Saturday, 25 November 2006

Christian Tombstones of Zayton

Of the City and Great Haven of Zayton

Now when you quit Fuju [Fuzhou] and cross the River, you travel for five days south-east through a fine country, meeting with a constant succession of flourishing cities, towns, and villages, rich in every product. You travel by mountains and valleys and plains, and in some places by great forests in which are many of the trees which give Camphor. There is plenty of game on the road, both of bird and beast. The people are all traders and craftsmen, subjects of the Great Kaan, and under the government of Fuju. When you have accomplished those five days' journey you arrive at the very great and noble city of ZAYTON, which is also subject to Fuju.

At this city you must know is the Haven of Zayton, frequented by all the ships of India, which bring thither spicery and all other kinds of costly wares. It is the port also that is frequented by all the merchants of Manzi [southern China], for hither is imported the most astonishing quantity of goods and of precious stones and pearls, and from this they are distributed all over Manzi. And I assure you that for one shipload of pepper that goes to Alexandria or elsewhere, destined for Christendom, there come a hundred such, aye and more too, to this haven of Zayton; for it is one of the two greatest havens in the world for commerce.

Henry Yule and Henri Cordier (eds.), The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian, Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East (London: John Murray, 1903) Vol. II (Book II Chapter LXXXII).

Last year when I visited the ancient port city of Quanzhou 泉州 (Marco Polo's Zayton) on the East China coast (but now miles from the sea) I didn't yet have a blog, so for my slightly belated first anniversary blog post I thought I would discuss some of the pictures I took at the Quanzhou Museum of Maritime History (海外交通史博物館). The museum has a marvellous collection of stone monuments dating from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), with inscriptions in a wide range of scripts and languages, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of the city in the 13th and 14th centuries, but I was particularly interested in its unique collection of Christian tombstones with inscriptions in the Phags-pa script.

Carving of Śiva from a Hindu temple

Tombstone of Bishop Andrew of Perugia

Christianity was first introduced into China from Central Asia during the early years of the Tang dynasty (618-907), as part of a widepread missionary movement by the Assyrian Church, the members of which are widely but inaccurately referred to as Nestorian Christians. Christianity in China was supressed in the mid ninth century, but underwent a revival under the Khitan and Mongol regimes from the 12th to the 14th centuries, and during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) the "Nestorian" church had a strong presence amongst the Uighur population in the western fringes of China.

It was also during the Yuan dynasty that the Catholic church first reached China. A series of Franciscan missions had been sent out by the papacy to Persia, India and China from the year 1241, but the first mission to actually reach China was that of John of Montecorvino (1246-1328), who had set out in 1289, and arrived at the capital of the Mongol Empire, known to Europeans of the time as Cambaluc (literally "City of the Khan", which is modern Beijing) in 1294. He built two churches in the capital, and is reputed to have translated the New Testament and Psalms into Chinese, but these translations no longer exist.

In 1307 Pope Clement V sent seven Franciscan friars, each with the rank of bishop, to China in order to consecrate John as Archbishop of China. Only three of the seven, Gerard, Peregrine (Peregrinus de Castello) and Andrew of Perugia (Andreas Perusinus), survived the long journey, arriving in Cambaluc in 1308.

Although John had established a strong presence in the capital, there were no missionary outposts elsewhere in China until Friar Gerard was sent to Zayton (Quanzhou) as bishop of the city. It seems that Zayton was chosen as the only bishopric outside the capital as it already had a Christian presence there in the form of a church that had been founded by a "rich Armenian lady". This church was established as a cathedral, and Gerard became the first bishop of Zayton. The fact that the existing church was converted into the Catholic cathedral would suggest that it may have been a Catholic church, and that at least some of the existing Christians of Zayton may have been Catholics associated with maritime trade rather than all Nestorians from Central Asia, who the Franciscans regarded as heretics.

After Gerard's death in 1313, Friar Peregrine was installed as the second bishop of Zayton. In 1318, Friar Andrew, who had remained at the capital, also went to Zayton, and built a new church outside the city. Four years later, in 1322, when Bishop Peregrine died, Andrew became the third bishop of Zayton, and he remained in this post until his death in 1332. It was whilst Andrew was bishop that Friar Odoric visited China, in his account of which he has this to say about Zayton :

30. Concerning the noble city called Zayton ; and how the folk thereof regale their gods.

Departing from that district, and passing through many cities and towns, I came to a certain noble city which is called Zayton, where we friars minor have two houses ; and there I deposited the bones of our friars who suffered martyrdom for the faith of Jesus Christ.

In this city is great plenty of all things that are needful for human subsistence. For example you can get three pounds and eight ounces of sugar for less than half a groat. The city is twice as great as Bologna, and in it are many monasteries of devotees, idol worshippers every man of them. In one of those monasteries which I visited there were three thousand monks and eleven thousand idols. And one of those idols, which seemed to be smaller than the rest was as big as St. Christopher might be. I went thither at the hour fixed for feeding their idols, that I might witness it ; and the fashion thereof is this : All the dishes which they offer to be eaten are piping hot so that the smoke riseth up in the face of the idols, and this they consider to be the idols' refection. But all else they keep for themselves and gobble up. And after such fashion as this they reckon that they feed their gods well.

The place is one of the best in the world, and that as regards its provision for the body of man. Many other things indeed might be related of this place, but I will not write more about them at present.

Henry Yule (trans. and ed.), Cathay and the Way Thither; being a collection of Medieval Notices of China (London: The Hakluyt Society, MDCCCLXVI) Vol. I pp.381-383.

After Andrew's death in 1332 a Paris theologian called Nicholas, who had arrived in China with twenty-six friars and six lay brothers, succeeded to the bishopric, but there are no detailed accounts of the later years of the Zayton mission. Nevertheless, the church in Zayton was evidentally still going strong when John Marignolli visited the city in about 1347 :

There is Zayton also, a wondrous fine seaport and a city of incredible size, where our Minor Friars have three very fine churches, passing rich and elegant ; and they have a bath also and a fondaco [a factory, i.e. "a mercantile establishment and lodging house in a foreign country"] which serves as a depôt for all the merchants. They have also some fine bells of the best quality, two of which were made to my order, and set up with all due form in the very middle of the Saracen community. One of these we ordered to be called Johannina, and the other Antonina.

Henry Yule (trans. and ed.), Cathay and the Way Thither; being a collection of Medieval Notices of China (London: The Hakluyt Society, MDCCCLXVI) Vol.II pp.115-116.

One of the last bishops of Zayton may have been a certain Friar James of Florence, who was martyred in the "Empire of the Medes" (i.e. the Empire of Chaghatai) in 1362, and is recorded to have been "Archbishop of Zaiton".

After the fall of the Mongol empire in 1368, the Catholic missions in China disappeared, and there was no further Catholic presence in China until the Dominican friar Gaspar da Cruz arrived in China in 1555.

Of the Franciscan bishops of Zayton, we know most about Andrew of Perugia (Andreas Perusinus), who was the third bishop from 1322 to 1332. This is his own account of the Zayton mission, that he wrote in a letter dated 1326 :

Friar Andrew of Perugia, of the Order of Minor Friars, by Divine permission called to be Bishop, to the reverend father the Friar Warden of the Convent of Perugia, health and peace in the Lord for ever !

.... On account of the immense distance by land and sea interposed between us, I can scarcely hope that a letter from me to you can come to hand. .... You have heard then how along with Friar Peregrine, my brother bishop of blessed memory, and the sole companion of my pilgrimage, through much fatigue and sickness and want, through sundry grievous sufferings and perils by land and sea, plundered even of our habits and tunics, we got at last by God's grace to the city of Cambaliech [modern Beijing], which is the seat of the Emperor the Great Chan, in the year of our Lord's incarnation 1308, as well as I can reckon.

There, after the Archbishop [John of Montecorvino] was consecrated, according to the orders given us by the Apostolic See [Pope Clement V], we continued to abide for nearly five years ; during which time we obtained an Alafa from the emperor for our food and clothing. An alafa is an allowance for expenses which the emperor grants to the envoys of princes, to orators, warriors, different kinds of artists, jongleurs, paupers, and all sorts of people of all sorts of conditions. And the sum total of these allowances surpasses the revenue and expenditure of several of the kings of the Latin countries.

As to the wealth, splendour, and glory of this great emperor, the vastness of his dominion, the multitudes of people subject to him, the number and greatness of his cities, and the constitution of the empire, within which no man dares to draw a sword against his neighbour, I will say nothing, because it would be a long matter to write, and would seem incredible to those who heard it. Even I who am here in the country do hear things averred of it that I can scarcely believe. ...

There is a great city on the shores of the Ocean Sea, which is called in the Persian tongue Zayton [properly known as Quanzhou in Chinese]; and in this city a rich Armenian lady did build a large and fine enough church, which was erected into a cathedral by the Archbishop himself of his own free-will. The lady assigned it, with a competent endowment which she provided during her life and secured by will at her death, to Friar Gerard the Bishop, and the friars who were with him, and he became accordingly the first occupant of the cathedral.

After he was dead however and buried therein, the Archbishop wished to make me his successor in the church. But as I did not consent to accept the position he bestowed it upon Friar and Bishop Peregrine before mentioned. The latter, as soon as he found an opportunity, proceeded thither, and after he had governed the church for a few years, in the year of the Lord 1322, the day after the octave of St. Peter and St. Paul, he breathed his last.

Nearly four years before his decease, finding myself for certain reasons uncomfortable at Cambaliech, I obtained permission that the before mentioned alafa or imperial charity should be allowed me at the said city of Zayton, which is about three weeks journey distant from Cambaliech. This concession I obtained as I have said, at my earnest request, and setting out with eight horsemen allowed me by the emperor, I proceeded on my journey, being everywhere received with great honour. On my arrival (the aforesaid Friar Peregrine being still alive) I caused a convenient and handsome church to be built in a certain grove, quarter of a mile outside the city, with all the offices sufficient for twenty-two friars, and with four apartments such that any one of them is good enough for a church dignitary of any rank. In this place I continue to dwell, living upon the imperial dole before-mentioned, the value of which, according to the estimate of the Genoese merchants, amounts in the year to 100 golden florins or thereabouts. Of this allowance I have spent the greatest part in the construction of the church ; and I know none among all the convents of our province to be compared to it in elegance and all other amenities.

And so not long after the death of Friar Peregrine I received a decree from the archbishop appointing me to the aforesaid cathedral church, and to this appointment I now assented for good reasons. So I abide now sometimes in the house or church in the city, and sometimes in my convent outside, as it suits me. And my health is good, and as far as one can look forward at my time of life, I may yet labour in this field for some years to come : but my hair is grey, which is owing to constitutional infirmities as well as to age.

'Tis a fact that in this vast empire there are people of every nation under heaven, and of every sect, and all and sundry are allowed to live freely according to their creed. For they hold this opinion, or rather this erroneous view, that everyone can find salvation in his own religion. Howbeit we are at liberty to preach without let or hindrance. Of the Jews and Saracens there are indeed no converts, but many of the idolaters are baptised ; though in sooth many of the baptised walk not rightly in the path of Christianity.

Four of our brethren have suffered martyrdom in India, at the hands of the Saracens ; and one of them was twice cast into a great blazing fire, but came out unhurt. And yet in spite of so stupendous a miracle not one of the Saracens was converted from his misbelief !

All these things I have briefly jotted down for your information, reverend father, and that through you they may be communicated to others. I do not write to my spiritual brethren or private friends, because I know not which of them are alive, and which departed, so I beg them to have me excused. But I send my salutation to all, and desire to be remembered to all as cordially as possible, and I pray you, father Warden, to commend me to the Minister and Custos of Perugia, and to all the other brethren. All the suffragan bishops appointed to Cambaliech and elsewhere by our lord Pope Clement have departed in peace to the Lord, and I alone remain. Friar Nicholas of Banthera, Friar Andrutius of Assisi, and another bishop [Ulrich Sayfusstorf], died on their first arrival in Lower India, in a most cruelly fatal country, where many others also have died and been buried.

Farewell in the Lord, father, now and ever. Dated at Zayton, A.D. 1326, in the month of January.

Henry Yule (trans. and ed.), Cathay and the Way Thither; being a collection of Medieval Notices of China (London: The Hakluyt Society, MDCCCLXVI) Vol.1 pp.496-499.

A tombstone believed to be that of Bishop Andrew was discovered in Quanzhou in 1946, and a copy of it is on display at the Quanzhou Museum of Maritime History (the original is in Beijing) :

Unfortunately the Latin inscription is badly worn and can only be partially read. The accepted reading of the inscription, made by Professor C. J. Fordyce in John Foster's "Crosses from the walls of Zaitun" (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (N.S.) 1954 pp. 1-25), is :

☩ Hic (in PFS) sepultus est
Andreas Perusinus (de-
votus ep. Cayton .......
.......ordinis (fratrum
min.) ..................
... (Jesus Christi) Apostolus
........(in mense) .......
m(cccxx)xii ☩

But this reading does not seem to correspond well with what I can make out of the inscription :

Click on image for different effects

Beyond the first word (hic) I find it difficult to match Fordyce's reading to the actual inscription, and in particular I do not see the words "Andreas Perusinus", so I have severe doubts about the validity of the accepted reading or whether it is indeed a memorial Bishop Andrew. I hope that perhaps some of my readers may be able to give me their suggested readings of the inscription (or parts of it or even single words).

My doubts are shared by eminent Sinologist Herbert Franke, who in Sino-Western Contacts under the Mongol Empire (Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. 6 (1966)) states of this stone :

It must be Christian because the inscription begins
with the sign of the Cross, but the attempt to read it as Latin and
to regard it as the tomb inscription for Andrew of Perugia, the
third suffragan bishop of Zayton — modern Ch'uan-chou — does
not seem convincing. The only thing that can be said with certainty
is that the inscription is not in Syriac script.

But whether or not this is actually the tombstone of Bishop Andrew, it is still an extremely important artefact, as the only certain archaeological evidence of the 14th century Franciscan mission to Zayton.

For me the most interesting feature of this tombstone is the decoration above the Latin inscription. Although badly worn the carving clearly depicts two angels supporting a lotus flower upon which appears to be a seated figure wearing a bishop's mitre, confirming that the inscription is for one of the bishops of Zayton.

What is significant is that the image of two angels supporting a lotus flower is a common feature of tombstones attributed to Nestorian burials (see for example the two uninscribed headstones shown in the Christian Angels on the South China Coast exhibition, The Stones of Zayton Speak fig.33, and the tombstone dated 1311 shown below), and they have therefore been seen as emblematic symbols of the Assyrian church in China. Yet here they are on the tombstone of a bishop of an order which regarded the Nestorians as heretics. I suspect that the answer is simply that angels supporting a lotus flower is what the craftsmen employed to carve the tombstone were used to carving, so when commissioned to carve a tombstone for Bishop Andrew they naturally carved him seated on a lotus flower supported by two angels. But what this means is that the image of two angels supporting a lotus flower cannot necessarily be taken to be conclusive proof that the person commemorated on the tombstone actually belonged to the Assyrian church.

Tombstones with Phags-pa Inscriptions

In addition to the supposed tombstone of Bishop Andrew discussed above, up to forty other Yuan dynasty Christian tombstones have been unearthed in Quanzhou (see The Stones of Zayton Speak for various examples of both Christian and Muslim tombstones). Amongst these are four highly unusual examples that have their main inscription written in Chinese using the Phags-pa script, which is a Tibetan-based script devised by the 'Phags-pa Lama at the behest of Khubilai Khan in 1260 for use as the national script of the Mongol Empire, and which was used to a limited extent for writing both Mongolian and Chinese during the 13th and 14th centuries. (Note that these inscriptions are not "bilingual texts in a Turkic language, using Phagspa script, and Chinese" as claimed in The Stones of Zayton Speak.)

Most of the inscribed Christian tombstones from Quanzhou have inscriptions written in the Uighur language using the Syriac script, and are without doubt memorials to members of the Assyrian church who originally came from the western parts of the empire. Many similar tombstones with Syriac inscriptions have also been found in the west of China and elsewhere in central Asia, especiially Kyrgyzstan. However the four tombstones shown below differ from the typical Uighur/Syriac examples in that their inscriptions are in the Chinese language (spelled phonetically using the Phags-pa script), and the names of the deceased are ordinary Chinese names, and so they would seem to be memorials to Han Chinese Christian converts rather than to Uighurs from central Asia. It has always been assumed that all the Christian tombstones of Quanzhou are relics of the "Nestorian" (i.e. Assyrian) church, but as I have suggested above, the supposed Nestorian symbols on the tombstones below may not necessarily be indicative of a Nestorian burial, as they are also found on the tombstone of the Franciscan Bishop Andrew (cf. especially the decoration on the 1311 Phags-pa tombstone below with the decorative carving on the tombstone of Bishop Andrew). The tombstones with Phags-pa inscriptions are dated 1311, 1314 and 1324, which makes them exactly contemporary with mission in Zayton of Bishops Gerard, Peregrine and Andrew (c.1308-1332). Without any knowledge of their archaeological context (because I stupidly managed not to buy the newly revised and expanded treatise on Quanzhou religious carvings by Wu Wenliang that had just been published the previous year) it is difficult to make any judgement, but I do wonder if it is possible that these particular tombstones were actually associated with the Franciscan bishopric of Zayton rather than the Assyrian church.

The use of Phags-pa script for writing Chinese is especially suggestive to me, as although the script was used to write Mongolian and Chinese in official documents and on monumental inscriptions of imperial edicts, as well as on coins, banknotes and seals, it was rarely used for non-governmental purposes, and I do not know of any other examples of tombstones, for any religion, that have inscriptions in the Phags-pa script. Giving the names of deceased in Phags-pa script is especially problematic as it is often not possible to be certain which particular Chinese character a Phags-pa syllable is intended to represent, especially as the Phags-pa script does not indicate tone, and so my transcriptions of the Phags-pa inscriptions into Chinese characters is in places only tentative (and sometimes differs from the transcriptions given in other studies of the tombstones). Ironically, the date, which could be written unambiguously in the Phags-pa script, is always written using Chinese characters. The question has to be asked, given that the Phags-pa script cannot distinguish between ideographic homophones and the tombs are for Han Chinese with ideographic names, why then is the main inscription written in the Phags-pa script ? It may well have been that the Franciscan missionaries promoted the use of the phonetic Phags-pa script over the native ideographic script as it was easier for them to read and write Chinese with it, and if these were the tombstones of converts to the Franciscan church at Quanzhou then that would explain why their inscriptions are in the Phags-pa script.

It is also interesting to note that the inscriptions themselves have no Christian content, but use exactly the same forms of wording that are found on ordinary non-Christian Chinese tombstones of the time. The cross and angels are the only indications that these are in fact Christian monuments. This contrasts with the Christian tombstones in the Syriac script which do include overt Christian text (see for example The Stones of Zayton Speak figs.16 and 18 which both start with the words "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit..." in Uighur).

Tombstone of Zhu Yanke (1311)

The main inscription reads ꡁꡗ ꡚꡋ ꡆꡦꡟ ꡗꡠꡋ ꡁꡡ ꡒꡜꡞ ꡝꡧꡞꡋ ꡏꡟ khay shan jėu yen kho dzhi 'win mu in Phags-pa script, representing Chinese kai shan zhu yan ke zi yun mu 開山朱延可子雲墓 "tomb of Zhu Yanke [styled] Ziyun of Kaishan". An inscription in Chinese on either side reads 至大四年辛亥,仲秋朔日謹題 "In the cyclical year xinhai [year of the golden pig] in the fourth year of the Zhida period, respectfully inscribed on the first day of the second autumn month". Zhida 4 corresponds to the year 1311.

The Phags-pa text of this tombstone has also been interpreted as "開山朱延可訾雲墓".

Tombstone of Yang Wengshe (1314)

The main inscription reads ꡖꡟꡃ ꡚꡦ ꡗꡃ ꡚꡞ ꡏꡟ ꡈꡓ -ung shė yang shi mu taw in Phags-pa script, representing Chinese weng she yang shi mu dao 翁舍楊氏墓道 "tomb memorial of Yang Wengshe". An inscription in Chinese on either side reads 延祐甲寅,良月吉日 "In the cyclical year jiayin [year of the wooden tiger] of the Yanyou period, on a good month and an auspicious day". The cyclical year jiayin is the first year of the Yanyou period, corresponding to the year 1314.

The Phags-pa text of this tombstone has also been interpreted as "翁葉楊石墓道".

Tombstone of Liu Yigong (1324)

The main inscription reads ꡗꡞ ꡂꡟꡃ ꡙꡞꡓ ꡚꡞ ꡏꡟ ꡆꡞ yi gung liw shi mu ji in Phags-pa script, representing Chinese yi gong liu shi mu zhi 易公(劉/柳)氏墓誌 "tomb memorial of Liu Yigong" (the family name may be either Liú 劉 or Liǔ 柳, as Phags-pa script does not indicate tone). A faint inscription in Chinese on either side reads 旹歲甲子,仲春吉日 "In the cyclical year jiazi [year of the wooden rat], on an auspicious day of the second spring month". The cyclical year jiazi can only refer to the first year of the Taiding 泰定 period, corresponding to the year 1324.

The Phags-pa text of this tombstone has also been interpreted as "易公柳濟墓址" or "易公劉石墓誌".

Tombstone of Mr. or Mrs. Ye (undated)

The inscription reads ꡗꡠ ꡚꡞ ꡏꡟ ꡆꡞ ye shi mu ji in Phags-pa script, representing Chinese ye shi mu zhi 葉氏墓誌 "tomb memorial of Mr. or Mrs. Ye". This is the only Phags-pa tombstone inscription that does not also give a date in Chinese script.

The Phags-pa text of this tombstone has also been interpreted as "葉氏墓址" or "葉石墓誌".

Appendix : Note on the name "Zayton"

Quanzhou was known to European travellers to China as Zayton (in various spellings), from the Arabic name for the city, Zaitún, meaning an olive tree. However the Arabic Zaitún is in fact a corruption of the Chinese name for the coral tree (Erythrina variegata), citong 刺桐 "prickly tong". Because Quanzhou was famed for its coral trees, since the Tang dynasty (618-907) it had been known informally as the "city of coral trees" (citong cheng 刺桐城), and this literary epithet was later adopted as Zaitún "olive tree" by Arab traders.

For centuries after Marco Polo's account of the splendours of Zayton were first made known to Europe, no-one knew exactly where Zayton was, and some even thought that it was a spurious, made-up name. It was only at the end of the 19th century that Zayton was conclusively identified as Quanzhou.

The name Zayton has passed into the English language as the word "satin", which derives from the Arabic zaitúníah (via medieval Italian zettani, Spanish aceytuni or French zatony), being the name for the rich satins from Zayton, for which Quanzhou was renowned, as can be seen from the account of Ibn Batuta, who visited China in the 1340s :

The first city that I reached after crossing the sea was ZAITÚN. ... It is a great city, superb indeed; and in it they make damasks of velvet as well as those of satin, which are called from the name of the city Zatúníah ; they are superior to the stuffs of Khansá [Hangzhou] and Khárbálik [modern Beijing]. The harbour of Zaitún is one of the greatest in the world -- I am wrong; it is the greatest! I have seen there about an hundred first-class junks together ; as for small ones, they were past counting. The harbour is formed by an estuary which runs inland from the sea until it joins the Great River.

Further Reading

Web Sites


  • Wu Wenliang 吳文良, Quanzhou Zongjiao Shike 泉州宗教石刻. Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe, 1957 (1st ed.) and 2005 (2nd ed., revised by his son, Wu Youxiong).
  • Zheng Zhenman 鄭振滿 and Ding Hesheng 丁荷生, Fujian Zongjiao Beiming Huibian : Quanzhoufu fence 福建宗教碑銘彙編 : 泉州府分册 (3 vols.). Fuzhou: Fujian Renming Chubanshe, 2003.
  • Junast 照那斯圖, "Yuandai Jingjiaotu mubei basibazi kaoshi" 元代景教徒墓碑八思巴字考釋. In Haijiaoshi Yanjiu 海交史研究 1994.2.
  • Niu Ruji 牛汝極, "Quanzhou chutu Huihuwen Yelikewenjiao (Jingjiao) mubei yanjiu" 泉州出土回鶻文也里可溫教(景教)墓碑研究. In Xueshu Jilin 學術集林 vol.5 (Shanghai Yuandong Chubanshe, 1995).
  • Niu Ruji 牛汝極, "Cong chutu beiming kan Quanzhou he yangzhou de Jingjiao laiyuan" 從出土碑銘看泉州和揚州的景教來源. In Shijie Zongjiao Yanjiu 世界宗教研究 2003.2.
  • Pearson, Richard, Li Min and Li Guo, "Quanzhou Archaeology: A Brief Review". In International Journal of Historical Archaeology 6:1 (2002).
  • Schottenhammer, A., ed., The Emporium of the World: Maritime Quanzhou, 1000–1400. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Sunday, 5 November 2006

Mani Stones in Many Scripts

Mani stones are stones that are carved with the famous Sanskrit mantra oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ, which is known periphrastically as the "six-syllable mantra" (liùzì zhēnyán 六字真言 in Chinese and yi ge drug pa in Tibetan). The origins of the mantra are obscure, but it is normally associated with the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Tibetan spyan ras gzigs "Chenrezig"), particularly his four-armed manifestation, Shadakshari ("Lord of the Six Syllables"); although it has been suggested that it was originally an invocation to a female consort of Avalokiteśvara called Manipadma (see this Early Tibet post for a discussion of the limited association of six-syllable mantra with Avalokiteśvara in early Tibet).

It is not known when the mantra came into use, but it must have been long before the earliest recorded mentions of it in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. By the time of the rise of the Mongol empire in the 13th century the use of this mantra was already widespread, and had attracted the attention of European visitors to China, such as William of Rubruck, who has this to say about Buddhist practice in the account of his travels to the East between 1253 and 1255 :

All the priests shave their heads, and are dressed in saffron color, and they observe chastity from the time they shave their heads, and they live in congregations of one or two hundred. On the days when they go into the temple, they place two benches, and they sit in the region of the choir but opposite the choir, with books in their hands, which they sometimes put down on these benches; and they keep their heads uncovered as long as they are in the temple, reading in silence and keeping silence. And when I went into one of their temples at Caracarum, and found them thus seated, I tried every means of inducing them to talk, but was unable to do so. Wherever they go they have in their hands a string of one or two hundred beads, like our rosaries, and they always repeat these words, on mani baccam, which is, "God, thou knowest," as one of them interpreted it to me, and they expect as many rewards from God as they remember God in saying this.

In Tibet the six-syllable mantra is to be found everywhere, on prayer flags and on prayer wheels, but most spectacularly carved onto the rocks and stones that decorate the landscape. The picture below is a mani stone in Tibetan script from the Russian Far East (courtesy of Vladimir Belyaev) :

The inscription here is terminated with the seed syllable hrī (as is often the case with Tibetan inscriptions) :


The main formula is often painted over in colour, as on these examples on the Kunzum Pass above the Spiti Valley in India (photograph courtesy of Konstantin Shemyak) :

Note that each syllable of the formula is painted in its own particular colour (and that the "d" of pad has the same colour as the rest of the syllable, even when it is stacked onto the following syllable me) :

  • ཨོཾ་ : white
  • མ་ : green
  • ཎི་ : yellow
  • པད་ : light blue
  • མེ་ : red
  • ཧཱུཾ་ : dark blue

Here is my attempt to display the six syllables in their six colours as text. I have had to write pad and me separately (as they less commonly are), as I don't think it is possible to colour the individual components of a single dme glyph in different colours.

ཨོཾ་ མ་ ཎི་ པད་ མེ་ ཧཱུཾ་

Although Tibetan script mani stones are most frequently encountered, the mani formula may also be engraved using the Ranjana or Rañja or Lantsa script (lan tsha, lan dza or la nya tsha in Tibetan). This a woodblock print showing how the six-syllable mantra is written in the Lantsa script :

Nik Douglas, Tibetan Tantric Charms & Amulets (Dover Publications, 1978) No.29.

And here is an example from the British Museum of a stone with the Mani formula written five times in the Lantsa script :

Closely related to Lantsa is the Vivarta or Wartu script (Tibetan war tu or war tu la). The inscription beneath the image of Shadakshari (the four-armed manifestation of Avalokiteśvara) on this stone is in the Wartu script (note how the form of the syllable oṃ differs markedly from Lantsa but is very similar to oṃ in the Siddham script) :

John Lowry, Tibetan Art (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1973) plate 49.

Whilst mani stones in Tibetan, Lantsa or Wartu scripts are most common, the mani formula may also be written in a variety of other scripts, and I thought it would be interesting to collect examples of the six-syllable mantra in as many scripts as possible, a sort of I can eat glass project for Buddhist epigraphers.

The best example of a multi-script mani stone that I know of is the 1348 Stele of Sulaiman, which was found at Mogaoku 莫高窟 (i.e. the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas) at Dunhuang in the late 19th century (click on the picture below to link to a higher resolution picture from a marvellous exhibition of documents relating to the scripts and languages of the ancient nationalities of China at the National Library of China) :

This monument was erected during the Yuan dynasty, in the 8th year of the Zhizheng period [1348], by Sulaiman 速來蠻, who was the Prince of Xining 西寧王 from 1329 to his death in 1351. The inscription includes the six-syllable mantra written in six different scripts (is the number of scripts chosen a coincidence? — probably not; the same six scripts are also found on the 1342 Cloud Platform at Juyongguan) :

  • Lantsa (梵文) [1st row] oṃ ma ṇi pa dme hūṃ
  • Tibetan [2nd row] : oṃ ma ṇi pad me hūṃ ཨོཾ་མ་ཎི་པད་མེ་ཧཱུྃ
  • Uighur (回鹘文) [far left] : oom mani badmi xung
  • 'Phags-pa (八思巴文) [left] : ’om ma ni pad me hung ꡝꡡꡏ ꡏ ꡋꡞ ꡌꡊ ꡏꡠ ꡜꡟꡃ
  • Tangut (西夏文) [right] : ·a mja nji pja mjij xo 𗙫𗏵𗐱𗴟𗘺𗦀
  • Chinese [far right] : ǎn má ní bā mí hōng 唵嘛呢叭𠺗吽

For anyone who thought that there was nothing more to add to Unicode, it is a sobering thought that three of these six scripts are as yet unencoded (although Tangut is now in the process of being encoded) and one ('Phags-pa) was only just introduced in Unicode 5.0 a couple of months ago, and so it is currently not possible to represent the text of this important monument in Unicode. [Tangut was eventually encoded in Unicode v. 9.0 in June 2016]

Another extinct and as yet unencoded script that the mani formula has been written in is Jurchen (女真文). The illustration below (apologies for the poor quality) is from an early Ming dynasty stone monument commemorating the founding of the Yongning Temple 永寕寺 in the 11th year of the Yongle period [1413] in the district of Nurgan, located near the mouth of the Amur River in what is now part of Russia (the actual monument is in the Vladivostok Museum).

Jin Guangping 金光平 and Jin Qizong 金啓孮, Nüzhen Yuyan Wenzi Yanjiu 女真語言文字研究 (Beijing: Wenwu Chubaneshe, 1980).

The main text is inscribed in Chinese on the front and in Mongolian and Jurchen on the back, but on both sides of the monument the six-syllable mantra is engraved in the following four scripts :

  • Tibetan [top left] : oṃ ma ṇi pad me hūṃ ཨོཾ་མ་ཎི་པད་མེ་ཧཱུཾ
  • Jurchen [bottom left] am ma ni ba mi xu
  • Chinese [top right] : ǎn má ní bā mí hōng 唵嘛呢叭𡄣吽
  • Mongolian [bottom right] : oom ma ni bad mi qung ᠣᠣᠮ ᠮᠠ᠋ ᠨᠢ ᠪᠠᠳ ᠮᠢ ᠬᠤᠩ

The Six-Syllable Mantra in Various Scripts
Script Image Transliteration Unicode

oṃ ma ṇi padme hūṃ

oṃ ma ṇi pad me hūṃ



Lantsa oṃ ma ṇi pa dme hūṃ  
Wartu oṃ ma ṇi pa dme hūṃ  
Siddham oṃ ma ṇi pa dme hūṃ  
'Phags-pa ’om ma ni pad me hung ꡝꡡꡏ ꡏ ꡋꡞ ꡌꡊ ꡏꡠ ꡜꡟꡃ
ǎn má ní bā mí hōng 唵嘛呢叭𠺗吽
Jurchen am ma ni ba mi xu  
Tangut ·a mja nji pja mjij xo 𗙫𗏵𗐱𗴟𗘺𗦀
Uighur oom mani badmi xung  
(old orthography)
oom ma ni bad mi qung ᠣᠣᠮ ᠮᠠ᠋ ᠨᠢ ᠪᠠᠳ ᠮᠢ ᠬᠤᠩ
Mongolian uwaṃ maa ni badme huuṃ ᢀᠤᠸᠠ ᠮᠠ᠋᠎ᠠ ᠨ᠋ᠢ ᠪᠠᠳᠮᠧ ᢀᠾᠤᠤ



The mantra is normally written with padme as one word, but it may be written as two words (pad me), as in the 1348 and 1413 inscriptions shown above. In modern Lhasa Tibetan the mantra is pronounced om mani peme hung.

Here are some links to a few more images of Tibetan mani stones (just a few of the many you can find with the help of Google Image Search) :

Lantsa, Wartu and Siddham

Lantsa (Ranjana), Wartu (Vivarta) and Siddham (Chinese xītán 悉曇 or 悉檀) are three closely related scripts, and from a character encoding point of view they could be considered to be variant styles of the same basic script.


The 'Phags-pa text in the 1348 Mogaoku inscription follows the Tibetan spelling convention of using a dependant vowel sign to write om, but Mongolian and Chinese 'Phags-pa texts use an independant letter o. For example, in the 1345 'Phags-pa inscriptions at Juyongguan 居庸關 the mantric syllable oṃ in the invocation oṃ bhrūṃ [bhrūṃ bhrūṃ] (from the Sanskrit Phags-pa inscription on the west wall) and the invocation om sva sti (from the start of the Mongolian Phags-pa inscription on the east wall) is written with an independant letter rather than with a dependant vowel sign, but whereas the Sanskrit text (on the left) uses a candrabindu letter, the Mongolian text (on the right) represents the final nasal with a simple letter m :


The mantra is normally transcribed using the Chinese characters :

  1. ǎn or wēng
  2. , or () bài
  3. , 𠺗 , 𡄣 (𠵸) or ()
  4. hōng

There are thus a wide range of possible transcriptions of the mani formula in Chinese, including :

  • 唵嘛呢叭咪吽 ǎn má ní bā mí hōng
  • 唵嘛呢叭𠺗吽 ǎn má ní bā mí hōng
  • 唵嘛呢叭彌吽 ǎn má ní bā mí hōng
  • 唵嘛呢叭𡄣吽 ǎn má ní bā mí hōng
  • 唵嘛呢吧咪吽 ǎn má ní bā mí hōng
  • 唵嘛呢吧彌吽 ǎn má ní bā mí hōng
  • 唵嘛呢唄咪吽 ǎn má ní bài mí hōng
  • 唵嘛呢唄彌吽 ǎn má ní bài mí hōng
  • 唵嘛呢唄咪吽 ǎn má ní bài mí hōng
  • 嗡嘛呢叭咪吽 wēng má ní bā mí hōng
  • 嗡嘛呢叭彌吽 wēng má ní bā mí hōng
  • 嗡嘛呢唄咪吽 wēng má ní bài mí hōng
  • 嗡嘛呢唄彌吽 wēng má ní bài mí hōng

However, the mantra is sometimes written in a somewhat different way, as is the case on this undated bronze plaque devoted to the goddess Cundi (Chinese Zhunti 凖提) (the inscription on the reverse is in the Lantsa script) :

Here (reading anticlockwise from 11 o'clock) the mantra is written with the characters 唵麽呢鉢訥銘ǎn má ní bō nàmíng hōng, where 訥銘 nàmíng (written one character above the other) transcribes the dme of padme. Although using na for /d/ may seem odd, this corresponds to early Chinese Sanskrit transcription practice, as can be seen in this mid fourteenth century book by Tao Zongyi 陶宗儀, where Sanskrit /d/ is transcribed as 捺 :

Shushi Huiyao 書史會要 vol. 8 folio 6b.

A final note on the character hōng that is used to transcribe hūṃ. The first five characters of the mani formula in Chinese (唵嘛呢叭咪吽) are each written using a mouth radical on the left to indicate that the element on the right is being borrowed as a phonetic approximation, but the last character is written with a mouth radical on the left and the character for an ox (níu 牛) on the right, which is not in this case a phonetic. The Tang dynasty monk Huilin 慧琳 (737-820) explains the character hōng thus : "It is like the sound of an ox bellowing, or perhaps an angry tiger; the sound comes from deep within the throat" (如牛吼聲,或如虎怒,胸喉中聲也).


The six characters of the mantra in the 1413 inscription are all easily identifiable.

Character* Reading** Nüzhenwen Cidian Grube 1896 Nüzhen Yiyu 女真譯語
Phonetic Gloss
am p.293 #474
ma p.10 #370
ni p.287 #560
ba p.56 #419
mi p.175 #641 迷, 密
xu p.111 #385 忽, 戶, 琥, 瑚

* Characters are displayed using Jason Glavy's Jurchen font. If you do not have this font installed you will see Chinese characters instead.

** The readings are the phonetic reconstructions of Jin Guangping 金光平 and Jin Qizong 金啓孮 in Jin Qizong 金啓孮, Nüzhenwen Cidian 女真文辞典. Beijing: Wenwu Chubanshe, 1984.


The Tangut characters for the first five syllables of the mantra in the 1348 inscription are easily identifiable, but the sixth character is not to be found in Li Fanwen's Tangut-Chinese dictionary, and I was originally unable to identify it. However, now that I have been given a copy of Wenhai Yanjiu 文海研究 I have been able identify the character in the inscription as a variant form of the Tangut character specifically used for transliterating Sanskrit hūṃ. Notice how the four-stroke element on the right side has been simplified to 干 in the 1348 inscription.

Character Reading* Xia-Han Zidian
𗙫 ·a #0774
𗏵 mja #3369
𗐱 nji #4884
𗴟 pja #3425
𗘺 mjij #0201
𗦀 xo #2224

* The readings are the phonetic reconstructions given in Li Fanwen 李範文, Xia-Han Zidian 夏漢字典 [A Tangut-Chinese Dictionary] (Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe, 1997).

The first and last characters in the mantra are defined in the mid 12th century monoglot Tangut Rhyming dictionary, The Sea of Characters 文海. The original Tangut text and Chinese translation as given in Wenhai Yanjiu 文海研究 (Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe, 1983) by Shi Jinbo 史金波 et al. is shown below :£










There is also a bronze mirror with the image of a Buddha surrounded by the the mani formula in Tangut script. I haven't got a good picture of it, but you can buy a replica of it from 宁夏特产网 (you can also buy a set of replica Tangut coins if you want). Meanwhile here is a copy of the inscription of the mirror given in the 1935 edition of Yin Tong 音同 "Homophones".


·a mja nji pja mjij xo, ·a ·a xo

唵嘛呢叭𠺗吽唵阿吽 ǎn má ní bā mí hōng, ǎn ā hōng


My transcription of the Uighur text of the 1348 inscription is tentative.


The Mongolian text on the 1413 Yongning Temple monument is far from clear, and my transcription is tentative only. However, there are clear similarities to the Uighur version of the mantra with respect to spelling.

In more recent Mongolian texts the six-syllable mantra is spelled very differently from the 1413 inscription, and makes use of a special candrabindu sign. I haven't got an image of a Mongolian script mani stone yet, but in the meantime I have included an entry in the table for how I think the mantra should be written in standard Mongolian script (cf. the representation of the six-syllable mantra on a bronze incense burner in front of the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar shown on page 8 of Oliver Corff's MonTEX, A Quick Guide).

I can think of several more scripts (Manchu, Khitan, Soyombo, Siddham, Kharoshthi, Tocharian, Orkhon ...) that may have been used to write Buddhist mantras, so feel free to send me examples of mani stones in other scripts and I will update this page.

Last modified: 2017-01-01 (updated with Unicode Tangut characters)

If Tangut characters do not display correctly, please download and install the Tangut Yinchuan font.