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Nanman (simplified Chinese: 南蛮; traditional Chinese: 南蠻; pinyin: Nánmán; Wade–Giles: Nan-man; literally: "Southern Barbarians") were aboriginal tribes who lived in southwestern China. They may have been related to the Sanmiao, dated to around the 3rd century BC. The Nanman were multiple ethnic groups including the Hmong, the Kinh, the Thai, and some non-Chinese Tibetan-speaking groups such as the Bai people. There was never a single polity that united these people.
The Book of Rites details ancient stereotypes about the Si Yi "Four Barbarians" surrounding China.
The people of those five regions – the Middle states, and the [Rong], [Yi], (and other wild tribes round them) – had all their several natures, which they could not be made to alter. The tribes on the east were called [Yi]. They had their hair unbound, and tattooed their bodies. Some of them ate their food without its being cooked. Those on the south were called Man. They tattooed their foreheads, and had their feet turned in towards each other. Some of them (also) ate their food without its being cooked. Those on the west were called [Rong]. They had their hair unbound, and wore skins. Some of them did not eat grain-food. Those on the north were called [Di]. They wore skins of animals and birds, and dwelt in caves. Some of them also did not eat grain-food. The people of the Middle states, and of those [Yi], Man, [Rong], and [Di], all had their dwellings, where they lived at ease; their flavours which they preferred; the clothes suitable for them; their proper implements for use; and their vessels which they prepared in abundance. In those five regions, the languages of the people were not mutually intelligible, and their likings and desires were different. To make what was in their minds apprehended, and to communicate their likings and desires, (there were officers) – in the east, called transmitters; in the south, representationists; in the west, [Di-dis]; and in the north, interpreters.
During the Three Kingdoms period, the state of Shu Han ruled over Southwest China. After the death of Shu Han's founder, Liu Bei, the tribesmen of the region rebelled against Shu Han's rule. The Shu Han chancellor, Zhuge Liang, led a successful expedition to quell the rebellion.
In the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the rebellious Nanman tribes are depicted as an alliance under the leadership of Meng Huo. Meng Huo is said to have submitted to the rule of Shu Han after being captured and released no fewer than seven times by Zhuge Liang. This story has been adapted into many other works of fiction over the centuries, as well as video games based on the era.
During the Tang dynasty, the Hmong ceased as a major non-Chinese group except in Yunnan, where they were ruled by the six Zhao (趙). The southernmost, known as Mengshezhao (Chinese: 蒙舍詔) or Kingdom of Nanzhao (Chinese: 南詔), united the six Zhao and founded the first independent Nanman state during the early 8th century. The royalties were thought to be Bai people. Nanzhao regularly paid tributes through the head of military district Jiannan Jiedushi (劍南節度使). When the Tang dynasty gradually declined, Nanman gained more independence, but was assimilated by later dynasties. However, some of Nanzhao's cultural influence was carried south due to its location.
The early Chinese exonym Man (蠻) "southern barbarians" was a graphic pejorative written with Radical 142 虫, the "insect" or "reptile" radical. Xu Shen's (c. 121 CE) Shuowen Jiezi dictionary defines man as "Southern barbarians [who are a] snake race. [The character is formed] from [the] insect / serpent [radical and takes its pronunciation from] luàn 南蠻蛇種从虫䜌聲."
- Wangzhi chap., tr. James Legge (1879), The Li Ki, Clarendon Press, vol.1, pp. 229-230.
- Tr. by Mair, Victor H. (2010), How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language, Pinyin.info.