Following the Donkey’s Trail (Part I): a Linguistic and Archaeological Study on the Introduction of Domestic Donkeys to China

In: International Journal of Eurasian Linguistics
Samira Müller Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of Zurich

Search for other papers by Samira Müller in
Current site
Google Scholar
Milad Abedi Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of Zurich & UMR 8041 Centre de recherche sur le monde iranien (CeRMI), University of Languages and Civilizations Paris

Search for other papers by Milad Abedi in
Current site
Google Scholar
Wolfgang Behr Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of Zurich

Search for other papers by Wolfgang Behr in
Current site
Google Scholar
, and
Patrick Wertmann Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of Zurich

Search for other papers by Patrick Wertmann in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access


How and when did domestic donkeys arrive in China? This article sets out to uncover the donkeys’ forgotten trail from West Asia across the Iranian plateau to China, using archaeological, art historical, philological, and linguistic evidence. Following Parpola and Janhunen’s (2011) contribution to our understanding of the Indian wild ass and Mitchell’s (2018) overview of the history of the domestic donkey in West Asia and the Mediterranean, we will attempt to shed light on the transmission of the beast of burden to Eastern Eurasia.

Due to its length, the paper is published in two instalments: Part I covers archaeological, art historical and textual evidence for the earliest occurrence and popularization of donkeys in China. Part II (in the fall issue) contains three sections: Two sections explore possible etymologies of ancient zoonyms for donkeys or donkey-like animals in Iranian and Chinese languages respectively. In a final discussion, possible ways of transmission for the donkey from the Iranian plateau to the Chinese heartland are evaluated with regard to the cultural, linguistic, and topographic conditions reflected in the previous parts.

1 Introduction

The domestic donkey (Equus asinus asinus), thanks to its abilities to thrive even with little water supply and inferior food, to navigate in desert regions, and to carry heavy loads over difficult terrain, served as valued working animal and general means of transportation for millennia across the arid regions of Northern Africa and West Asia as well as many parts of Eurasia. When Marco Polo (1254–1324) travelled through Eurasia he marvelled at the enduring stoic beasts:

There are also the most beautiful and largest asses of the world. And they are sold for much more than horses; and this is the reason why: because they eat little, and carry great loads, and go over much road in one day. And neither horses nor mules can do this nor endure so much labour. For when the merchants of those parts go from one province to another they pass through great deserts, to wit places sandy, bare, and dry, yielding no grass or anything which was suitable for food for horses. And also because of the distances of wells and of sweet waters it would be necessary for them to make long marches if they wish the beasts to have a drink. And because horses could not endure this, therefore so much the more willingly do the merchants use those asses only, since they are more swift and trotting well and are taken with less expense. And for this reason they are sold for more than horses (qua de causa pluri uenduntur quam equi).

Codex Z, Cathedral Library at Toledo, Moule & Pelliot ed. & transl. 1938: 2.116–17

Donkeys can go without water for up to three days, which is why they have been extensively used in Ancient Egypt to access the Libyan desert since the third millennium BCE (Förster 2007) and to establish trade relations with the kingdom of Canaan (Arnold et al. 2016). Depending on their own bodyweight, donkeys can carry a load between 50 and 80 kg and walk for up to 20 km a day (Dennis 1999: 151). Their sturdy box-like hooves provide them with good footing and even if they slip or fall, they do not tend to panic (Nibbi 1979: 155). Like all members of the Equus asinus species, domestic donkeys have the capacity to adapt to various social strategies, a key feature for successful domestication. Wild asses change their social systems according to the ecology, forming larger herd structures, harem organizations, small temporary groups, or unisex herds (French 1989: 166–167). This fluid social structure without a fixed leader or a rigid hierarchy not only proved highly successful for surviving in the challenging environment of northeast Africa (de Santis et al. 2021: 5), but also allowed for a rather smooth domestication and integration into human life. Donkeys are mainly known for their abilities as pack animals forming impressive caravans, as they are for example reflected in the cuneiform plates from Kanesh, a trade hub in Ancient Anatolia,1 but they also fulfilled a variety of different purposes after being introduced to West Asia. As Goulder (2018: 83) has shown, donkeys contribute an important work force for agriculture as they allow swift short distance transport between field, storage, and market, which is essential for successful production. When compared to oxen, the primary domesticate serving agricultural purposes in ancient West Asia, donkeys are less prone to disease and more tolerant of drought, they are easier to feed and handle and have a longer working life (Brodie 2008: 302–304). In the third millennium BCE, the newly introduced equid work force probably allowed the women of Ur to enter textile production, where they worked with wool which was also transported on the back of donkeys (Goulder 2016). Pastoralists who were responsible for herding sheep and goats to produce wool, meat, and

horns for the capital2 most probably also used donkeys to facilitate transport between the city and the pastures (Arbuckle and Hammer 2019: 429). Female donkeys (jennies) further have the ability to serve in herd protection, since they have a natural aggression towards dogs, wolfs and other predators (Burnham 2002: 104).

Donkeys were also treasured for their ability to produce hybrid offspring. Such hybrids were greatly valued in Mesopotamia as fast equids, comfortable to ride on in contrast to the donkey (Michel 2004). Ideal mules are larger than their donkey parent, have a broad and strong back as well as a tough skin (Nibbi 1979: 167). Thanks to hybrid vigour, they possess a stronger musculature and bigger build than their donkey parent (Gao Shan et al. 2020). However, the successful breeding of hybrid equids is highly difficult and has even been described as a wasteful activity, since most of the crossbreeds display unwanted features, which made the mule a luxury equid fit for nobility (Nibbi 1979: 167). As we will show below, the mule seems to have played an important role in the introduction of donkeys to the Chinese heartland (see section 2.3 on kunti).

While in Egypt and the Southern Levant domestic donkeys appeared before the third millennium BCE (Kowner et al. 2019: 73), the animal seems to have arrived in the regions of Eastern Iran, where Bactrian camels were commonly used to cross mountain passes and arid regions, comparatively late in time. In China, the new kind of equid only gained clearly attestable popularity by the second century BCE, when it acquired paramount importance for the imperial court to cross the Taklamakan desert.

This study will shed further light on different aspects pertaining to the introduction of donkeys and their related hybrid breeds to China. Using archaeological, philological, and linguistic evidence, we sketch the traces of the animal which serves as a reliable companion in caravans through the arid regions of Africa and Eurasia up to the present day. The physical remains of donkeys and asses will be discussed and their influence on Iranian and Chinese culture will be documented, based on excavated and transmitted literature as well as selected art historical evidence. From a linguistic point of view, a trail of borrowed designations and neologisms allows further investigation of the question how the domestic donkey found its way from the southern Levant, i.e. the region where it seems to have been popular since the Early Bronze Age (cf. Milevski and Horwitz 2019: 93–148), across the Iranian plateau and into the dry regions around the Tarim Basin, where it became a precious and popular domestic beast among nomadic and sedentary people, and finally into the North China Plain. While the question when and why donkeys and asses were first introduced to China is of general interest for the cultural history of Eurasia, the study will proceed along four sections which are separated in two larger Parts, also addressing area specific questions:

The second section, which constitutes Part I, contains a compilation of published archaeological and art historical data on wild ass and donkey from across the boundaries of modern China to show their spread in chronological sequence between earliest attestations from the late Pleistocene down to the Táng dynasty (618–907 CE).3 An overview of donkey related finds during the late Pleistocene and the Neolithic, further considering contemporary finds from sites in north-eastern Africa and the Middle East, is presented in the beginning. The focus, however, will be placed on later finds that indicate the transmission of the donkey from Inner Asia to East Asia. The archaeological evidence will then be further contextualized against the canvas of the available transmitted and excavated written sources in Chinese, which provide valuable insights into the development of the cultural significance of the donkey from its earliest known mentioning in the third century BCE to the early medieval period prior to the reunification of the Chinese empire under the Suí dynasty in the late sixth century CE.

Part II (sections 3–5) dives into the obscure origins of the donkey’s name(s) in Iranian and Chinese sources and tries to uncover linguistic connections between both language families. Section three sets out to clarify the highly problematic origin of the most prominent Iranian word for donkey, i.e. xar. The term in question will be investigated through a manuscript analysis followed by a discussion of multiple scenarios of the possible etymological background of the word for donkey in Old and Middle Iranian. Section four concentrates on the development of Chinese terminologies for the novel equid presumably introduced to China sometime before the third century BCE. The donkey and donkey related terms attested in the oldest extant transmitted and excavated materials will be analysed and their Old Chinese reconstructions clarified.4 Pinpointing three terms for donkeys, a possible borrowing scenario of the Iranian term for ‘donkey’ along with the actual animal will be discussed.

Finally, in section five, the discussion about the eastwards travel of the donkey through Eurasia is opened in a broader context, taking the social, ecological, and cultural differences into account which might have hindered or facilitated the introduction of the domestic donkey.

2 Archaeological, Art Historical and Textual Evidence of Donkeys in China

Donkeys played an important role in ancient transport systems of Asia and Africa, since they provided a reliable source of protein and facilitated overland transport of goods and people. The wild ancestor of the domesticated donkey is the African wild ass (Equus africanus). New genetic research on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of modern donkeys suggests that they descend from two subspecies of the African wild ass: the Nubian wild ass (E. africanus africanus) and the Somali wild ass (E. africanus somaliensis) (Rossel et al. 2008; Hu Songmei et al. 2020: 456).

In China, recent studies have been conducted to investigate the genetic diversity and origins of Chinese donkeys. The first genetic study on ancient donkeys was published in 2014 by Han Lu et al. Further studies include mtDNA studies on modern Chinese donkeys (Zeng Lulan et al. 2019; Lei Chuzhao et al. 2007). These studies have shown that the modern Chinese donkey does not descend from the Asian, but from the African wild ass, precisely its Nubian (E. africanus africanus) and Somali lineages (E. africanus somaliensis). The same studies propose that domestic donkeys in China were first raised in the area of modern Xīnjiāng, and later spread (1) via Níngxià and Gānsù to the Guānzhōng Plains (lit. the region ‘between the passes’, guān zhōng 關中), Shǎnxī, (2) to the areas of Inner Mongolia and Yúnnán, and (3) from the Guānzhōng Plains to other regions of China (Lei Chuzhao et al. 2007). The first introduction is believed to have taken place before the Hàn period (202 BCE–220 CE, cf. Han Lu et al. 2014: 7–8). Little, however, is known about whence and when domesticated donkeys expanded into China.

2.1 Data and Methods

In order to elaborate on this question, we compiled archaeozoological, archaeological as well as art historical and textual evidence related to the presence of donkeys from across China in chronological order, specifying the site location, remain type, and estimated age (see the Appendix: Table 1). In total, we found evidence reported from 36 archaeological sites. The time range considered encompasses finds dating from the late first millennium BCE to the Táng dynasty, i.e. the time from the first appearance of domesticated donkeys in northern China until their full integration into Chinese society across modern-day northern and central China as valued beast of burden. The dataset further includes nine sites with donkey-related finds from Central and Western Asia as well as Northeast Africa which are relevant for the discussion on the origin and dispersal of domesticated donkeys. The earliest donkey skeletons so far were found at Abydos in the Egyptian Nile River Delta and dated to approximately 5500 years ago (Table 1, no. 14). These donkeys were used as pack animals (Rossel et al. 2008; Hu Songmei et al. 2020: 456). The domesticated donkey was commonly used before horses in Mesopotamia and Egypt (Clutton-Brock 1992: 65). One of the earliest depictions of what is presumably a kunga5 pulling wagons into battle is shown on the Standard of Ur from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, modern Iraq, dated to around 2500 BCE (Table 1, no. 16, Greenfield et al. 2018; Mitchell 2018: 90–91, plate 9). These early finds indicate that domesticated donkeys gradually spread from Northeast Africa across Eurasia and eventually reached as far east as China.

The compiled data were mainly extracted from archaeological reports. The archaeozoological finds comprise donkey remains ranging from singular bones to complete skeletons. For most finds listed, there is no detailed description or in-depth analysis in the reports, which makes the identification of an animal as wild or domesticated well-nigh impossible. It is hoped that future studies will reinvestigate these finds and shed new light onto this discussion. The archaeological data suggesting domestication include gear (e.g. bits, saddlebag fastenings, stirrups) related to the use of donkeys as either pack, riding, or draught animals. The art historical evidence comprises depictions on seals, stone reliefs, and mural paintings as well as bronze ornaments and pottery sculptures. It should be noted, however, that this type of evidence is often problematic. Certain features such as long ears may imply that a depicted equine is a donkey rather than a horse. However, given that these depictions are often not very naturalistic, this identification cannot always be taken for granted.

Historical data for the presence of donkeys in China are culled from epigraphic sources as well as transmitted literature. The earliest clear textual evidence can be traced to the late third century BCE (cf. section 2.3). While most of the passages relate to the state of Qín , other border states connected to the northern and north-western regions of modern China seem to have highly valued the foreign equine as well. Concerning the representation of donkeys or wild asses in historical sources, a few problems should be pointed out: First, given that neither the donkey nor the wild ass enjoyed a cultural status comparable to that of the horse in the Chinese realm, it is rarely mentioned in texts. Early Chinese textual sources, epigraphical and transmitted, often have a ritual or religious background: Bronze inscriptions are mostly concerned with investiture, ancestor veneration and sacrifices, gift lists, or other “genres”, more often than not, created to ritually legitimize the polit- ical mandate of the Zhōu royal house or one of its sub-lineages. The oldest transmitted literature is dominated by ritual hymns and edited popular songs (e.g. the “Classic of Poetry” Shījīng 詩經), legends, myths, and political speeches (e.g. the “Classic of Documents” Shàngshū 尚書; cf. Kern, 2009) and by depictions of administrative measures (reflected, e.g., in the Hàn text “Notes on Etiquette” Lǐjì 禮記).6 The donkey, which probably was still a rare sight by the time of the formation of the Zhōu literary canon, did not become part of the official customs. Thus, even if donkeys existed in China already during the early Eastern Zhōu period (eighth c. BCE), they were not likely to be mentioned in texts. Nonetheless, the donkey was probably valued for its strength and tenacity after its introduction; and so, it may have been of certain economic importance in the ‘Central Plains’ (zhōng yuán 中原), i.e. the North China Plain around the Middle and Lower reaches of the Yellow River. However, apart from historical accounts about the reign of Hàn Wǔdì 漢武帝 (141–87 BCE), when donkeys were extensively used for the transport of goods through the arid regions in the northwest, the importance of the donkey is rarely stressed in textual sources. Second, although donkeys and mules are occasionally mentioned in texts referring to the Warring States period (ca. 475– 221 BCE),7 most data come from transmitted literature which is fraught with problems of textual layering, precise dating and must be approached with great caution, especially when it comes to distinguishing between different terms for the animal(s) in question. Moreover, it may be assumed that different names for donkeys, wild asses, mules, hinnies etc. existed throughout history, many of which were never fixed in writing. It is a well-established fact in the etymological literature on zoonyms that semantic shifts changed the reference of certain names for equids, donkeys, and their hybrid offspring. Judging from the extant textual attestations, e.g., a clear distinction between and luó , referring to ‘donkey’ and to ‘mule’ respectively, appears to be uncertain in Chinese documents predating the Hàn period.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Map indicating records of donkey remains from the time of the late Pleistocene to the Neolithic (c.1600 BCE): 1-Dīngcūn 丁村, 2-Sālāwūsū 薩拉烏蘇, 3-Língjǐng 靈井, 4-Làochíhé 澇池河, 5-Shāndǐngdòng 山頂洞, 6-Xiǎonánhǎi dòngxué 小南海洞穴, 7-Zhìyù 峙峪, 8-Gǔlóngshān 古龍山, 9-Yánjiāgǎng 閻家崗, 10-Yúshù 榆樹, 11-Xǔjiāyáo 許家窑, 12-Dàbàgōu 大壩溝, 13-Godin Tepe, 14-Abydos, 15-Tell eṣ-Ṣâfi / Gath, 16-Royal Cemetery at Ur, 17-Kish, 18-Tell-Brak, 19-Gonur Tepe, 20-Qínwèijiā 秦魏家, 21-Pirak, 22-Tell Haror

Citation: International Journal of Eurasian Linguistics 6, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/25898833-20240058

Map: P. Wertmann / QGIS

2.2 Wild Donkeys (E. asinus) in China from the Late Pleistocene to the Beginning of the Shāng Period (1600 BCE)

Biologically, two types of wild donkeys are attested, i.e. the ‘Asian wild donkey’ (E. hemionus) and the ‘African wild donkey’ (E. asinus). The published fossil finds show that the Asian wild donkey (E. hemionus) was widespread across northern China from very early on (see Table 1, Fig. 1). The earliest finds classified as Asian wild donkey date to the late Pleistocene (ca. 130,000–25,000 BP). These finds comprise mainly teeth and singular bones, some of which show signs of burning or chopping, hence indicating the possible use of wild donkeys as a food resource (Olsen 1988: 161; Lǐ Zhànyáng and Dǒng Wèi 2007: 355). As mentioned previously, recent mtDNA-studies on both modern and ancient donkey remains from China show, however, that the modern Chinese donkey does not descend from the Asian, but from the African wild ass, more precisely from its Nubian and Somali lineage (Lei Chuzhao et al. 2007; Han Lu et al. 2014). The same studies propose that the domesticated donkey was introduced into China sometime before the Hàn period and that the first domestication event took place somewhere in Xīnjiāng, from where the animal spread eastwards to the Guānzhōng Plains via today’s Níngxià and Gānsù provinces (Lei Chuzhao et al. 2007: 651; Han Lu et al. 2014: 7–8). Given the scarcity of actual donkey finds, the lack of detailed descriptions and in-depth analyses, however, it is still difficult to state with certainty when and via which route the descendants of the African wild donkey first reached China.

So far, there are no Neolithic finds of wild donkey remains reported from the Chinese Central Plains. Outside of this area, five bones of one donkey identified as E. hemionus and roughly dated to the late Yǎngsháo 仰韶 period (ca. 3800–3000 BCE) were excavated at the Dàbàgōu 大壩溝 site (Table 1, no. 12) in present-day Inner Mongolia (Huáng Yùnpíng 2003: 598–599). These bones were found as kitchen debris in an ash pit. Another find of bones simply described as “donkey” in the excavation report was found at the Qíjiā 齊家 culture (ca. 2000–1600 BCE) site of Qínwèijiā 秦魏家 (Table 1, no. 20) in modern Gānsù (IACAS Gansu Team 1975: 88).

2.3 Shāng (1600–1046 BCE) – Warring States (475–221 BCE) Periods (Fig. 2)

Around the time of the mid-Shāng period (1450–1300 BCE), bones ascribed to one E. hemionus were found at the Zhāngyíng 張營 site (Table 1, no. 23) close to Běijīng. Signs of chopping observed on the bones indicate that this donkey was eaten (Huáng Yùnpíng 2007: 256, 261; Yuán Jìng 2015: 109). A second find of one singular donkey bone was reported from the Shífódòng 石佛洞 site (Table 1, no. 24) in Yúnnán (Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology et al. 2010: 355). So far, however, there is no clear description of this find.

Throughout the first millennium BCE, the only find of actual donkey remains is reported for the Shājǐng 沙井 culture cemetery site of Hámadūn 蛤蟆墩 (Table 1, no. 25) in Yǒngchāng 永昌 county, north-central Gānsù province. This site is dated approximately between the ninth and eighth centuries BCE, i.e. to the late Western Zhōu period in traditional Chinese historiography, and associated with the putatively Indo-European speaking Yuèzhī 月氏 people8 based on the age and its area of distribution (Gansu Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology 1990: 232–233). Apart from bones of sheep, grave 9 revealed the hoof and toe bone of a donkey (Gansu Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology 1990: 235). Given that there is no detailed analysis of these bones, it is impossible to state whether they belonged to a wild or domesticated individual. Such caveats notwithstanding, Flad et al. (2007: 194) suggest that this find might indicate the use of domesticated donkeys in the Héxī 河西 Corridor in Northwest China before they appeared in Central China during the later Hàn period.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Map indicating records of donkey remains from the Shāng period (1600– 1046 BCE) to the Warring States period (475–221 BCE): 23-Zhǎngyíng 張營, 24-Shífódòng 石佛洞, 25-Hámádūn 蛤蟆墩, 26-Zāgǔnlúkè 紮滾魯克, 27-Persepolis, 28-È’ěrduōsī 鄂爾多斯, 29-Yángláng 楊郎, 30-Fàngmǎtān 放馬灘, 31-Yuánshā gǔchéng 圓沙古城

Citation: International Journal of Eurasian Linguistics 6, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/25898833-20240058

Map: P. Wertmann / QGIS

Art historical evidence on the presence of donkeys comes from the Ordos region of modern Inner Mongolia (Table 1, no. 28) in the form of bronze ornaments dated approximately between the sixth and second centuries BCE. Among the items from the collection of the Ordos Museum is a bronze pendant in the shape of a lying donkey and chariot fittings topped by standing donkeys (e.g. Ordos Museum 2006: 251, 309, 314). Whether the depicted individuals are wild or domesticated is, again, unclear. The mere fact that they are shown, however, confirms that donkeys were present in this area and must have been of a certain economic or cultural importance. Both the Hámadūn site and the Ordos region were located outside the Chinese core area at that time. Nevertheless, early relations between the peoples from the North and the Northwest and the Chinese in the South, involving, for example, the exchange of beads, had already existed since the beginning of the second millennium BCE (e.g. Janz et al., 2020), may they have been of peaceful or hostile nature. It is possible that northern and north-western areas were among the source regions of the domesticated donkeys referred to in Chinese textual sources.

It is towards the end of the Warring States period (ca. 475–221 BCE) that we find the first written evidence on donkeys in China. There are three textual sources which imply the early presence of donkey-like animals: (1) A ‘daybook’ (rìshū 日書), i.e. a hemerological text from the corpus of the Fàngmǎtān 放馬灘 manuscripts, (2) a passage in the chapter ‘Caring for Ministers’ (“Àishì” 愛士) of the “Annals of Mr. Lǚ” (Lǚshì Chūnqiū 呂氏春秋), and finally (3) the ‘Petition against the Expulsion of Guest Advisers’ (Jiàn zhúkè shū 諫逐客書), a remonstration document by the famous minister Lǐ Sī 李斯 (284–208 BCE) against the edict of his ruler, the King of Qín, Yíng Zhèng 嬴政 (r. 247–222/222–210 BCE), to expel all advisers originating from other states. This text was transmitted in the Shǐjì 史記, the first Chinese narrative history completed by the second century BCE (Hulsewé 1993). Below we will provide some more detail on each of these early attestations.

(1) The oldest Chinese textual evidence of a word which most likely refers to the donkey or alternatively to the wild ass is found in a manuscript from tomb no. 1 at the Fàngmǎtān site (Table 1, no. 30) and dates approximately to the late third century BCE.9 The manuscript FMTB 80 is a manual which allots different animals to their corresponding period of the day and to a musical pitch in the then prevalent cosmological correlation scheme (cf. Liu Lexian 2017: 67–69). The parallel structure of the daybook, which lists said periods over twelve days with the adequate bell to strike and each corresponding animal,10 allows to identify the character *C-ra (usually ‘gate, entryway’) as a transcription of a foreign animal term. Like it is the case for many of the thirty-six animals mentioned in this document, however, it is not entirely clear if actually corresponds to the later Chinese term for donkey ( *ra) (cf. Chéng Shǎoxuān and Jiǎng Wén 2009). Luckily, the passage describes the animal in question as having a very donkey-like appearance: it has a long face, a long forehead, rabbit-like ears, and a whitish-pale (bái xī 白皙) colour which could be related to the fur of the animal11 (Chéng Shǎoxuān 2013: 284):

In the time frame from noon to sunset [of the seventh day], strike into the middle of the ruí bīn 蕤賓 bell, corresponding to donkey ( *C-ra),12 i.e. long face, long forehead, rabbit-ears and […]-like gate. White and pale, it is good in case of sick … [body part13 ]14

日中至日入投中蕤賓:閭(驢)殹長面長頤免耳□□=殹。白皙, 善病

“Huángzhōng”, Fàngmǎtān FMTB 80

In the correspondence scheme, the donkey shares the seventh day period with the horse (sunrise to noon) and a possibly equid-like beast with a pointy face and large ears, whose name is unfortunately not transmitted due to damage to the manuscript. Considering the location of the Fàngmǎtān site several hundred kilometres west of the Qín capital at Xiányáng 咸陽 and not far from the western border of the empire now located in Gānsù province, it can be assumed that the people in this region were familiar with wild asses and had access to donkeys somewhat earlier than the people in the Central Plains.

(2) The second pre-imperial text referring to donkey-like animals is a passage from the “Annals of Mr. Lǚ” conventionally dated to 239 BCE.15 Two white luó are described as precious beasts belonging to Zhào Jiǎnzǐ 趙簡子, a high official of the State of Jìn in and around present-day Shānxī 山西. Despite their high value, one is slaughtered in order to obtain its liver to cure a man from a fatal illness:

Zhào Jiǎnzǐ had two white luó which he loved a lot. Xūqú from Yángchéng was stationed in the Office of the Broad Gate. One night, someone knocked at [Jiǎnzǐ’s] door and brought forth his plea: “Xūqú, a minister of You, my Lord, contracted an acute illness and the healer told him: ‘If you obtain the liver of a white luó [as medicine], the sickness will then be stopped, (but) if you do not obtain it, you will die.’” The suppliant entered and made himself clear. Dōng Ānyú who stood guard at [Jiǎnzǐ’s] side, said angrily: “Ha, this Xūqú! Since the guy expects a luó from my Lord, allow me to inflict capital punishment upon him.” Jiǎnzǐ said: “Now, wouldn’t that be as inhumane to kill a man in order to let a domestic animal live, as it would be inhumane to kill a domestic animal in order to let a man live?” Then, he called the butcher to kill [one of the] white luó, take out the liver and bring it to Xūqú from Yángchéng. Not long after that had happened, Zhào raised troops and attacked the . The seven hundred men of the left and the seven hundred men of the right flank of the Office of the Broad Gate all rose at the front and took the heads of the armoured soldiers. How could the ruler of the people not be fond of [such] knights?


“Àishì” 愛士, Lǚshì chūnqiū 8: 191–193

The passage implies that apart from the state of Qín, the nobility of the state of Jìn also appreciated special kinds of equines. While it cannot be entirely asserted whether the luó mentioned in this text were actually designations of donkeys or mules, the later use of the word as well as its phonetic similarity with the word for donkey (cf. Part II section 4.4) seem to imply this. The fact that these animals – whether donkeys or mules – are described as white is of interest. They might have had a similar fur colour as the referred to in the Fàngmǎtān manuscript. There is a possibility that the or luó could also refer to wild Asian asses, which have a light fur colour, when the term was first introduced. Also notice that the similarly named equids in both texts seem to have had an important medical use.16 While the Fàngmǎtān manuscript slip could imply a totem-like function of the animal which was conjured up by a healer in order to treat a hurting body part, in the passage from the “Annals of Mr. Lǚ” the liver of the animal had to be eaten.17 Like the first textual piece of evidence, this text reflects a presence of donkeys or donkey-like animals in peripheral states like Qín and Jìn towards the end of the Warring States period. Both areas were close to the Héxī Corridor which connected the Guānzhōng Plains with the Tarim Basin, from where the donkeys most probably were introduced to China.

(3) The presence of donkeys or its related hybrid breeds in the state of Qín might be implied by another source, a petition written by chancellor Lǐ Sī 李斯 to the ruler of Qín in 237 BCE. The Qín ruler, and later first emperor of China of terracotta army fame, wanted to dismiss all advisers which were not of Qín origin. To illustrate the benefits of importing and employing foreign commodities and talents, the chancellor presented a long list of treasures from outside of the Qín state to change the ruler’s mind. Among other imported luxury products, the text lists ‘noble and fine juétí(jùn liáng juétí 駿良駃騠), which were precious imports from the North (Wáng Zǐjīn 2013: 83).

Today Your Highness covets nephrite jade from Mount Kūn, has the treasures of [count] Suí and [Biàn] Hé, hangs bright-moon-pearls [at his hat rim], adorns himself with the sword called Tài’ē; he harnesses horses like the [legendary] xiānlí, installs flags made of green phoenix [i.e. king fisher] feathers, and erects drums made of spirit crocodile skin. Among these numerous treasures, [our] Qín state does not produce even one of them, so what Your Highness is stating – how should it work out? If [the rule] only allowed if produced by the State of Qín [is applied], then this luminous jade disk would not adorn the audience hall, the trinkets made from rhino horn and ebony would not serve as toys and favourite gems, the beauties of Zhèng and Wèi would not fill your private palace, and the fine and noble juétí would not be present in your outer stables, the tin bronze of Jiāngnán would not be used, the cinnabar and cyan-colour from western Shǔ would not serve as colours. Whereby those from the inner palace who fill the terrasses are adorned, what pleasures heart and mind and delights ears and eyes – if they would have to come from Qín to be allowed, this hairpin made with pearls from Wǎn, the earrings made with baroque pearls, the robes manufactured in Dōng’é, and ornaments of brocade embroidery would not come before [You], and those beautiful and graceful girls from Zhào, who have become transformed to the better through our customs, would not stand at [Your] sides.

今陛下致昆山之玉,有隨、和之寶,垂明月之珠,服太阿 之劍,乘纖離之馬,建翠鳳之旗,樹靈鼉之鼓。此數寶者,秦不生一焉,而陛下說之,何也?必秦國之所生然後可,則是夜光之璧不飾朝廷,犀象之器不為玩好,鄭、衛之女不充後宮,而駿良駃騠不實外廄,江南金錫不為用,西蜀丹青不為采。所以飾後宮充下陳娛心意說耳目者,必出於秦然後可,則是宛珠之簪,傅璣之珥,阿縞 之衣,錦繡之飾不進於前,而隨俗雅化佳冶窈窕趙女不立於側也。

“Lǐ Sī lièzhuàn” 李斯列傳, Shǐjì 87: 2543

The passage reflects treasures (including desirable humans) from major regions of the Eastern Zhōu realm and beyond: beautiful women from Zhèng and Wèi and competent servant girls from Zhào, as well as robes from Qí. As precious things from regions further south-east, the jade once found by the Duke of Suí, hairpins adorned with pearls from Wǎn, tin-alloyed bronze from the southern regions beyond the Yangtze, the legendary sword “Tài’ē”, made by Gān Jiàng 干將, a skilled sword smith in the half-sinicized south-eastern coastal state of Yuè , and the pearl once found by [Biàn] Hé in south-central state of Chǔ are mentioned. Furthermore, the region of Shǔ in present-day Sìchuān, to the southwest of the Qín state, seems to have played a major role in providing precious dyes. Among all these products, only the jade from the Kūnlún 崑崙 Mountains, possibly the xiānlí horse, which has been identified with Dǎolí 盜驪,18 one of the eight legendary horses of King Mù 穆天子 (r. tenth c. BCE), and the so-called juétí equids which were kept in the outer stables of the king are mentioned as treasures from the north. While it is not entirely clear what kind of animals these juétí were, the context and parallel passages might help to pinpoint some of their characteristics. A parallel passage in the “Biography of Sū Qín” 蘇秦列傳 in the Shǐjì mentions that “the outer stables have to be filled with camels and good horses from the Yān [state] and the Dài [commandery]”,19 if the ruler of Chǔ would join the alliance against the state of Qín. More parallels are found in the “Stratagems of the Warring States” (Zhànguócè 戰國策), a collection of exemplary stratagems from the Warring States period compiled by Liú Xiàng 劉向 (77–6 BCE) (cf. Tsien 1993), where “dogs and horses fill the outer stables” (Zhànguócè 11: 382), and in the “Discourses on Salt and Iron”20 (Yántiělùn 鹽鐵論), a text which is based on a court debate on state monopolies and various further controversial issues in 81 BCE (cf. Loewe 1993). The fact that ‘special animals’ (qí wù 奇物) like “táotú 騊駼 and juétí 駃騠 equids reside in the outer stables”21 is apparently mentioned in this text as a sign of prosperity under the rule of Hàn Wǔdì. The figurative description of a rich and influential ruling house as having palace halls and stables full of foreign treasures may have become an idiomatic expression by the Western Hàn Period (25–220 CE), and Lǐ Sī’s remonstration was probably not transmitted word by word to the authors of the Shǐjì. In any case, it is noteworthy that juétí equids are pointed out as treasured animals of the Qín ruler, which is corroborated by a passage from the Stratagems of the Warring States which praises the qualities of Qín military horses as follows:

The good qualities of the horses of Qín [entail that] in the hubbub of armed troops, they lounge forward and kick backwards. Since there is a distance of three xún [arm spans] between their hooves, they cannot be outnumbered.


“The account of how Zhāng Yí persuaded the King of Hán in favour of the alliance with Qín” 張儀為秦連橫說韓王, Zhànguócè 26: 817–818

Although this passage describes horses without specifying their type, the original “Qín designation” for the animal seems to be reflected in a paronomastic gloss: The horse which kicks (jué *[k]ʷˤret-s) backwards, thereby reaching a surprising large distance between its hooves ( *l̥ek) is most probably a clever folk etymology to describe and motivate the enigmatic term juétí 駃騠 (kwet-dej < *[k]ʷˤet-[d]ˤe). According to the Shuōwén jiězì 說文 解字, the first comprehensive list of Chinese characters compiled and presented to the throne around 100 CE, a juétí was a “mule” born from a male horse and a female donkey, i.e. a hinny. While it is not entirely clear whether the word already carried this special meaning in the Qín period, the likelihood that the juétí was in fact related to the donkey is quite high: In contrast to horses which kick arbitrarily while shying away, donkeys – as well as their hybrid relatives – have the ability to aim their kicks and also control the strength applied. A muscular build which is different from their horse relative allows them to not only kick backwards but in all four directions, even if one hoof is held up (Burnham 2002: 102). Egami (1951: 91–98) thought it was unreasonable to identify the beast in question with a mule mainly because these equids seem to have been considered as especially valuable at the Qín court and they have been described to have amazing jumping abilities. He comes to the conclusion that juétí must have been a fine Aryan horse breed. Jensen (1936: 142) mentions August Conrady’s (1864–1925) idea to connect the Chinese word to an Old Indian expression *kuṇḍī which could be related to words like gunth, kunt (Kashmiri gunt) ‘mountain horse’. This word for the special horse breed seems to be present at least since the Mughal period (1526–1761) when they served as primary means of transportation in the mountainous areas. They were found in Kashmir, Ghorghat, and Kumaun in Mughal India (Anjum 2013: 279).22 The Old Indian form given by Conrady, however, is unfortunately not attested in the literature. There is only a lexicalized term kuṇḍin ‘horse’ (lit. ‘furnished with a pitcher’) to be found in Sanskrit dictionaries. It is listed along with the variants kindhin and kilkin and all of them seem to be of unclear etymology (Monier-Williams 1899: s.vv.). Mayrhofer (1953–1980: 1.226 [#1693]) simply accepts Conrady’s theory and assumes that the term must be a borrowing in Chinese and in Sanskrit from a language spoken in the western Himalayan region. In Pāli, we seem to find a better explanation for the word: khanti(-soraccaṁ) (‘patience and gentleness’), related to Skt. kṣānti (‘patience’), is used to describe a quality of a horse. It is related to P. khama (Skt. kṣam) ‘patient, enduring’, which has been used to describe the qualities of a king’s horse (Rhys Davids 1921–25: 263). Interestingly, no one seems to have proposed a connection to Skt. kuṇḍa ‘son of a woman by another man than her husband while the husband is alive’. If the juétí was not some special mountain horse breed, but in fact the offspring of a mare who had an extra species affair with a donkey jack, the name would fit very well. Frühauf (2006: 15) simply states that the word juétí implied all kinds of equids – from wild horse to hinny – in different sources. Accordingly, he did not decide on its specific meaning but only defined it as a hypernym for horses of a special type. Pulleyblank (1962: 2.245–246) on the other hand suspects a northern origin of the word, linking it to the Yeniseian general equid term related to Ket kus, Kot huś, Pumpokol kut, kus, which is in line with his theory, inherited from Ligeti (1950) and, more recently supported by Dul’zon (1968) and Vovin (2000), that the Xiōngnú 匈奴 language is related to this ancient Central Siberian language family.

Regardless of the actual meaning of juétí, there is good reason to consider its relation to the mule, since many of its characteristics could have made it a superior breed in the eyes of the Qín nobility: For instance, its donkey-like muscular body structure does not only allow for precise kicking, but also enables the animal to jump over high obstacles from a standing position.23 This trait may be reflected in later exaggerating commentaries which stated that the juétí foal is able to jump over its mother three or seven days after its birth (Egami 1951: 90). Furthermore, the hybrid breeds have proven to have higher cognitive abilities than their parent animals, a trait which has been identified as part of their so-called hybrid vigour (cf. Proops et al. 2009). This increased intelligence – along with a hoof form more similar to the donkey’s – leads to an exceptional skill to move through difficult terrain like the mountainous regions around the Qín state, as they actually calculate their steps. But the same intellect makes them less submissive than horses and donkeys and highly focused on their owner, whence they are much harder to educate and difficult to handle for someone other than the owner (McLean et al. 2019: 2.5). Even more than donkeys, mules and hinnies can carry heavy loads and are extremely enduring even if they can only get inferior fodder (Nibbi, 1979: 167). In contrast to donkeys, however, the hybrid breeds thrive in colder and especially wetter weather since they seem to mainly inherit the water repellent hair structure from their horse parent: A study by Osthaus et al. (2018) showed a considerably thicker diameter of hair in mules, although this result must be considered with caution since the number of tested individuals is low (n = 8).24 Considering all these points, the mule could very well have been a desirable equine breed in the late Warring States period. Since the precious beasts could only be bred in areas where donkeys thrived as well, they became known as special beasts of the Xiōngnú during the Hàn.

As to the presence of donkeys or donkey-like animals at the Qín court during the final years of the Warring States period, Hàn textual sources imply that they were delivered from the north. Wáng Zǐjīn (2013: 84) points out a connection between the domesticated animal called juétí and the Wūzhī 烏氏 (*qˤa-k.deʔ), a clan of the ‘Western Róng’ (Xī Róng 西戎) settling in the Āndìng 安定 region in today’s Gānsù province, thus living between the Qín capital and the Héxī Corridor. The Wūzhī were part of the eight Western Róng clans which were subdued by the Qín during the reign of Duke Mù (683–621 BCE) (see Shǐjì 110: 2883–2884). It is therefore well imaginable that they paid their tributes in the form of juétí equines to the Qín rulers. According to the “Account on the Multiplication of Commodities”25 (Huòzhí lièzhuàn 貨殖列傳), a collection of biographies of people who were successful in their business in the Shǐjì, when Luǒ26 , a herdsman of the Wūzhī, raised a lot of domestic animals and sold them off to the Qín ruler, he attained ‘rare silk wares’ (qí zēng wù 奇繒物), which he in turn gave to the king of the Róng as tribute. The king was very pleased with them and gave him even more domestic animals to raise. Thanks to these, Luǒ received an official position at the court of the First Emperor of Qín (Shǐjì 129: 3260–3261).

In this context, an essay from the “Drafts in four sections from Yānzhōu” (Yānzhōu sìbù gǎo 弇州四部稿)27 by the Míng historian Wáng Shìzhēn 王世貞 (1526–1590) is of interest. He describes a manuscript by the title “Measurements” (Duǎncháng 短長) found while ploughing the fields in the Qí region (Qí zhī yě 齊之野) in modern northern Shāndōng. By comparing it with the official records, Wáng concluded that the manuscript refers to affairs which took place sometime between the Warring States period and the beginning of the Hàn. Among the passages relating to the time of the First Emperor of Qín additional information about the person called Luǒ can be found:

Luǒ from Wū sent 2528 juétí which he had raised and ten camels29 as tribute. And the First Emperor gave him some territory (ōu tuō 甌脫)30 of the Róng king as a fief and let him compete against the nobles when reporting to the morning audience.

烏倮以所畜駃騠百足,槖駞十雙獻。而始皇封之戎王之甌脫,使比列侯以 朝。

Yānzhōu sìbùgǎo 142: 21a

Although this passage may well have been altered by Wáng Shìzhēn’s own interpretations, it still presents a possible parallel tradition to the passages found in the Shǐjì and in the “Book of Han” (Hànshū 漢書), the standard historiography of the Western Hàn period completed in 111 CE. Especially the information that Luǒ did not simply provide the First Emperor with ‘common domestic animals’ like horses and cattle, as it is implied in the official records, but with juétí and camels, most probably originated from the “Measurements” manuscript itself. The fact that these juétí are classified as ‘domesticated’ (suǒ xù juétí 所畜駃騠) may well imply that there were also wild juétí in the border region (Wáng Zǐjīn 2013: 84) or – in case that juétí were in fact mules – that the animals had to be educated for a long time in order to be used, which made them especially expensive.

In summary, the earliest Chinese historical sources mentioning donkey-like animals are all related to the northern regions and closely associated with the state of Qín. According to Wáng Zǐjīn (2013), it was during the Qín dynasty that donkeys – or donkey-like animals – were first introduced to the Central Plains. Considering the evidence from the “Annals of Mr. Lǚ” and the Fàngmǎtān daybook manuscript, it can be safely assumed that donkeys had already been known before the unification under the First Emperor at least in the northern parts of the Zhōu realm. Furthermore, there is ample reason to believe that mules were successively introduced to China before donkeys became popular.

2.4 Hàn Period (202 BCE–220 CE) (Fig. 3)

Archaeological and art historical evidence on the presence of donkeys in China from the time of the Hàn period is very limited. So far, the only reported discovery of actual donkeys from this period was made in 2001 inside the auxiliary burial pit no. 2 of the Pínglíng 平陵 Mausoleum (Table 1, no. 33) associated with Emperor Zhào (r. 94–74 BCE), the youngest son of Hàn Wǔdì. This burial pit comprised a total of 54 vaulted chambers, each of which included the remains of one sacrificed animal. Apart from the skeletons of 33 camels and eleven heads of cattle, ten neatly placed skeletons of domesticated donkeys were counted (Yuán Jìng 2007: 94; 2015: 108–109). So far, no special analysis of these bones has been published. The source of domesticated donkeys such as those from the Pínglíng Mausoleum might be found in the area inhabited by the Xiōngnú people. Art historical evidence on the presence of donkeys from the Western Hàn period appears to be found on a pictorial tomb brick from Zōu county in Shāndōng province (Table 1, no. 34). It depicts a fighting scene between an unmistakeable tiger and a long-eared animal resembling a donkey (Sūn Jī 2016: 75–76).

Figure 3
Figure 3

Map indicating records of donkey remains from the Hàn period (202 BCE–220 CE): 30-Fàngmǎtān 放馬灘, 31-Yuánshā gǔchéng 圓沙古城, 32-Xuánquán 懸泉, 33-Pínglíng 平陵 Mausoleum, 34-Wángqū 王屈

Citation: International Journal of Eurasian Linguistics 6, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/25898833-20240058

Map: P. Wertmann / QGIS

In contrast to the scarce archaeological evidence of donkeys, various textual sources reflect that donkeys became an increasingly common sight in China by the beginning of the first century BCE. Both the Shǐjì and the “Book of Hàn” often describe them as reliable pack and draught animals, just like camels31 or cattle. Especially in regions with difficult terrains, such as deserts and steep mountain valleys, donkeys were used for transport (see Dōngguān Hàn jì 東觀漢記 9: 287).32 Following the unsuccessful expedition to Ferghana in 104 BCE, Hàn Wǔdì ordered the dispatchment of several tens of thousands of cattle, horses, ‘donkeys and mules’ (lǘ luó 驢驘) as well as camels from Dūnhuáng敦煌 in order to provide the Hàn soldiers and workers with staple food and weapons during the second expedition in 102 BCE (Shǐjì 123: 3176). The importance of ‘mules and donkeys’ (luó lǘ 騾驢33 ) is further mentioned in the “Book of Later Hàn” (Hòu Hànshū 後漢書).34 However, even during the reign of Hàn Wǔdì, donkeys and donkey-like equines were still mainly bred by the northern peoples and regarded as one of the ‘exceptional domesticated animals’ (qí chù 奇畜) raised by the Xiōngnú. Apart from camels this label was used for three further types of equines, including the juétí 駃騠, which was most probably a breed related to the donkey as explained in the previous section, the táotú 騊駼, and the diānxí 驒騱35 (Shǐjì 110: 2879). According to a passage from the “Discourses on Salt and Iron” mules and donkeys were bought in great numbers from the Xiōngnú at a rather cheap price:

Now, with a single bolt (duān) of plain silk fabric from the Central States region, we attain commodities from the Xiōngnú which are worth a fortune and diminish their use in the enemy kingdoms. This way, mules, donkeys, and camels, entering one after another from beyond the pass (= from the territories in the north-western deserts), diānxí and Ferghana horses are completely turned into our domestic animals (…)

夫中國一端之縵,得匈奴累金之物,而損敵國之用。是以騾驢 馲駝,銜尾入塞,驒騱騵馬,盡為我畜 […]

“Lì Gēng” 力耕, Yántiělùn 1: 28

Donkeys seem to have been extensively bred in the mountainous region to the northwest of China. In the “Book of Hàn” the kingdom of Wūchá 烏秅 (*qˁa-dˁra36 ) is described as a place where people raise donkeys instead of cattle:37

In the kingdom of Wūchá, the king reigns from the city Wūchá; it is 9950 miles away from Cháng’ān. [There are] 490 households, 2733 inhabitants, 740 [of them] are ready to serve as soldiers. Towards the northeast until the [next] administrative centre of the protectorate there is a distance of 4892 miles. To the north it is linked with Zǐhé (tsiX-kop < *tsəʔ-gop) and Púlí (bu-lej < *bˤa-[r]ˤ[i]j), to the west it is connected to Nándōu (nan-tuw < *nˤar-tˤo). It is a mountainous region for living, between fields and boulders. ‘White grass’ grows there. They construct their houses by piling up stones. The people drink with their hands. They breed horses with a small-stepped gait and keep donkeys, [but] no cattle.

烏秅國,王治烏秅城,去長安九千九百五十里。戶四百 九十,口二千七百三十三,勝兵七百四十人。東北至都護治所四千八百九十二里,北與子合、蒲犁,西與難兜接。山居,田石間。有白草。累石為室。民接手飲。出小步馬,有驢無牛。

Hànshū 96A: 3882

Apart from their characterization as domestic animals bred by the northern peoples, donkeys were considered part of the natural fauna of the northern regions alongside other equids, as can be seen in Sīmǎ Xiāngrú’s 司馬 相如 (179–117 BCE) “Rhapsody on the Imperial forest” (“Shànglín fù” 上林賦, Shǐjì 117: 3025–3026).38 During the Hàn dynasty, the use of donkeys had not only expanded beyond the northern regions, but the animal was now promoted as a useful beast of burden as far south as the region of the former Kingdom of Chǔ.39 The “Songs of Chǔ” (Chǔcí 楚辭) depict the donkey as a useful, but rather slow draft animal referred to as jiǎn lǘ 蹇驢, lit. the ‘lame donkey’.40 Alternatively, the word ‘lame’ (jiǎn kjenX < *kranʔ) may simply result from a transliteration of a term related to Tibetan rkyang ‘horse, equid; wild ass’, thus the term itself does not necessarily carry a negative connotation. On the contrary, the word jiǎn, also written with the classifier ‘to speak’ (yán ) as jiǎn 𧬯 or jiǎn ‘to stutter’, has been interpreted as a local expression for ‘a loyal and steadfast way of speaking’ (Liào Fāng 2019: 117). Following this semantic trajectory, the donkey could be understood as an animal ‘stuttering with its feet’, but in fact, jiǎnlǘ seems to have been the standard designation for the animal in the Chǔ tradition. The only case where jiǎn is omitted in the “Songs of Chǔ” happens to be in combination with luó ‘grebe’ (i.e. a water bird belonging to the species podicedidae), which clearly has to be read as luó ‘donkey, mule’. It is very likely that the word for ‘(Tibetan) wild ass’ had been introduced to the area of the Chǔ state before domesticated donkeys from the north came into use, which led to a hybrid neologism combining both the Tibetan term (jiǎn ) and the designation which had become popular in northern China ( ). By the Eastern Hàn (25–220 CE), during the first decades of the common era, however, the southern way of calling the donkey was seen as a compound in which the first constituent modifies the second. This can be seen in the “Records of the darkness in the cavern [of Emperor Hàn Wǔdì]” (Dòngmíng jì 洞冥記), which is attributed to Guō Xiàn 郭憲 (26 BCE–55 CE). There, a stubborn horse is described as an ‘incompetent and lame donkey’ (nújiǎn zhī lǘ 駑蹇之驢, Dòngmíngjì 2: 6a), clearly marking the attributed modifier with the subordination particle zhī . In the “Songs of Chǔ” as well as in other Hàn literature, the donkey is usually regarded as inferior to the horse. Under the Hàn the image of the donkey and donkey-like animals apparently shifted towards the negative and their former noble image gradually got lost. This development may have been caused by the greater availability of donkeys in China along with their strong association with the Xiōngnú. Another possible influence consists in the influx of Iranian stereotypes which stigmatized the donkey as a “dumb” animal (cf. Part II section 3.6).

However, the use of donkeys as draught animals in front of racing chariots was still a popular leisure activity during the later Hàn dynasty. Emperor Líng (r. 168–189 CE), for example, was known to have driven his chariot with a team of four white donkeys.41 This kind of eccentric behaviour is harshly criticized in the first “treatise” (zhì ) of the “Book of Later Hàn”. Although donkeys were known for their ability to carry heavy weights and walk far distances, they were rather slow and therefore considered unworthy of appreciation at court (Hòu Hànshū 8: 346). While being very important as transport animals in military affairs and for redistribution of commodities in territories void of paved roads (Hòu Hànshū 58: 1869), they were gradually regarded as beasts of the poor and of ‘rustic people’ (yě rén 野人) (Hòu Hànshū 103: 3272). The association of donkeys with mountainous regions seems to be older, as it is already reflected in the chapter “Foundations of the Way” (Dào jī 道基) in the “New Discourses” (Xīnyǔ 新語), a text commissioned by Liú Bāng 劉邦 (r. 202–195 BCE), the first emperor of the Western Hàn dynasty, to consolidate his rule.42 Here, ‘mules’ or ‘donkeys and mules’ (lǘ luó 驢騾) are listed among

the treasures from the mountains, thus they were not yet considered inferior equids (Xīnyǔ shàng 1: 23–24).

By the end of the Hàn period, the inferiority of donkeys seems to be deeply manifested as their characteristics were used in similes to allude to stubborn people who burdened the government:

In accordance with the intentions of Heaven, one might say the following: Now, that the state is in great disorder, worthy and stupid are reversed, all those who hold the power of government are like donkeys.


Hòu Hànshū 103: 3272

Contrary to the transmitted literature, excavated manuscripts from the Hàn commanderies located in the modern areas of Gānsù and Xīnjiāng draw a completely different picture of donkeys and mules. In these regions, they seem to have been valued as precious beasts used for transportation very similar to horses. Just like horses, donkeys and mules are counted with the numeral classifier in the Xuánquán manuscripts (Table 1, no. 27) – compare Xuánquán ms. I 90DXT0112(3).12, I 90DXT0110(2).45. Furthermore, the character appears in combinations like yǐn zūn lǘ 尹尊驢 ‘donkey of the venerable official, (I 90DXT0116(2).111) and guān lǘ 官驢 ‘official donkey’ (I 90DXT0112(3).12), which reflect the importance of donkeys in state affairs of the north-western regions of the Hàn empire. Based on the inscription on wooden strip I 90DXT0116(2).111, donkeys appear to have received more food than ‘privately owned horses’ (sī mǎ 私馬). All this leads to the assumption that at least in the north-western border regions, donkeys enjoyed a similar, if not even higher, status than horses, and received similar veterinary treatments (cf. I 90DXT0116(2).126). There are, however, also differences: Unlike horses, donkeys were recorded in inventory lists in a similar fashion to cows, including only remarks on their age based on the condition of their teeth (I 90DXT0112(3).12), with neither personal names, nor any categorization according to their appearance or sex. An exception can be found on strip I 90DXT0114(1).67+17 featuring the term zǐ mǔ lǘ 子母驢 which may refer to a particular type of donkey:

In Shèběi, ten heads of cattle and two ( of) zǐmǔ-donkeys were held on pastures. They were borrowed until the second month of the fourth year of the jiànpíng era [3 BCE].


I 90DXT0114(1).67+17

The attribute zǐmǔ possibly defines the two donkeys as female donkeys which had already given birth to a foal and therefore were able to produce milk. It is possible that the female donkeys were pastured in order to breed more donkeys or possibly hinnies by pairing them with stallions. A ‘mule’ (luó ) is mentioned on a wooden tag with a string attached to its indented end (I 90DXT0110(2).45). It is also counted with the numeral classifier commonly used for horses ( ). Along with the mule, certain ‘guòzhuī horns’ (guòzhuī jiǎo 騅角; kwa-tsywij kaewk < *kwˤaj-tur C.[k]ˤrok)43 are mentioned, which were likely procured outside of the border region. The tag might have originally been fixed to the products to be traded for the precious equid and the horns. Since horns belong to typical products of pastoral people who attain them either from hunts or from their herds, the mule was possibly reared by non-Chinese people.

2.5 The Early Medieval Age until the Táng Period (618–907 BCE) (Figs. 4–5)

Despite the overall scarcity of actual donkey finds for the period following the Hàn up to the Táng (618–907 CE), it seems clear that domesticated donkeys were now widespread across China. Seven donkey bones belonging to two individuals, described as domesticated donkey (E. asinus), were discovered at the site of Áodōng 敖東 city (Table 1, no. 35) in Dūnhuà 敦化 county, Jílín province (Zhào Hǎilóng and Chén Quánjiā 2006: 53; Yuán Jìng 2015: 109). This site is dated to the late Jìn dynasty (ca. 265–420 CE) and believed to be the remains of the first capital of the Bóhǎi 渤海 state. The bones show signs of burning, indicating that these donkeys were eaten.

Figure 4
Figure 4

Map indicating records of donkey remains from the time of the Early Medieval Age until the Táng period (618–907 BCE): 35-Áodōng 敖東 city, 36-Tomb of Yuán Shào 元邵, 37-Tomb of Hóu Yì 侯義, 38-Joint tomb of Lǐ Xián 李賢 and his wife, 39-Tomb of Gāo Rùn 高潤, 40-Tomb of Ān Jiā 安伽

Citation: International Journal of Eurasian Linguistics 6, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/25898833-20240058

Map: P. Wertmann / QGIS
Figure 5
Figure 5

Map indicating records of donkey remains from the Táng period (618–907 BCE): 41-Mògāokù 莫高窟, 42-Shílǐpù 十里鋪, 43-Xiǎotǔmén 小土門, 44-Tomb of Lady Cuī , 45-Bǎizīkèlǐkè 柏孜克里克

Citation: International Journal of Eurasian Linguistics 6, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/25898833-20240058

Map: P. Wertmann / QGIS

Most of the evidence indicating the presence of domesticated donkeys during the time from the early medieval period through the Táng period is of art historical nature. In particular, donkeys in the form of pottery sculptures typically equipped with a saddle and at times loaded with bags of unknown goods were excavated from Northern Dynasties (439–589 CE) tombs distributed across North and Northwest China including Héběi, Hénán, Shǎnxī and Níngxià provinces (Table 1, nos. 36–39). Further evidence includes, for example, a depiction on the funerary couch ascribed to the Sogdian merchant Ān Jiā 安伽 (died 579 CE) discovered in the northern suburbs of Xī’ān (Table 1, no. 40). In all these instances, donkeys are depicted as hardworking pack or riding animals, sometimes alongside merchants, to transport goods and people along the ancient Silk Road network.

Textual sources of this period describe the donkey as an essential part of domestic and political life. This change in the textual evidence may have resulted from the growing influence of northern lifestyle after the fall of the Hàn dynasty, but it was probably also due to the vernacular character of some texts written during the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (third–sixth c. CE). The “Records of the Three Kingdoms” (Sānguó zhì 三國志) by Chén Shòu 陳壽 (233–297 CE) present donkeys and mules as important assets in times of war where they were used as draft animals along with cattle and horses (Sānguó zhì 58: 1348–1349). Chariots and draft animals were among the most important booties after victorious battles. Donkeys could be easily ridden, used as pack animals, or yoked to chariots for the transportation of heavier loads, and even be rented at lodgings (Shìshuō xīnyǔ 3A: 864).44 They still served as valued pack animals in high mountain valleys with steep slopes unreachable for chariots and boats. The use of donkeys for transportation in perilous terrain is well illustrated in a passage from the “Commentary on the Classic of Waterways” (Shuǐ jīng zhù 水經註)45 describing a very dangerous passage leading from Jū county to Xiàbiàn 下辨 on the route between Cháng’ān and the Sìchuān basin, on which only one out of five pack donkeys and horses would reach its destiny (Shuǐ jīng zhù 20: 483).

Literary sources created during the centuries following the fall of the Hàn dynasty mention donkeys as typical domestic animals, the use of which was not restricted by the state in contrast to horses (see Creel 1965).46 A story in the “Biographies of Deities and Immortals” (Shénxiàn zhuàn 神仙傳)47 depicts what might have made up a common Chinese household during early medieval times in the third or fourth century CE: A householder (and his assumed wife and children) possessing a donkey, ten sheep, as well as one male and one female slave (Shénxiàn zhuàn 2: 50). It can be assumed that donkeys, mules, and hinnies were raised in the Central Plains in the period before the reunification under the Suí dynasty in 581 CE, as reflected, for example, in a passage from “The master embracing simplicity”:48

A dull person does therefore not believe that lead oxide and lead carbonate are made from transforming lead. They do also not believe that both the mule (luó) and the hinny (jùxū) are born from a donkey and a horse.

愚人乃不信黃丹及胡粉,是化鉛所作。又不信騾及駏驉,是驢 馬所生。

“Lùnxiān” 論仙, Bàopǔzǐ Nèipiān 2.5

There is currently no archaeological evidence on the presence of mules or hinnies in China. Considering that they are the offspring of both donkeys and horses, it is, however, likely that they were present in China after the donkey had become widespread. Yuán Jìng (2015: 109–110) concludes that they should have been present at least since the Warring States period as indicated by the passage from the “Annals of Mr. Lǚ” and by the reference in the Shǐjì stating that the Xiōngnú people already domesticated mules and used them as riding animals cited above.

Despite its practical function, the reputation of donkeys had not improved significantly since it seems to have lost its esteem during the Hàn period from the second century BCE onward. With a single exception, Gě Hóng describes donkeys as slow equids, inferior to horses. The following passage even depicts its low potential spreading to otherwise noble horses:

Alas, when a fine horse is yoked and bound (to a wagon), then it is by no means different from a lame donkey.


“Rènmìng” 任命, Bàopǔzǐ Wàipiān 19: 473

Another passage from the ‘Content with Poverty’ (“Ān Pín” 安貧) chapter remarks that even fine horses lose their effectiveness when they are used among a group of donkeys (Bàopǔzǐ Wàipiān 36: 212–213). In the increasingly vernacular literature of the Early Medieval period, the donkey became subject of jokes and mainly negative similes. Like in Gě Hóng’s text, donkeys were portrayed as being inferior to horses in metaphors as reflected, for example, in the elegant, but also provocative, answer of Zhūgě Lìng to Chancellor Wáng’s question about the way their names used to be called, which is recorded in the Shìshuō xīnyǔ:

Zhūgě Lìng and Chancellor Wáng were debating on the succession of their clan names. Wáng said: “Why do we not speak of Gě and then Wáng, but it is always Wáng and then Gě?”. Lìng said: “It is the same when we speak of ‘donkeys and horses’, but we do not say ‘horses and donkeys’, how could it be that donkeys surpass horses?”


Shìshuō xīnyǔ 3B: 929

This passage seems to play with the way the modifier always precedes the modified. Zhūgě Lìng thus chooses to answer by mentioning the collective term lǘmǎ 驢馬, i.e. ‘donkeys and horses’, which could also be read as ‘horses among which there are donkeys’ to present himself as more powerful.

There are several passages in the transmitted literature which reflect the bad image of the donkey in the Early Medieval period. The term ‘donkey foal’ along with ‘piglet’ appears in the “Family Instructions for the Yǎn Clan” (Yǎnshì jiāxùn 顏氏家訓) (cf. Teng 1968) as a typical pejorative term for toddlers used in the ‘northern regions’ (běi tǔ 北土), i.e. the regions north of the Yellow River (Yǎnshì jiāxùn 2: 67). Furthermore, the donkey was either mentioned as an object of amusement or as a metaphor for dull and voracious officials. Interestingly, there is no passage referring to the most conspicuous body part of the donkey, i.e. its long ears. Rather, it is noted for its strangely elongated face: In the “Records of the Three Kingdoms” a donkey is used to poke fun at the strange facial proportions of Zhūgě Kè’s 諸葛恪 father, Zhūgě Jǐn 諸葛瑾 (174–241 CE), the brother of the (in)famous strategist Zhūgě Liàng 諸葛亮 (181–234 CE) (Sānguó zhì 64: 1429). The donkey as a symbol of dullness seems also evident in the “Master of the Golden Tower”. In the ‘Quick retorts’ (“Jiéduì” 捷對) chapter, it is used to criticize officials who did not look up from their food when an important guest entered:

When the phoenix comes to the morning audience, the Qílín feeds him. But the simple-minded donkey (chún lǘ 純驢) does not realize it, because he bends over his food like before.


Jīnlóuzǐ 5: 1121

However, there are also some positive stories about the donkey. It is for example mentioned for its wondrous bray in the “New Accounts on the Tales of the World”. According to this passage, Wáng Zhòngxuān 王仲宣 enjoyed listening to braying donkeys so much in life that the mourning party imitated them at his funeral to please his spirit (Shìshuō xīnyǔ 3A: 748). Even Gě Hóng, who commonly describes donkeys as inferior to horses, presents a donkey (jiǎn lǘ 蹇驢) in the most positive way as an analogy for the preciousness of an advice coming from a person who has ‘perceived the four (truths) and reached the eight (goals)’ (sì tōng bā dá zhě 四通八達者) (Bàopǔzǐ Wàipiān 27: 46).

During the Táng period (Fig. 5), domestic donkeys became widespread across China primarily to meet the demand for the expansion of trade (as pack and draught animals, Han Lu et al. 2014). It is from the time of the late Táng period that we have the best studied ancient remains of domesticated donkeys so far, i.e. from a grave discovered in Qǔjiāng 曲江, Shǎnxī province (Table 1, no. 44) (Xi’an Municipal Institute of Cultural Heritage Conservation and Archaeology 2018; Hu Songmei et al. 2020). Given the presence of an epitaph stone, the tomb could be ascribed to a Lady Cuī (d. 878 CE), wife of Gāo Bǎo 高寶, governor of the Jīngyuán 涇源 and Zhènhǎi 鎮海 prefectures. Gāo Bǎo is in fact not an unknown person. He is mentioned in the “New History of the Táng” (Xīn Tángshū 新唐書), which was commissioned by Sòng emperor Rénzōng 仁宗 in 1044 CE, as an excellent polo player esteemed by Emperor Xīzōng 僖宗 (r. 873–888 CE). Found were the bones of three domesticated donkeys (E. asinus). The investigation of two teeth revealed the origin of Chinese donkeys from the African wild ass mentioned earlier: one sample could be genetically linked to a Somali lineage, the other to a Nubian lineage (Han Lu et al. 2014: 7). The isotopic analysis further revealed details concerning the diet of the animals, which consisted of millet.

It is known from historical sources that donkeys were used as pack or draught animals during the Táng period, but they also became increasingly popular as mounts for ‘donkey polo’ (lǘ jū 驢鞠), especially among elite women. Diem (1982: 141), quoting Berthold Laufer (1932: 13), states that a large breeding farm for polo donkeys existed in present-day Shāndōng province. The discovery of donkey bones in the tomb of Lady Cuī is unprecedented. While donkeys are usually associated with lower social status, it appears that Lady Cuī was especially fond of her donkeys and the related polo game. The analysis of the donkey bones from the tomb of Lady Cuī showed that these donkeys were rather small animals, they had unusual locomotion patterns, and they were well fed. The donkey’s small stature led the investigators to the suggestion that they were not necessarily used as labour animals. The additional find of a stirrup inside the tomb chamber further indicates that these donkeys were ridden. It stands to reason that Lady Cuī was so fond of her donkeys, and possibly of donkey polo, that they accompanied her to her afterlife.

Apart from this discovery, most of the evidence on the presence of domesticated donkeys in China during the Táng period is again of art historical nature, including pottery figurines (Table 1, no. 42–43) and depictions in mural paintings, for example, inside cave 45 at Mògāo 莫高, Dūnhuáng or in cave 20 at the Bezeklik 柏孜克里克 Thousand Buddha Caves in Turfan (Table 1, no. 41, 45). As in the earlier examples, donkeys are depicted as hardworking pack or riding animals, alongside travellers, to transport goods and people along the ancient Silk Road network.

2.6 Interim Discussion: How the Donkey Fared in China

As seen in this Part I, there is not enough archaeological data to narrow down the time frame during which domestic donkeys were initially introduced to China. Moreover, the earliest Chinese textual attestations of the donkey are somewhat ambiguous: The Fàngmǎtān manuscript displays the name of an equid which describes a donkey-like animal and is obviously a transcription. It also points out that the beast has pale white fur, a complexion which better matches the wild Asian ass, than the generally darker domestic donkey. It is of course possible, that the assumed natural fair colouration of the fur was a direct consequence of a regional cultural preference for white-coloured animals.49 Foreign animals, like donkeys and mules, to be gifted to the northern states during the Eastern Zhōu period were possibly often picked for their whitish fur, as they were considered more valuable. The two white luó equids in the stable of Zhào Jiǎnzǐ might have been a precious gift from the areas north to the state of Jìn. In all likelihood, donkeys and their hybrid relatives were introduced multiple times at different places towards the end of the Warring States period, which led to a broad landscape of designations for the foreign equids (cf. Part II section 4). Furthermore, the early occurrence of the mule, called luó or juétí, must be regarded as an important factor for the introduction of donkeys to China. It was not before the Hàn that donkeys started to become more well-known in the North China Plain and in more southern areas. While donkeys were greatly valued for transportation in arid and desert areas as well as over uneven terrain, in the Central Plains they were increasingly known as poor man horses. In the period from the Jìn to the Táng, the donkey appears in a wider variety of contexts. Even though it is often described as a rather slow and strange equid, its importance as means of transport features clearly in art historical material and transmitted literature. Finally, Lady Cuī’s grave highlights another aspect of the introduction of donkeys to China: the role it played for women. The question about how donkeys influenced every day and leisure activities of women, such as polo, even before the Táng period is a topic to be examined in the future. Part II along with the total list of references will be published in the JEAL issue 2024(2).


Table 1
Table 1
Table 1
Table 1
Table 1
Table 1

Records of early donkey remains from China, North Africa, West and Central Asia

Citation: International Journal of Eurasian Linguistics 6, 1 (2024) ; 10.1163/25898833-20240058


For a general introduction to the historic documents of this area see Matney (2012: 567–568). For donkey-related studies cf. Barjamovic (2018); Brodie (2008).


Most ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia seem to have contained some form of local or sedentary pastoralism (cf. Arbuckle and Hammer 2019).


Obviously, donkeys also played an important role in China after the Táng dynasty and their use extends well into the modern period. See e.g. Chen (2011) on the meaning of a donkey’s bray in early Medieval China; Sturman (1995) for an art historical insight into the symbolism of donkey riders during the Five Dynasties period (907–960 CE); Shahar (2017) for a discussion of donkeys during the late imperial and modern Northern China; Eli (2010) about donkey trade in modern Kashgar.


All Middle Chinese (MC) transcriptions follow the principles outlined in Baxter (1992). Old Chinese (*OC) reconstructions follow the newer system proposed in Baxter and Sagart (2014). Middle Chinese transcriptions are always given in cursive script while Old Chinese reconstructions are indicated by *.


As recently shown by paleogenetic analysis, kungas – widely used in Mesopotamia before the introduction of horses towards the end of the third millennium BCE – are the offspring of a female domesticated donkey and a male Syrian wild ass or hemippe (Equus hemionus hemippus), cf. Benett et al. (2022). The identification as a donkey x onager hybrid in the Royal Ur panel, however, is not undisputed (cf. Maekawa 1979: 47–48, n. 13; Sheratt 1983: 96; Way 2011: 148; Grigson 2012: 189, 148).


For a short introduction to the text as well as bibliographical references, see Riegel 1993.


Based on our present knowledge, the only evident pre-Qín manuscript containing a word for donkey is dated to the late third century BCE, i.e. towards the end of the Warring States period.


The question regarding the linguistic and ethnic identification of the Yuèzhī people is heavily debated and cannot be further discussed here. For standard overviews of the available evidence and theories see for example Haloun (1937), Pulleyblank (1966), Zürcher (1969), Enoki et al. (1994), Liu Xinru (2001), Thierry (2005), and Benjamin (2007).


The dating of the manuscripts and the tomb relies on the reference of the ‘eighth year’ in the resurrection account which is also part of the same corpus of manuscripts as the passage containing the oldest mention of the donkey. The precise date is highly disputed; the tomb could also have been created during the Qín period (Thote 2017: 24).


For an overview of the text passage mentioning the 36 animals which correspond to the time intervals from sunrise to noon, noon to sunset and sunset to early morning see Chéng Shǎoxuān (2013: 282–290).


The corresponding colour of the donkeys mentioned in the Fàngmǎtān ms. matches better with wild Asian donkeys which are of a pale brown coloration, than with the domesticated donkey originating from northern Africa.


is a dialectal variant of the copula or nominal predication marker typically seen in pre-dynastic and early dynastic manuscripts from Qín (Ônishi 2001; Liú Bīngqīng 2022). Due to the context and to its semantic dimension ‘to echo, to resound’, the nominal sentences ending in seem to strengthen the idea of a correspondance or “resonance” between the bell, the animal and its favourable effects on the human body.


Parallel lines of the daybook mention sick organs or body parts which can be cured or at least ameliorated (shàn ) through the animal (spirit?) called forth by striking a specific bell in the right moment.


Translations are our own, unless marked otherwise.


The textual evidence in the “Annals of Mr. Lǚ” is of special interest since, unlike with most other early Chinese texts, the scholarly consensus that its contents predate the Qín period and the conventional date of its compilation in 239 BCE are rather strong, cf. Carson and Loewe (1993), Páng Huì (2014), Gǔ Liàng (2020: 102–103). For a good philosophical discussion on the dating problem see Sato (2021).


Pharmaceutical uses of donkeys in China, first described in Europe in 17th century Jesuit sources, especially the production of ‘donkey hide gelatin’ (ējiāo 阿膠) in traditional medicine continues unabated. Over recent years, the vast demand in donkey skin as a pharmaceutical ingredient (Johnston 2023a) or as a widely consumed “healthy living” snack bar called gùyuán gāo 固元膏 (‘base-solidifying paste’), has lead to a 7.8 billion US dollar donkey trade between Africa and China in 2020 (Johnston 2023b). China now consumes 10% of the world donkey population per year, which has seriously endangered some donkey populations, criminalized the trade and dramatically impoverished rural African herders (Peltier et al. 2024). Donkey skin trade was consequently banned at the 37th Ordinary Session of the African Union Assembly (Feb 17–18, 2024) in Addis Ababa (Gil 2024).


Interestingly, in both cases the “consumption” of the donkey was not considered a common activity. Even during the Hàn, when donkeys presumably became more popular in the Central Plains, the consumption of donkey meat was subjected to specific rules and precautions as described in the “Essential Prescriptions from the Golden Cabinet” (Jīnkuì yàolüè 金匱要略 10: 212). Furthermore, the Shǐjì (83: 2471–2472) uses the image of eating juétí 駃騠 meat, an animal possibly related to the donkey (see section 2.3), as an allegory for extreme wastefulness.


For a discussion of a possible connection between xiānlí and dǎolí see Frühauf (2006: 29–30).


Yān, Dài tuótuó liáng mǎ bì shí wài jiù 燕、代橐駝良馬必實外廄 (Shǐjì 69: 2261).


For a partial English translation (ch. 1–28) of the “Discourses on Salt and Iron” see Gale (1931).


Táotú, juétí, shí yú wài jiù 騊駼駃騠,實於外廄 (Yǎntiělùn 3: 190).


On horse trade in Mughal India cf. Anjum (2012).


While there are not many scientific studies about the mule’s jumping ability, it is annually proven in various mule jumping events across the United States of America, where mules were first taught to jump fences to facilitate racoon hunting. Some interesting studies, which are related to the special abilities of mules, were conducted on the topic of hybrid vigour (Hanot et al. 2019) and the fitness of working mules (Silva et al. 2018).


Since donkeys originate from the desert area, they have a weakness against parasites and worms which thrive in wetlands (Gebreab 2004: 51). Thus, it must have been rather difficult to maintain the animal’s health in Central and especially southern China after its introduction. For the same reason, donkeys were only introduced in sub-Saharan Africa in the early or even mid-twentieth century (Goulder 2016: 2). Similar to the situation in modern West Africa, it is possible that donkeys were systematically bred in the arid north to be sold to the southern regions where the animal’s fertility was much lower and where it suffered from humidity-related diseases, unsuitable foodstuff and cultures unused to donkey management, effectively leading to shorter lifespans (Goulder 2018: 84).


The title has been interpreted as “Biographies of Wealthy Merchants” by L’ Haridon (2015), but as she points out herself, the term huò zhí 貨殖 actually refers more to the activity of accumulating wealth than to the people who were involved in trade.


The parallel passage of the “Book of Han” (Hànshū 漢書 91: 3685) writes his name as Luó . The reconstructed form of either variants is identical with the reconstruction for the word luó which might have originally been a word for ‘donkey’ and became the standard expression for ‘mule’ in the second century BCE (see Part II section 4.4). The person famous for raising juétí was thus himself called Asinus!


This text is recorded as Yānzhōu sìbùgǎo in the “Complete Library of the four treasuries” (Sìkù quánshū 四庫全書), which was compiled between 1773 and 1782. It is also known as Yānzhōu shānrén sìbùgǎo 弇州山人四部稿.


Bǎi zú 百足 ‘one hundred feet’, elsewhere an alternative designation of the ‘millipede’ (mǎlù 馬陸), is clearly used as a measure word counting juétí here, like in Shǐjì (129: 3272–3273), where it counts sheep and pigs (cf. Lǐ Zōngchè 2004: 19). This usage has not been confirmed by excavated manuscripts so far (cf. Zhāng Xiànchéng and Lǐ Jiànpíng 2017: 373–383) and it was apparently already superseded in the medieval period (Liú Shìrú 1965 does not treat the word). Like ‘hoof’ used as a measure word with the same range of objects as during the Hàn period and later, did not get fully desemanticized such that the counted objects have to be divided by four (feet, hoofs; see Cáo Fāngyú 2010: 123), whence juétí bǎizú 駃騠百足 means ‘25 juétí’.


Interestingly, the camels are counted in ‘pairs’ (shuāng ). This does probably not imply that Luo sent twenty camels, but rather points to the camel’s feature of having two humps.


The passage describes that an ōutuō 甌脫 of the Róng king was enfeoffed to Luǒ, thus it has been translated as ‘territories’ here. However, since the Róng followed a mostly pastural way of life and Luǒ himself as equid breeder did probably not really require a fixed estate, it is very likely that a foreign, pastoral way of enfeoffment was employed by the first emperor of China. The practice can be recognized as foreign because ōutuō 甌脫 is apparently a Xiōngnú word. There are many uncertainties about the exact meaning of ōutuō as well as about its etymology, which are discussed among Chinese commentators since Hàn times. While Yán Shīgǔ 顏師古 (581–645 CE) and others interpreted the word as some kind of palace or building, Jìn Zhuó 晉灼 (265–316 CE), one of the major commentators of Hàn dynastic historiographical works, read it as a title for border defence officers among the Xiōngnú (Chén Xiǎowěi 2016: 6). In the 1920s, Shiratori Kurakichi proposed a connection between the uncertain term and various Turkic words which can be related to Proto-Turkic *otag ‘room’ (lit. ‘a place by the fire’ [Proto-Turkic *ot]. Chén Zōngzhèn 陳宗振 (1989) tried to link ōutuō 甌脫 (’uw-twat) with Turkic word ortu ‘in between’ and explained it as expression for border regions, i.e. buffer zones in between the Xiōngnú and Chinese sphere of influence. For more information about the discussion of ōutuō cf. Liú Wénxìng (1985), Zhāng Yún (1987), É’ěrdé Mùtǔ and Gāo Yùhǔ (1988), Hé Xīngliàng (1988), Hú Ālāténgwūlā (1990), Lǐ Huànqīng and Wáng Yǎnhuī (2009), Hóu Pīxūn and Shàng Jìfāng (2015).


Different writing variants for a possibly camel-related word appear already in Eastern Zhōu period bronze inscriptions. Many variants of the word for camel are found in transmitted literature, e.g. tuótuó 橐他,tuótuó 橐駝,tuótuó 橐它,tuótuó 槖駝, etc. (cf. Huáng Jǐnqián 2016), all to be reconstructed as thak-tha < *tʰˤak-l̥ˤaj. However, possible expressions for the donkey do not seem to be mentioned in a similar fashion.


The “Hàn Records of the Eastern Lodge” (Dōngguān Hàn jì 東觀漢記) is a highly fragmented account on the history of the Eastern Hàn period, which was compiled over a long time and subsequently recompiled in five instalments between 22 and 220 CE until it reached a length of 143 chapters. Most of the work was lost during the following centuries. The version transmitted until today was reconstructed in the 18th century and only counts 24 chapters (Bielenstein and Loewe 1993). Fortunately, the “Hàn Records of the Eastern Lodge” served as a primary source for the “Book of the Later Hàn” (Hòu Hànshū 後漢書) by Fàn Yè 范曄 (398–446) where much of its content is being transmitted; cf. Bielenstein (1954).


The terms identified as ‘donkeys and mules’ (lǘ luó 驢驘, luó lǘ 騾驢) may originally have been disyllabic terms meaning ‘donkey’ or ‘donkey-like animal’. The term is further explained in Part II section 4.4.


The “Book of Later Hàn” has been compiled by Fàn Yè and covers the official history of the Eastern Hàn period. A first comprehensive translation into English is currently being undertaken by Curtis Wright (2022–). The content of and circumstances around Fàn Yè’s compilation of the work are the focus of a recent special issue in Monumenta Serica 67.1 (2019).


The táotú equid has been described as an animal which has the appearance of a horse and lives in the region north of China (Shānhaǐjīng 8: 4913). Egami (1951: 103–111) already discussed the term and related it to the wild horse Equus Przewalskii Plyakoff. He showed its possible connection to the toponym Táotú 陶塗, which is in turn related to the ‘region on the back’, i.e. the North (cf. Sagart 2004), and provided an explanation why the term was confused with the term for wild asses. The meaning of diānxí is very vague and its relation to Mongolian tax ‘wild horse’ and/or rGyalrong terge ‘mule’ remains to be clarified. For some preliminary thoughts see Part II section 4.5.


The character chá (drae < *dˁra) has the alternative reading (tuH < *tˤaʔ-s). According to the commentary of the “Comprehensive Institutions” (Tōngdiǎn 通典), a historiographical work written by Dù Yòu 杜佑 between 766 CE to 801 CE, the character should be pronounced as dae < *N-traj. Chavannes (1903: 175) assumed that chá was most probably the reading closest to the original pronunciation of the place name, as it is also seen in the alternative writing shā (sreat < *sat) by Xuánzàng 玄奘 (602–664 CE).


Hill (2009: 208–214) argues that the kingdom of Wūchá was probably situated in the Upper Hunza valley and the Tāghdumbāsh Pamir, a high valley located in today’s southern Xīnjīang.


The prosimetric poem has been translated into German by von Zach (1958: 108–117) and into English by Knechtges (1987: 73–114).


Notice, however, that none of the earlier sections compiled in the Chǔcí refers to the donkey. The animal is only mentioned in the Miùjiàn 謬諫 and the Zhūzhào 株昭 of the Jiǔhuái 九懷 chapter as ‘lame donkey’ and in the Mǐnmìng 愍命 of the Jiǔgē 九歌 chapter it is called along with the character luó (Miùjiàn 253, Zhūzhào 279, Jiǔhuái 302). For further information regarding the dating of different songs in the Chǔcí cf. Sukhu (2017: Appendix) and Starostin (1989: 447–451).


In “The Master embracing simplicity” (Bàopǔzǐ 抱樸子), which was written during the Jìn period (300–343 CE) by Gě Hóng 葛洪 (282–343 CE), jiǎn lǘ is clearly mentioned as an animal which is not exceedingly swift (“Jīndān” 金丹, Bàopǔzǐ Nèipiān 4: 72). It is not surprising to find this parallel between the Chǔcí and the Bàopǔzǐ, since the author originated from the region east-southeast of modern Nánjīng (in Jiāngsū province) and was inspired by Chǔ literature (Campany, 2005: 221). For more on the Bàopǔzǐ 抱樸子 as a text cf. footnote 48).


This narrative was reproduced and expanded during the Early Medieval period. In the chapter on “Advises and Warnings” (Zhēnjiè 箴戒) of the “Master of the Golden Tower” (Jīnlóuzǐ 金樓子), which was compiled in 553 by the seventh son of Liáng Emperor Wǔ 梁武帝 (r. 502–549 CE), Xiāo Yì 蕭繹 (508–555 CE), Hàn emperor Líng is rumoured to have been very fond of donkeys, raising several hundreds of them and riding them in the capital. Sometimes he supposedly drove in a chariot drawn by four donkeys to the marketplace (Tian Xiaofei 2006: 478–479).


The “New Discourses” have been recently translated into English by Goldin and Sabattini (2020).


Unfortunately, the term guòzhuī jiǎo seems to be a hapax legomenon in the extant Chinese corpus. Horns from ‘piebald horses’ (guāzhuī 騧騅) could have been horns with a special pattern believed to originate from horse-like animals. The idea, that there must be horse-like creatures with horns on top of their heads is well represented in descriptions of various horned beasts found in the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” (Shānhǎijīng 山海經). Interestingly, all these creatures carry only one horn. Around the area of Wǔwēi 武威, a neighbouring commandery of Xuánquán 懸泉, statuettes of horned four-hooved creatures have been found. It is possible that the person writing the tally for the products to be exchanged for the mule and the horns assumed the horns to originate from the head of a special kind of equid.


The “New Accounts on the Tales of the World” (Shìshuō xīnyǔ 世說新語) have been translated into English by Richard B. Mather (1976).


The “Commentary on the Classics of Waterways”, also simply called “Commentary of the Water Classic”, has been extensively studied in turns of its content, function, and tradition by Hüsemann (2017).


A passage from the “Family Instructions for the Yǎn clan” (Yǎnshì jiāxùn 顏氏家訓) illustrates that donkeys were a commodity which could be privately traded; it contains the story which led to the modern Chinese idiom ‘writing endlessly without mentioning the key point’ (lit. ‘[writing] three pages without mentioning the donkey’ sān zhǐ wú lǘ 三紙無驢) describing the transaction of a donkey between two households. (Yǎnshì Jiāxùn 3: 177).


The “Biographies of Deities and Immortals” have been translated into English by Robert Ford Campany (2002). Additional critical deliberations on the original content of the book, which was allegedly first compiled in the fourth century CE, are provided in Barrett (2003).


The Bàopǔzǐ 抱朴子 has been transmitted through the ‘Daoist canon’ (Dàozàng 道藏) and a copy of a Sòng dynasty version by Lù Shùnzhì 盧舜治 in the Míng period. From an intratextual perspective, the text seems to reflect Gě Hóng’s attitude to life and philosophy. A special element in the text is the early criticism, but also (unconscious) adaption of Buddhism (Sailey 1978: 509–520).


Note that the fondness for white animals (and also humans) is already reflected in Shāng oracle bone inscription as it has been shown by Wang Tao (2007a; 2007b).

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 150 150 24
PDF Views & Downloads 422 422 82