An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Rouran 柔然

Aug 17, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

The Rourans 柔然 were a nomad people living in the northern steppe zone during the 5th and 6th centuries CE. They were believed to belong to the Eastern Hu 東胡 and to be related to the Xianbei 鮮卑. Some Chinese historians said that they had common origins with the Xiongnu 匈奴, the dominating steppe people between the 3rd century BCE and the 3rd century CE. Like most of the pastoral nomad peoples the males used to braid their long hair and to shave part of the forehead. They lived in felt huts, today commonly called "yurts", migrated along the rivers with the change of the seasons, and did not know agriculture. The Rourans had no script, but used to note down some information as marks in wooden sticks.

According to legend the earliest leader of the Rourans was a chieftain called Mu-gu-lü 木骨閭 in Chinese sources who lived around 270 CE. He had been a slave of the Taɣbač, a sub-division of the Xianbei. His descendants later chose the name Yujiulü 郁久閭 as their family name. Mugulü's son Che-lu-hui 車鹿會 was the first to assemble a lot of other families around him, and in the mid-4th century the tribal federation of the Rouran took shape.

The self-designation of the Rourans is unclear. Historiographical sources of the Northern Wei empire 北魏 (386-534), founded by the Taɣbač, used for the Rourans the derogatory terms Ruanruan 蠕蠕 "wriggling worms" (reference to their hairstyle, or a kind of totem?) or Rouruan 蝚蠕. Sources of the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589). From the 6th century on they were known as Ruirui 芮芮 or Ruru 茹茹. There are many theories about the ethnic identity of the Rourans. Some scholars believe that the word rouran is the Mongol word for "wise, clear" or "rule, principle", or probably the word for "foreigners" or "mugwort" 艾草 "aicao" in another Altaic language. Another dispute is concerned with the question whether the Rourans, after being driven westwards by the Turks 突厥, came to the Near East, where they became to be known as the Avars in Byzantine sources. The term Avar might be related to the Mongol word abargha "to crawl", which might be identical to the Chinese designation ruanruan. Some scholars argue that the ancient people of the Wuhuan 烏桓 were the ancestors of the Rourans, or with the Xiongnu tribe of the Hua 滑.

Mu-gu-lü's grandson She-lun 社崙 (r. 402-410) was the first chieftain of the Rouran federation who organised his people in military units of thousand households, as it was later common among all steppe federations. Warfare was indeed an important business among the male populations, and the heroes were rewarded, while cowards were stoned to death. The federation therefore grew consistently and swallowed not only the remaining tribes of the former Xiongnu federation, but also tribes of the Gaoche Turks 高車.

In 402 She-lun adopted the title of khan (qaɣan, Chinese rendering at that time kehan 可寒) that had earlier been used by the Xianbei leaders. The Turks, Uyghurs 回鶻 and Mongols 蒙古 would later follow this precedence. In the years of their greatest power the Rourans ruled over the whole northern steppe zone. They had tribute relations with the small empires of the Northern Yan 北燕 (409-436) and Later Qin 後秦 (384-417), a foundation by a Tangutan 羌 chieftain, but also send embassies to the court of the Tuyuhun 吐谷渾, the semi-autonomous province of Yizhou 益州 (Sichuan), and even to the courts of the Southern Dynasties. All these embassies were made to circumvent the power of the Northern Wei that ruled over northern China. Datan Khan 大檀 (r. 414-429) even carried out campaigns against the Northern Wei and in 424 besieged Emperor Taiwu 北魏太武帝 (r. 423-451) in Shengle 盛樂 (modern Helinger 和林格爾, Inner Mongolia).

Yet the Xianbei emperor soon recovered, destroyed the small states of the Xia 夏 (407-431), Northern Yan and Northern Liang 北涼 (398-439/460) and in the years to come seven times attacked the Rourans. His successors also personally undertook military campaigns into the steppe zone. In 429 Emperor Taiwu achieved his first great victory. With their light cavalry they advanced to the River Kerulen and forced Datan Khan to flee to the west. General Dou Xian 竇憲 was ordered to erect a garrison at River Tula to ward off further attacks by the Rourans. The tribes of the Gaoche used this situation to shake off the yoke of their overlords and also posed a threat to Rouran dominance in the future. According to historiography than 300,000 Rourans were enslaved and brought back to the land of the Northern Wei. In 470 the Rourans were a second time utterly defeated, and this time the Northern Wei general had massacred more than 50,000 war captives.

Already in 423 the Northern Wei had begun to erect a long fortification wall to ward off intrusions of the steppe people on imperial soil. This early "Great Wall" stretched from Chicheng 赤城 (modern Hebei) to Wuyuan 五原 (modern Baotou 包頭, Inner Mongolia). They also founded the famous Six Garrisons (liuzhen 六鎮) that were to protect the capital Pingcheng 平城 (modern Taiyuan 太原, Shanxi) in case the Great Wall would not hold back the Rouran hoards. Between the many wars there were also phases of friendly, or rather tributary, relationship between the Rourans and the Northern Wei empire. The mother of Emperor Wencheng 北魏文成帝 (r. 452-465), Empress Jingmu 景穆帝妃, was a Rouran princess. A lot of Rouran people became courtiers in Pingcheng and rose to high positions in the civil and military administration. This situation was due to a change in political strategy after the accession of Emperor Xiaowen 北魏孝文帝 (r. 471-499) and with the regency of Empress Dowager Feng 馮太后. Relations improved considerably, and alone in 476 four diplomatic embassies from the Rourans traveled to the Northern Wei court.

The Rourans changed their military targets and expanded to the west, where they swallowed Gaochang 高昌 (later known as Kočo) in 460 and Yutian 于闐 (the later Khotan) in 470. The emperor of Northern Wei refused to send relief to Yutian with the excusion that the distance was too long for relief troops. In the next years, the Rourans conquered the ancient commandery of Dunhuang 敦煌 and so cut off the trade route to the west that is known as the Silk Road. Under Dou-lun Khan 豆崙 (r. 485-492) the Turkish federation of the Tiele 鐵勒 rebelled declared themselves independant of Rouran domination. They remained a threat on the western flank of the Rouran empire.

The strong position that the Rourans possessed in the Western Territories instigated Chou-nu Khan 醜奴 (r. 508-520) to behave in a very arrogant manner during a visit at the court of the Northern Wei, so that the relations between the two realms cooled down again.

Succession struggles forced A-na-gui Khan 阿那瓌 to flee to the Northern Wei court. He found support and was reinstated as ruler of the Rourans with the military support of Wei, but only as one of two khan. He resided in Huaishuo 懷朔 (modern Guyang 固陽, Inner Mongolia), while Po-luo-men Khan 婆羅門 (Brahman?) resided in Xihai 西海 (modern Ejina 額濟納, Inner Mongolia). Poloumen later fled to the Yeda 嚈噠 in the far west (in Western sources called Hephthalites), but was surrendered to the Northern Wei, so that Anagui Khan was the sole ruler over the Rouran federation, but only as a virtual vassal of the Northern Wei. In 523 therefore he supported them with troops to suppress the rebellion of Po-liu-han Ba-ling 破六韓拔陵. The rebellion of the six garrisons and the uprising of Erzhu Rong 爾朱榮 initiated the downfall of the Northern Wei empire. Anagui Khan became ever more stronger and began adopting some aspects of the political system of the Northern Wei. In 464 Yu-cheng Khan 予成 (r. 450-485) had already adopted a Chinese-style reign motto, namely Yongkang 永康 "Eternal vigour". Anagui Khan introduced some ministerial posts, adopted Buddhism as the state religion.

The successor states of the Northern Wei, the Western Wei 西魏 (535-556) and Eastern Wei 東魏 (534-550), strove for supremacy over northern China. The Rourans used this situation and continuously undertook raids on the soil of these two empires. In the northwest, a new power had emerged with the Turks. Their chieftain Tu-men 土門, the eventual Ili Khan 伊利可汗, sought a marriage alliance with Anagui Khan, but the latter refused, and therefore provoked a punitive expedition in 552. Deeply threatened by this new danger, Anagui committed suicide. The Rouran nobles enthroned Dengshuzi 鄧叔子 as the khan of their federation. After being defeated by the Turks in 555, Dengshuzi took the lead over a thousand of households and submitted to the Western Wei. The Rouran federation dissolved, and their territory became part of the first Turkish khanate.

Table 1. Khans of the Rouran Federation
imperial title
----reign mottos
reign personal name (Chinese version)
(4th cent.) Mu-gu-lü 木骨閭
(late 4th cent.) Che-lu-hui 車鹿會
Qiu-dou-fa Qaɣan 丘豆伐可汗 (r. 402-410) She-lun 社崙
Ai-ku-gai Qaɣan 藹苦蓋可汗 (r. 410-414) Hu-lü 斛律
Mou-han-he-sheng-gai Qaɣan 牟汗紇升蓋可汗 (r. 414-429) Da-tan 大檀
Chi-lian Qaɣan 敕連可汗 (r. 429-444) Wu-ti 吳提
Chu Qaɣan 處可汗 (r. 444-450) Tu-he-zhen 吐賀真
Shou-luo-bu-zhen Qaɣan 受羅部真可汗
Yongkang 永康 (464-484)
(r. 450-485) Yu-cheng 予成
Fu-ming-dun Qaɣan 伏名敦可汗 (Fu-gu-dun Qaɣan 伏古敦可汗)
Taiping 太平 (485-491)
(r. 485-492) Dou-lun 豆崙
Hou-qi-fu-dai-ku-zhe Qaɣan 侯其伏代庫者可汗 (Hou-qi-zhang-dai-ku-zhe Qaɣan 候其仗代庫者可汗)
Tai'an 太安 (492-505)
(r. 492-506) Na-gai 那蓋
Tuo-han Qaɣan 佗汗可汗 (Ta-han Qaɣan 他汗可汗)
Shiping 始平 (506-507)
(r. 506-508) Fu-tu 伏圖
Dou-luo-fu-ba-dou-fa Qaɣan 豆羅伏跋豆伐可汗
Jianchang 建昌 (508-520)
(r. 508-520) Chou-nu 醜奴
Chi-lian-tou-bing-dou-fa Qaɣan 敕連頭兵豆伐可汗 (r. 520-552) A-na-gui 阿那瓌
Mi-ou-ke-she-gou Qaɣan 彌偶可社句可汗 (usurper) (r. 521-524) Po-lu-omen 婆羅門
(r. 552-553) Tie-fa 鐵伐
(r. 553) Deng-zhu 登注
(r. 553) Kang-ti 康提
(r. 553-554) An-luo-chen 菴羅辰
(r. 555) Deng Shuzi 鄧叔子
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