Were "ugly slaves" in medieval China really ugly?

Author:Chen, Sanping


Those who are versed in medieval Chinese history are likely to have come across the name Chounu !St#X, literally "ugly slave." This personal name or epithet in early medieval China was particularly popular among the lower classes, as attested to in Turfan-Dunhuang onomastics, but was also adopted by a fair number of gentlefolk. (1) The most famous bearer of this name was Moqi Chounu (?-530), a major rebel leader, likely of Xiongnu ancestry, in northern China in the declining years of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-556). (2) It also had a female version, Choubi "ugly slave-girl." (3) This paper challenges the conventional "ugly" interpretation of this and related anthroponyms that once figured prominently in the Central Kingdom, but have since disappeared from Chinese nomenclature. A new interpretation based on inscriptional evidence helps illuminate some intriguing aspects of pre-Islamic Iranian cultural influence in China.


The uncritical "ugly slave" interpretation ascribes "Chounu" to the general genre of opprobrious names. This new social fad emerged in early medieval China, and, in various forms, has survived to this day. I am not aware of a dedicated study of this important social phenomenon in China, and hence a brief summary seems in order.

The presumed motivation for this kind of name is to avoid attracting the unwanted attention of gods, sparing the name-bearers the misfortunes wrought by the gods' wrath or jealousy. These names in China may be roughly divided into two categories: a "worthless" type and an "obnoxious" type, which at times overlapped with each other.

Incidentally, I used to track the origin of these opprobrious names to India. Not only do they still exist in the subcontinent today, but also many Chinese "pig-and-dog" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] opprobrious names appear to belong more to the "obnoxious" than to the "worthless" type. Yet dogs were highly regarded in the pre-Islamic Iranian cultural sphere due to their prominent positive role and image in Zoroastrianism, whereas pigs and dogs were always regarded as lowly life forms in India since ancient times. (4) However, I now believe that the "worthless" type likely had its origin in the Iranian-speaking areas, at least in part. First, dogs seemed to enjoy a status not much higher than pigs did among the Sogdians who played such an important role in bringing foreign culture and products to medieval China. In one of the famous Sogdian Ancient Letters, a deserted wife bitterly cursed her husband thus: "The gods were angry with me on the day when I did your bidding! I would rather be a dog's or a pig's wife than yours!"5 Second, many Chinese opprobrious names appear to have Iranian-Sogdian equivalents as discussed below.

Two popular "worthless" opprobrious names as shown in the Turfan-Dunhuang onomastics are Laza or Yeza "garbage, crap" and Fendui "feces pile." (6) The latter was sometimes euphemized to Fendui "(some sort of) powder pile." These names appear to closely resemble the contemporary "dust" names attested in Central Asia. (7) Another "worthless" group of epithets found in contemporary China follows a "bought on market" format, represented by such names as Shimai "market-bought," Shide "obtained on market," Shinu "market (bought) slave," Mailai "bought," Daomai "bought on roadside," (8) and, much more popularly, Mainu "bought-slave." The last is so widely attested that citations seem unnecessary. Again, similar names and social mores were attested in Iranian-speaking Central Asia and beyond. (9) More decidedly, one such name found in Bactria, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "bought for a stone," reads nearly identical to its Chinese version Shimai. (10) I submit that another popular name Jinu "slave-on-loan," exemplified by the childhood name of the founding emperor Liu Yu (356-422) of the Song 5(5 (420-79), the first of the Southern Dynasties, also belongs in this category. In addition, while these "market-bought" names have long disappeared, a likely legacy can be found in a Chinese version of the "stork brought the baby" folklore. In response to their child's questions regarding the provenance of babies, Chinese parents would often say: "aha, we found you at a market."

The conventional "ugly slave" interpretation would largely assign Chounu to the "obnoxious" type, together with the "pig and dog" variety that one still finds in modern China, now mostly in the form of childhood names of endearment. Another likely candidate we may add to the "obnoxious" list is the name "evil slave." (11)


Like many other cases, Chounu was in fact a leading member of a large group of "ugly" names containing the same character. In addition to many people simply named Chou "ugly," we have Chouzi, Chou'er, Choulang, etc., all "ugly sons/boys," doubtlessly to be matched with Chounu, Chouniang, Chouji, Choujiang, etc., "ugly daughters/girls." (12) Given the multi-ethnic milieu of the time, we also find many a Chouhu "ugly alien" (which, interestingly, had a native counterpart Chouhan "ugly Han Chinese"). (13) Some of these names can be reversed to forms like Langchou "boy ugly," and Huchou, "alien ugly," (14) etc.

For the conventional "ugliness"...

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