Four Barbarians is the common English translation of the Chinese term sìyí 四夷 for various peoples living outside the borders of ancient China, namely, the Dōngyí 東夷 “Eastern Barbarians”, Nánmán 南蠻 “Southern Barbarians”, Xīróng 西戎 “Western Barbarians”, and Běidí 北狄 “Northern Barbarians”. Ultimately, the four barbarian groups were either partly assimilated through Sinicization and absorbed into the Chinese Civilization in the later Chinese Dynasties or emigrated away from the Chinese heartland.
The Chinese mytho-geography and cosmography of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE) was based upon a round heaven and a square earth. Tiānxià 天下 “[everywhere] under heaven; the world” encompassed Huáxià 華夏 “China” (also known as Huá, Xià, etc.) in the center surrounded by non-Chinese “barbarian” peoples. See the Hua–Yi distinction article for the historical context of this literally Sinocentric worldview.
The Four Barbarians construct, or a similar one, was a logical necessity for the ancient tiānxià system. Liu Junping and Huang Deyuan describe the universal monarch with combined political, religious, and cultural authorities: “According to the Chinese in the old times, heaven and earth were matched with yin and yang, with the heaven (yang) superior and the earth (yin) inferior; and the Chinese as an entity was matched with the inferior ethnic groups surrounding it in its four directions so that the kings could be valued and the barbarians could be rejected.” The authors propose that Chinese ideas about the “nation” and “state” of China evolved from the “casual use of such concepts as “Tiānxià“, “hainei“(four corners within the sea) and “Four Barbarians” 四夷 (barbarians in four directions).”
Located in the cardinal directions of tianxia were the sìfāng 四方 “Four Directions/Corners”, sì tǔ 四土 “Four Lands/Regions”, sì hǎi 四海 “Four Seas”, and Four Barbarians 四夷 “Four Barbarians/Foreigners”. The (c. 3rd century BCE) Erya (Chapter 9), defines Sìhǎi as ” the place where the barbarians lived, hence by extension, the barbarians”: “九夷, 八狄,七戎, 六蠻, 謂之四海” – “the nine Yí, eight Dí, seven Róng, and six Mán are called the four seas”.
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These Four Barbarians directionally comprised Yí 夷 to the east of China, Mán 蠻 in the south, Róng 戎 in the west, and Dí 狄 in the north. Unlike the English language with one general word barbarian meaning “uncultured or uncivilized peoples”, Chinese had many specific exonyms for foreigners. Scholars such as Herrlee Glessner Creel agree that Yí, Mán, Róng, and Dí were originally the Chinese names of particular ethnic groups or tribes. During the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BC), these four exonyms were expanded into “general designations referring to the barbarian tribes”. The Russian anthropologist Mikhail Kryukov concluded.
Yi, Man, Rong, and Di were further generalized into compounds (such as Róngdí, Mányí, and Mányíróngdí) denoting “non-Chinese; foreigners; barbarians.” Hieroglyphics refer to these groups all have a section for indicating “animal/insect”. Nowadays, Chinese characters have omitted this symbolic section, so the Chinese characters quoted above only have the “dog symbol” 犭 in the word Dí 狄.
The Yi (“Barbarian”) had both specific denotations (e.g., Huaiyi 淮夷 “Huai River barbarians” and Xiyi 西夷 “western barbarians”) and generalized references to “barbarian” (e.g., Sìyí “Four Barbarians”). The sinologist Edwin G. Pulleyblank says the name Yi “furnished the primary Chinese term for ‘barbarian’,” but “Paradoxically the Yi were considered the most civilized of the non-Chinese peoples.”
The Old Chinese pronunciation of Modern Chinese yí 夷 is reconstructed as *dyər (Bernhard Karlgren), *ɤier (Zhou Fagao), *ləj (William H. Baxter), and *l(ə)i (Axel Schuessler). Schuessler defines Yi as “The name of non-Chinese tribes, prob[ably] Austroasiatic, to the east and southeast of the central plain (Shandong, Huái River basin), since the Spring and Autumn period also a general word for ‘barbarian'”, and proposes a “sea” etymology, “Since the ancient Yuè (=Viet) word for ‘sea’ is said to have been yí, the people’s name might have originated as referring to people living by the sea”.
William H. Baxter and Laurent Sagart reconstruct the Old Chinese names of the four barbarian tribes as : [ 9 ]
The modern character 夷 for yi, like the Qin Dynasty seal script, is composed of 大 “big” and 弓 “bow” – but the earliest Shang Dynasty oracle bone script was used interchangeably for yi and shi 尸 “corpse”, depicting a person with bent back and dangling legs. The archeologist and scholar Guo Moruo believed the oracle graph for yi denotes “a dead body, i.e., the killed enemy”, while the bronze graph denotes “a man bound by a rope, i.e., a prisoner or slave”. Ignoring this historical paleography, the Chinese historian K. C. Wu claimed that Yi 夷 should not be translated as “barbarian” because the modern graph implies a big person carrying a bow, someone to perhaps be feared or respected, but not to be despised.
The (121 CE) Shuowen Jiezi character dictionary, defines yi 夷 as “men of the east” 東方之人也. The scholar Léon Wieger provided multiple definitions to the term yi: “The men 大 armed with bows 弓, the primitive inhabitants, barbarians, borderers of the Eastern Sea, inhabitants of the South-West countries.”
Hanyu Da Cidian, a major Chinese language dictionary, notes Siyi as derogatory: “古代華夏族对四方小数民族的統称. 含有轻蔑之意.” [Contrasting with the ancient Chinese people, a name for ethnic minorities in all four directions. Contains a pejorative meaning.]
“Four barbarians” is the common English translation of Siyi. Compare these Chinese-English dictionary equivalents for Siyi: “the four barbarian tribes on the borders of ancient China”, “the barbarians on borders of China”, and “four barbarian tribes on the borders”. Some scholars interpret the si “four” in Siyi as sifang 四方 “four directions”. Liu Xiaoyuan says the meaning of Siyi “is not ‘four barbarians’ but numerous ‘barbarous tribes’ in the four directions”. However, Liu also states that the term yi might have been used by the early Chinese to simply mean “ordinary others”. Yuri Pines translates Siyi as “barbarians of the four corners”.
In Chinese Buddhism, siyi 四夷 or siyijie 四夷戒 abbreviates the si boluoyi 四波羅夷 “Four Parajikas” (grave offenses that entail expulsion of a monk or nun from the sangha).
Bronze inscriptions and reliable documents from the Western Zhou period (c. 1046–771 BCE) used the word Yi 夷 “barbarian” in two meanings, says Chinese sinologist Chen. First, Yi or Yifang 夷方 designated a specific ethnic group that had battled against the Shang since the time of King Wu Ding. Second, Yi meant specifically or collectively (e.g., zhuyi 諸夷) peoples in the remote lands east and south of China, such as the well-known Dongyi 東夷, Nanyi 南夷, and Huaiyi 淮夷. Western Zhou bronzes also record the names of some little-known Yi groups, such as the Qiyi 杞夷, Zhouyi 舟夷, Ximenyi 西門夷, Qinyi 秦夷, and Jingyi京夷. Chen notes, “These yi are not necessarily identical with the numerous yi in Eastern Zhou literature. On the contrary, except for the Huaiyi, Dongyi and Nanyi, these yi all seem to have vanished from the historical and inscriptional accounts of the Eastern Zhou”.
Inscriptions on bronze gui vessels (including the Xun 詢, Shiyou 師酉, and Shi Mi 史密) do not always use the term yi 夷 in reference to alien people of physically different ethnic groups outside China. Chen says, “They classify certain groups of people residing in places within the region of Zhou control, such as the states of Qi 杞, Jing 京, Qin 秦 and Zhou 舟, as yi“.
Expanding upon the research of Li Ling that Western Zhou bronze writings differentiate the Zhou people (Wangren 王人, lit. “king’s people”) from other peoples (yi 夷), Chen found three major categories: people of Zhou, people of Shang, and people of Yi (neither Zhou nor Shang). “The Zhou rulers treated the Shang remnant elites with courtesy and tolerance, whereas they treated yi people with less respect.” Shang people were employed in positions based upon their cultural legacy and education, such as zhu 祝 “priest”, zong 宗 “ritual official”, bu 卜 “diviner”, shi 史 “scribe”, and military commander. Yi people, who had a much lower status, served the rulers in positions such as infantry soldiers, palace guards, servants, and slave laborers. Chen compares the social status of Yi with “xiangren 降人, people captured from other states or ethnicities, or their descendants”.
Chen analyzed diachronic semantic changes in the twin concepts of Xia and Yi. During the Western Zhou, they were employed to distinguish “between the Zhou elite and non-Zhou people”; during the Eastern Zhou, they distinguished “between the central states and peripheral barbarian tribes in a geographical sense, as well as between Zhou subjects and non-Zhou subjects in a political sense.” Eastern Zhou canonical texts, says Chen, “frequently assert a differentiation between Xia (or Zhongguo), meaning those states in the central plains subject to the Zhou sovereign, and Yi 夷, Di 狄, Rong 戎, and Man 蠻, all of which could be used generally to refer to non-Chinese ethnic groups”. Among these four terms, Yi was most widely employed for “barbarian” clans, tribes, or ethnic groups. The Chinese classics used it in directional compounds (e.g., “eastern” Dongyi 東夷, “western” Xiyi 西夷, “southern” Nanyi, and “northern” Beiyi 北夷), numerical (meaning “many”) generalizations (“three” Sanyi 三夷, “four” Siyi 四夷, and “nine” Jiuyi 九夷), and groups in specific areas and states (Huaiyi 淮夷, Chuyi 楚夷, Qinyi 秦夷, and Wuyi 吳夷).
The Chinese classics contain many references to the Siyi “Four Barbarians”. Around the late Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BCE) or early Warring States period (475–221 BCE), the names Man, Yi, Rong, and Di became firmly associated with the cardinal directions. Yi changed from meaning a specific “barbarians in the east” to “barbarians” generally, and two new words – Siyi and Man-Yi-Rong-Di 蠻夷戎狄 – referred to “all non-Zhou barbarians in the four directions”. The Zuozhuan and Mozi contain the earliest extant occurrences of Siyi.
The (early 4th century BCE) Zuozhuan commentary to the Chunqiu (“Spring and Autumn Annals”) uses Siyi four times.
In addition, the Zuozhuan has an early usage of Man-Yi-Rong-Di 蠻夷戎狄 meaning “all kinds of barbarians”.
When any of the wild tribes, south, east, west, or north, do not obey the king’s commands, and by their dissoluteness and drunkenness are violating all the duties of society, the kind gives command to attack them. [ 30 ]
The (c. 4th century BCE) Mozi has one occurrence of Siyi referring to King Wu of Zhou.
The (c. 4th century BCE) Guanzi recounts how Duke Huan of Qi (d. 643 BCE) conquered all his enemies, including the Dongyi 東夷, Xirong 西戎, Nanman 南蠻, and Beidi 北狄.
This text [ 33 ] also recommends, ” To use the states bordering the four seas to attack other states bordering the four seas is a condition distinguishing the central states. “
The (c. 4th century BCE) Confucian Analects does not use Siyi, but does use Jiuyi 九夷 “Nine Barbarians” (9/19), “The Master wanted to settle among the Nine Wild Tribes of the East. Someone said, I am afraid you would find it hard to put up with their lack of refinement. The Master said, Were a true gentleman to settle among them there would soon be no trouble about lack of refinement.” Yidi 夷狄 “Eastern and Northern Barbarians” occurs twice, “The Master said, The barbarians of the East and North have retained their princes. They are not in such a state of decay as we in China”; “The Master said, In private life, courteous, in public life, diligent, in relationships, loyal. This is a maxim that no matter where you may be, even amid the barbarians of the east or north, may never be set aside.” This text has an indirect reference to “barbarians” (5/6), “The Master said, The Way makes no progress. I shall get upon a raft and float out to sea.”
The (c. 290 BCE) Confucianist Mencius (1A/7) uses Siyi once when Mencius counsels King Xuan of Qi (r. 319–301 BCE) against territorial expansion: “You wish to extend your territory, to enjoy the homage of Ch’in and Ch’u, to rule over the Central Kingdoms and to bring peace to the barbarian tribes on the four borders. Seeking the fulfillment of such an ambition by such means as you employ is like looking for fish by climbing a tree.” This text (3A/4) uses Yi 夷 in quoting Confucius, “I have heard of the Chinese converting barbarians to their ways, but not of their being converted to barbarian ways.”
The Mencius uses western Xiyi 西夷 four times (three contrasting with northern Beidi 北狄), eastern Dongyi 東夷 once, and Yidi 夷狄 once. Three repeated Xiyi occurrences (1B/11) describe Tang of Shang establishing the Shang Dynasty: “With this he gained the trust of the Empire, and when he marched on the east, the western barbarians complained, and when he marched on the south, the northern barbarians complained. They all said, ‘Why does he not come to us first?'” Dongyi occurs in a claim (4B/1) that the legendary Chinese sages Shun and King Wen of Zhou were Yi: “Mencius said, ‘Shun was an Eastern barbarian; he was born in Chu Feng, moved to Fu Hsia, and died in Ming T’iao. Ken Wen was a Western barbarian; he was born in Ch’i Chou and died in Pi Ying.” Yidi occurs in context (3B/9) with the Duke of Zhou, “In ancient times, Yu controlled the Flood and brought peace to the Empire; the Duke of Chou subjugated the northern and southern barbarians, drove away the wild animals, and brought security to the people.”
The (c. 3rd century BCE) Xunzi uses Siyi twice in one chapter.
John Knoblock notes, “The ‘Four Yi tribes’ refers to the barbarians surrounding the Chinese “Middle Kingdom” and does not designate particular peoples”. The Xunzi uses Man-Yi-Rong-Di once.
Accordingly, [ 諸夏 ] all the states of Xia Chinese have identical obligations for service to the king and have identical standards of conduct. The countries of Man, Yi, Rong, and Di barbarians perform the same obligatory services to the kind, but the regulations governing them are not the same. … The Man and Yi nations do service according to treaty obligations. The Rong and Di do irregular service. [ 44 ]
The (3rd–1st centuries BCE) Liji uses Siyi once.
The Liji also gives detailed information about the Four Barbarian peoples.
The Shujing history uses Siyi in two forged “Old Text” chapters.
Yi said, ‘ Alas ! be cautious ! Admonish yourself to caution, when there seems to be no occasion for anxiety. Do not fail to observe the laws and ordinances. … Do not go against what is right, to get the praise of the people. Do not oppose the people’s ( wishes ), to follow your own desires. ( Attend to these things ) without idleness or omission, and the barbarous tribes all around will come and acknowledge your sovereignty. ‘ [ 47 ]