The Xianyun (simplified Chinese: 猃狁; traditional Chinese: 獫狁; pinyin: Xiǎnyǔn; Wade–Giles: Hsien-yün; Old Chinese (ZS): *g.rams-lunʔ) was an ancient nomadic tribe that invaded China during the Zhou Dynasty.[1] This Chinese exonym is written with xian or "long-snouted dog", and this "dog" radical 犭 is commonly used in graphic pejorative characters. Scholars identify the Xianyun with the Quanrong and Xiongnu.[2]


The earliest record of the Xianyun is dated to the reign of King Xuan of Zhou (827/25–782 BC). The Book of Songs contains four songs about military actions between the Zhou and the Xianyun. The song "Gathering sow thistle" (Cai qi) mentions 3,000 Zhou chariots in battle against the Xianyun. The song "Sixth month" (Liu yue) says that the battlefield was between the lower courses of the Jing (泾河) and Luo rivers and the Wei valley, very close to the center of the Zhou state.[3]

Written records place the first incursions against Zhou under the name Xirong "Western Rong" in 843 BC. In 840 BC, the fourteenth year of reign of King Li of Zhou, the Xianyun reached the Zhou capital Haojing. Apparently, the "Western Rong" and Xianyun were the same people here, named in the first case by a generic term meaning "warlike tribes of the west" and in the second case by their actual ethnonym.[3]

The Xianyun attacked again in 823 BC, the fifth year of reign of King Xuan. Their military tactics characterized by sudden attacks could only have been carried out by highly mobile troops, most likely on horseback. Some scholars relate the appearance of the Xianyun to the appearance of Scythians and Cimmerians migrating from the west, although there is no definite evidence that they were nomadic warriors.[3] A Duo You bronze ding vessel inscription unearthed in 1980 near Xi'an tells that c. 816 BC Xianyun forces attacked a Jing (京) garrison in the lower Ordos region, drawing a Zhou military response. It indicated that like the Zhou, the Xianyun fought on horse-drawn chariots. Contemporary evidence does not indicate that the increased mobility of the Xianyun is related to the emergence of mounted nomads armed with bows and arrows.[3]

Later Chinese annals contain a number of references to the Xianyun, such as by Sima Qian (c. 145/135 – 86 BC), Ying Shao (140-206 AD), Wei Zhao (204-273), and Jin Zhuo (late 3rd–4th century AD).[4] Without giving specific arguments, they stated that Xunyu (獯鬻) or Xianyun were terms that designated nomadic people who later during the Han dynasty were transcribed as "Xiongnu" (匈奴). This view was also held by the Tang dynasty commentator Sima Zhen (c. 8th century).[5] Wang Guowei (1877–1927), as a result of phonetical studies and comparisons based on the inscriptions on bronze and the structure of the characters, came to the conclusion that the tribal names "Guifang" (鬼方), "Xunyu" (獯鬻), "Xianyu" (鮮虞), Xianyun, "Rong" (戎), "Di" (狄), and "Hu" (胡) given in the annals designated one and the same people, who later entered history under the name Xiongnu.[6][7][8]

On the linguistic affiliation of the northern pastoral nomadic tribes with the Xiongnu, the Book of Wei stated at around 554 that:

Gaoju, apparently, are the remaining branch of the ancient Chidi. Originally they were called "Dili", in the north they are called "Chile", and in China – "Gaoju Dinglings", i.e. High Carts Dinglings. Their language is generally similar to the Xiongnu, but sometimes there are small differences.

— Book of Wei[9][10]

The exact time period when the name "Hun" had the phonetization "Xianyun" remains determined only vaguely: Sima Qian stated that in the earlier pre-historic period the Huns were called "Hu" and "Rong", in the late pre-historic period they were called "Xunyu", in the literate period starting with the Yin Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) they were called "Guifang", in the Zhou period (1045–256 BC) they were called "Xianyun", starting from the Qin period (221–206 BC) the Chinese annalists called them "Xiongnu".[11][12]


  1. ^ Wang, Zhonghan (2004). Outlines of Ethnic Groups in China. Shanxi Education Press. p. 133. ISBN 7-5440-2660-4.
  2. ^ Li, Feng (2006). Landscape And Power In Early China. Cambridge University Press. Pages 343-346.
  3. ^ a b c d Nicola Di Cosmo, The Northern Frontier in Pre-Imperial China//The Cambridge History of Ancient China, p. 920
  4. ^ Sima Qian, "Shiji", Bo-na, 1958, Ch. 110, p. 1a
  5. ^ Taskin V.S., "Materials on history of nomadic tribes in China 3rd-5th cc", Issue 3 "Mujuns", "Science", Moscow, 1992, p. 276, ISBN 5-02-016746-0
  6. ^ Wang Guowei, "Guantang Jilin" (觀堂集林, Wang Guowei collection of works), Ch.2, Ch. 13
  7. ^ in Taskin V.S., "Materials on history of nomadic tribes in China 3rd-5th cc", Issue 3 "Mujuns", p. 276
  8. ^ Taskin V.S., 1968, "Materials on history of Sünnu", "Science", Moscow, p.10
  9. ^ Wei Shou (魏收). Book of Wei (History of Northern Wei Dynasty). Peking, Bo-na, 1958, pp. 26a–26b
  10. ^ translation by Taskin V.S., "Materials on history of nomadic tribes in China 3rd–5th cc", Issue 2 "Jie", "Science", Moscow, 1990, p. 168, Note 158, ISBN 5-02-016543-3
  11. ^ Sima Qian, "Shi Chi", Ch. 1, l. 4b, Ch. 110, l. 1a, notes
  12. ^ in Taskin V.S., "Materials on history of nomadic tribes in China 3rd–5th cc", p.10

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