An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Yi 夷

Apr 6, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Yi 夷 is an old general term for non-Chinese tribes especially in southern China, but sometimes also used as a common designation for "barbarians" (i. e., "less cultivated" peoples). Such a meaning can be seen in the names Zhuyi 諸夷 "the many Yi", Dongyi 東夷 “Eastern Yi”, Nanyi 南夷 "Southern Yi", Xiyi 西夷 "Western Yi", or Jiuyi 九夷 "Nine Yi". Historically seen the Eastern Yi lived in the region between the lower course of the Yangtze River and the River Huai 淮水 during the Western Zhou period.

There were many different tribes of Yi during the Zhou period, the most important of which were the Tai Hao Yi 太皞夷 and the Shao Hao Yi 少皞夷. The names of these tribal groups is derived from their putative ancestors, the mythological heroes or gods Tai Hao 太皞 (see Fu Xi 伏羲) and Shao Hao 少皞 (see Di Zhi 帝摯). In the chapter Yugong 禹貢 in the Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" these tribes are called Niao Yi 鳥夷 "Bird Yi". The chieftains of the Tai Hao Yi bore the family name Feng 風 and resided in Chen 陳 (modern Huaiyang 淮陽, Henan), the chieftains ("emperors", di 帝) of the Shao Hao Yi were called Ying 嬴 and resided first in Laosang 勞桑 (near modern Qufu 曲阜, Shandong) and later moved to Qufu.

It can be assumed that Gao Yao 皋陶 (sic!), a minister of the mythological ruler Yu the Great 大禹, was ethnically seen an Eastern Yi. When Gao Yao died his son Yi 益 attempted to usurp the throne of Qi 啓, the son of Yu the Great. Qi then founded the Xia dynasty 夏 (17th - 15th cent. BCE). According to mythology the Xia often fought battles with the Eastern Xia. A certain Hou Yi from Youlao (modern Dezhou, Shandong) is even said to have usurped the throne of King Tai Kang 太康 of Xia.

Some historians believe that the dynasty that was to found the Shang kingdom 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) hailed from the southern parts of the Bohai Gulf 渤海灣 and therefore were also not proper Chinese, but Eastern Yi. The last, tyrannic ruler of the Xia, King Jie 桀, was attacked by Tang (Tang the Perfect 成湯) from Yin 殷 who assembled the various Yi tribes to punish King Jie. Tang's descendant King Zhong Ding 仲丁 had to fight against the Lan Yi 藍夷 "Blue Yi". From then on the Yi tribes ever and ever invaded the territory of the Shang kingdom. During the reign of King Wu Yi 武乙 they even settled down in the regions of Huai 淮, Dai 岱 and Jian 漸. The last king of the Shang, Di Xi 帝辛 (see King Zhou 紂) undertook several military campaigns against the Eastern Yi tribes of the Zhafang {虘又}方, Yufang 盂方 and Yifang 夷方. These campaigns in the east probably weakened the Shang kingdom so much that the Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) in the west were able to invade and destroy the Shang dynasty.

In the early Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) the Yi tribes in the east posed a considerably danger to the newly founded Zhou kingdom. A scion of the house of Shang, Prince Wu Geng 武庚, allied with the Yi tribes of Yan 奄 (near Qufu), Pugu 浦姑 (modern Boxing 博興, Shandong) and Xu 徐, yet the regent of the Zhou kingdom, the Duke of Zhou 周公, undertook an eastern campaign in which he defeated Wu Geng and forced many Yi tribes into submission. The state of Pugu was given to the lord of Qi 齊, and Yan to the duke of Lu 魯. The Rong or Yi of Xu (Xu Rong 徐戎 or Xu Yi 徐夷) and the Yi of the River Huai region (Huai Yi 淮夷) continued to be independant for several generations. Under the rule of King Mu of Zhou 周穆王 (10th cent. BCE) the chieftain of the Yi of Xu adopted the title of king, unified the Nine Yi tribes, invaded Zhou territory and advanced as far as Heshang 河上 at the Yellow River. Under King Li of Zhou 周厲王 (r. 878-841) the Huai Yi plundered royal territory, and the King ordered Lord Guo Zhong to repel them, but without success. Only under King Xuan 周宣王 (r. 827-782 BC) Duke Mu of Shao 召穆公 was able to appease the Huai Yi tribes.

During the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) the Yi tribes of Xu and Huai continued to live independent from the Zhou kingdom and its structure of regional states delivering tributes to the royal court. They disturbed the statelets of Qi 杞 and Zeng 鄫. Historical sources say that the Yi of Ren 任 (near modern Jining 濟寧, Shandong), Su 宿, Xuju 須句 (near modern Dongping 東平, Shandong) and Zhuanyu 顓臾 (near modern Feixan 費縣, Shandong) venerated Tai Hao as their ancestor, while the Yi of Tan 郯 (modern Tancheng 郯城, Shandong) were seen as descendants of Shao Hao, and those of Liu 六 (modern Liu'an 六安, Anhui), and Liao 蓼 (modern Huoqiu 霍丘, Anhui) scions of Gao Yao.

There were also the "Many Shu" 群舒 who belonged to the Xu Yi, namely the Yi tribes of the Shu Liao 舒蓼, Shu Jiu 舒鳩, Shu Yong 舒庸, Shu Long 舒龍, Shu Bao 舒鮑 and Shu Gong 舒. The Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals" sees them as independant polities that participated in the many conflicts, alliances and inter-marriages with the regional rulers of the Zhou kingdom. In the cource of the many centuries until the "unification" of the empire by the state of Qin 秦 the Yi states culturally more and more merged with the surrounding Chinese communities. The term "Nine Yi" is still mentioned in sources of the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) but then disappears.

Yet the designation "Yi" to denote "barbarians" continued existing until the 19th century and was even used by the Japanese who called the native people of the Ainu "Yi", as well as the Dutch merchants. During the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) the Mongols in the north were also called with the "southern" term Yi, as can be seen in the title of the dictionary Huayi yiyu 華譯夷語.

Gao Wende 高文德, ed. (1995). Zhongguo shaoshu minzu shi da cidian 中國少數民族史大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin jiaoyu chubanshe), 759.
Meng Mo 蒙默 (1992). "Yi 夷", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1393.
Yang Qingzhen 楊慶鎮 (1993). "Yi 夷", in Shi Quanchang 石泉長, ed. Zhonghua baike yaolan 中華百科要覽 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 40.