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The Wūsūn or Usun (Chinese: 烏孫; literally: "Grandchildren/Descendents of the Crow/Raven") were either an Altaic-speaking (proto-Turkic, or according to some opinions proto-Mongolian) or Indo-European-speaking (containing possibly Tocharian or Iranian elements) nomadic or semi-nomadic steppe people who, the Chinese histories say originally lived in western Gansu in northwest China, near the Yuezhi people. After being defeated by the Xiongnu (circa 176 BCE) they fled to the region of the Ili river and (lake) Issyk Kul where they remained for at least five centuries and formed a powerful force.
They are mentioned in Chinese historical sources in 436 CE, when a Chinese envoy was sent to their country and the Wusun reciprocated. Their later fate is connected with the Turkic Kaganates and the sudden reversals of fortune that fell on Central Asia and, specifically, the Zhetysu area. Considerable traces of their impact on surrounding peoples and events were left in Persian, Muslim, Turkic, and Russian sources extending from the 6th century CE to the present. The modern Uysyn who number approximately 250,000 people, are regarded by some as the modern descendants of the Wusun. The Uysyn have two branches, Dulat and Sary Uysyn ("Yellow Uysyn").
There are several theories about the origin of the name. The most accepted theory is that 'Wusun' is perhaps a Chinese transcription from a Turkic language, the original Turkic word possibly meaning "unity" or "loyalty". Sinologist Victor H. Mair compared "Wusun" with Sanskrit "aśvin" and Lithuanian "ašva", both meaning 'mare'. The name would thus mean "the horse people." Hence he put forward the hypothesis that the Wusun used a Kentum-like language within the Indo-European languages. However, the latter hypothesis is not supported by many. W. Krause also tried to connect their name to Old Turkic usun, meaning 'water, crowd, people' (cf. modern Mongolian ус us ~ усан usan "water").
Wusun is a modern pronunciation of the Chinese Characters '烏孫'. Originally, Wusun probably sounded more like Asman (*ah-sman < *asman, or *o-sən, *uo-sen or ?ah-swē depending on the authors) suggesting that they may have been the Asii of Geographica.
Around 107 BCE a Han princess married to the Usun Hunmo (sovereign) composed a song that called the Wusun country a Sky (Tian) country, and in China the Wusun horses (Usun ma) were called heavenly horses (Tian ma). Ptolemy (VI, 14, 177 CE) knew an Asman tribe, located east of the Volga River.
The Chinese name '烏孫' ('Wusun') literally means Wu = 'crow' or 'raven' + Sun = 'grandson' or 'descendant'. Through the legend of an infant son, left in the wild, miraculously saved from hunger by suckling from a she-wolf, and being fed meat by ravens, they shared a similar ancestor myth with the ruling Ashina clan of the Göktürks (Asena legend), and may have influenced the Eurasian people to the west. See, for example, the legend of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome.
The Wusun were divided into two groups, the Kangly, many of whom were sedentary farmers, who lived in the Karatau region and along the middle course of the Syr Darya, and the Alani, who migrated from the northern shores of the Aral Sea to the northern banks of the Caspian Sea. Early Chinese histories such as Shiji and Hanshu recorded that the Wusun had previously lived near the Yuezhi people in the Qilian and Dunhuang areas in Gansu (different locations however have been suggested for these toponyms.) According to Shiji, Wusun was a state located west of the Xiongnu. Hanshu described them as occupying land that previously belonged to the Saka (Sai). To their north-west the Wusun bordered Kangju, located in modern Kazakhstan. To the west was Dayuan (Ferghana), and to the south were various city states.
Chinese records first mention the "Ushi" in Andin and Pinlian (modern Pinlian and Guüan in the Peoples Republic of China), between the Lu-hun and Kuyan tribes. The transcription of Ushi means "raven generation", and is semantically identical with U-sun – "raven descendants". In Wusun legend their ancestors were a raven and a wolf.
The first historical records concerning the Wusun name them as a separate and distinct tribe of the Xiongnu confederacy, living on the territory of the modern province of Gansu, in the valley of the Ushui-he (Chinese Raven Water river). It is not clear whether the river was named after the tribe or vice versa.
Early in their history, the Wusun migrated in three stages, lasting near two hundred years. The first exodus from Shaanxi to the Qilian Mountains in around 410 BC was forced by the Yuezhi. Between 410 BC and 177 BC, the Wusun were vassals of the Tocharic Yuezhi coalition.
The second migration in about 178 BC, was connected with the Xiongnu prince Modu Chanyu's campaign against the Yuezhi, and resulted in the reconquest by the Wusun of their Sichen homeland. According to Zhang Qian, the Yuezhi were defeated by the rising Xiongnu empire and fled westward, driving away the Saka (Sai). Before this, they overran the Wusun, whose ruler Nandoumi was killed. His infant son Liejiaomi was left in the wild. He was miraculously saved from hunger being suckled by a she-wolf, and fed meat by ravens.
The Xiongnu ruler was impressed and adopted the child. When the child grew up the Chanyu gave him command in the west. As an act of revenge, the Wusun attacked the Yuezhi, who had taken refuge in the Ili Valley. The Yuezhi were crushed completely and fled further west to Ferghana, and finally settled in Bactria. The Wusun took over the Ili Valley, expanding over a large area and trying to keep away from the Xiongnu. They were said to number 630,000 with 188,000 men capable of bearing arms, and became a powerful force in Central Asia.
When the Han empire began their counter-offensive against the Xiongnu, the Wusun had become a bitter enemy of the Xiongnu, after repeatedly being threatened by them. The Wusun were won over to the Chinese in a martial alliance, sealed by a political marriage.
The third migration in c.160 BC was a deliberate displacement by the Wusun of the defeated Asii from their temporary residence in Zhetysu. In 160 BC, after the death of the Xiongnu ruler Chanyu Laoshan (173–161), the Wusun separated from the Xiongnu and migrated to the region of the Ili River and lake Issyk Kul, established their independence, and formed a powerful state in the Zhetysu area. Chinese historical annals offer a demographic description of the Wusun at that time, stating that they numbered 630,000 people and 120,000 families.
In 71 BCE, a Chinese envoy cooperated with the Wusun and supplied an army of 50,000 to attack the Xiongnu for them, which ended in a great victory. However, a dispute took place soon after the death of their ruler, Nimi, in 53 BCE. The Wusun were divided into two kingdoms, under a little kunmi and greater kunmi, both of whom recognised Chinese supremacy and remained faithful vassals.
In 5 BCE, during the reign of Uchjulü-Chanyu (8 BCE – CE 13), the Wusun attempted to raid Chuban pastures, but Uchjulü-Chanyu repulsed them, and the Wusun commander had to send his son to the Chuban court as a hostage. The forceful intervention of the Chinese usurper Wang Mang and internal strife brought disorder, and in 2 BC one of the Wusun chietains brought 80,000 Wusun to Kangju, asking for Kankalis help against the Chinese. In a vain attempt to reconcile with China, he was duped and killed in CE 3.
In 2 CE, Wang Mang issued a list of four regulations to the allied Xiongnu that the taking of any hostages from Chinese vassals, i.e. Wusun, Wuhuan and the statelets of the Western Regions, would not be tolerated. The Xiongnu obeyed.
In the 5th century they were pressured by the Rouran and may have migrated to the Pamir Mountains. From the 6th century onward the former habitat of the Wusun formed part of the western empire of the Göktürks. After this event the Wusun seem to disappear from Chinese records, though their name was last mentioned on an offering to the court of Liao Dynasty on September 22, 938. The Chinese were involved in a plot with the Wusun involving a "fat King", and "Mad King". The Chinese were involved in a plot to kill the mad king, and a Chinese deputy envoy called Chi Tu who brought a doctor to attend to him was punished by castration when he returned to China.
The Wusun left multiple diaspora islands along their centuries-old trek. As a rule, part of a tribe remained in the old habitats and later on participated in new ethnic unions. Wusun principalities are known in the Ordos Desert. Separate Wusun princedoms existed for a long time in the Khangai Mountains and along the Bogdoshan ridge (eastern Tian Shan).
People and culture
According to Chinese archaeologists, the excavated skeletal remains of a people presumed to be the Wusun are of the short-headed Europoid Central Asian interfluvial type. On the basis of six skulls from the first century BC/AD found at Semirech'e (Zhetysu), J.P. Mallory and Victor Mair presumes those to be of the Wusun, where Soviet archaeologists have described them ranging from primarily Europoid with some Mongoloid admixture to pure Europeans.
The evidence from ancient Chinese texts is contradictory. The Hanshu and Shiji, which mentioned the Wusun, did not note any unusual ethnic appearance of the Wusun. The actual first description of Wusun may be found in a Western Han dynasty book of divination, the Jiaoshi Yilin, where the Wusun women were described as "ugly and dark colored people with deep eye sockets," and the reported dark skin complexion may suggest South Asian origin. However, a very brief pejorative quote from an ancient book of divination may not be a reliable source for determining ethnic characteristics.
A later 7th century commentary to the Hanshu by Yan Shigu says: "Among the various Rong in the Western Regions, the Wusun's shape was the strangest; and the present barbarians who have green eyes and red hair, and are like macaques, belonged to the same race as the Wusun."
For some time, it was theorized that the Wusun spoke a Proto-Turkic language, which was formerly the consensus of opinion. Some scholars, including Chinese scholar Han Rulin, as well as G. Vambery, A. Scherbak, P. Budberg, L. Bazin and V.P. Yudin, noted that the Wusun king's name Fu-li, as reported in Chinese sources and translated as "wolf", resembles Proto-Turkic "böri" = "wolf". Other words listed by these scholars include the title "bag/beg" = "lord". The Turkic-linguality of the dynastic tribe of the Wusun union was stated by F. Hirt, K. Shiratori, N.A. Aristov and other researchers after analysis of the Chinese transcriptions of the Usun words. According to Turkologist Amanzholov the presence of Turkic words (like "kün beg" = "Sun Lord" in Turkic, which resembles the title of the Wusun sovereign, "uluγ", "tarqan") in the language of the ancient Wusuns, noted by Y.A. Zuev, also makes questionable the standard in the Soviet historical literature point of view about the so-called "Turkification" of the local population in Kazakhstan and Central Asia by the Huns (Chinese: Sünnu), beginning in the 1st century BC.
However, this theory is disputed by some Turkologists, including Peter B. Golden and Carter V. Findley, who explain that none of the mentioned words are actually Turkic in origin. Carter V. Findley notes that the term böri is probably derived from one of the Indo-European Iranian languages of Central Asia, while the title beg is certainly derived from the Sogdian baga ("lord"), a cognate of Middle Persian baγ (as used by the rulers of the Sassanid Empire), as well as Sanskrit bhaga and Russian bog, whereas Russian linguist Sergei Starostin assumes a derivation from Proto-Turkic *bāj ("rich, noble; many, numerous"), itself ultimately from a possible Proto-Altaic root *bēǯu ("numerous, great", cf. Old Japanese p(j)iida-/pui-). Within Turkic *bāj ("rich") in turn is probably hard to distinguish from *baj (~ -ń) ("holy; god; true, reliable, honest"). In the same way Starostin gives an indigenous Proto-Turkic etymology for "böri". He further excludes the hypothesis of an East Iranian source, basically because of the lack of early attested forms with -k, and vice versa affirms Vasily I. Abaevs elaboration that the East Iranian form itself is most likely borrowed from a Turkic source.
Chinese sources name the Scythian Sai (Saka), and the Yuezhi who are often identified as Tocharians, among the people of the Wusun state in the Zhetysu area, but it is very difficult to place the Wusun with the Tocharian category of Indo-European.
According to the Shiji (c.123) and the Hanshu (c.96), a daughter from the Han prince, Liu Jian, was sent to the ruler (kunmo or kunmi) of the Wusun between 110 BCE and 105 BCE. She describes them as nomads who lived in felt tents, ate raw meat and drank fermented mare's milk. Some early Chinese descriptions of the people were pejorative, describing them as "bad, greedy and unreliable, and much given to robbery", but their state was also described as very strong. On the other hand, the Wusun were notable for their harmony towards their neighbours, even though they were constantly raided by the Xiongnu and Kangju.
Wusun and Issedones connection
Some scholars have proposed that the Wusun may have been identical with the people described by Herodotus (IV.16–25) and in Ptolemy's Geography as Issedones.  Their exact location of their country in Central Asia is unknown. The Issedones are "placed by some in Western Siberia and by others in Chinese Turkestan," according to E. D. Phillips.
- Russian Translation Series of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 1964. page 98:"Usun is merely a Russian transliteration of an ancient Chinese name for which just the English form Wusun should suffice."
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- Hanshu 《漢書·張騫李廣利傳》 Original text 臣居匈奴中，聞烏孫王號昆莫。昆莫父難兜靡本與大月氏俱在祁連、焞煌間，小國也。
- Liu, Xinru, Migration and Settlement of the Yuezhi-Kushan: Interaction and Interdependence of Nomadic and Sedentary Societies (2001)
- Shiji 《史記·大宛列傳》 Original text: 匈奴西邊小國也
- Hanshu 《漢書·卷九十六下》 西域傳 Original text: 本塞地也，大月氏西破走塞王，塞王南越縣度。大月氏居其地。後烏孫昆莫擊破大月氏，大月氏徙西臣大夏，而烏孫昆莫居之，故烏孫民有塞種、大月氏種雲。
- 《漢書·卷九十六下》 Original text: 東與匈奴、西北與康居、西與大宛、南與城郭諸國相接。
- Hill (2009), "Appendix I: Chigu 赤谷 (Royal Court of the Wusun Kunmo)," pp. 527–531.
- Hanshu 《漢書·張騫李廣利傳》 Original text 時，月氏已為匈奴所破，西擊塞王。
- Hulsewé and Loewe. China in Central Asia. Annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of the Hanshu, p. 215, n. 805. (1979) Leiden, E. J. Brill. ISBN 90-04-05884-2.
- Shiji 《史記·大宛列傳》 Original text: 匈奴攻殺其父，而昆莫生棄於野。烏嗛肉蜚其上，狼往乳之。
- (Hanshu, ch.61 & 96)
- Zuev Yu.A. "Ethnic History Of Usuns", pp.7–19
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- SKULLS OF USUN TIME (3rd c. BC – 4th c. AD). Quote: ".Thus, the Usun skulls as a whole have averagely developed crania, medium longitudinal and above medium crosswise diameters, somewhat high crania, moderately expressed brachicrania, straight forehead, medium high but wide facial skeleton, medium profiled in a horizontal plane face with moderately indented fang sockets, strongly protruding nose and medium high eye-sockets. ... From individual analysis of these series, V.V.Ginzburg established that a prevailing part of the male skulls belong to the Caucasoid race. Among them are skulls with clearly expressed Andronov type features. As a whole, in the opinion of the researcher, the male skulls contain some Mongoloid features. The female skulls of that series mainly belong to the Middle Asian interfluvial (Ginzburg, 1952, 1956). ... Thus, the summarized and individual race-typological characteristic of the skulls shows that Jeti-Su Usuns belonged to the big Caucasoid race with a Mongoloid admixture."
- Mallory and Mair (2000), pp. 93–94.
- 《焦氏易林 – Jiaoshi Yilin》 Original text:烏孫氏女，深目黑醜；嗜欲不同，過時無偶。
- Jiaoshi Yilin, vol. 6 
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- Hanshu 《漢書·卷九十六下》 西域傳 Original text: 昆莫年老，言語不通，公主悲愁，自為作歌曰：「吾家嫁我兮天一方，遠托異國兮烏孫王。穹廬為室兮旃為牆，以肉為食兮酪為漿。居常土思兮心內傷，願為黃鵠兮歸故鄉。」
- Hanshu, Original text: 民剛惡，貪狼無信，多寇盜，最為強國。
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