'Phags-pa script

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ꡖꡍꡂꡛ ꡌ
Yang Wengshe 1314.jpg
Christian tombstone from Quanzhou dated 1314, with inscription in the 'Phags-pa script ·ung shė yang shi mu taw 'tomb memorial of Yang Wengshe'
Type Alphabet
Languages Mongolian
Creator Drogön Chögyal Phagpa
Time period
1269 – ca 1360
Parent systems
Child systems
possibly Hangul
Sister systems
ISO 15924 Phag, 331
Direction Top-to-bottom
Unicode alias
[a] The Semitic origin of the Brahmic scripts is not universally agreed upon.

The 'Phags-pa script,[1] also (Mongolian: дөрвөлжин үсэг, Square script), Passepa script, basiba script, was an alphabet designed by the Tibetan Lama Zhogoin Qoigyai Pagba (Drogön Chögyal Phagpa) for Yuan emperor Kublai Khan, as a unified script for the literary languages of the Yuan Dynasty.

Widespread use was limited to about a hundred years during the Yuan Dynasty, and it fell out of use with the advent of the Ming Dynasty. The documentation of its use provides clues about the changes in Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian, and neighboring languages during the Yuan era.


The Uyghur-based Mongolian alphabet is not a perfect fit for Middle Mongolian, and it would be impractical to extend it to a language with a very different phonology like Chinese. Therefore, during the Yuan Dynasty (ca. 1269), Kublai Khan asked ´Phags-pa to design a new alphabet for use by the whole empire. ´Phags-pa extended his native Tibetan script (an Indic script) to encompass Mongol and Chinese, evidently Central Plains standard.[2] The resulting 38 letters have been known by several descriptive names, such as "square script" based on their shape, but today are primarily known as the 'Phags-pa alphabet.

Despite its origin, the script was written vertically (top to bottom) like the previous Mongolian scripts. It did not receive wide acceptance and fell into disuse with the collapse of the Yuan dynasty in 1368. After this it was mainly used as a phonetic gloss for Mongolians learning Chinese characters. It was also used as one of the scripts on Tibetan currency in the twentieth century, as script for Tibetan seal inscriptions from the Middle Ages up to the 20th century and for inscriptions on the entrance doors of Tibetan monasteries.


An imperial edict in 'Phags-pa
The 'Phags-pa script, with consonants arranged according to Chinese phonology. At the far left are vowels and medial consonants.

Top: Approximate values in Middle Chinese. (Values in parentheses were not used for Chinese.)
Second: Standard letter forms.
Third: Seal script forms. (A few letters, marked by hyphens, are not distinct from the preceding letter.)
Bottom: The "Tibetan" forms. (Several letters have alternate forms, separated here by a • bullet.)

Unlike the ancestral Tibetan script, all 'Phags-pa letters are written in temporal order (that is, /CV/ is written in the order C–V for all vowels) and in-line (that is, the vowels are not diacritics). However, vowel letters retain distinct initial forms, and short /a/ is not written except initially, making 'Phags-pa transitional between an abugida and a full alphabet. The letters of a 'Phags-pa syllable are linked together so that they form syllabic blocks.

'Phags-pa was written in a variety of graphic forms. The standard form (top, at right) was blocky, but a "Tibetan" form (bottom) was even more so, consisting almost entirely of straight orthogonal lines and right angles. A "seal script" form (Chinese 蒙古篆字 měnggǔ zhuānzì "Mongolian Seal Script"), used for imperial seals and the like, was more elaborate, with squared sinusoidal lines and spirals.

Korean records that state that hangul was based on an "Old Seal Script", 古篆字, which Gary Ledyard believes to be 'Phags-pa and a reference to its Chinese name 蒙古篆字 měnggǔ zhuānzì. (See origin of hangul.) However, it is the simpler standard form of 'Phags-pa that is the closer graphic match to hangul.


Following are the initials of the 'Phags-pa script as presented in the Menggu Ziyun. They are ordered according to the Chinese philological tradition of the 36 initials.

36 initials in Menggu Ziyun
No. Name Phonetic
1 見 jiàn *[k] g-
2 溪 qī *[kʰ] kh-
3 群 qún *[ɡ] k-
4 疑 yí *[ŋ] ng-
5 端 duān *[t] d-
6 透 tòu *[tʰ] th-
7 定 dìng *[d] t-
8 泥 ní *[n] n-
9 知 zhī *[ʈ] j-
10 徹 chè *[ʈʰ] ch-
11 澄 chéng *[ɖ] c-
12 娘 niáng *[ɳ] ny-
13 幫 bāng *[p] b-
14 滂 pāng *[pʰ] ph-
15 並 bìng *[b] p-
16 明 míng *[m] m-
17 非 fēi *[p̪] f- Normal form of the letter fa
18 敷 fū *[p̪ʰ] f¹- Variant form of the letter fa
19 奉 fèng *[b̪] f- Normal form of the letter fa
20 微 wēi *[ɱ] w- Letter wa represents [v]
21 精 jīng *[ts] dz-
22 清 qīng *[tsʰ] tsh-
23 從 cóng *[dz] ts-
24 心 xīn *[s] s-
25 邪 xié *[z] z-
26 照 zhào *[tɕ] j-
27 穿 chuān *[tɕʰ] ch-
28 床 chuáng *[dʑ] c-
29 審 shěn *[ɕ] sh¹- Variant form of the letter sha
30 禪 chán *[ʑ] sh- Normal form of the letter sha
31 曉 xiǎo *[x] h- Normal form of the letter ha
32 匣 xiá *[ɣ] x-
h¹- Variant form of the letter ha
33 影 yǐng *[ʔ] ·- glottal stop
y- Normal form of the letter ya
34 喻 yù *[j] ʼ- null initial
y¹- Variant form of the letter ya
35 來 lái *[l] l-
36 日 rì *[ɲ] zh-

See also[edit]


  • Coblin, W. South (2006). A Handbook of 'Phags-pa Chinese. ABC Dictionary Series. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-3000-7. 
  • Everding, Karl-Heinz (2006). Herrscherurkunden aus der Zeit des mongolischen Großreiches für tibetische Adelshäuser, Geistliche und Klöster. Teil 1: Diplomata Mongolica. Mittelmongolische Urkunden in ´Phags-pa-Schrift. Eidtion, Übersetzung, Analyse. Halle: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies. ISBN 978-3-88280-074-6. 
  • Poppe, Nicholas (1957). The Mongolian Monuments in hP´ags-pa Script (Second ed.). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. 
  • Schuh, Dieter (1981). Grundlagen tibetischer Siegelkunde. Eine Untersuchung über tibetische Siegelaufschriften in ´Phags-pa-Schrift. Sankt Augustin: VGH Wissenschaftsverlag. ISBN 978-3-88280-011-1. 
  • Sampson, Geoffrey (1985). Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction. Great Britain: Anchor Brenton Ltd. ISBN 978-0-09-156980-8. 


'Phags-pa script was added to the Unicode Standard in July 2006 with the release of version 5.0.

The Unicode block for 'Phags-pa is U+A840–U+A877. Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points:

Unicode.org chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
1.^ As of Unicode version 6.3


  1. ^ 'Phags-pa script: ꡏꡡꡃ ꡣꡡꡙ ꡐꡜꡞ mongxol tshi, "Mongolian script"; Mongolian: дөрвөлжин үсэг dörvöljin üseg, "square script"; Tibetan: ཧོར་ཡིག་གསར་པ་ Horyig Sarba, "new Mongolian script"; Chinese: 蒙古新字 měnggǔ xīnzì, "new Mongolian script" (Yuan Dynasty usage) or 八思巴文 bāsībā wén, "Phags-pa writing" (modern usage)
  2. ^ Coblin, W. South (2002). "Reflections on the Study of Post-Medieval Chinese Historical Phonology". In 何大安. 第三屆國際漢學會議論文集: 語言組. 南北是非 : 漢語方言的差異與變化 [Papers from the Third International Conference on Sinology, Linguistics Section. Dialect Variations in Chinese]. Taibei: Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica. pp. 23–50. ISBN 978-957-671-936-3. Retrieved 21 October 2011.  p. 31.

External links[edit]