Safe Conduct Pass (Paiza) with Inscription in Phakpa Script

Period: Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)

Date: late 13th century

Culture: China

Medium: Iron with silver inlay

Dimensions: H. 7 1/8 in. (18.1 cm); W. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm)

Classification: Metalwork

Credit Line: Purchase, Bequest of Dorothy Graham Bennett, 1993

Accession Number: 1993.256


Metal plaques (paizi) in various shapes and materials (gold, silver, and iron) were essential to Mongol administration, beginning with the reign of Genghis (1206–27), the first Great Khan. The plaques are not only important historical documents but are also of great interest for the study of Asian metalwork during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a time of massive movements of people and rapid exchange of ideas and technology.

Two kinds of Mongol plaques were issued—to officials as patents of office, and as passports for persons on state missions and for important guests. (Marco Polo on his return journey to Venice would have carried one.) The Museum's example is a passport. The plaque is of iron with inlay of thick silver bands forming characters in the Phagspa script, devised for the Mongol language in 1269 by the Tibetan monk ’Phagspa (1235–1280), a close advisor to Kublai Khan (r. 1260–95). The inscription reads in translation (by Morris Rossabi):

By the strength of Eternal Heaven,
an edict of the Emperor [Khan].
He who has no respect shall be guilty.

Above it is a lobed handle, with an animal mask in silver inlay. The mask is probably the kirttimukha (lion mask) taken from Tibetan art but ultimately of Indian origin; the lobed shape reflects Islamic influence. Silver inlay on iron (as opposed to bronze) is extremely rare in China before the Mongol period.

This plaque is one of about a dozen Mongol paizi known. Two others of the same type are in Lanzhou, China, and in Russia. (The latter example was found during the nineteenth century in Tomskaya.)