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For the unrelated Eastern Yí (彝) people of southwestern China, see Nasu people.

The Dongyi or Eastern Yi (simplified Chinese: 东夷; traditional Chinese: 東夷; pinyin: Dōngyí; Wade–Giles: Tung-yi; literally: "Eastern Barbarians" or "Eastern Foreigners") was a collective term, referring to ancient peoples who lived in eastern China during the prehistory of ancient China and in lands located to the east of ancient China. People referred to as Dongyi vary across the ages. They were one of the Siyi (Four Barbarians) in Chinese culture, along with the Northern Di, the Southern Man, and the Western Rong; as such, the name "Yi" was something of a catch-all and was applied to different groups over time.

According to the earliest Chinese record, the Zuo Zhuan, the Shang Dynasty was attacked by King Wu of Zhou while attacking the Dongyi and collapsed afterwards.

Earlier inhabitants of the Shandong area[edit]

Oracle bone inscriptions from the early 11th century BCE refer to campaigns by the late Shang king Di Yi against the Rénfāng (人方), a group occupying the area of southern Shandong and northern Jiangsu.[1] Many Chinese archaeologists apply the historical name "Dongyi" to the archaeological Yueshi culture (1900–1500 BCE).[2] Other scholars, such as Fang Hui, consider this identification problematic because of the high frequency of migrations in prehistoric populations of the region.[3]


The Chinese word yi in Dongyi has a long history and complex semantics.


Chinese dictionaries reveal the semantic complexities of yi (). The Far East Chinese-English Dictionary defines eleven meanings:

  1. (in ancient China) barbarians in the east
  2. foreign tribes or foreigners
  3. at ease; peaceful
  4. to level; to make level, even or smooth
  5. safe
  6. to eliminate; to exterminate; to kill; to execute
  7. injuries; wounds
  8. grades; classes
  9. common; usual; ordinary
  10. great; big
  11. a Chinese family name[4]

These first two senses of yi reflect the linguistic Sinocentrism[by whom?] of Chinese words that can mean both condescending "barbarian" and semantically neutral "foreigner; outsider". For instance, hu "barbarian; foreign; non-Han" (e.g., erhu) originally meant hu "beard; whiskers", and was chosen to name the Hu 胡 or Donghu 東胡 "eastern barbarians: an ancient Tungusic people northeast of China".

The Oxford English Dictionary mentions this derogatory denotation of Yi. The barbarian definition "3.c Applied by the Chinese contemptuously to foreigners" cites the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin as the earliest recorded usage.[5] "It is agreed, that henceforward the character "I" 夷 ('barbarian') shall not be applied to the Government or subjects of Her Britannic Majesty, in any Chinese official document."[6] This prohibition in the Treaty of Tientsin had been the end result of a long dispute between the Qing and British officials regarding the translation, usage and meaning of Yi. Many Qing officials argued that the term did not mean “barbarians,” but their British counterparts disagreed with this opinion.[7]


The Chinese character yi 夷 consists of 大 "big" and 弓 "bow".

The modern Chinese regular script character for yi combines radicals (recurring character elements) da "big" and gong "bow", which are also seen in the seal script. However, yi was written in the earlier bronze script as a person wrapped with something, and in the earliest oracle bone script as a person with a bent back and legs.

The (121 CE) Shuowen Jiezi character dictionary, defines yi 夷 as "men of the east” 東方之人也. The dictionary also informs that Yi is not dissimilar from the Xia 夏, which means Chinese. Elsewhere in the Shuowen Jiezi, under the entry of qiang 羌, the term yi is associated with benevolence and human longevity. Yi countries are therefore virtuous places where people live long lives. This is why Confucius wanted to go to yi countries when the dao could not be realized in the central states.[8]

The scholar Léon Wieger provided multiple definitions to the term yi: “The men 大 armed with bows 弓, the primitive inhabitants, barbarians, borderers of the Eastern Sea, inhabitants of the South-West countries." [9]

Bernhard Karlgren says that in the bronze script for yi inscribed on Zhou Dynasty (ca. 1045 BCE-ca. 256 BCE) Chinese bronze inscriptions, "The graph has 'man' and 'arrow', or 'arrow' with something wound around the shaft."[10]

The Yi, or Dongyi, are associated with the bow and arrow: K. C. Wu says the modern character designating the historical "Yi peoples," is composed of the characters for 大 "big (person)" and 弓 "bow"; which implies a big person carrying a bow, and also that this old form of this Chinese Character was composed with an association of a certain group of people with the use of the bow in mind.[11] Some classic Chinese history records like Zuo Zhuan, Shuowen Jiezi, Classic of Rites, all have some similar records about this.[12][13]

The earliest records of yi were inscribed on oracle bones dating from the late Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600–ca. 1046 BCE). This oracle bone script was used interchangeably for yi 夷, ren 人 "human", and shi 尸 "corpse; personator of the dead; inactive; lay out". The archeologist and scholar Guo Moruo believed the oracle graph for yi denotes "a dead body, i.e., the killed enemy", while the bronze graph denotes "a man bound by a rope, i.e., a prisoner or slave".[14] The historical linguist Xu Zhongshu (zh:徐中舒) explains this oracle character depicts either a "corpse"' with two bent legs or a "barbarian" custom of sitting with one's legs stretched out instead of the Chinese norm of squatting on one's heels.[15] The early China historian Li Feng says the Western Zhou bronze graph for Yi was "differentiated from ren 人 (human) by its kneeling gesture, clearly implying a population that was deemed a potential source of slaves or servants", thus meaning "foreign conquerable".[16]


Historical linguists have tentatively reconstructed yi 夷's ancient pronunciations and etymology. The Modern Standard Chinese pronunciation yi descends from (ca. 6th-9th centuries CE) Middle Chinese and (ca. 6th-3rd centuries BCE) Old Chinese. Middle and Old Chinese reconstructions of yi 夷 "barbarian; spread out" include i < *djər,[17] yij < *ljɨj,[18] and ji < *ləi.[19]

Axel Schuessler hypothesizes an Old Chinese etymological development from *li 夷 "extend; expose; display; set out; spread out" to *lhi 尸 "to spread out; lie down flat (in order to sleep); motionless; to set forth (sacrificial dishes)", to "personator of a dead ancestor", and to "corpse".[20]


The sinologist Edwin G. Pulleyblank describes how Yi usages semantically changed. "Their name furnished the primary Chinese term for "barbarian" and is sometimes used in such a generalized sense as early as the Spring and Autumn period. At the same time it continued to have a specific reference, denoting especially the Yi of the Huai river region, who constituted a recognized political entity. Paradoxically the Yi were considered the most "civilized" of the non-Chinese peoples."[21]

Pre-Qin usages[edit]

Zhou dynasty cosmography of Huaxia and the Siyi: Dongyi in the east, Nanman in the south, Xirong in the west, and Beidi in the north.

It is not easy to determine the times of people that a Classical Chinese document reflects.

Literature describing a pre-Xia Dynasty period does not use the character yi. As for the Xia Dynasty, some groups of people are referred to as the Yi. For example, theYu Gong chapter of the Shu Ji or Book of Documents terms people in Qingzhou and Xuzhou Laiyi (萊夷), Yuyi (嵎夷) and Huaiyi (淮夷). Another yi-related term is Jiu-yi (九夷), literally Nine Yi, which could have also had the connotation The Numerous Yi or The Many Different Kinds of Yi, and which appears in a passage in The Analects that reads, "The Master (i.e., Confucius) desired to live among the Nine Yi." The term "Dongyi" is not used for this period.

Shang Dynasty oracle shell and bone writings record yi but not Dongyi. Shima Kunio's concordance of oracle inscriptions lists twenty occurrences of the script for 夷 or 尸, most frequently (6 times) in the compound zhishi 祉尸 "bless the personator; blessed personator".[22] Michael Carr notes some contexts are ambiguous, but suggests, "Three compounds refer to 'barbarians' (in modern characters, fayi 伐夷 'attack barbarians,' zhengyi 征夷 'punish barbarians,' and yifang 夷方 'barbarian regions')."[23] Oracle inscriptions record that Shang King Wu Ding (r. ca. 1250-1192 BCE) made military expeditions on the Yi, and King Di Xin (r. ca. 1075-1046 BCE) waged a massive campaign against the Yifang 夷方 "barbarian regions".[24] It appears that the Yifang were the same people as Huaiyi (Huai River Yi), Nanhuaiyi (Southern Huai Yi), Nanyi (Southern Yi) and Dongyi according to bronzeware inscriptions of the Western Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou Dynasty attempted to keep the Yi under its control. The most notable example of which is the successful campaign against the Huaiyi and the Dongyi led by the Duke of Zhou.

On the other hand, historian Huang Yang notes that in the Shang period, "the term yi probably did not carry the sense of 'barbarian.' Rather it simply denoted one of the many tribes or regions that were the target of the Shang military campaigns...We see, therefore, that at the beginning the yi might haven been certain particular tribe or group of people that was neighboring the Shang."[25]

During the Spring and Autumn Period, Jin, Zheng, Qi and Song tried to seize control of the Huai River basin, which was occupied by the Huaiyi, but the region ultimately fell under the influence of Chu to the south. At the same time, people in the east and south ceased to be called Dongyi as they founded their own states. These Yifang states included the states of Xu, Lai, Zhongli, Ju and Jiang. The state of Xu occupied large areas of modern Jiangsu and Anhui provinces between the Huai and Yangtze Rivers. Eventually, after warring with Chu and Wu, it was conquered by the State of Wu in 512 BC. Chu annexed the State of Jiang, destroyed the State of Ju whose territory was annexed by the State of Qi. Recent archaeological excavations reveal that the State of Xu's presence extended to western Jiangxi in modern Jing'an County. This includes bronzeware inscriptions about the State of Xu and also a tomb with many nanmu coffins containing sacrificial female victims. Dongyi customs include burials with many sacrificial victims and veneration of the sun.

References to Dongyi became ideological during the Warring States period, owing to cultural changes in Chinese concepts of Self and Other. When the (c. 4th BCE) Classic of Rites recorded stereotypes about the Siyi "Four Barbarians" (Dongyi, Xirong, Nanman, and Beidi) in the four directions, Dongyi had acquired a clearly pejorative nuance.

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.[26]

Post-Qin usages[edit]

The more "China" expanded, the further east the term "Dongyi" was applied to. The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian uses the term "Manyi" (蠻夷), but not "Dongyi". It puts the section of "Xinanyi (southwestern Yi) liezhuan (biographies)", but not "Dongyi liezhuan". The Book of Han does not put this section either but calls a Dongye (濊) chief in the Korean Peninsula as Dongyi. The Book of Later Han puts the section of "Dongyi liezhuan (東夷列傳)" and covers Buyeo, Yilou, Goguryeo, Eastern Okjeo, Hui, Samhan and Wa, in other words, eastern Manchuria, Korea, Japan and some other islands. The Book of Jin positioned Dongyi inside the section of "Siyi" (barbarians in four directions) along with "Xirong", "Nanman" and "Beidi". The Book of Sui, the Book of Tang and the New Book of Tang adopt the section of "Dongyi" and covers eastern Manchuria, Korea, Japan and optionally Sakhalin and Taiwan. During the Song Dynasty, the official history books replaced Dongyi with Waiguo (外國) and Waiyi (外夷).

Other usage of Dongyi in Chinese history books[edit]

These two history books do not assign many chapters to describe the history of Dongyi. However, it includes the simple description Manchuria, Wiman Joseon and Wa. Wiman fled from the state of Yan to Gojoseon, and he disguised as if he was Gojoseon people. Book of Han uses the same term as Records of the Grand Historian.
This book was written by Fan Ye (historian). This book contains the chapter of 'Dongyi', which describes the history of Manchuria and Korea including Buyeo, Goguryeo, Okjeo, Dongye, and Samhan, and Japan including Wa. Like the Shuowen Jiezi, the Book of the Later Han also describes Dongyi countries as places where benevolence rules and the gentlemen do not die.[27]
This book was written by Chen Shou, and also contains the chapter about 'Dongyi'. The chapter of "Wuwan Xianbei Dongyi" describes the Wuwan tribes, Xianbei tribes, and Dongyi tribes respectively. In the section of Dongyi, this book explains the Manchurian, Korean and Japanese ancient kingdoms. Korean and Manchurian kingdoms include Buyeo, Goguryeo, Okjeo, Dongye, and Samhan. Japanese kingdom includes Wa (Japan).[28]
This book was written by Fang Xuanling at Tang dynasty. It has the chapter of 'Four Yi', and describes the Manchurian, Korean, and Japanese history. Manchurian, Korean and Japanese include Buyeo, Mahan confederacy, Jinhan confederacy, Sushen, and Wa (Japan).[29]
This history book describes the history of Liu Song Dynasty, but also contains the simple explanation the neighbor states. The Chapter of Dongyi of this book describes the ancient history of Manchuria, Korea and Japan such as Goguryeo, Baekje and Wa (Japan).[30]
The Book of Qi is the history book of Southern Qi. In the 58th volume, the history of Dongyi's history is described, which includes the ancient Manchurian, Korean and Japanese history such as Goguryeo, Baekje, Gaya and Wa (Japan).[31]
This book is about the history of Liu Song, Southern Qi, Liang Dynasty, and Chen Dynasty, but also includes the history of Dongyi. In the chapter of Dongyi, this book describes the Manchurian, Korean and Japanese history such as Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla, Wa (Japan), and so on.[32] Interestingly, this book says that Dongyi's state was Gojoseon while Sima Qian says that Gojoseon people is Manyi.[33]
The Book of Sui describes the history about the Sui Dynasty, and was compiled at Tang dynasty. The chapter of Dongyi's history describes the history of Korean, Manchurian and Japanese such as Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla, Mohe, Liuqiu, and Wa (Japan).[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Di Cosmo, Nicola (1999). "The northern frontier in pre-imperial China". In Loewe, Michael; Shaughnessy, Edward L. The Cambridge History of Ancient China. Cambridge University Press. pp. 885–966. ISBN 978-0-521-47030-8.  page 908.
  2. ^ Liu, Li; Chen, Xingcan (2012). The Archaeology of China: From the Late Paleolithic to the Early Bronze Age. Cambridge University Press. p. 278. ISBN 978-0-521-64310-8. 
  3. ^ Wei, Qiaowei. "Yueshi Culture (岳石文化), by Fang Hui" (book review), Harvard-Yenching Institute.
  4. ^ Liang Shiqiu and Zhang Fangjie, eds. Far East Chinese-English Dictionary. Taipei: Far East Book Co. 1971, p. 283. ISBN 957-612-463-8
  5. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, 2009, 2nd ed., v. 4.0, Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ Article LI, Wikisource.
  7. ^ Lydia Liu, The Clash of Empires (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 31-69.
  8. ^ Xu Shen 許慎, Shuowen Jieji 說文解字 (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1963), 213, 78.
  9. ^ Wieger, Léon (1927), Chinese Characters: Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification and Signification. A Thorough Study from Chinese Documents, tr. by L. Davrout, 2nd edition, Dover reprint, p. 156.
  10. ^ Karlgren 1957:147
  11. ^ Wu, 107–108
  12. ^ Shuowen Jiezi, It was the ancient Dongyi people Yimou who first made the arrow.《说文解字·矢部》:“古者夷牟初作矢”
  13. ^ Classic of Rites, It was Hui who made the bow and Yimo who made the arrow.《礼记·射义》: "挥作弓,夷牟作矢"
  14. ^ Huang Yang (2013), Perceptions of the Barbarian in Early Greece and China, CHS Research Bulletin 2.1, translating Guo Moruo, (1933, 1982), 卜辭通纂, 第五六九片, p. 462.
  15. ^ Xu 1988:942.
  16. ^ Li (2006), p. 286.
  17. ^ Karlgren 1957:148.
  18. ^ Baxter 1992:279.
  19. ^ Schuessler 2009:279.
  20. ^ Schuessler 2007:565.
  21. ^ Pulleyblank, E. G., (1983). "The Chinese and Their Neighbors in Prehistoric and Early Historic Times." In Keightley, David N., ed. The Origins of Chinese civilization. p. 440. University of California Press.
  22. ^ Shima 1971:5.
  23. ^ Carr 2007:381-382
  24. ^ The Archaeology of Korea By Sarah M. Nelson. 
  25. ^ Huang Yang (2013), Perceptions of the Barbarian in Early Greece and China, CHS Research Bulletin 2.1
  26. ^ Wangzhi chap., tr. James Legge (1879), The Li Ki, Clarendon Press, vol.1, pp. 229-230.
  27. ^ Book of the Later Han (後漢書); 欽定四庫全書, 後漢書卷一百十五, 東夷傳, 第七十五
  28. ^ Records of Three Kingdoms (欽定四庫全書, 魏志卷三十, 烏丸鮮卑東夷 (夫餘 髙句麗 東沃沮 挹婁 濊 馬韓 辰韓 弁辰 倭人))
  29. ^ 欽定四庫全書, 晉書卷九十七, 列傳第六十七, 四夷
  30. ^ 欽定四庫全書, 宋書卷九十七, 列傳第五十七, 東夷
  31. ^ 欽定四庫全書, 南齊書卷五十八, 蠻, 東南夷, 東夷
  32. ^ 欽定四庫全書, 南史卷七十九, 列傳第六十九, 夷貊下, 東夷
  33. ^ 欽定四庫全書, 南史卷七十九, 列傳第六十九, 夷貊下, 東夷. "東夷之國朝鮮". This sentence is interpreted into "The state of Dongyi is Gojoseon"
  34. ^ 欽定四庫全書, 隋書卷八十一, 列傳第四十六, 東夷


  • Baxter, William H. 1992. A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Mouton de Gruyter.
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  • Shirakawa Shizuka 白川静, Jitō 字統, 2004.
  • Tang Jiahong 唐嘉弘, 东夷及其历史地位, Shixue yuekan 史学月刊, 1989.4, pp. 37–46.
  • Wu, K. C. (1982). The Chinese Heritage. New York: Crown Publishers. ISBN 0-517-54475X.
  • Xu Guanghui 徐光輝, Kodai no bōgyo shūraku to seidōki bunka no kōryū 古代の防御集落と青銅器文化の交流, Higashi Ajia to hantō kūkan 東アジアと『半島空間』, pp. 21–44, 2003.
  • Xu Zhongshu 徐中舒, ed. 1988. Jiaguwen zidian甲骨文字典 [Shell and Bone (i.e., Oracle) Character Dictionary]. Sichuan Cishu.
  • Yoshimoto Michimasa 吉本道雅. "Chūgoku Sengoku jidai ni okeru "Shii" kannen no seiritsu 中国戦国時代における「四夷」観念の成立". Retrieved 2006-03-04. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Cohen, David Joel. 2001. The Yueshi culture, the Dong Yi, and the archaeology of ethnicity in early Bronze Age China. Ph.D. dissertation. Dept. of Anthropology, Harvard University.

External links[edit]