A medieval Chinese passport?

石染典过所Shi Randian Guosuo document. Source: Xinjiang Museum

A medieval Chinese passport? A Sogdian merchant’s business trip in Tang China

By Shuqi Jia

When reading a modern day travelblog, it is not uncommon to read about the administrative hassle that one encounters when travelling. Anecdotes about complicated processes surrounding the extension of a visa or the paperwork involved in the reclamation of some lost luggage soothe the reader that maybe they aren’t missing out after all. Who would have thought that travelers in eighth-century China were bothered by similar red tape?

In the year 732 CE, a merchant of Sogdian descent named Shi Randian travelled from the frontier region of the Tang empire, Anxi, to Guazhou in inner China on a business trip. After completing his business in Guazhou, Shi Randian embarked on his return trip to the place where his journey had started. All in all a distance of some 1500 kilometers! On his way back to Anxi, Shi Randian had to present a travel document containing information on his trading activities and the goods and people that accompanied him at several towns. Amazingly, this travel document survived allowing us to join Shi Randian on his travels through eighth-century medieval China.

The Shi Randian guosuo document is actually made up of three sheets pasted together, as we can observe from the two vertical crevices.[1] From right to left doc 1 states: “The person who presents this statement (i.e. Shi Randian) comes from Anxi. He has with him three followers and ten donkeys. He traveled from Anxi to this place for trade, and his business here is completed. Now he wants to go back to Anxi. Since he encountered some problems from the garrison officials on his inbound journey through the Iron Gate, please ratify this guosuo document to prevent this from happening on his return trip. His request has been checked to be real. The document is approved.” At the end of the document are the signatures of the ‘household registration officer’ (hucao canjun 户曹参军), Dan (亶), and the ‘regional aides’ (zhangshi, 长史), Yang Zhi. The document is dated March 14 in the 20th year of the Kaiyuan regnal, i.e. year 732 CE.

The document in the middle (2) consists of four vertical lines, recording the four towns in the Shazhou region that Shi Randian passed through between March 19 and March 21, as well as the names of the garrison officers who gave permission for his transit. These towns are Xuanquan, Changle, Kushui and Yanchi, all located in today’s Hexi Corridor in the Gansu province of China.

Finally, document 3 gives the names of Shi Randian’s three companions, one of whom is a family slave (jiashengnu, 家生奴). The content is: “(Shi Randian has with him) the servant Kang Lushan, Shi Nufen, the family slave Yi/Mu Duodi, and ten donkeys. Randian received the guosuo document from Guazhou, now he comes to this place for trade. His business here is completed, and he has set off to Yizhou (Hami) for trade. To ensure that the officers at the checkpoints on the way to Yizhou approve the pass, the previous guosuo documents are here attached, please give him permission to pass.” The third document contains the signature of the household registration officer of the Shazhou region, Chen (琛), and the date of approval, which is March 25 in the year 732. At the end of document 3, it is moreover indicated that Shi Randian eventually arrived in Yizhou from where he also received approval to pass.

Map 1: Itinerary of Shi Randian, red line: inbound trip, green line: return trip. Map made by Shuqi Jia

The document that allowed Shi Randian to travel and trade in Tang China is known in Chinese as the guosuo 过所 document. The term consists of two Chinese characters, ‘guo’ 过 which means ‘to pass’ and ‘suo’ 所 which means ‘location or place’. The guosuo system managed departure and entry in ancient and medieval China. It was organized via a network of cities and outposts on major trade routes and strategic passes giving access to the interior part of China. Examining the document that our merchant carried with him, we can make some interesting observations concerning this system both in its formal aspects and how it affected an individual trader like Shi Randian.

Let’s start with our Sogdian merchant. What can we reconstruct in terms of his journey and his endeavors? The furthest point in China that Shi Randian reached on his business trip was Guazhou (in the Jiuquan region, Gansu). After having completed his business there, he embarked on a return journey to Anxi. One should bear in mind that the geographical and administrative range of the Anxi protectorate was quite large. Document 1 states explicitly that Shi Randian travelled through the Iron Gate (Korla in Xinjiang), which indicates that he would have started off from somewhere west of the Iron Gate. At the same time we know from another document that Shi Randian was a resident of Turfan, located further east in Anxi, which is also where the present document was found. We can thus imagine that Shi Randian’s trade activity extended west and east from his place of residence in Turfan. He engaged in trade in several towns along the road as his guosuo states. Shi Randian obtained this guosuo in Guazhou for the specific purpose of his return journey and he would probably have held a similar one on his way over to Guazhou—even though it might not have functioned optimally for he encountered problems from some officials as stated in doc 1. He had to present his ‘guosuo’ to the garrison official at each checkpoint along the way to proof that he was traveling on legitimate business and that he would only trade in the places stated in his guosuo document (Guazhou, Shazhou and Yizhou). At each checkpoint, his guosuo would be validated and, if necessary, adjusted for the next stretch of the journey, with the previous documents being adhered to it.

Shi Randian also needed his guosuo when he entered a market to sell his wares since during the Tang period, the transaction tax (shishui, 市税) was implemented along with the custom tax (guanshui, 关税). Specific officials known as market-inspectors (hushijian, 互市监) were in charge of taking the transaction taxes from the merchants who entered the market to sell their goods. This means that the guosuo offered a foreign merchant also some sort of protection. No one could present his merchandise for sale, for example after stealing it from him: they would not have the right papers to do so.

One vexing question remains: what was Shi Randian actually trading? He returned with ten donkeys and three companions, including a family slave. The question is whether the donkeys and companions were the merchandise that Shi Randian brought home or whether they had merely served to transport his merchandise. This would mean that the donkeys were carrying goods and that the companions were helping Shi to drive the animals along their long journey. The latter explanation seems the most likely one, as donkeys were not so valuable that one needed to travel hundreds of kilometers to purchase them. Indeed one wonders what goods would have justified such a long and arduous journey. There are several indications that Shi Randian operated in a very lucrative and large-scale business. First there is the long trip he took, which is unlikely for the transport of ordinary goods. Moreover, we can see from document 3 (vertical line 6) where Shi Randian’s name and title was recorded that Shi was not an ordinary Turfan resident. He bore the title “general of the mobile cavalry” (youji jiangjun, 游骑将军). Another document found in Turfan records a sale involving Shi Randian in which horses are traded. Taking these different indications together we can imagine that Shi Randian was trading horses between the frontier towns of the Tang empire and the markets located further inland. Horses indeed constituted a high value merchandise with obvious links to the military. Once the horses were sold in Guazhou or other towns he constantly visited, Shi Randian and his company returned using the donkeys which likely carried additional merchandise as well as necessities like food, clothes, and utensils on the way over and back. What Shi Randian was trading in the markets of Shazhou and Yizhou on his way back is harder to imagine; perhaps goods he picked up in Guazhou or stuff he had not been able to sell in Guazhou.

Turning to the administrative side of things, our document contains valuable information on that point as well. During the Tang period, the guosuo document was obligatory for all merchants from outside of China, whether they travelled over land or entered China by ship. According to Tang Liudian 唐六典 (The Six Codes of the Tang Dynasty): “Those who travel through the Passes/Gates, need to apply for a guosuo document from the respective administrations. If the person is in the capital, the Shangshu Sheng (department of state affairs) issues it. If the person is in another locality, the provincial or municipal administrations issue it. If the person carries with him and presents the guosuo document acquired from his previous destination, the present local administration can issue the corresponding guosuo document to let him pass.” Our document confirms this procedure very nicely. But the document tells us even more.

Based on our document, the right to give permission to transit seems to have been in the hands of two types of local officials, one is known as the household registration officer (hucao canjun, 户曹参军), the other is the regional inspector (cishi, 刺史). These officials validated the travel document with their signature, but they also added a stamp of the administrative offices they represented. On Shi Randian’s guosuo, we can see one “Stamp of Guazhou” (on doc 1), three impressions of the “Stamp of Shazhou” (on doc 2 and doc 3) and one “Stamp of Yizhou” (on doc 3). It is worth noting that, one “stamp of Shazhou” was imprinted on the joint of documents 2 and 3. This implies that the documents were already pasted together when presented to officer Chen, so that he could see which places Shi Randian had passed through before arriving in Shazhou.

The guosuo document was not just a document giving permission to trade, it really was an attempt at an identity card. In the Six Codes of the Tang Dynasty, we can read that unauthorized use of the guosuo would have serious consequences: “The guosuo document cannot be lent to other people including the holder’s family members. Those who apply for guosuo for people who are not qualified for it or who attempt to trail behind people with guosuo, will be punished. Officials in charge who issue guosuo to unqualified people, or detain passersby without reasons will similarly be punished.” Thus the document under discussion here was a very serious, real and structured attempt from the authorities to keep track of who would enter China through the Iron gate and other main passes and what merchandise entered or left the country. The degree of bureaucratic organization is impressive especially if we imagine that Shi Randian cannot have been the only person travelling along this road.

Shi Randian’s travel pass, or guosuo, was unearthed in an archaeological excavation in the Astana Cemetery near Turfan, in 1959. Shi resided in Turfan and this is where he was probably buried sometime after 732. Did Shi Randian take his passport and other business papers with him into his grave? Or did it enter someone else’s tomb in Turfan as part of the funerary shrouds and clothing that was made from old papers? For all the information that Shi Randian’s guosuo offers us, plenty of questions still remain. Most importantly, however, his guosuo allows us to take a closer look at what travel and trade along the famous Silk Road was like on a daily basis. Most of all, it opens our eyes to the sobering realization that waiting for the right stamp from the right person was just as much the reality of the medieval traveler as it is of today’ globetrotter.


This blog is a nice example of how fruitful working in a team of scholars engaged with documents is. It motivated me to probe the unexpected corners of my study field and provided me with new understanding of the political, social and economic history in ‘my corner of the world’. I was inspired to examine this (and the other) ‘actual’ documents from Central Asia when I read papyrus letters from Egypt with my colleagues on several occasions. When I encountered the travel document of Shi Randian, it became clear that exactly at the time when Shi Randian was moving through Tang China with his guosuo, the Umayyad authorities issued traffic permit documents to traders and other individuals on the move as well! Such documents are preserved on papyrus from Egypt. A comparison between the two kinds of documents would offer interesting insights into the ambitions of either Empire—Tang and Umayyad—to control the movement of people and merchandise within the borders of their respective empires. A tantalizing prospect that deserves another blog!

For further information about the Turfan expedition, see the link:


[1] The document was published in Tulufan Chutu Wenshu, 吐鲁番出土文书 (Documents excavated from Turfan) (Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House, 1992), vol. 4, 275-276.