Where China Meets Pyu: The “Tharaba Gate” Bilingual Inscriptions at Pagan

Liu Yun analyzes the significance of an Chinese-Pyu inscription found at the Tharaba Gate.

 Myanmar is one of the richest countries of Asia in lithic inscriptions that have been used as great facility of historical research. In his 2005 book, The Mists of Rāmañña: The Legend That Was Lower Burma, historian Michael Aung-Thwin devoted one chapter, “The Pyū Millennium,” to a description of the Pyu group of the first millennium. It is from this group that the Burmese speaker borrowed Indic culture for subsequent rise of the Pagan kingdom. Aung-Thwin pointed out (emphasis added):

“Indeed, several Pyū-language inscriptions were discovered centuries after the Nanchao raid of 832: one at Pagán in the reliquary of Aniruddha’s Shwéhsandaw Pagoda and therefore thought to be mid-eleventh century, another near the front (east) gate of Pagán with an unknown date, the third, of course, the famous four face of the so called Myazedi Inscriptions of 1112 AD, and the fourth in Lower Burma. ”

Currently held in Pagan Archaeological Museum, the illegible Pyu inscription of an “unknown date” was found near the Tharaba gate which, located to the east of Pagan, is the only surviving gate of the old city. Sino-Burmese historians Taw Sein Ko (1916) and Chen Yi-sein (1960) argued, based on their pioneer studies of the much defaced Chinese epigraphy on the reverse side of the Pyu scripts, that the bilingual stone dates back to the late 13th century when the Mongol campaigns of the Pagan Kingdom were launched by ambitious Kublai Khan (r. 1271-1294) and a subsequent fragile tributary relationship was established. Strikingly different from the traditional way of writing vertically from top to bottom, the Chinese texts at Pagan run horizontally from left to right, in a Burmanized way. The classic characters that have been identified so far read as follows:


Huang Fa

Yun Nan Sheng Dao Bie Sheng

[Bu] Yin Dao Zei

Bu Can Mian Guo

Huang Ding Pu Gan


Imperial Orders

From Yunnan to other provinces

Shall not hide the Rebels

Shall not destroy the Myanmar Kingdom

The Emperor conquers the city of Pagan

In terms of the clear words “shall not destroy the Myanmar Kingdom,” similar content had been recorded in a historical source from Vietnam. In 1292, a Chinese courtier arrogantly told the Crown Prince of Dai Viet (author’s translation):

Several years ago, the Emperor ordered Yesun Temur, the Prince of Yunnan, to launch a Myanmar campaign. The Emperor also ruled an order to ban the burning of temples and palaces, and ban the demolition of tombs as well. The Prince of Yunnan obeyed the order. After the great troops marched into Myanmar, the king of Mian (Myanmar) fled for fear. The Prince of Yunnan had neither slaughtered the Myanmar people , nor destroyed the temples and tombs.

Certainly, the Pagan city had never “perished amid the blood and flame” as a result of the Mongols. On the contrary, it was protected well and left almost intact by Kublai Khan’s edict. Indeed, the physical evidence gathered by UNESCO’s team shows that the damage or destruction of the religious monuments of Pagan was inflicted by natural forces rather than wars. Even the picture of a Mongol archer on the walls of Bagan’s Kyanzitta Umin does not support the “Mongol carnage” hypothesis. The archer is actually aiming at a duck, while a Mongol officer in the same bucolic picture lounges under a tree with a bird of prey perched on his wrist. Instead of a portrait of war, it should really be viewed as a genre-painting of nomadic people.

Historical background suggests that the “Tharaba gate” Chinese inscription, which reads like spoken language with an unfamiliar grammatical structure, is probably the edict issued in 1287 by Kublai Khan aiming to protect the Pagan city. Inscriptions of imperial decrees by Mongol emperors of Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) have also been found in many Buddhist and Taoist temples across China. The decrees mostly included orders on the exemption of tax and fee imposed on these temples by local authorities. The special-designed, fixed format letters of the emperors in Beijing were sent to civil and military officials who were responsible for daily management of local affairs. The original texts of decrees were Uighur-style or Hpags-pa Mongolian scripts, which were then officially translated, based on certain rigid rules, word-by-word into contemporary vernacular Chinese-language. Thus, the Chinese language grammatical structures were mixed with Mongolian components.

Historian G. H. Luce felt puzzled by the seemly anachronic Pyu text. He wondered: “Did [the author of the inscription] ‘encourage the nationalists’ by seeking to revive the Pyu language?” However, considering that in China’s Yuan dynasty, a tablet with edict inscriptions is usually a ban order (as the Chinese text at Pagan indicates), and assuming that the Pyu text is but a translation of the Chinese or Mongolian text (just like the case of Myazedi inscriptions), the following scenario is highly possible: the Chinese-Pyu bilingual inscriptions were aimed at the Chinese and Pyu speaking soldiers, forbidding them to destroy the Pagan city. These non-Mongolian soldiers accounted for a majority of the expeditionary army sent to inland Pagan kingdom by Kublai Khan.

Even though Chinese records stated that Pyu kingdom was looted and plundered by the year of 832, but nothing suggests that the Pyu polity as a whole was destroyed. In fact, the Pyu as a people continued to be mentioned in old Burmese inscriptions as late as the second half of the 14th century, i.e. referencing “a Pyu concubine, ” “a Pyu carpenter,” “a Pyu firewood dealer, ” and so on. More interestingly, according to the Chinese sources that recorded the Yuan dynasty’s Burma campaign, there was a strategic location “Piao Dian”(Pyu Kingdom) commanding one of the three routes from China’s Yunnan province into Burma territory. Particularly during the 1287 campaign, 3000 invading soldiers encamped and guarded the “Pyu Kingdom. ”

Thus, the Chinese-Pyu bilingual inscriptions at Pagan present a narrative that during the late 13th century, the Pyu soldiers allied with the Chinese army to fight against the Pagan kingdom. Since then the areas where China met Pyu have become the China-Myanmar borderlands. Still, nowadays, fatal conflicts break out in this same terrain frequently, with peace and stability urgently desired by people across the border.

Image credit: Liu Yun

Author: Liu Yun

Liu Yun is an independent analyst based in China. He writes on Myanmar regularly. He can be reached at: liuyun5398@hotmail.com