China: The Four Barbarians

The four Barbarians

The ancient Chinese classed their neighbors by compass direction as the Siyi “Four Barbarians”, comprising the Beidi, Nanman, Dongyi and Xirong. The four names, or combinations of them like ‘Yi-Di’ are often used to mean “barbarians”. The Liji “Record of Rites” details ancient stereotypes about the Siyi “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 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.

The Dongyi

The Dongyi or Eastern Yi (literally “Eastern Barbarians”) 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 (literally “Western warlike people”); 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.

Dongyi culture was one of the oldest neolithic cultures in China. Some Chinese scholars extend the historical use of Dongyi to prehistoric times, according to this belief, the neolithic culture correlates to Houli culture, Beixin culture, Dawenkou culture, Longshan culture and Yueshi culture, five evolutionary phases. Deliang He, thinks that Dongyi culture used to be one of the leading cultures in neolithic China.

The writing system of Dongyi was one of the oldest writing systems in neolithic China. There are opinions that the 20 pictogram characters discovered in a Dongyi tomb in Shandong indicates that some of the characters found, are still used in Chinese characters.

There are also opinions that Dongyi people were the inventor of arrows. Some classic Chinese history records like Zuo Zhuan, Shuowen Jiezi, Classic of Rites, all have some similar records about this.

Based on archaeological findings, Dongyi people’s ancestral worship totem is bird-shaped.


Donghu (literally: “Eastern Foreigners” or “Eastern barbarians”) was the name of a Mongolic nomadic tribal confederation that was first recorded from the 7th century BCE and was destroyed by the Xiongnu in 150 BCE. Donghu was later divided into the Wuhuan and Xianbei Confederations, from which the Mongols are derived. Hence, in modern linguistic terminology, they are classified as a proto-Mongolic nomadic ethnic group.

Among the northern ethnic groups, the Donghu was the earliest to evolve into a state of civilization and first developed bronze technology. They spoke proto-Mongolian language and their culture was associated with the Upper Xiajiadian culture, characterized by the practice of agriculture and animal husbandry supplemented by handicrafts and bronze art. Through the use of cavalry and bronze weaponry in warfare, they dominated over the Xiongnu on their west.

The usual English translation of Donghu is “Eastern Barbarians” (e.g., Watson, di Cosmo, Pulleyblank, and Yu), and the partial translation “Eastern Hu” is occasionally used (Pulleyblank). Note that “Eastern Barbarians” also commonly translates the Chinese exonym Dongyi “ancient peoples in eastern China, Korea, Japan, etc.”.

The Chinese name Donghu compounds dong “east, eastern; owner; host” and hu “non-Han-Chinese, foreign, ‘barbarian’; reckless; dewlap; whiskers (hu); surname”. The “Eastern” Donghu exonym compares with “Western” Xihu “non-Chinese peoples in India, Persia, Turkestan, etc.” and “Five” Wu Hu “five northern nomadic tribes involved in the Wu Hu uprising (304–316 CE)”.

Hill (2009:59) translates Xihu as “Western Hu” and notes: The term hu was used to denote non-Han Chinese populations. It is, rather unsatisfactorily, commonly translated as ‘barbarian’. While sometimes it was used in this general way to describe people of non-Han descent, and carried the same negative overtones of the English term, this was not always the case. Most frequently, it was used to denote people, usually of Caucasoid or partial Caucasoid appearance, living to the north and west of China. (2009:453)

The Beidi or Northern Di

The Beidi or Northern Di (literally “Northern Barbarians”) was a term referring to various ethnic groups who lived in northern China during the Zhou Dynasty. By the end of the dynasty they were mostly conquered or absorbed by the Chinese.

The Di seem to have lived in a horizontal band from the upper Ordos Loop and across northern Shanxi to the state of Yan north of Beijing. This area was a transition zone between the emerging Chinese civilization and the steppe peoples to the north. They seem to have practiced a mixed pastoral, agricultural and hunting economy. Other groups of Di seem to have lived interspersed between the Chinese states.

To their north was the emerging steppe society whom the Chinese later called Hu. To the southwest the Rong lived along the northwest frontier of China. The Di and Rong are often associated and both were considered more warlike and less civilized than the Yi and Man.

The Di had walled towns and fought on foot. They were often enemies and sometimes allies of the various Chinese states. We hear of trade, treaties, marriage alliances and Chinese politicians fleeing to exile among the Di.

According to the Records of the Grand Historian, the ancestors of the Zhou dynasty lived in lands near the Rong and Di for fourteen generations, until Gugong Danfu led then away to the mid-Wei River valley where they built their capital near Mount Qi.


Xirong (literally “Western warlike people”) or Rong was the collective name of various ancient people who inhabited primarily in and around the extremities of ancient Huaxia, typically to the west of the Zhou state (such as Gansu, etc.) from the Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 221 BCE) onwards.

They were mentioned in some ancient Chinese texts as perhaps related to the people of the Chinese civilization. Spade-foot three-legged pottery vessels as well as one and two handled pots were primary cultural characteristics of the Xirong.

The historian Li Feng says that during the Western Zhou period, since the term Rong “warlike foreigners” was “often used in bronze inscriptions to mean ‘warfare’, it is likely that when a people was called ‘Rong’ the Zhou considered them as political and military adversaries rather than as cultural and ethnic ‘others’.”

After the Zhou Dynasty, the term usually referred to various peoples in the west during early and late medieval times. Prusek suggests relations between the Rong of Zhou and the Ren tribes known in Shang. Xirong was also the name of a state during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods of Chinese history.

According to Nicola Di Cosmo, ‘Rong’ was a vague term for warlike foreigner. He places them from the upper Wei River valley and along the Fen River to the Taiyuan basin as far as the Taihang Mountains. This would be the northwestern edge of what was then China and also the transition zone between agricultural and steppe ways of life.

It is believed that the Quanrong during the Western Zhou-Warring States period(1122-476B.C.) spoke a Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan languages, and united with the Jiang clan to rebel against the Zhou.

The 7th century commentary to the Hanshu by Yan Shigu says: “Among the various Rong tribes in the Western Regions, the Wusun’s shape was the strangest; and the present barbarians who have green eyes and red hair, and are like a macaque, belonged to the same race as the Wusun.”


Nanman (literally “Southern Barbarians”) were aboriginal tribes who lived in southwestern China. They may have been related to the Sanmiao, dated to around the 3rd century BC. The Nanman were multiple ethnic groups including the Miao, the Kinh, the Thai, and some Tibeto-Burman groups such as the Bai. There was never a single polity that united these people.

The early Chinese exonym Man “southern barbarians” was a graphic pejorative written with Radical 142, the “insect” or “reptile” radical. Xu Shen’s (c. 121 CE) Shuowen Jiezi dictionary defines man as: “Southern barbarians [who are a] snake race. [The character is formed] from [the] insect / serpent” radical.

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