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Yue statue.jpg
Statue of a man, from the state of Yue
Chinese name
Vietnamese name
VietnameseBách Vi?t

The Baiyue, Hundred Yue or Yue were various indigenous non-Chinese peoples who inhabited the region stretching along the coastal area from Shandong to southeast China and as far west as the Sichuan Basin between the first millennium BC and the first millennium AD.[1] Meacham (1996:93) notes that, during the Zhou and Han dynasties, the Yue lived in a vast territory from Jiangsu to Yunnan,[2] while Barlow (1997:2) indicates that the Luoyue occupied the southwest Guangxi and northern Vietnam.[3] The Han shu () describes the lands of Yue as stretching from the regions of Kuaiji () to Jiaozhi ().[4] In the Warring States period, the word "Yue" referred to the State of Yue in Zhejiang. The later kingdoms of Minyue in Fujian and Nanyue in Guangdong were both considered Yue states.

The Yue tribes were gradually displaced or assimilated into Chinese culture as the Han empire expanded into what is now Southern China and Northern Vietnam during the first half of the first millennium AD. Many modern southern Chinese dialects bear traces of substrate languages originally spoken by the ancient Yue. Variations of the name are still used for the name of modern Vietnam, in Zhejiang-related names including Yue opera, the Yue Chinese language, and in the abbreviation for Guangdong.


The modern term "Yue" (Chinese: ? or ?; pinyin: Yuè; Cantonese Yale: Yuht; Wade-Giles: Yüeh4; Vietnamese: Vi?t; Early Middle Chinese: Wuat) comes from Old Chinese *at (William H. Baxter and Laurent Sagart 2014).[5] It was first written using the pictograph "?" for an axe (a homophone), in oracle bone and bronze inscriptions of the late Shang dynasty (c. 1200 BC), and later as "?".[6] At that time it referred to a people or chieftain to the northwest of the Shang.[2] In the early 8th century BC, a tribe on the middle Yangtze were called the Yángyuè, a term later used for peoples further south.[2] Between the 7th and 4th centuries BC "Yue" referred to the State of Yue in the lower Yangtze basin and its people.[2][6]

The term "Hundred Yue" first appears in the book Lüshi Chunqiu compiled around 239 BC.[7] It was used as a collective term for many non-Chinese populations of south and southwest China and northern Vietnam.[2]

Ancient texts mention a number of Yue states or groups. Most of these names survived into early imperial times:

Ancient Yue states or groups
Chinese Mandarin Cantonese (Jyutping) Vietnamese Literal English trans.:
/ Y?yuè jyu1 jyut6 ? Vi?t Yue
Yángyuè joeng4 jyut6 Dng Vi?t Yang Yue
M?nyuè man5 jyut6 Mân Vi?t Min Yue
Yèláng je6 long4 D? Lang
Nányuè naam4 jyut6 Nam Vi?t Southern Yue
Sh?nyuè saan1 jyut6 S?n Vi?t Mountain Yue
Luòyuè lok6 jyut6 L?c Vi?t Bird Yue
?uyuè au1 jyut6 Âu Vi?t Jar Yue

Peoples of the lower Yangtze

Sword of Goujian, labelled as belonging to a king of Yue

In the 5th millennium BC, the lower Yangtze area was already a major population centre, occupied by the Hemudu (Austronesian) and Majiabang cultures, who were among the earliest cultivators of rice paddy fields in the fecund delta areas.[8]

By the 3rd millennium BC, the successor Liangzhu culture shows some influence from the Longshan-era cultures due to trade and commerce.[9] However, Y-chromosome DNA from Liangzhu culture sites shows a high frequency of haplogroup O-M119, which is also common among modern Taiwanese aborigines and speakers of Kra-Dai languages (formerly called Tai-Kadai) in southwest China. Wucheng culture sites had a quite different profile, featuring haplogroups O1b1 and O-M122, which are found in several modern populations in east and southeast Asia, especially in Austroasiatic speakers.[10]

Mitsuru Sakitani suggests that haplogroup O1b1 and O1b2, which is common in today Austroasiatic speakers, Koreans, Japanese and some Manchu, are one of the carriers of Yangtze civilization. As the Yangtze civilization declined several tribes crossed westward and northerly, to the Shandong peninsula, the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese archipelago.[11] Another study calls the haplogroup O1b1 as the major Austroasiatic paternal lineage and the haplogroup O1b2 (of Koreans and Japanese) as the "para-Austroasiatic" paternal lineage.[12]

From the 9th century BC, two northern Yue tribes, the Gou-Wu and Yu-Yue, were increasingly influenced by their Chinese neighbours to their north. These two states were based in the areas of what is now southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang, respectively. Traditional accounts attribute the cultural change to Taibo, a Zhou prince who had self-exiled to the south.

The marshy lands of the south gave Gou-Wu and Yu-Yue unique characteristics. According to Robert Marks (2017:142), the Yue lived in what is now Fujian province gained their livelihood mostly from fishing, hunting, and practiced some kind of swidden rice farming.[13] Prior to Han Chinese migration from the north, the Yue tribes cultivated wet rice, practiced fishing and slash and burn agriculture, domesticated water buffalo, built stilt houses, tattooed their faces and dominated the coastal regions from shores all the way to the fertile valleys in the interior mountains.[14][15][16][17][18][19][20] Water transport was paramount in the south, so the two states became advanced in shipbuilding and developed maritime warfare technology mapping trade routes to Eastern coasts of China and Southeast Asia.[21][22] They were also known for their fine swords.

In the Spring and Autumn period, the two states, now called Wu and Yue, were becoming increasingly involved in Chinese politics.

In 512 BC, Wu launched a large expedition against the large state of Chu, based in the Middle Yangtze River. A similar campaign in 506 succeeded in sacking the Chu capital Ying. Also in that year, war broke out between Wu and Yue and continued with breaks for the next three decades. In 473 BC, Goujian finally conquered Wu and was acknowledged by the northern states of Qi and Jin. In 333 BC, Yue was in turn conquered by Chu.[23] After the fall of Yue, the ruling family moved south to what is now Fujian and established the Minyue kingdom.

What set the Yue apart from other Sinitic states of the time was their possession of a navy.[24] Yue culture was also distinct from the Chinese in its practice of naming boats and swords.[25] A Chinese text described the Yue as a people who used boats as their carriages and oars as their horses.[26]

The Yayoi people, the ancient people of Wa, in Japan are genetically and archeologically linked to the early people of the Yangtze-river and share several cultural aspects with them.[27]

Sinicization and displacement

Qin empire and Yue peoples, 210 BC
Southern tribes in pre-Han conquest China and Vietnam

Qin dynasty

After the unification of China by Qin Shi Huang, the former Wu and Yue states were absorbed into the nascent Qin empire. The Qin armies also advanced south along the Xiang River to modern Guangdong and set up commanderies along the main communication routes. Motivated by the region's vast land and valuable exotic products, Emperor Qin Shi Huang is said to send a half of million troops divided into five armies to conquer the lands of the Yue.[28][29][30] The Yue defeated the first attack by Qin troops and killed the Qin commander.[29] A passage from Huai nan tzu of Liu An quoted by Keith Taylor (1991:18) describing the Qin defeat as follows:[31]

The Yue fled into the depths of the mountains and forests, and it was not possible to fight them. The soldiers were kept in the garrisons to watch over abandoned territories. This went on for a long time, and the soldiers went weary. Then the Yue went out and attacked; the Chi'n (Qin) soldiers suffered a great defeat. Subsequently, convicts were sent to hold the garrisons against the Yue.

Afterwards, Qin Shi Huang sent reinforcements to defend against the Yue. By 214 BC, the regions of modern Guangdong, Guangxi and northern Vietnam were subjugated and reorganized into three prefectures within the Qin empire.[32] Qin Shi Huang imposed sinicization by sending a large number of Chinese military agricultural colonists to what are now eastern Guangxi and western Guangdong.[33]


In 208 BC, the Qin Chinese renegade general Zhao Tuo defeated the kingdom of Ou Luo and captured its capital.[29] Towards the end of the Qin dynasty, many peasant rebellions led Zhao Tuo to claim independence from the imperial government and declared himself the emperor of Nanyue in 207 BC. Zhao led the peasants to rise up against the much despised Qinshi Emperor.[34] Zhao established his capital at Panyu (modern Guangzhou) and partitioned his empire into seven provinces.[29] Unlike Emperor Qin Shi Huang, Zhao respected Yue customs, rallied their local rulers, and forced local chiefs to be controlled by central government administrators, but let them continue their old policies and local political traditions.[34] Under Zhao's rule, he encouraged Han Chinese settlers to intermarry with the indigenous Yue tribes through instituting a policy of "Harmonizing and Gathering" while creating a syncretic culture that was a blend of Han and Yue cultures.[29][32]

Han dynasty

Map showing directions of Han attacks on the Yue home region to the south and the Xiongnu territories to the north in 2nd century BC

Following annexation of Nanyue, the Han dynasty set up two outposts which functioned as frontier garrisons.[35] The Han court also established nine commanderies in the former territory of Nanyue and the whole area was made part of the Han dynasty proper.[36] Nanyue was seen as attractive to the Han rulers as they desired to secure the area's maritime trade routes and gain access to luxury goods from the south such as pearls, incense, elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, tortoise shells, coral, parrots, kingfishers, peacocks, and other rare luxuries to satisfy the demands of the Han aristocracy.[37][38][39] Other considerations such as frontier security, revenue from a relatively large agricultural population, and access to tropical commodities all contributed to the Han dynasty's determination to regain control of this region.[40]

Sinicization of Nanyue was brought about by a combination of Han imperial military power, regular settlement and an influx of Han Chinese colonists, refugees, officers and garrisons, merchants, scholars, bureaucrats, fugitives, and prisoners of war.[41] Northern and central China was a theater of imperial dynastic conflict and huge episodes of dynastic conflict sent waves of Han Chinese refugees into the south. Throughout the Qin-Han period, large waves of Han Chinese immigrants from the northern and central plains slowly penetrated southern China.[42][43] The difficulty of logistics and the malarial climate in the south made Han migration and eventual sinicization of the Yue a slow process.[44][45] Describing the contrast in immunity towards malaria between the indigenous Yue and the Chinese immigrants, Robert B. Marks (2017:145-146) writes:[46]

The Yue population in southern China, especially those who lived in the lower reaches of the river valleys, may have had knowledge of the curative value of the "qinghao" plant, and possibly could also have acquired a certain level of immunity to malaria before Han Chinese even appeared on the scene. But for those without acquired immunity--such as Han Chinese migrants from north China--the disease would have been deadly.

After rebellions by Luo (Lac) peoples in 39-43 C.E., direct rule and greater efforts at sinicization were imposed by the Han, the territories of the Luo (Lac) states were annexed and ruled directly, along with other former Yue territories to the north, as provinces of the Han empire.[47] Division among the Yue leaders were exploited by the Han dynasty with the Han military winning battles against the southern kingdoms and commandaries that were of geographic and strategic value to them. Han foreign policy also took advantage of the political turmoil among rival Yue leaders and enticed them with bribes and lured prospects for submitting to the Han Empire as a subordinate vassal.[48]

Motivation of Han dynasty to expand to the southern parts of the present-day China was driven, in part, from a desire to capture the region's exotic and rare goods, the abundance of untapped natural resources as well as securing international maritime trade routes.[49] Continuing internal migration of the Chinese during the Han dynasty eventually brought all the non-Chinese Yue coastal peoples scattered from Fujian to the Red River delta under Chinese political control and cultural influence.[50] As the number of Han Chinese migrants intensified following the annexation of Nanyue, the Yue people were gradually absorbed and driven out into poorer land on the hills and into the mountains.[51][52][53][54][55] Chinese military garrisons showed little patience with the Yue tribes who refused to submit to Han Chinese imperial power and resisted the influx of Han Chinese immigrants, driving them out to the coastal extremities and the highland areas where they became marginal scavengers and outcasts.[56] Han dynasty rulers saw the opportunity offered by the Chinese family agricultural settlements and used it as a tool for colonizing newly conquered regions and transforming those environments.[57]

Traditional Chinese view about the world has it that China was located at the center of the universe, superior to other nations and peoples, and that whose who lived in the peripheral territories were less culturally advanced for their perceived lack of civilization, and thus peripheral peoples were considered as "barbarians".[58] During the Han dynasty, it was advocated that Confucianism be used to re-educate and reform non-Han people as they were believed to be able to be culturally absorbed laihua, "come and be transformed", or hanhua, "become Han".[59] Some administrators of Han sought to "Confucianize" non-Han people of the south under their authority through the additional establishment of Confucianist institutes and schools dedicated towards teaching the texts, philosophies and morality of the north, but at the same time they attacked and put down the traditional spiritual leaders of the southern community who were described as "wu", magicians or shamans.[60]

Large numbers of Yue aborigines were eventually absorbed and assimilated into Chinese population while the remnants of the ancient Yue continue to live in the modern provinces of Zhejiang and Guangdong.[16][61][62][63][64][65][66] Speakers of the Austroasiatic and Kra-Dai languages--in modern China such as the Wa people, Benren, Pakanic, Mangic, Gin people, Zhuang, Nung, Tay, Bouyei, Dai, Sui, Kam, Hlai, Mulam, Anan, Ong Be, Thai, Lao, and Shan--retain their ethnic identities.[16][67][68]


Knowledge of Yue speech is limited to fragmentary references and possible loanwords in other languages, principally Chinese. The longest is the Song of the Yue Boatman, a short song transcribed phonetically in Chinese characters in 528 BC and included, with a Chinese version, in the Garden of Stories compiled by Liu Xiang five centuries later.[69]

There is some disagreement about the languages they spoke, with candidates drawn from the non-Sinitic language families still represented in areas of southern China, pre-Kra-Dai, pre-Hmong-Mien and Austroasiatic;[70] as Chinese, Kra-Dai, Hmong-Mien and the Vietic branch of Austroasiatic have similar tone systems, syllable structure, grammatical features and lack of inflection, but these features are believed to have spread by means of diffusion across the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, rather than indicating common descent.[71][72]

  • Scholars in China often assume that the Yue spoke an early form of Kra-Dai. The linguist Wei Qingwen gave a rendering of the "Song of the Yue boatman" in Standard Zhuang. Zhengzhang Shangfang proposed an interpretation of the song in written Thai (dating from the late 13th century) as the closest available approximation to the original language, but his interpretation remains controversial.[69][73]
  • Chamberlain (1998) posits that the Austroasiatic predecessor of modern Vietnamese language originated in modern-day Bolikhamsai Province and Khammouane Province in Laos as well as parts of Ngh? An Province and Qu?ng Bình Province in Vietnam, rather than in the region north of the Red River delta.[74] However, Ferlus (2009) showed that the inventions of pestle, oar and a pan to cook sticky rice, which is the main characteristic of the ?ông S?n culture, correspond to the creation of new lexicons for these inventions in Northern Vietic (Vi?t-Mng) and Central Vietic (Cuoi-Toum).[75] The new vocabularies of these inventions were proven to be derivatives from original verbs rather than borrowed lexical items. The current distribution of Northern Vietic also correspond to the area of ?ông S?n culture. Thus, Ferlus concludes that the Northern Vietic (Viet-Muong) speakers are the "most direct heirs" of the Dongsonians, who have resided in Southern part of Red river delta and North Central Vietnam since the 1st millennium BC.[75]

Wolfgang Behr (2002) points out that some scattered non-Sinitic words found in the two ancient Chinese fictional texts, Mu tianzi zhuan ? (4th c. B.C.) and Yuejue shu (1st c. A.D.), can be compared to lexical items in Kra-Dai languages.[76] For examples, Chinese transcribed the words for:

  • "Good" (?) with ? OC *bq(l)ij; comparable to proto-Tai *?d?iA1 and Proto-Kam-Sui *?daai1 "good";
  • "Way" (?) with ? OC *awan; comparable to proto-Tai *xronA1, proto-Kam-Sui *khw?n "road, way", Proto-Hlai *kuun; confer proto-Austronesian *Zalan (Thurgood 1994:353).

Behr (2009) also notes that the Ch? dialect was influenced by three substrata, predominantly Kra-Dai, but also possibly Austroasiatic and Hmong-Mien.[77]

Besides a limited number of lexical items left in Chinese historical texts, remnants of language(s) spoken by the ancient Yue can be found in non-Han substrata in Southern Chinese dialects, e.g.: Wu, Min, Hakka, Yue, etc.

  • Robert Bauer (1987) identifies twenty seven lexical items in Yue, Hakka and Min varieties, which share Kra-Dai roots.[78] Bauer (1996) also points out twenty nine possible cognates between Cantonese spoken in Guangzhou and Kra-Dai, of which seven cognates are confirmed to originate from Kra-Dai sources.[79]. Li Hui (2001) identifies 126 Kra-Dai cognates in Maqiao Wu dialect spoken in the suburbs of Shanghai out of more than a thousand lexical items surveyed.[80] According to the author, these cognates are likely traces of 'old Yue language' ().[81]
  • Several authors pointed out the possible link between Hmongic She (?) and Hakka Chinese.[82][83][84][85]
  • Ye (2014) identified a few Austroasiatic loanwords in Ancient Chu dialect.[86].

Jerry Norman and Mei Tsu-Lin presented evidence that at least some Yue spoke an Austroasiatic language:[6][87][88]

  • A well-known loanword into Sino-Tibetan[89] is k-la for tiger (Hanzi; Old Chinese (ZS): *q?la:? > Mandarin pinyin: h?, Sino-Vietnamese h?) from Proto-Austroasiatic *kala? (compare Vietic *k-ha:l? > k?a:l? > Vietnamese khái & Muong kh?l).
  • The early Chinese name for the Yangtze (Chinese: ?; pinyin: ji?ng; EMC: koe:?; OC: *kro?; Cantonese: "kong") was later extended to a general word for "river" in south China. Norman and Mei suggest that the word is cognate with Vietnamese sông (from *krong) and Mon kru? "river".
  • They also provide evidence of an Austroasiatic substrate in the vocabulary of Min Chinese.[6][90]

Norman & Mei's hypothesis is widely quoted, but has recently been criticized by Laurent Sagart who suggests that Yue language, together with proto-austronesian languages, was descended from the language or languages of the Tánshísh?n-X?tóu culture complex (modern day Fujian province of China); he also argues that the Vietic cradle must be located farther south in current north Vietnam.[91]

  • According to the Shuowen Jiezi (100 AD), "In Nanyue, the word for dog is (Chinese: ; pinyin: náos?u; EMC: nuw-?uw)", possibly related to other Austroasiatic terms. S?u is "hunt" in modern Chinese. However, in Shuowen Jiezi, the word for dog is also recorded as with its most probable pronunciation around 100 CE must have been *ou-sou, which resembles proto-Austronesian *asu, *u-asu 'dog' than it resembles the palatal-initialed Austroasiatic monosyllable Vietnamese chó, Old Mon clüw, etc.[73]
  • Norman & Mei also compares Min verb "to know, to recognize" ? (Proto-Min *pat; whence Fuzhou /pai/ & Amoy /pat/) to Vietnamese bi?t, also meaning "to know, to recognize". However, Sagart contends that the Min & Vietnamese sense "to know, to recognize" is semantically extended from well-attested Chinese verb ? "to distinguish, discriminate, differentiate" ((Mandarin: bié; MC: /b?i?t?/; OC: *bred);[92] thus Sagart considers Vietnamese bi?t as a loanword from Chinese.


The fall of the Han dynasty and the succeeding period of division sped up the process of sinicization. Periods of instability and war in northern and central China, such as the Northern and Southern dynasties and during the Song dynasty sent waves of Han Chinese into the south.[93] Waves of migration and subsequent intermarriage and cross-cultural dialogue has resulted to a mixture of Han Chinese and extant non-Han Chinese continental indigenous peoples in the south.[94][95] Large incoming waves of Han Chinese immigrants from Northern and Central China poured into the south over the centuries through various succeeding Chinese dynasties has resulted in large-scale intermixing between the Han Chinese and Yue with much of the indigenous Yue tribes assimilating into Chinese civilization or ended up being driven out into the hills and mountains.[51][96][97][98] Successive waves of migration in different localities during various times in Chinese history over the past two thousand years have given rise to different dialect groups seen in Southern China today.[99] Modern Lingnan culture contains both Nanyue and Han Chinese elements: the modern Cantonese language closely resembles Middle Chinese (the prestige language of the Tang Dynasty), but has retained some features of the long-extinct Nanyue language. Some distinctive features of the vocabulary, phonology, and syntax of southern varieties of Chinese are attributed to substrate languages that were spoken by the Yue.[100][101]

By the Tang dynasty (618-907), the term "Yue" had largely become a regional designation rather than a cultural one, as in the Wuyue state during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period in what is now Zhejiang province.

In ancient China, the characters ? and ? (both yuè in pinyin) were used interchangeably, but they are differentiated in modern Chinese:

  • The character "?" refers to the original territory of the state of Yue, which was based in what is now northern Zhejiang, especially the areas around Shaoxing and Ningbo. It is also used to write Vietnam, a word adapted from Nányuè (Vietnamese: Nam Vi?t), (literal English translation as Southern Yue). This character is also still used in the city Guangzhou for the Yuexiu () District and when referring to the Nanyue Kingdom.
  • The character "?" is associated with the southern province of Guangdong. Both the regional dialects of Yue Chinese and the standard form, popularly called "Cantonese", are spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macau and in many Cantonese communities around the world.



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