Location of the Wuhuan in 87 BC
Mural depicting horses and chariots from the tomb of a Wuhuan official and military commander from the Eastern Han dynasty in Inner Mongolia.

The Wuhuan (simplified Chinese: 乌桓; traditional Chinese: 烏桓; pinyin: Wūhuán, < Eastern Han Chinese: *ʔɑ-ɣuɑn, < Old Chinese (c. 78 BCE): *ʔâ-wân < *Awar[1]) were a Proto-Mongolic[2][3] or para-Mongolic[4] nomadic people who inhabited northern China, in what is now the provinces of Hebei, Liaoning, Shanxi, the municipality of Beijing and the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia.


After the Donghu "Eastern Barbarians" were defeated by the Xiongnu around 209 BC, they split into two groups. The northern Donghu became the Xianbei while the southern Donghu living around modern Liaoning became the Wuhuan. According to the Book of Later Han, “the language and culture of the Xianbei are the same as the Wuhuan”.[5] Until 121 BC, the Wuhuan was a tributary of the Xiongnu empire. The Book of Later Han (Ch. 120) says: "From the time that Modu Shanyu crushed them the Wuhuan became weak. They were kept in constant subjugation to the Xiongnu and were forced to pay annual taxes of cow, horse and sheep skins. If anybody did not pay this tax his wife and children were taken from him."

In 121 BC, the Han dynasty general Huo Qubing defeated the eastern wing of the Xiongnu. He then settled the Wuhuan in five commanderies (Shanggu, Yuyang, Youbeiping, Liaoxi and Liaodong) created on the northern Chinese border in order to use them to keep watch of the Xiongnu. The chieftains of the Wuhuan paid annual visits to the Han capital Chang'an and were given rewards.

In 78 BC, the Wuhuan looted the tombs of the Xiongnu chanyus. The outraged Xiongnu rode east and defeated them.[6] Fan Minyou was sent with 20,000 men to aid the Wuhuan. However he arrived too late and the Xiongnu were out of his reach so he attacked the Wuhuan instead, defeated them and beheaded three of their kings.[7]

In 71 BC, the Wuhuan joined the Han, Dingling, and Wusun to defeat the Xiongnu.[6]

In 7 AD, the Han convinced the Wuhuan to stop sending tribute to the Xiongnu, who immediately attacked and defeated the Wuhuan.[8]

In 49 AD, Hedan, the Wuhuan elder of the Liaoxi district, came to the Han court with 922 other chieftains and "paid tribute" to Emperor Guangwu of Han with slaves, cattle, horses, bows and tiger, leopard and sable skins.

In 58 AD, the Xianbei chieftain Pianhe attacked and killed Xinzhiben, a Wuhuan leader causing trouble in Yuyang Commandery.[9]

In 109 AD, the Wuhuan joined the Xianbei in attacking Wuyuan Commandery and defeated local Han forces.[10]

In 168 AD, the Wuhuan established some degree of independence under their own leaders. The largest of these groups were led by Nanlou in Shanggu, Qiuliju in Liaoxi, Supuyan in the Dependent State of Liaodong, and Wuyan in Youbeiping.[11]

In 187 Qiuliju joined the rebellion of Zhang Chun. Following the defeat of Zhang Chun in 188, Qiuliju attacked Gongsun Zan but was defeated. In 190 he surrendered to Liu Yu and died in 193.[12] Qiuliju's son Louban was too young to succeed him so his cousin Tadun became acting guardian.[13] In 195 Tadun, Nanlou and Supuyan supported Yuan Shao against Gongsun Zan.[14][15] In 207 Tadun was defeated by Cao Cao at the Battle of White Wolf Mountain and died in battle. After their defeat many of the Wuhuan surrendered to Cao Cao and served as part of Cao Cao's cavalry forces.[15][14] Louban and Supuyan fled to Gongsun Kang, who killed them.[13]

Cao Cao divided the Wuhuan into three groups situated in Dai Commandery. The chieftains Nengchendi and Pufulu continued to cause trouble until 218 when Cao Zhang destroyed the last remnants of their power for good.[16] The Xianbei people quickly filled in the power vacuum, although the Wuhuan continued to exist well into the Sixteen Kingdoms period (304–439). They lived with various other ethnic groups and gradually lost their distinct identity. Part of them became known as the Kumo Xi, or the Tatabi, who were finally absorbed by the Khitans in the 10th century.


Lineage of the Wuhuan

The Book of Later Han (Ch. 120) records:

The Wuhuan are skilled in mounted archery. They engage in hunting animals and birds. They nomadise from place to place in search of grass and water. Without permanent settlements they live in round yurts (穹廬 - qiónglú). The entrance of the yurt faces the sun (south). They eat meat and drink kumiss ( - lào). They make clothes from fine wool (máocuì - 毛毳). Youthfulness and strength are held in esteem among them while old age and weakness are not. They are brave and valorous by nature. In anger they kill each other but nobody harms mothers, because the continuation of their progeny depends on their mothers. Fathers and elder brothers on the other hand can create their own separate tribes, so the original tribe does not bear responsibility for them. Whoever is brave, strong and able to deal with contentious cases of litigation are chosen to be elders (大人 - dàren). The office of elder is not hereditary. Each nomadic community has its own small commander ( - shuài). A community is composed of a hundred to a thousand yurts. When an elder makes a proclamation they carve markings on wood (刻木為信 - kèmùwéixìn), even though they have no script, and none of the tribes dare to violate it.


Further information: Para-Mongolic languages

RegionInner Mongolia
Extinctc. 3rd century CE
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Andrew Shimunek (2017) classifies the Wuhuan (or "Awar"/"Avar", per Shimunek's reconstruction) language as the most divergent para-Mongolic language.[4]



See also


  1. ^ Schuessler, Axel (2014) "Phonological Notes on Hàn Period Transcriptions of Foreign Names and Words" in Studies in Chinese and Sino-Tibetan Linguistics: Dialect, Phonology, Transcription and Text. Series: Language and Linguistics Monograph. Issue 53. p. 257 of 249-292
  2. ^ Pulleyblank, Edwin G. (1983). "The Chinese and Their Neighbors in Prehistoric and Early Historic China," in The Origins of Chinese Civilization, University of California Press, p. 452 of pp. 411–466.
  3. ^ Kradin N. N. (2011). "Heterarchy and hierarchy among the ancient Mongolian nomads". Social Evolution & History. 10 (1): 188. The ancient Mongolian nomads – the Wuhuan and Xianbei – migrated in the late centuries BC – first centuries AD mainly in the territory of Inner Mongolia, as well as, partially, in the neighboring geographic areas.
  4. ^ a b Shimunek, Andrew (2017). Languages of Ancient Southern Mongolia and North China: a Historical-Comparative Study of the Serbi or Xianbei Branch of the Serbi-Mongolic Language Family, with an Analysis of Northeastern Frontier Chinese and Old Tibetan Phonology. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 978-3-447-10855-3. OCLC 993110372.
  5. ^ West 2009, p. 191.
  6. ^ a b Barfield 1989, p. 59.
  7. ^ Whiting 2002, p. 172.
  8. ^ Whiting 2002, p. 183.
  9. ^ de Crespigny 2007, p. 899.
  10. ^ de Crespigny 2007, p. 782.
  11. ^ de Crespigny 2010, p. 229.
  12. ^ de Crespigny 2007, p. 710.
  13. ^ a b de Crespigny 2007, p. 613.
  14. ^ a b de Crespigny 2007, p. 780.
  15. ^ a b de Crespigny 2007, p. 677.
  16. ^ Barfield 1989, p. 96.