Phags-pa Script: Tibetan Links to Kublai Khan’s Unified Script for his Empire

A volume devoted to a Yuan Dynasty script inspired by written Tibetan, Collection of Phags-pa Inscriptions and Annotations (八思巴文碑刻文物集释), will soon be launched. Editor Cai Meibiao (蔡美彪) says the book gathers some 60 years of scholarship.

Chinanews.com has published interviews with two scholars who have spent years studying the script.

Kublai Khan commissioned the creation of a unified script for the vast Mongolian-controlled, multilingual Empire of the Great Khan (1271-1368), known in China as the Yuan Dynasty. To do the Khan’s bidding, Tibetan Lama Drogön Chögyal Phagpa extended his native Tibetan script to encompass the sounds of the empire’s disparate languages such as Turkic, Mongol, Chinese and Tibetan. Now dubbed the “Phags-pa script,” it consisted of 38 letters written vertically. Experts classify it an abugida, i.e., a segmental writing system based on consonants wherein vowel notation is obligatory but secondary, in contrast to European languages where vowels and consonants have equal status.

The Phags-pa script (八思巴文, or 蒙古新字) was never widely accepted and fell into disuse with the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368. But scholars such as Gary Ledyard believe that the hangul alphabet, Korea’s national language, may have links to the alphasyllabary. Significantly, the script also provides linguistic clues about the evolution of Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian during the Yuan era.

Perhaps surprisingly, many extant examples of the writing are to be found in traditionally Tibetan regions. “The Phags-pa script was once the official written language of the Yuan Dynasty,” says scholar Wuli Jibaiyila (乌力吉白乙拉), “and for that reason there should be many written records, but they simply haven’t been uncovered yet.

“But there are many Phags-pa relics among the people and in temples in the Tibetan region, particularly variant forms, many of which contain errors. Among temples, inscriptions at the Potala Palace are the best preserved, but they can’t be photographed so I haven’t been able to put them in order. Since Phags-pa [the script’s Tibetan creator] himself was the fifth-generation founder of the Sakya Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Phags-pa script was passed down within Tibetan areas, and continued to be used particularly as a form of Tibetan calligraphy.”

Comments

  1. Dear Bruce,

    Thank you for the interesting read on the Phags-pa script, this i found particularly informative and somewhat share a similar frustration on the lack of original material on this ancient script, as you so optimistically pointed out; that there must be ‘written records’ that have not been uncovered as yet.

    My own work on collecting, preserving and even practicing Phags-pa is mostly in the more ‘modern’ form which is still widely used for decoration features in traditional Tibetan temples and for creating ‘chop’ seals, for which modern Phags-pa seems mostly applicable, here are some examples:

    http://www.tashimannox.com/index.php/tibetan-calligraphy/seals

    You may know already or to be interested to know that Andrew West has done much work on Phags-pa, which is the most in depth study i have seen as yet:

    http://babelfonts.blogspot.com/2009/01/babelstone-phags-pa-book.html

    Please keep me informed of any new discoveries concerning the Phags-pa script.

    Besides this, i was also very interested to read of the publication of stories of King Gasar of ling, do you know if these publications are available in English yet?

    with warm regards

    Tashi

  2. For what it’s worth, the Korean government seems to be rather accepting of the hangul connection. I was there in October and saw a preview for documentary on the tv in my hotel that spoke briefly on the topic. I’ve known people who’d take offence at the notion that it was anything but purely Korean, but that’t at least not the official position as far as I could tell.

  3. I saw a few Phags-pa inscriptions in Qufu, presumably left by Yuan emperors demonstrating their adherence to the Confucian principles. It was quite a surprise – I had not seen that script “in the wild” before.

    In a sense, Phags-pa must have been quite an amazing project – I suppose it was the first attempt at systematic phonetic writing system for Chinese, 300 years before Matteo Ricci, Ruggieri and Cattaneo (who developed a Romanization system for their bilingual dictionary work) or before the Chinese Muslims’ developing Xiao’erjing (the Arabic-based writing system for Chinese), 500 years before Archimandrite Palladii (with his Cyrillic transcription), and 600+ years before Bopomofo and Hanyu Pinyin… I wonder what kind of historical twist would have been necessary for this system to have stayed in widespread use throughout China, they way Bopomofo and Pinyin achieved in the 20th century in ROC and PRC, respectively.

  4. Prof. Bijon B. Sarma says:

    Phags Pa is said to be one of the oldest Unified script that could not gain popularity due to inherent defects. The mosr modern Unified Script is SUS, that has been invented in 2010 by one Bangladeshi and one Canadian.
    For details : Search / Unified script SUS in google.

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