound a bit like at cockrow with your voice almost breaking the moment your Shophor hits the Shoten.

Since it's so much fun to listen to Shobshè it draws a lot of bystanders who watch the game and laugh along. If you are really good player, they will say of you sho tshapo rtse gi red ("plays hot Sho") which means besides good gamesmanship you're also good at Shobshè.

In Sho terminology, every Shomig or value the dice show is known by a different name. 3 for instance would not just be gsum but “sugu” and 4 would not be bzhi but “tsigi”; 5 lnga would be “kha”; 6 drug would be “lug”; 7 bdun would be “ri”; 8 brgyad would be “sha”; 9 we don’t know but 10 bcu is "chu"; 11 bcu gcig is “doge” and 12 bcu gnyis is “jangpa”.  

We don’t know yet what these codes signify and they probably vary from region to region but the thing is you have to be able to make up a witty phrase containing the code for the value you are invoking when you shake the dice in the cup and the cup then comes smashing down on the pad. So it’s something linguistically challenging with every region using their own local sayings around these codes.

Since this is what gives Sho its particular appeal, my partner started to call around to find someone who could teach him more about Shobshè so he could then teach the kids. This is when we heard that there are little booklets on sale in Lhasa containing the Sho parlance popular in Central Tibet.  That was great news. These are cultural jewels which need to be protected and people were doing it. So our next goal has become to get hold of such a booklet and appropriate the new vocabulary so we would be in a position to teach our kids the real thing: Sho jargon!

A really nice plus of Sho is that it is a friendly, not very competitive game where the stake is reasonable such as buying the winner a beer, on that level. Camaraderie and having a good time are in the foreground. If you remember that Tibetans are sometimes capable of gambling away entire homes, Sho is very reasonable. Sho is also a mobile game, which can be carried with you wherever you go. It's mainly played outdoors on fine days for rest, relaxation and fun. You often find people sitting under a tree or on a meadow playing this old Tibetan game.


The other day, the Lhasan lady who lives in our neighbourhood, stopped by to bring us some homemade sweets and share the latest news from the Tibetan capital. When she saw how the kids got out the Sho-set asking their dad to play and she switched the topic exclaiming: "Ta Pala-la rogpa yakpo rashag!"

She obviously thought he taught the children so he would have gambling buddies to entertain himself. Where the lady comes from, gambling and senselessly killing time is so widespread it's considered a normal activity. But when she heard that he taught them the game so they could do simple calculations in Tibetan, she was very amused.

So this is the story how an old Tibetan parlour game called Sho became the latest addition to our collection of Tibetan language training tools for kids. And this particular tool could even be used to teach arithmetic in Tibetan on an elementary level. Once again I was taught better: Sho is not only for laid-back old males after all. It could be applied to teach kids how to work on their Tibetan without a major effort from the kids' side. Brilliant!

The crux is for you as the parents not to satisfy yourselves once your kid has understood the rules of the game. The real challenge is to naturally let the whole game take place in Tibetan language. So focus and prepare ahead. Make sure you have looked up all the words you don't know yourself or ask an authoritative native speaker. Then start to unleash the vocabulary on your kids naturally while playing. They will absorb it without even knowing it.

Some parents worry that asking their kids to retain Tibetan is an additional burden because children are already under pressure from regular school. Some more utilitarian-minded parents are also saying Tibetan is not one of the languages that look good on a CV. It's extremely important to fit in and perform well wherever you live, very true. And something like business administration looks definitely better on a CV than "Tibetan”, that’s clear as daylight. I wouldn't list Tibetan as an asset either when it's not relevant for a job. But I also say it's not a zero-sum game: Most of the time, the Tibetan thing is not something we do for the job; it's something we try to do for the family and the soul.  

Even when Tibetan is not a powerful business language, it can still have a positive effect on our overall ability to perform because multilingualism is said to cause structural differences in brain networks that enhance mental abilities. Just like a musician's brain can be altered by the long hours of practice needed to master an instrument, in people who are multilingual, biological differences in auditory nervous system appear and enhance attention and even working memory. That's a promise worth continuing to work on Tibetan, is it not?

And not only will your kids be multilingual but they are also said to become very good at determining what is and what is not relevant. They have a more resilient brain, are more proficient at multitasking and setting priorities. Perhaps they’re also better at withstanding ravages of age as a range of recent studies suggest. And they delay Alzheimer as they protect memory and are less likely to have cognitive problems.

Are these not very practical, utilitarian reasons for parents and children alike to keep our grip over the Tibetan language and deepen our knowledge from year to year? - Forget about the worry that learning more than one language will confuse a kid. It is an unfounded worry coming from monolingual folks who lack imaginative power.

The dice is cast. I won't send my old man's Sho-set to Tibet. It wasn't a good idea to begin with: They have more than enough gambling material there already. Instead, I will keep the game here letting my partner use it as a language and arithmetic training tool for our elementary age children.

With Losar around the corner the whole family will be together. After many, many Sho-less Tibetan New Years, once again it will be time to zestfully swing the dice-cup while murmuring magic words invoking defeat for the others and victory for oneself. This time around, the players will be a lot younger, but the groove will be the same.

Para sho, Para sho, Para sho!

Happy Losar everyone!
Mountain Phoenix

Related Essays
Tibetan For Kids - 10 Ways To Keep The Language Alive

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