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The Dingling (Chinese: 丁零) were an ancient Siberian people. They originally lived on the bank of the Lena River in the area west of Lake Baikal, gradually moving southward to Mongolia and northern China. They were subsequently part of the Xiongnu Empire.
Around the 3rd century they were assimilated into the Tiele (鐵勒), also named Gaoche (高車) or Chile (敕勒), who gradually expanded westward into Central Asia. It is assumed that Dinglings were distant relatives of the Huns.
Naming and etymology
Although the words Dingling, Gaoche, Chile and Tiele are often used interchangeably, this usage is erroneous as pointed out by modern academia.
- Dingling refers to an extinct ancient ethnic group, whose original constituents mainly assimilated into the Xiongnu and Xianbei groups.
- The Gaoche, later Chile, were a tribe, descended in part from the Dingling, that was expelled from Mongolia by the Rouran and founded a state (487-541) at Turpan.
- The Tiele were a collection of tribes of different Turkic ethnic origins, largely descended from the Chile.
Origin and migration
The Dingling were a warlike group of hunters, fishers, and gatherers of the southern Siberian mountain taiga region from Lake Baikal to northern Mongolia. Chinese records do not mention the physical appearance of the Dingling, suggesting general homogeneity with people of the Asiatic region, and their name appears rarely.
According to the History of the Gaoche of Wei Shou (6th century), the origin of the Dingling can be traced to the fabled Chidi (赤狄), who lived in northern China during the Spring and Autumn period. The Mozi mentions a total of eight Di groups related to the Chidi, of whom only the Chidi and two others were known.
To the north of the Xiongnu empire and Dingling territories, at the headwaters of the Yenisei around Tannu Uriankhai, lived the Gekun (鬲昆), also known as the Yenisei Kirghiz in later records. Further to the west near the Irtysh river lived the Hujie (呼揭). Other tribes living north of the Xiongnu, such as the Hunyu (浑庾), Qushe (屈射), and Xinli (薪犁), are only mentioneed once in Chinese records, and their exact location is unknown.
Dingling and Xiongnu
The Dingling were first subjugated by the Xiongnu, but these gradually weakened. In 71 BCE, after numerous conflicts between the Chinese and the Xiongnu, the Dingling, with help from neighboring tribes, took the opportunity to revolt. From 60 to 63 BCE, during a split within the Xiongnu ruling clan of Luanti (挛鞮), the Dingling attacked the Xiongnu, together with the Wusun, supported by the Chinese, from the west and the Wuhuan from the southeast.
In 51 BCE, they were, together with the Hujie and Gekun, defeated by the Xiongnu under Zhizhi Chanyu, on his way to Kangju. Over the next century there may have been more uprisings, but the only recorded one was in the year 85, when together with the Xianbei they made their final attack on the Xiongnu. After that, the Dingling were assimilated into the remaining northern Xiongnu and the Tuoba under the confederacy of Xianbei chief Tanshihuai (檀石槐). After his death in 181, the Xianbei moved south and the Dingling took their place on the steppe.
Between the short-lived Xianbei confederacy in 181 and the foundation of the Rouran Qaghanate in 402, there was a long period without a tribal confederacy on the steppe. During this period, a part of the Dingling were assimilated to the northern Xiongnu by permanently settling further to the south. Another group, documented as about 450,000, moved southeast and merged into the Xianbei.
After the defeat of Northern Shanyu (1st century), deduced from the number of casualties and immigrants, an estimated figure of 200,000 is given for the Xiongnu still remaining on the northern steppe. Remnants of the Xiongnu managed to keep their identity until the early 5th century, living on the Orkhon River under the tribal name Bayeqi (拔也稽) before being eliminated by the Rouran.
Some groups of Dingling settled in China during Wang Mang's reign. According to the Weilüe, another group of Dingling escaped to the western steppe in Kazakhstan. Around the 3rd century, Dinglings living in China began to adopt family names such as Zhai, Xianyu (鲜于), Luo (洛) and Yan (严). These Dingling became part of the southern Xiongnu tribes known as Chile (赤勒) during the 3rd century, from which the name Chile (敕勒) originated.
During the Sixteen Kingdoms period the Dingling founded the Wei state under Zhai Liao. A branch of people descended from the Tiele in central Asia, mixing with Indo-European people, would later emerge as the Uyghur group.
About one-quarter of the Tuoba clans show similar names as found among the later Gaoche and Tiele tribes. Among them, the Hegu (紇骨) and Yizhan (乙旃) clans kept their high status and were forbidden to intermarry with the rest.
Between the 4th and 7th centuries, the name "Dingling" slowly disappeared from Chinese records.
Religious beliefs and culture
The cultural aspects of the Dingling can be observed from the Noin-Ula excavations in northern Mongolia. There were a total of 212 tumuli. the Noin-Ula mountains, called Tzun-Mode by the local population, are chiefly grown with pine, their higher zones with larch and cedar.
The burial finds were divided into three groups by Trever:
- Imported Chinese objects, such as silk embroidery
- Objects coming from the West, not from Greece and her Near Eastern colonies, but belonging to the culture of the Bactrian upper classes and Parthian Iran, both impregnated with Hellenistic culture
- Objects of local workmanship
The objects of Chinese origin are more or less well known, as W.P. Yetts mentioned them in his article. Some of the objects contain Taoist elements and ideographs, from silk embroidered with scrolled clouds and horsemen, and a lacquered bowl decorated with birds. On a damask design, a horseman holds an object from which ascends a cloud of vapour. The Chinese ideographs read:
"hsin shen ling kuang ch'eng shou wan nien" (新神灵广成寿万年) meaning "renews spirituality and extends longevity to a myriad years". An accompanying inscriptions dispels all doubts as to their identity, for they are called "hsien jen" (仙境), Taoist illuminates or fairies. Yetts adds that the philosopher "Guang Cheng" is a prominent figure in Taoist myth, who had been regarded as an early incarnation of Laozi.
The lacquered cup has an incised inscription too, which was deciphered by Prof. Otto Kümmel and Umehara Sueji:
"September of the 5th year of the Chein-p'ing (2 BCE)". The manufacturer is "Wang-t'an-ching", the painter of the decoration "Huo", another manufacturer "I'", superintended by "Pien Wu" (建平五年九月工王潭经画工获壶大武省). Two other signs on the bottom of the cup are according to Yetts to be read as "Shang lin" (上林, which is the name of a park to the west of Chang'an, capital of Western Han) The identity of the buried is not known.
The "western" objects reached the Xiongnu through trade along the Silk Road, being the result of the commercial capital of the ancient world having penetrated into the remotest regions of the East. From countries producing articles of luxury, such as Bactria, impregnated as it was with Hellenistic culture, merchants imported goods into the land of the Xiongnu. This is probably what called into life the remarkable local art of wool embroidery destined for the use of the princes. In Chinese style and with the use of local dyes made of plants, Hellenistic plant motives and realistic images of the chiefs, with all the details of clothing, way of hair dressing and horsegear are depicted.
From literary sources we have some knowledge of the upper classes' daily life: the dead princes are buried in two coffins, an outer and inner one. Their clothes are of gold and silver brocade and fur. Nothing is known about the burial customs of the ordinary people.
In Zur jenissejisch-indianischen Urverwandtschaft (Concerning Yeniseian-Indian Primal Relationship), the German scholar, Heinrich Werner developed a new language family which he termed Baikal–Siberic. By extension, he groups together the Yeniseian peoples (Arin, Assan, Yugh, Ket, Kott, and Pumpokol), the Na-Dene Indians, and the Dingling of Chinese chronicles to Proto-Dingling. The linguistic comparison of Na-Dene and Yeniseian shows that the quantity and character of the correspondences points to a possible common origin. According to Russian linguistic experts, they likely spoke a polysynthetic or synthetic language with an active form of morphosyntactic alignment, exhibiting a linguistically and culturally unified community.
The name Dingling can be seen to resemble both:
- the Yeniseian word *dzheng people > Ket de?ng, Yug dyeng, Kott cheang
- the Na-Dene word *ling or *hling people, i.e. as manifested in the name of the Tlingit (properly hling-git son of man, child of the people).
Although the Dené–Yeniseian language family is now widely accepted, the same cannot be said about his inclusion of the Dingling.
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- Li (2003), pp. 110-112.
- A. J. Haywood, Siberia: A Cultural History, Oxford University Press, 2010, p.203
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