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Yabgu (Old Turkic: , yabγu, Traditional Chinese: 葉護, Simplified Chinese: 叶护, Jabgu, Djabgu, literally, "pioneer", "guide") was a state office in the early Turkic states, roughly equivalent to viceroy. The title carried autonomy in different degrees, and its links with the central authority of Khagan varied from economical and political subordination to superficial political deference. The title had also been borne by Turkic princes in the upper Oxus region in post-Hephthalite times.
The position of Yabgu was traditionally given to the second highest member of a ruling clan (Ashina), with the first member being the Kagan himself. Frequently, Yabgu was a younger brother of the ruling Kagan, or a representative of the next generation, called Shad (blood prince). Mahmud Kashgari defined the title Yabgu as "position two steps below Kagan", listing heir apparent Shad a step above Yabgu.
As the Khaganate decentralized, the Yabgu gained more autonomous power within the suzerainty, and historical records name a number of independent states with "Yabgu" being the title of the supreme ruler. One prominent example was the Oguz Yabgu state in Middle Asia, which was formed after the fragmentation of the Second Türkic Kaganate in the 840es. Another prominent example was the Karluk Yabgu, the head of the Karluk confederation which in the 766 occupied Suyab in the Jeti-su area, and eventually grew into a powerful Karakhanid state.
There are at least five different theories among recent literature regarding the origin of yabgu.
- It is believed by some scholars to be of Kushan (Chinese: Guishuang 貴霜) political tradition, borrowed by the Göktürks from an Indo-European language, and preserved by the Hephtalites.
- Others suggest that the word is a derivation of the early Turkic davgu,
- A few scholars, such as Sims-Williams considered that Turkic languages had derived the word yabgu from the Chinese "xihou". Conversely, Friedrich Hirth suggested that yabgu was translated into literary Chinese, with regard to Kushan and Turkic contexts, as Sihou (*xiap-g’u). Other sources render this as Xihou (Chinese: 翖侯; literally: "United/Allied/Confederated Prince"). It was equivalent to the title yavugo found on Kushan coins from Kabul, and the yabgu on ancient Turkic monuments. The second part of this compound Chinese word, hou ("g’u"), referred to the second-ranking of five hereditary noble ranks. Chinese sources do not make clear whether the title was a descriptive term used only in reference to foreign leaders, or whether it indicated an ally or subject of a Chinese empire.
- Another theory postulalates a Sogdian origin for both titles, "Yabgu" and "Shad". The rulers of some Sogdian principalities are known to have title "Ikhshid".
- Yury Zuev considered Yabgu to be a "true Tocharian" title.
In 11 BCE the Han Chinese state captured a Kushan subject of the Xiongnu Empire (Hunnu shanyu), who was a "chancellor" (Chinese sijan), and also carried the title of yabgu (sihou). After four years the Kushan was returned to the Xiongnu, who restored him to him his titles and post of "second person in the empire". It is clear that this man did not belong to the Xiongnu dynastic line, and was likely a member of a Kushan autonomous state within the Xiongnu confederation. (Another implication of these events is that a possibly mythic Wusun leader, known as Butszü-sihou, who saved the life of a baby called Gunmo, also was a yabgu.)
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