Passes: gates and barriers

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A key term in Chinese historical geography is guān 關 ("pass").  You can see from the shape of the character that it is framed by the two panels of a door, left and right, and that it has two upright, elaborated bars that could impede progress through the gate (I am thinking of the early forms of the character).  The flanking door panels constitute the semantophore (radical, classifier) of the character, and the bars inside are the secondary semantophore, but may also simultaneously function as a phonophore.

A pass serves both to facilitate and block movement along key routes leading into and out of a country or regions within a country.

Just as I was thinking about writing this post on passes, I synchronously and serendipitously received from Alan Kennedy a reference to this highly technical article on Silk Road travel:

Irina Tupikova, Matthias Schemmel, Klaus Geus, "Travelling along the Silk Road: A new interpretation of Ptolemy’s coordinates", Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte / Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Preprint 465 (2014), 73 pages.

Because of my longstanding interest in the Tarim Basin (Eastern Central Asia) and the important town of Dunhuang (far western Gansu Province) with its famous Buddhist cave site of the Mogao Caves, I am particularly attracted to this article by Tupikova, Schemmel, and Geus for its citation of passes in these areas and its dedicated effort to make more precise their exact locations.  The authors mention numerous passes that mark the route of the Silk Road(s)

To go through one of these passes, travellers had to present a guòsuǒ 過所 (lit., "pass-place") document that allowed the bearer to pass from one checkpoint to another.  In medieval China, this was the equivalent of a passport ("[authorization to] pass through a port").  Note that a "port" doesn't necessarily have to on the water.

"harbor," Old English port "harbor, haven," reinforced by Old French port "harbor, port; mountain pass;" Old English and Old French words both from Latin portus "port, harbor," originally "entrance, passage," figuratively "place of refuge, asylum," from PIE *prtu- "a going, a passage," suffixed form of root *per- (2) "to lead, pass over."


Even today, China has "ports" (gǎngkǒu 港口; cf. Hong Kong [Xiānggǎng 香港; "Fragrant Harbor"]) that serve as passes in the desert area between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang.  When I first encountered them about twenty-five years ago, I thought that the usage was very strange, especially because gǎng 港 ("harbor; port") has a water radical.

The business of roads, routes, passes, and so forth is to enable jiāotōng 交通 ("communication"), where the first syllable means "intersect; cross" and the second means "through".  Tōng 通 is one of my favorite Sinitic morphemes.  In various usages, it conveys the following senses:adjective】through; open; common; coherent; logical; whole; alladverb】throughverb】communicate; connect; notify; lead to; open up; clear out; tell; understand; go to; know noun】authority; expert.

Such a multiplicity of meanings enables us to form collocations such as the precious expostulations:

gǒupì bùtōng / gau2 pei3 bat1 tung1 (Cant.) 狗屁不通 ("canine crepitation that doesn't make sense") 688,000 ghits

gǒupì bùtōng wénzhāng shēngchéng qì 狗屁不通文章生成器 ("Bullshit Article Generator") 385,000 ghits

Best of all, let us contemplate the early 13th-c. Chan / Zen classic Wúménguān 無門關 / Mumonkan 無門関 (The Gateless Pass).  How shall we pass through it?


Selected readings


  1. Chris Button said,

    June 22, 2020 @ 8:05 pm

    I suppose the true phonetic (at least from an "etymological" perspective) is 串. The character 關 is actually attested very early on as 門 with 串 as phonetic, although other forms seem to suggest it might have been a variant rather than the original.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 22, 2020 @ 8:51 pm

    Bingo again, Chris!

    I also thought of chuàn 串 ("string together; link up"), variant pron. guàn; Old Sinitic /*kʰjons/ (Zhengzhang 2003), but wanted to see if any bright LL reader came up with the same idea independently.

  3. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 23, 2020 @ 1:45 am

    Cf also [Sublime] Porte, originally the gate of the sultan's palace.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    June 23, 2020 @ 2:49 am

    What exactly is meant by "crepitation" in 狗屁不通 ? When, in normal circumstances, do dogs (or other canids) crepitate ?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    June 23, 2020 @ 4:46 am

    When they are flatulent.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    June 23, 2020 @ 4:50 am

    Thank you. Somehow that interpretation had passed me by, in that I associated crepitation only with creaking joints, knuckle-cracking and such-like …

  7. AG said,

    June 23, 2020 @ 8:50 am

    I used to live near part of Yokohama called Kannai (関内), because it was "within the checkpoints" that surrounded the area where foreigners were allowed to live.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 23, 2020 @ 5:48 pm

    From Alan Kennedy:

    Safe Conduct Pass (Paiza) with Inscription in Phakpa Script
    late 13th century


    Yuan dynasty bronze "passport" in the collection of the
    Metropolitan Museum

    Shaped like a Tibetan mirror for reflecting evil.

    The openwork inscription on this circular plaque has been filled with silver to the extent that the characters project from the surface of the plaque on both sides; the inscription on the reverse is thus inverted. The type of script—used early on to write the Mongol language—is named for its inventor, Phakpa (1235–1280), the Tibetan monk and scholar who served as the imperial preceptor for the Mongol court during the reign of Khubilai Khan (1215–94). The inscription reads, “By the strength of Eternal Heaven, an edict of the Emperor [Khan]. He who has not respect shall be guilty.” The form of the pass (paiza), with its animal mask decoration, is similar to that of a Tibetan mirror for reflecting evil.

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 24, 2020 @ 8:10 am

    In Spanish puerto can still mean a mountain pass.

  10. Rodger C said,

    June 24, 2020 @ 8:17 am

    the inscription on the reverse is thus inverted.

    Surely the Met means reversed?

  11. Scott P. said,

    June 24, 2020 @ 6:58 pm


    Since the script is written top-to-bottom, I think the two are equivalent.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    June 25, 2020 @ 2:56 am

    I respectfully disagree, Scott. Looking at both sides, one can see that the script is reversed, not inverted — if it were the latter, the character at the top on one side would be upside down and at the bottom on the other, which it is not.

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