Although yabḡu is best known as a Turkish title of nobility, it was in use many centuries before the Turks appear in the historical record. The earliest form of the word attested is the Chinese xihou (ancient i̯əp-g’u; Karlgren, pp. 675 q [and variants] + 113a, Early Middle Chinese xip-γəw), which is found as a title of various “barbarian” (Wusun, Yuezhi, etc.) rulers in texts referring to events from the 2nd century B.C.E. onwards. The title seems first to have been brought to the Iranian world by the Kushans. The Han shu, (chap. 96A, p. 3891), tells that the Yuezhi were ruled by five xihou, to which the Hou Han shu (chap. 88, p. 2921), adds an account of how Qiujiuque, the “Guishuang xihou,” that is Kujula Kadphises the “Kushan yabḡu,” obtained supremacy over the other four xihou and thus established the Kushan Empire (Chavannes, 1907, pp. 189-92; Hulsewé and Loewe, pp. 121-23). As is to be expected, the title is also attested on the coins of Kujula, where it written yavuga- or yaüa- in Prakrit and zaoou (genitive of *zaoos or *zaoēs) in Greek. The identity of these forms with the Chinese xihou was first recognized by Alfred von Gutschmid (p. 114). Another Prakrit variant, jaüva-, may be attested in an inscription from Taxila (see Konow, p. 27), but the context is not entirely clear. The Bactrian form iabgo is also attested in the Kushan period (Livshits and Kruglikova, p. 103); much later, probably at the end of the 5th century, it reappears as a Hephthalite title (Sims-Williams, 1999, p. 255). The personal name Yapǵu in the Kharoṣṭhī documents from Niya (e.g., Burrow, passim on pp. 92-95; cf. Lüders, p. 789) and the Tocharian B title *yapko (attested via the adjective yapkoñe; see Pinault, p. 12) are likely to derive from the Bactrian form. However, the supposed form iapgu in a Bactrian coin legend of the Turkish period (Ghirshman, p. 50) is a misreading, probably for tagino, that is, Turk. tegin “prince” (Davary, p. 98).

Among the Turks, the title yabḡu gained a new lease of life. In the Turkish inscriptions of Mongolia, it refers to a noble ranking immediately after the qaḡan, but in the West the title seems to have been used more generally of tribal chiefs, and was so characteristic that the Chinese came to refer to the Western Turks by expressions such as “the tribes of the yabḡu” (Chavannes, 1903, p. 95 n. 3). In Tang times, Turkish yabḡu was retranscribed into Chinese as yehu (archaic ḭäp-γuo, see Karlgren, nos. 633d + 784k, Late Middle Chinese jiap-xHuə¡), showing that the equivalence with xihou was by then forgotten. In the Sogdian version of the Karabalgasun inscription, the Turkish title is transcribed as ypγw. In the 7th century, the spelling cpγw [ǰabγu] is attested on Sogdian coins of Chach (Shagalov and Kuznetsov, 2006, pp. 84-86). In a ninth-century colophon to a Manichean hymn-book, jβγw [žaβγu] is attested as the title of the ruler of Parvān (Āqsu) and the variant yβγw as part of a Turkish personal name (Müller, p. 11, ll. 77, 93; cf. also Bailey, 1985, p. 130, where Tibetan, Armenian, and Pahlavi forms are cited).

The ultimate origin of the word yabḡu has been much disputed. A useful survey of the older literature is provided by Richard Frye, pp. 356-58, who refers to suggested Altaic etymologies but himself favors an Iranian source. Two different Iranian etymologies were proposed by Harold W. Bailey (*yam-uka- “leader,” Bailey, 1958, p. 136, and *yāvuka- “troop-leader,” idem, 1985, pp. 32, 130), but the phonetic equivalence would not be close and both forms are quite hypothetical. A “Tocharian” origin has been suggested by several scholars (e.g., Pulleyblank, 1966, p. 28, who tentatively compares Toch. A ype, B yapoy “land, country”; Bosworth and Clauson, pp. 9-10), an idea which depends on the doubtful assumption that peoples such as the Wusun and Yuezhi were ethnically related to the speakers of what we now call Tocharian.

Although the title xihou is only borne by non-Chinese rulers and is invariably regarded by Sinologists as a transcription of a foreign form, Helmut Humbach (pp. 24-28) has argued that the word is in fact Chinese in origin, the syllable hou being a Chinese title often translated “marquis.” Elaborating on this view, Nicholas Sims-Williams (2002, p. 229) has proposed to interpret xihou as “allied prince.” Such an interpretation is particularly suited to some of the earliest attestations of xihou. According to the Shiji (chap. 19, p. 1021, and chap. 20, p. 1027), the title was bestowed twice by the Chinese emperor, in 147 B.C.E. on a Xiongnu prince and in 129 B.C.E. on a prince of the western barbarians (Hu), both of whom had allied themselves with the Han. However, the Han shu provides evidence for the even earlier use of this title: amongst the Wusun in the 170s B.C.E., a period before they were in direct contact with the Chinese (chap. 61, p. 2692; Hulsewé and Loewe, p. 215), and amongst the Yuezhi of Bactria, who had left Gansu or Turfan in the 170s B.C.E. and would therefore be unlikely to use a Chinese title of more recent origin (Han shu, chap. 96A, p. 3891; Hulsewé and Loewe, pp. 121-23). Moreover, xi “joined, harmonious, etc.” would not have been an obvious word to employ in the political sense “united” or “allied.” The earliest Chinese interpretation of xihou (already in the first century C.E., see the Han shu, chap. 17, pp. 640, 642) was “marquis of Xi,” Xi being understood as the name of a village in the Huang region (Henan). Although this association must be due to folk etymology or secondary association (cf. Hirth, p. 49), its mere existence is a clear indication that the syllable xi was not felt to be meaningful. Later commentators of the Tang period define xihou as a Wusun title for a high-ranking general. It seems most likely that this view is essentially correct and that xihou is a Chinese transcription of a title used by the Wusun and Yuezhi, peoples from the Gansu or Turfan regions, of whose languages hardly anything is known.


Chinese dynastic histories are quoted according to the pagination of the Zhonghua shuju edition, Beijing, 1972-.

Reconstructed Chinese forms are quoted according to Bernhard Karlgren (1957) and Edwin G. Pulleyblank, 1991.

Harold W. Bailey, “Languages of the Saka,” in Handbuch der Orientalistik I.IV.1, Leiden, 1958, pp. 131-54.

Idem, Khotanese Texts VII, Cambridge, 1985.

Clifford E. Bosworth and G. Clauson, “Al-Xwārazmī on the Peoples of Central Asia,” JRAS, 1965, pp. 2-12.

Thomas Burrow, A Translation of the Kharoṣṭhi Documents from Chinese Turkestan, London, 1940.

Édouard Chavannes, Documents sur les Tou-kiue (Turcs) occidentaux, St. Petersburg, 1903.

Idem, “Les pays d’occident d’après le Heou Han chou,” T’oung Pao, Series 2/8, 1907, pp. 149-234.

Gholam Djelani Davary, Baktrisch: Ein Wörterbuch auf Grund der Inschriften, Handschriften, Münzen und Siegelsteine, Heidelberg, 1982.

Richard Nelson Frye, “Some Early Iranian Titles,” Oriens 15, 1962, pp. 352-59.

Roman Ghirshman, Les Chionites-Hephtalites, Mémoires de la Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan 13, Cairo, 1948.

Alfred von Gutschmid, Geschichte Irans und seiner Nachbarvölker von Alexander dem Grossen bis zum Untergang der Arsaciden, Tübingen, 1888.

F. Hirth, “Nachworte zur Inschrift von Tonjukuk,” in W. Radloff, ed., Die alttürkischen Inschriften der Mongolei, 2nd Series, St Petersburg, 1899.

Anthony F. P. Hulsewé and Michael A. N. Loewe, tr., China in Central Asia: The Early Stage 125 B.C.-A.D. 23, Leiden, 1979 (annotated tr. of chaps. 61 and 96 of “The history of the former Han Dynasty”).

Helmut Humbach, Baktrische Sprachdenkmäler I, Wiesbaden, 1966.

Bernhard Karlgren, “Grammata Serica Recensa,” Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 29, Stockholm, 1957.

Sten Konow, ed., Kharoshṭhī Inscriptions, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, II, part 1, Calcutta, 1929.

V. A. Livshits and I. T. Kruglikova, “Fragmenty baktriĭskoĭ monumental’noĭ nadpisi iz Dil’berdzhina (Fragments of a Bactrian monumental inscription from Dilberjin),” in I. T. Kruglikova, ed., Drevnyaya Baktriya (Ancient Bactria) II, Moscow, 1979, pp. 98-112.

Heinrich Lüders, Philologica Indica, Göttingen, 1940.

Friedrich W. K. Müller, “Ein Doppelblatt aus einem manichäischen Hymnenbuch (Maḥrnâmag),” APAW, 1912, pp. 1-40.

Georges-Jean Pinault, “Economic and Administrative Documents in Tocharian B from the Berezovsky and Petrovsky Collections,” Manuscripta Orientalia 4/4, 1998, pp. 3-20.

Edwin G. Pulleyblank, “Chinese and Indo-Europeans,” JRAS, 1966, pp. 9-39.

Idem, Lexicon of Reconstructed Pronunciation in Early Middle Chinese, Late Middle Chinese, and Early Mandarin, Vancouver, 1991.

V. D. Shagalov and A. V. Kuznetsov, Katalog monet Chach III-VIII vv. (Catalogue of coins of Chach, III-VIII C.E.), Tashkent, 2006.

Nicholas Sims-Williams, “From the Kushan-shahs to the Arabs: New Bactrian Documents Dated in the Era of the Tochi Inscriptions,” in Michael Alram and Deborah E. Klimburg-Salter, eds., Coins, Art and Chronology: Essays on the pre-Islamic History of the Indo-Iranian Borderlands, Vienna, 1999, pp. 245-58.

Idem, “Ancient Afghanistan and Its Invaders: Linguistic Evidence from the Bactrian Documents and Inscriptions,” in idem, ed., Indo-Iranian Languages and Peoples, Proceedings of the British Academy 116, Oxford, 2002, pp. 225-42.

(Nicholas Sims-Williams, Étienne De la Vassiere)

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