Ashina tribe

The Ashina (Chinese: 阿史那; pinyin: Āshǐnà; Wade–Giles: A-shih-na; Middle Chinese: (Guangyun) [ʔɑʃi̯ə˥nɑ˩]), were a tribe and the ruling dynasty of the Göktürks. This clan rose to prominence in the mid-6th century when the leader, Bumin Qaghan, revolted against the Rouran Khaganate. The two main branches of the family, one descended from Bumin and the other from his brother Istämi, ruled over the eastern and western parts of the Göktürk confederation, respectively.

Tamga of Ashina.png
Tamga of Ashina, representing mountain goat[1][2][3]
Regions with significant populations
Central and East Asia
Old Turkic[4]
Buddhism (minority)[7][8]


Primary Chinese sources ascribed different origins to the Ashina tribe. Ashina were first attested to 439, as reported by the Book of Sui: on the 18th day of the 10th month, the Tuoba ruler Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei overthrew Juqu Mujian of the Northern Liang in eastern Gansu,[9][10][11][12] and 500 Ashina families fled northwest to the Rouran Khaganate near Gaochang.[9][13] According to the Book of Zhou, History of the Northern Dynasties, and New Book of Tang, the Ashina clan was a component of the Xiongnu confederation.[14][15][16][17] but this is contested.[13] Göktürks were also posited as having originated from an obscure Suo state (索國), north of the Xiongnu.[14][15] According to the Book of Sui and the Tongdian, they were "mixed barbarians" (雜胡; záhú) from Pingliang.[9][18]

According to some researchers (Duan, Xue, Tang, and Lung) the Ashina tribe were descended from the Tiele confederation,[19][20][21][22][23] who were likewise associated with the Xiongnu.[24][25] Like the Göktürks, the Tiele were probably one of many nomadic Turkic peoples on the steppe.[26][27] However, Lee & Kuang (2017) state that Chinese histories did not describe the Ashina-led Göktürks as descending from the Dingling or belonging to the Tiele confederation.[28]


Several researchers, including Peter B. Golden,[29] H. W. Haussig,[30] S. G. Klyashtorny,[31][32] Carter V. Findley,[33] D. G. Savinov,[34] B. A. Muratov,[35] S. P. Guschin,[36] and András Róna-Tas[37] have posited that the term Ashina is from the Iranian Saka or possibly from the Wusun.[38]

Carter V. Findley assumes that the name "Ashina" comes from one of the Saka languages of central Asia and means "blue" (which translates to Proto-Turkic *kȫk, whence Old Turkic 𐰚𐰇𐰚‎ kȫk, Turkish gök, etc.). The color blue is identified with the east, so that Göktürk, another name for the Turkic empire, meant the "Turks of the East"; meanwhile, Peter Benjamin Golden favours a more limited denotation of Göktürks as denoting only the Eastern Turks.[39][40] This idea is seconded by Hungarian researcher András Róna-Tas, who finds it plausible "that we are dealing with a royal family and clan of Saka origin".[41] "The term böri, used to identify the ruler's retinue as 'wolves', probably also derived from one of the Iranian languages", proposes Findley; while Turkish-Armenian etymologist Sevan Nişanyan asserts that the term likely is derived from the Turkic word for "gray" (boz), indicating the practice of taboo speech.[42]

H. W. Haussig and S. G. Kljyashtorny suggest an association between the name and the compound "kindred of Ashin" ahşaẽna (in Old Persian). This is so even in East Turkestan; then the desired form would be in the Sogdian 'xs' yn' k (-әhšēnē) "blue, dark"; Khotan-Saka (Brahmi) āşşeiņa (-āşşena) "blue", where a long -ā- emerged as development ahş-> āşş-; in Tocharian A āśna- "blue, dark" (from Khotan-Saka and Sogdian). There is a textual support for this version in the ancient runic inscriptions of the Turks.

In the large Orkhon inscriptions, in the story of the first Kagan, people living in the newly created empire are named "kök türk" (translated as "Celestial Turks"). Without touching the numerous interpretations "kök" may have in this combination, note its perfect semantic match with the reconstructed value of the name "Ashina". An explicit semantic calque suggests knowledge of its original meaning and foreign origin, which is compatible with the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nature of the First Turkic Khaganate, which entailed the loss, however, of the popularity of "national character", in the words of L. Bazin, as was the political and cultural environment of the Otuken regime in the era of Bilge Qaghan.[citation needed]

The name "Ashina" was recorded in ancient Muslim chronicles in these forms: Aś(i)nas (al-Tabari), Ānsa (Hudud al-'Alam), Śaba (Ibn Khordadbeh), Śana, Śaya (Al-Masudi).[43][44] Based on Chinese sources' testament that the Ashina, upon becoming the head of Göktürks, exhibited a tuğ banner with a wolf head over their gate in reminiscence of its origins,[45][46][47] the name "Ashina" is translated by some researchers as "wolf", cf. Tuoba 叱奴 *čino, Middle Mongol činua, Khalkha čono.[48][49] However, Golden contends that derivation from Mongolic is mistaken.[50]

In Turkic sourcesEdit

A recently acquired (2009 – 2012) new source for the word Ashina is found in the Old Turkic Ašїnas written in the Khor-Asgat inscription, which is confirmed by the Sogdian form Ašinas from the Bugut and Karabalgasun steles and the Arabic forms Ašinās and Ašnās from medieval Islamic sources. Chinese editors usually avoided the letter /s/. The word is derived from Turco-Mongolic and Tungusic *aš / eš, *azhi / *ezhi < *ašїn / ešin, and *azhїn / *ezhin (wife of the ruler). The final element -as of Ašїnas is explained as a plural suffix (similar to the Turkic Kangaras < Kangar + suffix -as) as proposed by Marquart, Melioranskii and others.[51]


Chinese chroniclers recorded four origin tales, which Golden termed "Wolf Tale I", "Wolf Tale II", "Shemo (Žama) and the Deer Tale" and "Historical Account", of the Turks in dynasty histories and historical compilations "based on or copied from the same source(s) and repeated in later collections of historical tales".[50]

  • Wolf Tale I: Ashina was one of ten sons born to a grey she-wolf (see: Asena) in the north of Gaochang.[52]
  • Wolf Tale II: The ancestor of the Ashina was a man from the Suo nation (north of Xiongnu) whose mother was a lupine season goddess.[52]
  • Shemo and the Deer Tale: The Ashina descended from a skilled archer named Shemo, who had once fallen in love with a sea goddess west of Ashide cave.[53]
  • Historical Account: The Ashina were mixture stocks from the Pingliang commandery of eastern Gansu.[54]

These stories were sometimes pieced together to form a chronologically coherent narrative of early Ashina history. However, as the Book of Zhou, the Book of Sui, and the Youyang Zazu were all written around the same time, during the early Tang dynasty, it is debatable whether they could truly be considered chronological or rather should be considered competing versions of the Ashina's origin.[55] The record of Turks in Zhoushu (written in the first half of the seventh century) describes the use of gold by Turks around the mid-fifth century: "(The Turks) inlaid gold sculpture of wolf head on their tuğ banner; their military men were called Fuli, that is, wolf in Chinese. It is because they are descendants of the wolf, and naming so is for not forgetting their ancestors."[52]

According to Klyashtorny, the origin myth of Ashina shared similarities with the Wusun, although there is a significant difference that, whereas in the Wusun myth the wolf saves the ancestor of the tribe, it is not as in the case of the Turks. He also adds that Turk system of beliefs linking at least some sections of the Turk ruling class to the Sogdians and, beyond them, to the Wusun.[38]

Funeral riteEdit

The Chronicle of Northern Zhou describes the funeral rites of the Ashina. The deceased were laid to rest in a tent, and animals would be sacrificed around the tent. Relatives of the deceased would ride horses around the tent and ritualistically cut themselves about the face as a display of mourning, or "blood tears". The individual and their belongings would then be incinerated.[56]

According to D. G. Savinov, no burials in South Siberia nor Central Asia that are fully consistent with the description of Ashina burials have been found.

According to D. G. Savinov this may be for several reasons:

  1. Göktürk burial sites in Central Asia and Southern Siberia are not yet open;
  2. The source is a compilation in character, and burial rituals and funeral cycle from various sources are listed in a unified manner;
  3. Göktürk funeral rites in the form in which they are recorded in written sources, developed later on the basis of the various components present in some of the archaeological sites of Southern Siberia of earlier Turkic cultures.[57]

It is thought that the rite of cremation which was adopted by the ruling elite did not spread among the common people of the Qaganate. This may be attributed to the different ethnic origin of the ruling family.[58]

Physical appearanceEdit

Chinese histories do not associate the Ashina tribe with the Dingling or the Tiele. According to historians Joo-Yup Lee and Shuntu Kuang, Chinese official histories do not depict early Turkic peoples as "belonging to a single uniform entity called ‘Turks’."[59] However "Chinese histories also depict the Turkic-speaking peoples as typically possessing East/Inner Asian physiognomy, as well as occasionally having West Eurasian physiognomy"[59] and that "like Chinese historians, Muslim writers in general depict the ‘Turks’ as possessing East Asian physiognomy"[60]

Chinese histories (such as the Zhoushu) relates the initial Ashina members to people similar to the turcophone "Yenisei Kyrgyz", which resided near the Pamir mountains, and were described as possessing ‘red hair’ and ‘blue eyes’ (Xin Tangshu 217b.6147), a description previously used to describe the Wusun (烏孫). However, in contrast to the Ashina, the Kök Türks differed from the Qirghiz, and "no comparable depiction of the Kök Türks or Tiele is found in the official Chinese histories" (Hanshu (c. 80s ad)).[61] Chinese sources from the Tang dynasty (608-906 AD) described these Kyrgyz tribes as being fair skinned, green eyes, red haired people, with a mixture of European and Mongol features.[62]

Muqan Qaghan, the third Qaghan of the First Turkic Khaganate, was described by Chinese authors as having an unusual appearance. His eyes were like glass (or blue),[63] he had a red complexion, and his face was wide.[64][65]

According to Chinese scientist Xue Zongzheng own opinion, the early members of the Ashina tribe properly had physical features that were quite different from those of East Asian people and were properly the result of intermarrying Chinese. Xue believes early Ashina's had physical features deep eye sockets, prominent noses, and light eye or hair color. However, over time, members of the Ashina tribe intermarried with Chinese nobility, which shifted their physical appearance to a more East Asian one. Xue claims that Hu (Sogdian) person, not akin to Turkic[66]

In the Old Book of Tang records that Qilibi Khan Khan was forbidden from assuming the title of Shad, due to his Sogdian-like physical appearance. According to Zongzheng, having a physical appearance like a Sogdian was, by this time, being presented as a sign of mixed ancestry among the Ashina. Asimo was of the same royal Ashina clan as the khans of Tujue (Turks). However, despite's Asimo's lineage, Gokturks rulers Shibi Khan ( ruler of the Eastern Turkic Khaganate) and Chuluo Khan ( ruler of the Western Turkic Khaganate)[67] had doubts because his appearance was that of Sogdian (Hu) rather than Tujue (Turks).[68] The Ashina clans suspected him of being born out of an adulterous relationship, and therefore did not entrust him with great authorities.[69]

Similarly, Turkish historian Emel Esin noted that the early members of the Ashina tribe, much like the Yenisei Kirghiz, had more Europeoid features, but became more East Asian-looking over time, due to intermarriage. She also wrote that members of the Ashina tribe sought to marry Chinese nobles, "perhaps in the hope of finding an occasion to claim rulership over China, or because the high birth of the mother warranted seniority". Esin notes that the later depictions of Ashina princes, such as the Bust of Kul Tigin, have an East Asian appearance.[70] However, according to 11th century Persian historian Gardizi, the Kyrgyz were mixed with "Saqlabs" (Slavs), which explains the incidences of red hair and white skin among the Kyrgyz and that they were partly of non-Turkic origin.[71] The T'ang shu chronicles remarks that the Ch'ien-Kun, the ancestors of the Yenisei Kyrgyz, were called Hsia-Ch'ia-ssu in Tang times and were also known as " mixed Ting Ling ".[72]


According to Canadian scholar Joo-Yup Lee, it is possible that the Ashina tribe belonged to the paternal haplogroup R1a1.[73]

The reasoning for this assumption is that the Ashina tribe was said to be closely related to the Yenisei Kirghiz people. The modern-day descendants of the Yenisei Kirghiz, the Kyrgyz people, have one of the highest frequencies of haplogroup R1a1 in the world, and it is commonly thought to have been brought as far east as Mongolia by the Indo-Iranian pastoralists.

However, Joo-Yup Lee also notes that there is still no ancient DNA from the Ashina tribe available, and it is difficult to identify the modern-day descendants of Ashina.

Nevertheless, American historian Peter Golden has reported that genetic testing of the proposed descendants of the Ashina tribe does seem to confirm a link to the Indo-Iranians, emphasizing that "the Turks as a whole ‘were made up of heterogeneous and somatically dissimilar populations'".[74]


Members of the Ashina dynasty also ruled the Basmyls,[75][76][77] and Karluk Yabghu's State;[78] and possibly also Khazars[79][80] and Karakhanids (if the first Karakhanid ruler Bilge Kul Qadir Khan indeed descended from the Karluk Yabghus).[81] According to some researchers, the Second Bulgarian Empire's Asen dynasty might be descendants of Ashina.[82]


See alsoEdit


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    "Mythology employing shamanic symbolism along with references to the sky-god Tengri were, evidently, tools to strengthen the Türk ruler's legitimacy, and some scholars see this practice as amounting to a state religion, "Tengrism," in which the ruling Ashina family gained legitimacy through its support from Tengri."
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  73. ^ Lee, Joo-Yup (2018). "Some remarks on the Turkicisation of the Mongols in post-Mongol Central Asia and the Qipchaq Steppe". Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae. 71 (2): 121–124. doi:10.1556/062.2018.71.2.1. ISSN 0001-6446. S2CID 133847698. "The Y-chromosomes of the Kök Türk elites, who cremated their dead (Wei  Zheng 2008, Chapter 84, p. 1864), have not been investigated yet. We can only pre- sume their patrilineal lineages by testing the DNA of their direct descendants, who  are, however, difficult to identify. The Zhoushu [the book of the Zhou Dynasty]  (Linghu Defen 2003, Chapter 50, p. 908) informs us that the Ashina, the royal clan of  the Kök Türks, were related to the Qirghiz. If so, the Ashina may have belonged to  the R1a1 lineage like the modern-day Tienshan Qirghiz, who are characterised by the  high frequency of R1a1 (over 60%).16 Haplogroup R1a1, more specifically, its sub- clade R1a1a1b2 defined by mutation Z93, was carried by the Indo-European pastor- alists, who reached the Kazakh steppes, the Tarim Basin, the Altai Mountains region,  the Yenisei River region, and western Mongolia from the Black Sea steppes during  the Bronze Age (Semino et al. 2000, p. 1156)."
  74. ^ Golden, Peter (2018). "The Ethnogonic Tales of the Türks". SAGE. 21 (2): 314. doi:10.1177/0971945818775373. S2CID 166026934. "Some DNA tests point to the Iranian connections of the Ashina and Ashide,133 highlighting further that the Turks as a whole ‘were made up of heterogeneous and somatically dissimilar populations’.134"
  75. ^ Zizhi Tongjian Vol. 212, cited in Zuev Yu.A., Horse Tamgas from Vassal Princedoms (translation of 8-10th century Chinese Tanghuyao), Kazakh SSR Academy of Sciences, Alma-Ata, 1960, p. 104, 132 (in Russian)
  76. ^ Klyashtorny, S.G. "The Polovcian Problems (II)" in Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, Vol. 58, No. 3, Proceedings of the First International Conference on the Mediaeval History of the Eurasian Steppe: Szeged, Hungary May 11—16, 2004: Part III (2005). p. 245
  77. ^ Golden, Peter B. An Introduction to the History of Turkic Peoples, p. 142-143
  78. ^ Kli︠a︡shtornyĭ, S. G. (2004). Gosudarstva i narody Evraziĭskikh stepeĭ : drevnostʹ i srednevekovʹe. Peterburgskoe Vostokovedenie. Sultanov, T. I. (Tursun Ikramovich) (2-e izd., isprav. i dop ed.). Sankt-Peterburg. ISBN 5858032559. OCLC 60357062.
  79. ^ Pritsak, Omeljan (September 1978). "The Khazar Kingdom's Conversion to Judaism" (PDF). Harvard Ukrainian Studies. II (3): 261–281.
  80. ^ Golden, Peter Benjamin (2007a). "Khazar Studies: Achievements and Perspectives". In Golden, Peter B.; Ben-Shammai, Haggai; Róna-Tas, András (eds.). The World of the Khazars: New Perspectives. Handbook of Oriental Studies. Vol. 17. BRILL. pp. 7–57. ISBN 978-90-04-16042-2.
  81. ^ "Karluk Yabghu State (756-940)" Qazaqstan Tarihy. quote: "In 840, in the Central Asian steppes an important event occurred. The Yenisei Kyrgyz invasion destroyed the Uighur Khaganate, forcing the Uighurs to flee to Turfan oasis and to Gansu [original article mistakenly has Guangzhou]. The Karluk Djabgu and the ruler of Isfijab, Bilge Kul Qadeer-Khan, took advantage of the situation and proclaimed himself as a sovereign ruler and assumed a new title of Khagan."
  82. ^ Sychev N. V., (2008), Книга династий, p. 161-162
  83. ^ Kül-Tegin monument. Turkic Khaganate and research of the First Czechoslovak- Mongolian expedition in Khöshöö Tsaidam 1958, p. 82


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