Signs of Authority in the Mongol Empire

Christopher P. Atwood

Mongol Messenger Paiza (Gerege) in Pakpa Script; Mongol Empire/Yuan dynasty (1206–1368), late 13th–early 14th century; iron with silver inlay; 7 1/8 × 4 1/2 in. (18.1 × 11.4 cm); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 1993.256; CC0 – Creative Commons (CC0 1.0)

Mongol Messenger’s Badge (Paiza or Gerege) in Pakpa Script

Mongol Empire/Yuan dynasty late 13th–early 14th century

Mongol Messenger Paiza (Gerege) in Pakpa Script; Mongol Empire/Yuan dynasty (1206–1368), late 13th–early 14th century; iron with silver inlay; 7 1/8 × 4 1/2 in. (18.1 × 11.4 cm); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 1993.256; CC0 – Creative Commons (CC0 1.0)

Summary

Communication and command over resources were keys to control for the Mongols, rulers of the largest land-based empire in world history. At the order of Qubilai Khan, the Tibetan lama Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen designed a script that could represent the sounds of all the languages in the empire. Historian Christopher Atwood tells the story of a bronze tablet inscribed in this Tibetan-derived script, which gave its bearer power to commandeer horses and accommodation along the Mongol postal roads.

Key Terms

Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire (ca 1206–1368) was the largest contiguous empire in world history, founded by Chinggis Khan (1162–1227), which at its height controlled most of Eurasia, from the Korean peninsula to Central Europe. The Mongols conquered the Tanguts in 1227 and absorbed Tibetan regions in the 1240s, granting power over central Tibet to the Sakya Buddhist hierarchs in what is characterized as a priest-patron relationship. In 1260, Qubilai Khan declared himself Great Khan, which was contested, fracturing the Mongol Empire into four independent regimes. Qubilai remained the ruler of most of Asia establishing the Yuan dynasty. Mongol rulers of Yuan, and the first six rulers the Ilkhanate in the Middle East, starting with its founder Hülegü, were also patrons of Tibetan Buddhism.

Pakpa script

Pakpa script, or Mongol square script, was invented in 1270 by Drogon Chogyel Pakpa (1235–1280 CE), a Tibetan lama and leader of the Sakya tradition who served as imperial preceptor to the Mongol emperor Qubilai Khan (1215–1294). In 1271, Qubilai decreed it the official script of the empire, and that all officials had to learn it, and be referred to as the Mongol script. The Pakpa script adapts the letters of the Tibetan alphabet, squared off to be written vertically, in order that they could be placed alongside the Uygur-based Mongolian and Chinese scripts, both of which were written top-to-bottom. The Pakpa script was intended to be a universal alphabet for all the languages of the Mongol Empire, and employed on official documents, monuments, and passports.

Sakya

Sakya is the name of a monastery and of a major tradition of Tibetan Buddhism that originated there during the Later Diffusion of Buddhism. Sakya Monastery was the seat of power during Sakya-Mongol rule in Tibet (1260–1350s), founded on the priest-patron relationship. Notable Sakya figures include Sakya Pandita (1182–1251), who played an instrumental role in establishing Tibetan relations with the Mongols; Drogon Chogyel Pakpa (1234-1280), who served as Qubilai Khan’s imperial preceptor and invented the Pakpa Script; and Buton (1290–1364), who compiled the Tibetan Canon. The Sakya are particularly known for their Lamdre teachings. In the 1350s, Pakmodru replaced the Sakya political prominence.

Tibetan Buddhism

Historically, Tibetan Buddhism refers to those Buddhist traditions that use Tibetan as a ritual language. It is practiced in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Ladakh, and among certain groups in Nepal, China, and Russia and has an international following. Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in two waves, first when rulers of the Tibetan Empire (seventh to ninth centuries CE), embraced the Buddhist faith as their state religion, and during the second diffusion (late tenth through thirteenth centuries), when monks and translators brought in Buddhist culture from India, Nepal, and Central Asia. As a result, the entire Buddhist canon was translated into Tibetan, and monasteries grew to become centers of intellectual, cultural, and political power. From the end of the twelfth century, Tibetans were exporting their own Buddhist traditions abroad. Tibetan Buddhism integrates Mahayana teachings with the esoteric practices of Vajrayana, and includes those developed in Tibet, such as Dzogchen, as well as indigenous Tibetan religious practices focused on local gods. Historically major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism are Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Geluk.

Yuan Dynasty

The Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) is the branch of the Mongol Empire in Asia. In 1260 when Qubilai Khan declared himself Great Khan, his realm included Mongolian, Chinese, Tangut, and Tibetan regions. In 1271 emperor Qubilai Khan proclaimed the Yuan dynasty on a Chinese model, employing Tibetan and Tangut monks. Tibetan Buddhism played an important role in the state, establishing a political model that would be emulated by later dynasties, including the Chinese Ming and Manchu Qing dynasties. The Mongols were major patrons of Tibetan institutions, and many Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism, though their interest declined with the fall of the empire.

Tablets of authority, such as the one pictured here, served as one of the central institutions of the , giving the bearer power to requisition resources. Together with the “exemption decree,” or darqan jarliq, which rendered the holder immune from requisitions by others, they were fundamental manifestations of governance under the Mongol Empire. These tablets were known most commonly in the Mongol Empire as paizas, a Persian reading of the Chinese paizi, “tablet.” The Mongolian name, gerege, meaning “that which bears witness,” is found only in Mongolian-language texts. 

Paizas in the Mongol Empire

The primary right granted by such paizas was the ability to requisition resources. The more basic type of paiza was issued to messengers (elchin) and was supposed to be used only on the Mongol Empire’s famous post-road (or jam) system. Such a paiza, as pictured here, gave the holder the right to receive room, board, fresh horses, and an escort while traveling from station to station on the jam. 

The post-road system linked the entire empire together, enabling the famous level of cultural exchange achieved under the Mongol Empire. Despite the empire’s decentralization under regional princes, or khans, its maintenance was one of the key functions that princes owed the central government. In the late thirteenth century, the area directly ruled by Qubilai Khan had more than 1,400 stations and bridges, serviced by 44,293 horses, 8,889 oxen, 6,007 asses, 4,037 carts, 378 sedan chairs, 5,921 boats, 1,150 pack sheep, and even 3,000 sled dogs in northern Manchuria. These statistics do not include Tibet; twenty-one major jam stations were established there from 1269 on. Although expensive for the regime and burdensome for the peasants and herders who staffed it in rotation, the ulagha, or post-road duty, was preserved in Tibet and Mongolia into the mid-twentieth century.

Another, more prestigious, type of paiza was issued to military commanders (noyat) at various levels, non-Mongol tributary rulers and local civil administrators, and overseers (darughas, darughachin) appointed by the Mongols to supervise non-Mongol officials. “Partner” (ortaq) merchants trading with funds from imperial or princely funds and clergy of the empire’s recognized religions—, Christianity, , and —also often received paizas as members of the imperial elite. These paizas granted the right to requisition goods and services not just from the jam but from the general civilian population as well. Such paizas were issued together with jarliq, or decrees, stamped with a red seal (al tamgha), that gave the reasons why the holder was privileged with a paiza and the specific degree of power that it conferred. 

The issuing authority for either type of paiza included the great khan, as well as princes, empresses, princesses, and imperial sons-in-law entrusted with jurisdiction over a given territory. In theory, issuing paizas was supervised by the great khan, and all were recalled on the death of one great khan and the enthronement of another. In practice, however, these rules were often not followed. 

The paiza system in the Mongol Empire developed out of the badges used by those on assignment in the Khitan Liao (907–1125) and Jurchen Jin dynasty of North China (1115–1234) and in previous Chinese dynasties. Paizas for commanders were ranked by materials and design, ranging from the highest, in gold with a tiger head (bars terigütü) inscribed on it, to the lower-ranked ones, in plain gold or silver. The tiger’s head is depicted frontally, at the top end of the paiza, as can be seen in the molding on the object presented here, or else as incised decoration, as seen in the paiza for a commander issued by Abdulla, the khan of the Mongol Golden Horde (r. 1362–1370) (fig. 2). In many cases, as in the example shown, they were actually composed of base metals, with at most silver or gold .

Fig. 2.

Paiza found in the former lands of the Golden Horde (Dnieper River, 1845), 13th century. Unknown 954 Paiza Golden Horde; The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo / MNP4DJ

During the reign of Chinggis Khan (1206–1227), the inscriptions on the paiza were in Chinese on the obverse and Kitan language on the reverse, reflecting their origin in the practices of the Jurchen Jin dynasty. Soon, however, they were switched to Mongolian. The extant Mongolian examples for officials always began with the famous phrase, “By the power of eternal heaven” (Möngke tngri-yin kücün-dür) (fig. 2). They conclude with the phrases, “The decree of the great khan [or whoever issued it]; any person whosoever who does not respect it shall be punished, shall die.” In between those two lines of texts, paizas for those of official or military rank carried an additional line of text: “By the protection of the imperial good fortune.” Those paizas only for use on the post roads, however, such as the one pictured here, did not include that phrase.

Reforms under Qubilai Khan

The paiza system was reshaped by the reforming zeal of the fifth Mongol khan, Qubilai (r. 1260–1294) (fig. 3), as were virtually all other features of the Mongolian government. The first reform, initiated in 1261, established a new level of urgent post-road paizas, marked not by a tiger’s head but by a gyrfalcon. Other reforms are visible in the paiza pictured. The inscription was simplified to no longer say “shall die.” The shape of paizas for messengers was changed from oblong to round; these new-style paizas were called in Chinese “round tallies” (yuanfu). Post roads elsewhere in the Mongol Empire, however, retained the traditional oblong form and inscription (fig. 2).

Fig. 3.

Qubilai; leaf from Album of the Bust Portraits of Yuan Emperors (Yuandai di banshen xiang ce 元代帝半身像冊); probably Daidu (Beijing), China; Yuan dynasty (1271–1368); ink and color on silk; 23 3/8 × 18 1/2 in. (59.4 × 47 cm); National Palace Museum, Taipei

Pakpa Lama and the Square Script

Another major reform visible in this paiza was in the script used to write the inscription. Between 1269 and 1271, after defeating his rivals and securing the throne but before planning the conquest of the Song dynasty in South China, Qubilai Khan carried out a number of reforms that promoted a new multiethnic style of universal rule. These included claiming the Chinese-style dynastic title of Yuan and building and renaming a new capital at the site of present-day Beijing. Another of these universalizing measures was to commission his Imperial Preceptor, the Pakpa Lama, Lodro Gyeltsen (1235–1280), to create a script for the entire empire, suitable for writing Mongolian, Chinese, and Tibetan. 

Pakpa Lama had entered the Mongol empire as a boy hostage in 1244 when the famous Sakya Pandita, his uncle (1182–1251), was summoned to the court of the Mongol prince Köten in what is now Gansu Province. According to Mongol practice, every local ruler and official above a certain rank had to submit a son, younger brother, or nephew as hostage to serve in the bodyguard (keshikten) of the khan or of the local member of the imperial family in charge of the area. As a local ruler in Tibet, had to nominate Lodro Gyeltsen and his brother as his hostages, and they entered Köten’s entourage. After Köten died, his cousin Qubilai, then a prince supervising all of North China, took over his bodyguard. Lodro Gyeltsen soon graduated from the bodyguard and was ordained as a monk in 1255. Within a few years he was making his mark as a debater, Sanskritist, and tantric guru to Qubilai and his wife Chabui. One year after Qubilai became great khan in 1260, he appointed his young chaplain, now known as Pakpa Lama, or “Noble Guru,” as “State Preceptor” and head of all Buddhists in the empire. 

Pakpa Lama used his philological knowledge to create a script called the square script in Mongolian and the in the West. Up until this moment, the Mongols had been using the script of the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, itself derived from the Sogdian and eventually the Aramaic script. Although well-adapted to Uyghur and Mongolian, the script was very poor at rendering Chinese or Tibetan. Pakpa Lama took the Tibetan letters, squared them off (hence the name), and reorganized them to be written vertically in columns left to right. With his training in traditional Indian philology, he added diacritical signs and special letters to handle the sounds of Mongolian and Chinese that were not available in the . The whole was proclaimed by Qubilai Khan in 1269 as the new script for the empire. 

Although Qubilai established schools throughout the East Asian region of the Mongol Empire to promote the new script, it could not replace the Uyghur-Mongolian script, let alone Chinese or Tibetan, as the writing system of choice for scholars. Surviving samples of Pakpa scriptare mostly official pieces, such as the paiza shown here, or stone inscriptions, such as that at the Juyong Gate. Only a few pieces of printed literature are known (fig. 4). With the expulsion of the Yuan emperors from China, the Pakpa script fell out of use, except for occasional ornamental use in Tibet.

The most commonly preserved genre in Pakpa script writing is that of exemption decrees, or darqan jarliq. These decrees declare that in return for clerics saying prayers for the long life of the khan, this or that Tibetan Buddhist , Eastern Orthodox church, Muslim Sufi lodge, or Daoist temple was exempt from any requisitions, whether demanded by messengers or by itinerant officials and commanders. These decrees were commonly bilingual, and in China, Mongolia, and Tibet, the Mongolian version was usually in the Pakpa script. Such decrees are, along with the paizas, monuments to the privileges of the Mongol Empire’s ruling class, privileges to requisition from others and to be free of requisitions themselves. Religious leaders were key members of this ruling class, using their prayers to preserve the lives of the khans and their learning to train the khans’ heirs and improve the regime’s governance.

Footnotes
1

Unless otherwise indicated, all terms are Mongolian.

2

See Doerfer 1965, 239–41; Cleaves 1953, 255–59.

3

Uyghur and Persian: yam. See Dang 2006; Shim 2014; Vér 2016 and 2017. 

4

Petech 1990, 61–68.

5

Uyghur and Persian: yarligh.

6

See Atwood 2021, 148–49; Juvaini 1958, 2: 508–9, 598–99.

7

See Atwood 2021, 86–87, 112–13.

8

Mongolian. Paġba Blam-a Lodoi-Jaltsan.

9

Tibetan. Goden 

10

Mongolian. Dörbeljin üsüg.

11

Atwood 2004b, 238–43.

Further Reading

Atwood, Christopher P. 2004a. Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire, 258–59 (on post-road system), 519–20 (on square script). New York: Facts on File.

Dang, Baohai. 2001–3. “The Paizi of the Mongol Empire.” Zentralasiatische Studien, 30, 31–62; 32, 7–10.

György Kara. 2005. Books of the Mongolian Nomads: More than Eight Centuries of Writing Mongolian. Translated by John R. Krueger, 51–62. Bloomington: Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, Indiana University Press. 

Citation

Christopher P. Atwood, “Mongol Messenger’s Badge (Paiza or Gerege) in Pakpa Script: Signs of Authority in the Mongol Empire,” Project Himalayan Art, Rubin Museum of Art, 2023, http://rubinmuseum.org/projecthimalayanart/essays/mongol-messengers-badge-paiza-or-gerege-in-pakpa-script.

Mongol Empire

Alternate terms:
Mongol-Yuan

The Mongol Empire (ca 1206–1368) was the largest contiguous empire in world history, founded by Chinggis Khan (1162–1227), which at its height controlled most of Eurasia, from the Korean peninsula to Central Europe. The Mongols conquered the Tanguts in 1227 and absorbed Tibetan regions in the 1240s, granting power over central Tibet to the Sakya Buddhist hierarchs in what is characterized as a priest-patron relationship. In 1260, Qubilai Khan declared himself Great Khan, which was contested, fracturing the Mongol Empire into four independent regimes. Qubilai remained the ruler of most of Asia establishing the Yuan dynasty. Mongol rulers of Yuan, and the first six rulers the Ilkhanate in the Middle East, starting with its founder Hülegü, were also patrons of Tibetan Buddhism.

Pakpa script

Language:
Tibetan
Alternate terms:
Mongolian square script, square script

Pakpa script, or Mongol square script, was invented in 1270 by Drogon Chogyel Pakpa (1235–1280 CE), a Tibetan lama and leader of the Sakya tradition who served as imperial preceptor to the Mongol emperor Qubilai Khan (1215–1294). In 1271, Qubilai decreed it the official script of the empire, and that all officials had to learn it, and be referred to as the Mongol script. The Pakpa script adapts the letters of the Tibetan alphabet, squared off to be written vertically, in order that they could be placed alongside the Uygur-based Mongolian and Chinese scripts, both of which were written top-to-bottom. The Pakpa script was intended to be a universal alphabet for all the languages of the Mongol Empire, and employed on official documents, monuments, and passports.

Sakya

Language:
Tibetan

Sakya is the name of a monastery and of a major tradition of Tibetan Buddhism that originated there during the Later Diffusion of Buddhism. Sakya Monastery was the seat of power during Sakya-Mongol rule in Tibet (1260–1350s), founded on the priest-patron relationship. Notable Sakya figures include Sakya Pandita (1182–1251), who played an instrumental role in establishing Tibetan relations with the Mongols; Drogon Chogyel Pakpa (1234-1280), who served as Qubilai Khan’s imperial preceptor and invented the Pakpa Script; and Buton (1290–1364), who compiled the Tibetan Canon. The Sakya are particularly known for their Lamdre teachings. In the 1350s, Pakmodru replaced the Sakya political prominence.

Tibetan Buddhism

Historically, Tibetan Buddhism refers to those Buddhist traditions that use Tibetan as a ritual language. It is practiced in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Ladakh, and among certain groups in Nepal, China, and Russia and has an international following. Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in two waves, first when rulers of the Tibetan Empire (seventh to ninth centuries CE), embraced the Buddhist faith as their state religion, and during the second diffusion (late tenth through thirteenth centuries), when monks and translators brought in Buddhist culture from India, Nepal, and Central Asia. As a result, the entire Buddhist canon was translated into Tibetan, and monasteries grew to become centers of intellectual, cultural, and political power. From the end of the twelfth century, Tibetans were exporting their own Buddhist traditions abroad. Tibetan Buddhism integrates Mahayana teachings with the esoteric practices of Vajrayana, and includes those developed in Tibet, such as Dzogchen, as well as indigenous Tibetan religious practices focused on local gods. Historically major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism are Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Geluk.

Yuan Dynasty

Language:
Chinese

The Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) is the branch of the Mongol Empire in Asia. In 1260 when Qubilai Khan declared himself Great Khan, his realm included Mongolian, Chinese, Tangut, and Tibetan regions. In 1271 emperor Qubilai Khan proclaimed the Yuan dynasty on a Chinese model, employing Tibetan and Tangut monks. Tibetan Buddhism played an important role in the state, establishing a political model that would be emulated by later dynasties, including the Chinese Ming and Manchu Qing dynasties. The Mongols were major patrons of Tibetan institutions, and many Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism, though their interest declined with the fall of the empire.