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Wusun and their neighbours around 200 AD.

The Wusun (Chinese: 烏孫; pinyin: Wūsūn; Wade–Giles: Wū-sūn; literally: "Grandchildren/Descendents of the Crow/Raven[1]") were a semi-nomadic steppe people who, according to Chinese historians, lived between the 2nd century BC and the 9th century AD in the Tarim Basin, the Ili Valley and the Pamir Mountains respectively.

The Wusun are generally believed to have been an Indo-European people[2][3][4] either of Indo-Aryan,[5] Iranian[6][7][8][9] or Tocharian[10][6][11][12] origin. Chinese historians note that the Wusun had Europoid features,[5][13] which has been confirmed by modern archaeology.[14][15]

The Wusun are first mentioned by Chinese sources as vassals of the Yuezhi in the Tarim Basin,[16] an Indo-European Europoid people of possibly Tocharian origin.[2] Around 170 BC, the Yuezhi were utterly defeated by the Xiongnu, also former vassals of the Yuezhi.[17][18] The Yuezhi subsequently attacked the Wusun and killed their king (Kunmi Chinese: 昆彌 or Kunmo Chinese: 昆莫) Nandoumi (Chinese: 難兜靡), capturing the Ili Valley in the Zhetysu area from the Saka (Scythians) shortly afterwards.[18] In return the Wusun settled in the former territories of the Yuezhi as vassals of the Xiongnu.[18][19] The son of Nandoumi was adopted by the Xiongnu king and made leader of the Wusun.[19] Around 130 BC he attacked and utterly defeated the Yuezhi, settling the Wusun in the Ili Valley.[19] Soon afterwards they became independent of the Xiongnu, becoming trusted vassals of the Han Dynasty and a powerful force in the region for centuries.[19][20][21] With the emerging of the steppe federation of the Rouran, the Wusun migrated into the Pamir Mountains in the 5th century CE.[18] They are mentioned in Chinese historical sources in 436 CE, when a Chinese envoy was sent to their country and the Wusun reciprocated.[22] They are last mentioned in 938 AD when a Wusun chieftain paid tribute to the Liao dynasty.[18]


Wusun is a modern pronunciation of the Chinese Characters '烏孫'. The Chinese name '烏孫' ('Wusun') literally means Wu = 'crow' or 'raven' + Sun = 'grandson' or 'descendant'.[1] There are several theories about the origin of the name.[23]

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 Edwin G. Pulleyblank.[24] Christopher I. Beckwith makes a similliar analysis to Mair, reconstructing Chinese term Wusun to the Old Chinese *âswin, which he compares to the Old Indic aśvin "the horsemen," the name of the Rigvedic twin equestrian gods.[5]


The Wusun are first mentioned by Chinese sources as vassals of the Yuezhi in the Tarim Basin.[16] Beckwith suggests that the Wusun were an eastern remnant of the Indo-Aryans, who had been suddenly pushed to the extremeties of the Eurasian Steppe by the Iranian peoples in the 2nd millennium BC.[25] Early Chinese histories such as Shiji and Hanshu recorded that the Wusun had initially lived near the Yuezhi in the Qilian and Dunhuang areas in Gansu[26] (different locations however have been suggested for these toponyms.)[27] According to Shiji, Wusun was a state located west of the Xiongnu.[28] 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.[29]

Migration of the Wusun

Around 175 BC, prince Modu Chanyu of the Xiongnu, also former vassals of the Yuezhi, soundly defeated the latter.[17] According to Zhang Qian, the Yuezhi were defeated by the rising Xiongnu empire and fled westward, driving away the Sai (Scythians) from the Ili Valley in the Zhetysu area.[30] 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.[31][32][33][34] This ancestor myth shared striking similarities with those of the Hittites, the Zhou Chinese, the Scythians, the Romans, the Koguryo, Turks, Mongols and Dzungars.[35] The Wusun subsequently settled the modern province of Gansu, in the valley of the Ushui-he (Chinese Raven Water river), as vassals of the Xiongnu. It is not clear whether the river was named after the tribe or vice versa.

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 settled in the Ili Valley. The Yuezhi were crushed completely and fled further west to Sogdia, Bactria, and then South Asia, where one branch of the Yuezhi founded the Kushan Empire.[16] 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 120,000 families and 188,000 men capable of bearing arms, and became a powerful force in Central Asia.[36] Hanshu described them as occupying land that previously belonged to the Saka (Sai).[37][38] 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.[39] The Royal Court of the Wusun, Chigu (Chinese: 赤谷; pinyin: chìgǔ; literally: "Red Valley"), was located in a side valley leading to Issyk Kul.[40]

When the Han empire under Emperor Wu of Han (156-87 BCE) 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 military alliance, sealed by a political marriage.[18]

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 help against the Chinese. In a vain attempt to reconcile with China, he was duped and killed in CE 3.[41]

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.

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.[citation needed] The transcription of Ushi means "raven generation", and is semantically identical with U-sun – "raven descendants".

The Chinese were involved in a plot with the Wusun involving a "Fat King" and a "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.[42][43]

In the 5th century they were pressured by the Rouran and may have migrated to the Pamir Mountains.[44] 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.[45] 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).[46]

People and culture[edit]


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.[14] 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 Europoids.[15]

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,"[47][48] and the reported dark skin complexion may suggest South Asian origin.[49] 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 barbarians in the Western Regions, the look of the Wusun is the most unusual. The present barbarians who have green eyes and red hair, and look like macaque monkeys, are the offspring of this people."[13][50]


The Wusun are generally believed to have been an Indo-European-speaking people.[10][6][2][3][51][5] They are thought to be Iranian-speaking by the archaeologist Elena Kuzmina,[8] Turkologist Peter B. Golden[7] and Central Asian scholar Denis Sinor.[9] The Sinologist Edwin G. Pulleyblank has suggested that the Wusun, along with the Yuezhi, the Dayuan, the Kangju and the people of Yanqi, could have been Tocharian-speaking.[10][2] Sinor finds it difficult to include the Wusun within the Tocharian category of Indo-European until further research.[3] Indo-Europeanist J. P. Mallory has suggested that the Wusun contained both Tocharian and Iranian elements.[6][51] Central Asian scholar Christopher I. Beckwith suggests that the Wusun were Indo-Aryan-speaking.[5] From the Chinese term Wusun, Beckwith reconstructs the Old Chinese *âswin, which he compares to the Old Indic aśvin "the horsemen," the name of the Rigvedic twin equestrian gods.[5] Beckwith suggests that the Wusun were an eastern remnant of the Indo-Aryans, who had been suddenly pushed to the extremeties of the Eurasian Steppe by the Iranian peoples in the 2nd millennium BC.[25]

Some scholars have suggested that the Wusun spoke a Proto-Turkic language. 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".[52] This theory has been criticized by other Turkologists, including Peter B. Golden and Carter V. Findley, who explain that none of the mentioned words are actually Turkic in origin.[53][54][55] Carter V. Findley notes that the term böri is probably derived from one of the Indo-European Iranian languages of Central Asia,[54] while the title beg is certainly derived from the Sogdian baga ("lord"),[55] a cognate of Middle Persian baγ (as used by the rulers of the Sassanid Empire), as well as Sanskrit bhaga and Russian bog.[56]


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.[57] 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.[58] However, the Wusun were also noted for their harmony towards their neighbours, even though they were constantly raided by the Xiongnu and Kangju.

Connection to Western histography[edit]

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.[59] [60] 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.[61]

French historian Iaroslav Lebedynsky suggests that the Wusun may have been the Asii of Geographica.[62]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Mayor, Adrienne (September 22, 2014). The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World. Princeton University Press. p. 421. ISBN 1400865131. Retrieved February 13, 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d Loewe & Shaughnessy 1999, pp. 87–88
  3. ^ a b c Sinor 1990, p. 153
  4. ^ Mair 2013
  5. ^ a b c d e f Beckwith 2009, pp. 376–377
  6. ^ a b c d Mallory 1989, pp. 59–60
  7. ^ a b Golden 2011, p. 29
  8. ^ a b Kusmina 2007, p. 78,83
  9. ^ a b Sinor 1990, p. 237
  10. ^ a b c Pulleyblank 1966, pp. 9–39
  11. ^ Masica 1993, p. 48
  12. ^ Durand-Guédy 2013, pp. 24–25
  13. ^ a b Book of Han, with commentary by Yan Shigu Original text: 烏孫於西域諸戎其形最異。今之胡人青眼、赤須,狀類彌猴者,本其種也。
  14. ^ a b 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."
  15. ^ a b Mallory & Mair 2000, pp. 93–94
  16. ^ a b c Beckwith 2009, pp. 84–85
  17. ^ a b Beckwith 2009, pp. 380–383
  18. ^ a b c d e f "Chinese History - Wusun 烏孫". Chinaknowledge. Retrieved 1 January 2015. 
  19. ^ a b c d Beckwith 2009, pp. 6–7
  20. ^ Watson, Burton. Trans. 1993. Records of the Grand Historian of China. Han Dynasty II. (Revised Edition). New York, Columbia University Press. Chapter 123. The Account of Ta-yüan. Columbia University Press.
  21. ^ Hulsewé, A. F. P. and Loewe, M. A. N. 1979. China in Central Asia: The Early Stage 125 BCE – CE 23: an annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
  22. ^ Zadneprovskiy, Y. A. 1994. "The Nomads of northern Central Asia after the invasion of Alexander." Y. A. Zadneprovskiy. In: History of civilizations of Central Asia, Volume II. The development of sedentary and nomadic civilizations: 700 B.C. to A.D. 250. Harmatta, János, ed., 1994. Paris: UNESCO Publishing, p. 461
  23. ^ 王明哲, 王炳華 (Mingzhe Wang & Binhua Wang): 從文獻與考古資料論烏孫歷史的幾個重大問題 (Important questions about the history of Wusun arising from the contemporary documents and archaeological investigations). In: 烏孫研究 (Wusun research), 1, 新疆人民出版社 (People's publisher Xinjiang), Ürümqi 1983, S. pp. 1–42.
  24. ^ Edwin G. Pulleyblank: XII.Why Tocharians?. In: Central Asia and non-Chinese peoples of ancient China (English), 1, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot, Hampshire; Burlington, VT 2002, ISBN 0-86078-859-8, S. 426-427.
  25. ^ a b Beckwith 2009, pp. 29–38
  26. ^ 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。
  27. ^ Liu, Xinru, Migration and Settlement of the Yuezhi-Kushan: Interaction and Interdependence of Nomadic and Sedentary Societies (2001)
  28. ^ Shiji 《史記·大宛列傳》 Original text: 匈奴西邊小國也
  29. ^ Hulsewé, A. F. P. and Loewe, M. A. N. 1979. China in Central Asia: The Early Stage 125 BC – AD 23: an annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty. Leiden: E. J. Brill, p. 145
  30. ^ Hanshu 《漢書·張騫李廣利傳》 Original text 時,月氏已為匈奴所破,西擊塞王。
  31. ^ 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.
  32. ^ 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。
  33. ^ Beckwith 2009, p. 6
  34. ^ Watson, Burton. Trans. 1993. Records of the Grand Historian of China. Han Dynasty II. (Revised Edition). New York, Columbia University Press. Chapter 123. The Account of Ta-yüan. Columbia University Press, pp. 237–238
  35. ^ Beckwith 2009, p. 2
  36. ^ (Hanshu, ch.61 & 96)
  37. ^ 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。
  38. ^ Zuev Yu.A. "Ethnic History Of Usuns", pp.7–19
  39. ^ 《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。
  40. ^ Hill (2009), "Appendix I: Chigu 赤谷 (Royal Court of the Wusun Kunmo)," pp. 527–531.
  41. ^ Gumilev L.N., "History of Hun People", Moscow, 'Science', Ch.12, http://gumilevica.kulichki.net/HPH/hph12.htm (In Russian)
  42. ^ Frances Wood (2004). The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia. University of California Press. p. 59. ISBN 0-520-24340-4. Retrieved 2010-07-30. 
  43. ^ Anthony François Paulus Hulsewé, Michael Loewe, Gu Ban (1979). China in central Asia: the early stage, 125 B.C.-A.D. 23 : an annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of The history of the former Han dynasty. Brill Archive. p. 155. ISBN 90-04-05884-2. Retrieved 2010-07-30. 
  44. ^ Book of Wei, ch.102
  45. ^ (Liaoshi, ch.4)
  46. ^ Zuev Yu.A. "Ethnic History Of Usuns", p. 18
  47. ^ 《焦氏易林 – Jiaoshi Yilin》 Original text:烏孫氏女,深目黑醜;嗜欲不同,過時無偶。
  48. ^ Wang Mingzhe, Wang Binghua (1983). Research on Wusun (乌孙研究). Ürümqi: Xinjiang People's Press. p. 43. 
  49. ^ Chen Liankai (1999). Outlines on China's Ethnicities. China Financial and Economic Publishing House. p. 380-381
  50. ^ Raoul David Findeisen, Gad C. Isay, Amira Katz-Goehr (2010). At Home in Many Worlds: Reading, Writing and Translating from Chinese and Jewish Cultures. Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 134. ISBN 978-3447061353. 
  51. ^ a b Golden 2010
  52. ^ Zuev, Yu.A. (2002) Early Türks: Essays on history and ideology, p. 35
  53. ^ Golden 1992, pp. 121–122
  54. ^ a b Findley 2005, p. 39 "The term böri, used to identify the ruler's retinue as 'wolves,' probably also derived from one of the Iranian languages."
  55. ^ a b Findley 2005, p. 45 "Many elements of non-Turkic origin also became part of Türk statecraft. Important terms, for example, often came from non-Turkic languages, as in the cases of khatun for the ruler's wife and beg for “aristocrat,” both terms of Sogdian origin and ever since in common use in Turkish."
  56. ^ Peter Jackson, "Beg", in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Columbia University, Online ed.
  57. ^ 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。」
  58. ^ Hanshu, Original text: 民剛惡,貪狼無信,多寇盜,最為強國。
  59. ^ A.H. Dani/V.M. Masson/J. Harmatta/B. Abramovich, History of Civilizations of Central Asia – Vol. 3, UNESCO collection, South Asia Books, 2001, p. 225
  60. ^ Gardiner-Garden, Chang-Ch'ien and Central Asian Ethnography, pp. 23–79 gives a survey of theories of ethnic affiliations and identification of the Wusun and the Yuezhi.
  61. ^ Phillips, "The Legend of Aristeas: Fact and Fancy in Early Greek Notions of East Russia, Siberia, and Inner Asia" Artibus Asiae 18.2 (1955, pp. 161–177) p 166.
  62. ^ "Les Saces", Iaroslav Lebedinsky, p. 60-63, ISBN 2-87772-337-2