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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.
Traditional Chinese南蠻
Simplified Chinese南蛮
Literal meaningSouthern Man (ethnonym)

The Man, commonly called the Nanman or Southern Man (Chinese: 南蠻), were the ancient indigenous peoples who lived in inland South and Southwest China, mainly the Yangtze River valley. They are believed by scholars to be related to the Sanmiao in ancient Chinese texts. The Nanman included multiple ethnic groups, probably related to the predecessors of the modern Zhuang, Tai, Miao (Hmong) peoples, and non-Chinese Sino-Tibetan groups such as the Bai people. There was never a single polity that united these people, although the major state of Chu ruled over much of the Yangtze region during the Zhou dynasty and was heavily influenced by the Man culture.


The early Chinese exonym Man () 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 Man 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."[1]

William H. Baxter and Laurent Sagart (2014)[2] reconstruct the Old Chinese name of Mán as *mˤro[n]. Baxter & Sagart (2014) provide a similar Old Chinese reconstruction for Min *mrə[n] 'southern tribes', which is also a name for Fujian province. Today, similar-sounding self-designated ethnonyms among modern-day peoples include Hmong, Mien, Bru, Mro, Mru, and Maang. The ethnonym Hmong is reconstructed as *hmʉŋA in Proto-Hmongic by Ratliff (2010), while Mien is reconstructed as *mjænA in Proto-Mienic (see Proto-Hmong–Mien language).


The Book of Rites describes 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 individual cultures, which they could not be made to alter. The tribes on the east were called [Yi]. They wore their hair long and natural, and tattooed their bodies with ink made from plants & roots. They were an agrarian people who lived off the land and raised their own animals for food. Those on the south were called [Man]. They also tattooed their foreheads with symbols, and were as tan-skinned as the Yi from working their crop fields and tending to animals. Those on the west were called [Rong]. They also wore their hair long and in braids. They sometimes sewed their animal skins into warm clothing. Some of them did not eat grain-food, however meat and fish were a main source of their diet. Those on the north were called [Di]. They also wove skins of animals and colorful birds to adorn their clothing, and preferred to build their shelters in the more mountainous hillsides. Some of them also did not eat grain-food, but relied heavily on a meat supply. The people of the Middle states, and of those [Yi], Man, [Rong], and [Di], all established their own individual cultures and thriving communities, where they lived at relative ease; with much peace among their tribes. They made clothes suitable for themselves; practical tools for proper use; and their shelters were diverse and prepared in abundance. In those five regions, the languages of the people were not mutually intelligible, as 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.[3]

Despite these various stereotypes and accounts recorded in the Book of Rites, little detail was known about their inner social hierarchies, their social customs, and the social interdependence among the tribes at that time. Modern day Miao or Hmong throughout the regions of China and southeast Asia have frequently been studied by scholars to reveal their ancient cultural traits, distinctive customs, and various languages that have survived throughout history.

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 Nanman tribesmen of the region rebelled against Shu Han's rule. However, the Shu Han chancellor, Zhuge Liang, led a successful expedition to quell the rebellion. The Three Kingdoms period is one of the bloodiest in Chinese history.[9] In fact, it is considered the second deadliest period of warfare in history behind World War II.[9][10][11][12] A nationwide census taken in AD 280, following the reunification of the Three Kingdoms under the Jin shows a total of 2,459,840 households and 16,163,863 individuals which was only a fraction of the 10,677,960 households, and 56,486,856 individuals reported during the Han era.[13] While the census may not have been accurate due to a multitude of factors of the times, the Jin in AD 280 did make an attempt to account for all individuals including those whom they identified as the Nanman or Miao tribes where they could.

By the Tang dynasty, most of the Hmong were exterminated or assimilated into Chinese civilization except for those rebellious tribes in Yunnan, where they were ruled by the six Zhao (詔). The southernmost, known as Mengshezhao (Chinese: 蒙舍詔), united the six Zhao to establish the Kingdom of Nanzhao during the early 8th century. 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 were largely assimilated by later dynasties, in particular from the Mongols, in the Yuan Dynasty onward. However, some of Nanzhao's survivors carried on their cultural influences and were carried south into modern day Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma.


  1. ^ Tr. by Mair, Victor H. (2010), How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language,
  2. ^ Baxter, William H. and Laurent Sagart. 2014. Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction. Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-994537-5.
  3. ^ Wangzhi chap., tr. James Legge (1879), The Li Ki, Clarendon Press, vol.1, pp. 229-230.