The Jié (Chinese: ; Wade–Giles: Chieh; Middle Chinese: [ki̯at][1]: 246 ) were members of a tribe of northern China in the fourth century. During the period of the Sixteen Kingdoms, they were regarded by the Han people as one of the Five Barbarians. Under Shi Le and his family, they established the Later Zhao dynasty which dominated northern China for most of its existence from 319 to 351. The Jie ceased to play a role in Chinese history after Ran Min's culling order and the wars that followed the collapse of Later Zhao, although historians believe that certain prominent figures from later periods may have been descendants of the Jie.

Name and origins

There are widely differing accounts of the exact ethnic origins of the Jie, with one theory uncertainly suggesting that they spoke a Yeniseian language,[2] while other authors have proposed a Turkic language.[3] According to Sinologist Mark Edward Lewis, the Jie were of Indo-European origin (probably Iranian).[a][5] Based on descriptions given by historical records, the Jie were identified by their high noses, full beards and deep eyes.

According to the Book of Wei (6th century AD), the name Jie was derived from the Jiéshì area (羯室, modern Yushe County in Shanxi province), where the Jie resided.[6][7]: 6, 149 

According to the Book of Jin, the ancestors of Shi Le were a part of the multi-ethnic Xiongnu tribe known as Qiāngqú (羌渠).[8] Edwin Pulleyblank believes the Qiangqu represent the Kangju state of Sogdia.[1]: 247  Although Pulleyblank suggested that they might have been Tocharian in origin, most scholars believe that Kangju was constituted by an Eastern Iranian people. Some have linked the names Shi (石) and Jie (羯) to a Sogdian statelet known as 石國 Shíguó (literally, "Stone Country", at Chach Zhěshí 赭時, now Tashkent, also meaning "Stone City" in Common Turkic). Also, An Lushan, a Tang rebel general, had a Sogdian stepfather and was called a Jiehu.

The name of the parent house of Turko-Mongol Barlas and Borjigin clans (house of Genghis Khan and Timur) was Kiyat, almost identical to the Middle Chinese pronunciation of the name Jie, /ki̯at/.[1]

Others claim that the Jie were an ancient Yeniseian-speaking tribe related to the Ket people, who today live between the Ob and Yenisey rivers—the character 羯 (jié) is pronounced /kiɛt̚/ in Hokkien, /kʰiːt̚/ or /kiːt̚/ in Cantonese, /ciat̚/ in Hakka and ketsu in Japanese, implying that the ancient pronunciation might have been fairly close to Ket (kʰet).[b] The root may be transliterated as Jié- or Tsze2- and an older form, < kiat, may also be reconstructed. This ethnonym might be cognate with the ethnonyms of Yeniseian-speaking peoples, such as the Ket and the Kott (who spoke the extinct Kott language). Pulleyblank (1962) connected the ethnonym to Proto-Yeniseian *qeˀt/s "stone". Vovin et al. (2016) also pointed to *keˀt "person, human being" as another possible source.[11] Alexander Vovin also suggests that the Xiongnu spoke a Yeniseian language, further connecting them with the Jie people.[12]

Among the Yeniseian languages, Jie is hypothesized to be Pumpokolic. Vovin, Vajda, and de la Vaissière have suggested that Jie shares the same idiosyncrasies with the Pumpokol language, and the two are therefore closely related. This argument is strengthened by the fact that in northern Mongolia, Yeniseian-derived hydronyms have been demonstrated to be exclusively Pumpokolic, while influence from other Yeniseian languages is only found further north.[11] This therefore lends credence to the theory that the Jie are a Pumpokolic-speaking tribe, and confirms that the Pumpokolic-speaking Yeniseians existed in the core territory of the Xiongnu state.

Other sources link the Jie to the Lesser Yuezhi (Xiao Yuezhi 小月氏), who remained in China as vassals of the Xiongnu and then the Han dynasty.[13]

Jie language

Not to be confused with Jie dialect.

Native toLater Zhao dynasty
RegionNorthern China
EthnicityJie people
Eraaround 4th century
Probably Yeniseian or Turkic
  • (If Yeniseian) Southern Yeniseian
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Only one phrase in the native language of the Jie is known. The source for this phrase was a Kuchean Buddhist monk and missionary Fotudeng. It was recorded in the Book of Jin as 秀支替戾岡,僕穀劬禿當 and said to have a connection to Shi Le's fight against Liu Yao in 328.[14] The phrase was glossed with a Chinese translation:

Text Middle Chinese[c] Gloss
秀支 [si̯u-ci̯e] 軍 'army'
替戾岡 [tʰei-let/lei-kɑŋ] 出 'go out'
僕穀 [bok/buk-kuk/yok] 劉曜胡位 'Liu Yao's barbarian title'
劬禿當 [ɡi̯u̯o-tʰuk-tɑŋ] 捉 'capture'

This phrase has been analyzed in a number of publications. Shiratori (1900),[15] Ramstedt (1922),[16] Bazin (1948),[17] von Gabain (1950),[18] Shervashidze (1986),[19] and Shimunek (2015)[20] recognized Turkic lexicon, and gave their versions of the transcription and translation:

Ramstedt Bazin von Gabain Shervashidze Shimunek
Sükä talıqın
bügüg tutun!
Süg tägti ıdqaŋ
boquγıγ tutqaŋ!
Särig tılıtqan
buγuγ kötürkän
Sükâ tol'iqtin
buγuγ qodigo(d)tin
su-Ø kete-r erkan
boklug-gu tukta-ŋ
Go with a war
[and] capture bügü!
Send the army to attack,
capture the commander!
You'd put forth the army,
you'd take the deer
You came to the army
Deposed buγuγ
When/as the army goes out,
capture the Boklug!

Edwin G. Pulleyblank (1963) argued that the Turkic interpretations cannot be considered very successful because they conflict with the phonetic values of the Chinese text and with the Chinese translation. Instead, he suggested a connection with the Yeniseian languages.[1]: 264 

Alexander Vovin (2000) gave the following translation based on Yeniseian.[12] Vovin (2000) suggests a connection with the Southern Yeniseian branch.




PV-CM-PERF-go out-3P





suke t-i-r-ek-ang bok-kok k-o-t-o-kt-ang

armies {PV-CM-PERF-go out-3P} bok-kok PV-?-OBJ-CM-catch-3P

Armies have gone out. [They] will catch Bokkok.

The verbal ending -ŋ can be seen in Jie, which is a common verb ending in Yeniseian languages. The cognate form of the Jie words "kot-o-kt-aŋ" 'they will catch' in Ket is "d-kas-a-qos-n", showing the characteristic of Pumpokol where the sound /t/ corresponds the Ket sound /s/, thus Jie is thought to be closely related to Pumpokol. The Arin word 'kel' 'fight' partly coincides in the second syllable of suke 'army', however the connection is dubious and Vovin suggested it to be a loanword, because if Pumpokolic speakers became part of Xiongnu, the word for army would have likely been loaned.[21]


Sixteen Kingdoms

Main article: Later Zhao

Most of what is known about the Jie people comes from the Later Zhao dynasty, one of the Sixteen Kingdoms that existed in the first half of the 4th-century. The earliest recorded Jie was Shi Le, a minor chieftain from Wuxiang County in Shangdang Commandery under the Western Jin dynasty. However, his name was not originally "Shi Le", as it does not appear that the Jie had family names; Instead, his original name was either Bei (㔨) or Fule (匐勒). He became chieftain by succeeding his father Zhouhezhu (周曷朱) and grandfather Yeyiyu (耶奕于) before him. When a famine struck Bing province in 303 or 304, he and many other Jie people became displaced. The Jin provincial inspector, looking to fund his military for an ongoing civil war, had these people captured and sold into slavery.

After attaining his freedom, Shi Le became a bandit and later a rebel leader with his Han Chinese friend, Ji Sang, who gave Shi Le his name. After their rebellion was defeated in 307, Shi Le joined the Xiongnu-led Han-Zhao dynasty, where he quickly rose through the ranks and became a key commander in their war against the Western Jin. He was also effectively a powerful warlord who controlled the eastern parts of the empire and made the city of Xiangguo (襄國, in modern Xingtai, Hebei) his capital. In 319, Shi Le broke away and established the Later Zhao. He conquered his former state in 329, and while some areas in the north remained independent, the Later Zhao became a hegemonic power in northern China, reaching a temporary deadlock with the Eastern Jin and Cheng-Han dynasties in the south.

One of Shi Le's prominent generals was his distant cousin, Shi Hu, who was also his adoptive brother. The Jie, or at least the Shi clan, had an unusual practice of heavily adopting people into their family, regardless of their ethnicity. Many of Shi Le's princes like Shi Kan and Shi Cong were adopted, with the two in particular being from Han Chinese families. After Shi Le died in 333, his biological son, Shi Hong took the thone, but was soon usurped and killed by Shi Hu in 334.

Shi Hu ruled over northern China for roughly 15 years, and records describe him as one of the most brutal tyrants of his period. He shifted the capital to Ye, and much like Shi Le, was strongly invested in Buddhism as he revered the Kuchean monk, Fotu Cheng and promoted religious freedom. His reign was troubled by succession crises, and after his death in 349, his family members engaged in an internecine struggle over the throne. During the course of the conflict, Shi Hu's adopted Han Chinese grandson, Shi Min, was promised the role of Crown Prince, but soon violently took control of the emperor and capital after his promise was reneged upon.

After surviving multiple assassination attempts, Shi Min suspected that he could not trust the Jie and tribespeople in Ye. In 349, he ordered the killing of every Jie and non-Han people, identifying them by their high noses and full beards. Shi Min personally led his soldiers to massacre the tribes in Ye while his generals purged their armies of tribesmen. According to some sources, more than 200,000 of them were slain, but a large portion of them were also Han Chinese who were mistaken due to their facial features. Regardless, the culling order appears to have had an adverse effect on the Jie population.[22][23] Later that year, Shi Min massacred the Shi clan in Ye, changed his name to Ran Min and proclaimed himself Emperor of (Ran) Wei.

In 351, the final ruler of Later Zhao, Shi Zhi and his family were massacred in Xiangguo, bringing the dynasty to an end. The last member of the Shi clan fled to the Eastern Jin in Jiankang, but was executed upon his arrival. The remaining Jie people eventually became subjects of the Xianbei-led Former Yan, who defeated Ran Min and conquered the Hebei and Shandong regions.

Later history

Hereafter, the Jie people seemingly faded into obscurity. Despite this, there were several figures in later history who may have been of Jie ethnicity. Gai Wu, a rebel during the Northern Wei dynasty, is described in the Book of Qi as a Jiehu (羯胡), although the Book of Wei states that he was a Lushuihu (盧水胡) instead. Both Erzhu Rong and Hou Jing, two famous warlords of the Northern Dynasties, were identified as Qihu (契胡) and Jiehu respectively, and modern scholars have suggested that they could have been be related to the Jie.[24] The Tang dynasty rebel, An Lushan was also called a Jiehu, and according to the unearthed epitaph of Shi Chonggui, the Shi clan of Shatuo origin that ruled the Later Jin (936–947) claimed that they were descendants of Shi Le.[25]

"Two-legged sheep" myth

In modern times, the Jie people have become synonymous with the phrase "two-legged sheep" (两脚羊), a euphemism for cannibalism. This is based on a rumour that the Jie people would often kidnap Han Chinese women, herding and killing them for military ration. Historical records make no mention of this specific practice, and the earliest use of "two-legged sheep" comes from the Song dynasty scholar Zhuang Chuo (莊綽) in his book, "A Compilation of Chicken Ribs" (雞肋編) when describing an anecdote of cannibalism during the fall of Northern Song. Shi Hu's crown prince, Shi Sui (石邃) reportedly killed and ate women for his own amusement, but this is not indicative of the Jie people as a whole. Furthermore, cannibalism was also common practice in China among both Han Chinese and non-Han people during desperate times of war and famines.

See also


  1. ^ Medieval Sinologist David A. Graff suggests Central Asian or Iranian origins.[4]
  2. ^ Western Washington University historical linguist Edward Vajda spent a year in Siberia studying the Ket people and their language and his findings helped substantiate such conjecture into the origins of the Ket people, where DNA claims show genetic affinities with people of China and Myanmar, suggesting a Sino-Tibetan origin.[9] He further proposes a relationship of the Ket language to the Na-Dene languages indigenous to Canada and western United States, and even suggests the tonal system of the Ket language is closer to that of Vietnamese than any of the native Siberian languages.[10]
  3. ^ Middle Chinese pronunciation follows Pulleyblank.[1]: 264 



  1. ^ a b c d e Pulleyblank, Edwin George (1963). "The consonantal system of Old Chinese. Part II" (PDF). Asia Major. 9: 206–265. Retrieved 2011-02-06.
  2. ^ Kim, Hyun Jin (18 April 2013). The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe. Cambridge University Press. p. 176. ISBN 978-1-107-06722-6.
  3. ^ Shimunek et al. 2015, p. 149.
  4. ^ Graff 2002, p. 74.
  5. ^ Lewis 2009, p. 82-83.
  6. ^ Wei, Shou (554). 魏書 [Book of Wei]., Vol. 95.
  7. ^ Taskin, V. S. (1990). Цзе [Jie]. Материалы по истории кочевых народов в Китае III-V вв. [Materials on the history of nomadic peoples in China. 3rd–5th cc. AD] (in Russian). Vol. 2. Moscow: Nauka. ISBN 5-02-016543-3.
  8. ^ Fang, Xuanling (1958). 晉書 [Book of Jin] (in Chinese). Beijing: Commercial Press. Vol. 104
  9. ^ "East Asian Studies 210 Notes: The Ket". Archived from the original on 2019-04-06. Retrieved 2009-10-09.
  10. ^ "The Ket People - Google Video". Archived from the original on 2007-03-03. Retrieved 2009-10-09.
  11. ^ a b Vovin et al. "Who were the *Kjet" (羯) and what language did they speak?" Journal Asiatique 304.1 (2016): 125-144. p. 126–127
  12. ^ a b Vovin, Alexander. "Did the Xiongnu speak a Yeniseian language?". Central Asiatic Journal 44/1 (2000), pp. 87-104.
  13. ^ Haw 2006, p. 201
  14. ^ Fang Xuanling, Book of Jin, ibid., Vol. 95, pp. 12b-13a
  15. ^ Shiratori, Kurakichi, Uber die Sprache des Hiung-nu Stammes und der Tung-hu-Stdmme, Tokyo, 1900
  16. ^ Ramstedt G.J., "Zur Frage nach der Stellung des Tschuwassischen" (On the question of the position of the Chuvash), Journal de la Société finno-ougrienne 38, 1922, pp. 1–34
  17. ^ Bazin, Louis (1948). "Un texte proto-turc du IVe siècle: le distique hiong-nou du "Tsin-chou"". Oriens. 1 (2): 208–219. doi:10.2307/1578997. JSTOR 1578997.
  18. ^ von Gabain, Annemarie (1950). "Louis Bazin: Un texte proto-turc du IVe siècle: le distique hiong-nou du "Tsin-chou" (Besprechung)". Der Islam. 29: 244–246.
  19. ^ Shervashidze I.N. "Verb forms in the language of the Turkic runiform inscriptions", Tbilisi, 1986, pp. 3–9
  20. ^ Shimunek A. "The earliest attested Turkic language: The Chieh 羯 (*Kɨr) language of the fourth century A.D.", Journal Asiatique, 2015
  21. ^ Vovin, Alexander; Vajda, Edward J.; Vaissière, Etienne de la. "WHO WERE THE *KJET (羯) AND WHAT LANGUAGE DID THEY SPEAK?". Retrieved 10 December 2021.
  22. ^ The Buddhist Conquest of China, Erik Zürcher, page 111
  23. ^ Maenchen-Helfen, Otto J. (1973). The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture. University of California Press. p. 372. ISBN 0520015967. Retrieved January 16, 2015.
  24. ^ Graff, David (2 September 2003). Medieval Chinese Warfare 300-900. Routledge. ISBN 9781134553525. Retrieved 10 December 2021 – via Google Books.
  25. ^ Barenghi, Maddalena (2017). "Ancestral Sites and Lineages of the Later Tang (923–936) and the Later Jin (936–947) Dynasties According to the Song Sources". Journal of Asian History. 51 (1): 18. doi:10.13173/jasiahist.51.1.0001. hdl:10278/3720502. JSTOR 10.13173/jasiahist.51.1.0001 – via JSTOR.