An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Dingling 丁零

Dec 9, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

The Dingling 丁零 were a nomad people roaming the Mongolian steppe during the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE). They were also written 釘靈, 丁令, or 丁靈, Dili 狄歷 or Chile 敕勒 (a name used from the 4th century on). It is said that they lived around Lake Baikal at the beginning of the 2nd century BCE.

They were regularly attacked by the steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴 that dominated the Mongolian planes. When the Xiongnu lost their initial power around the 1st century CE, the Dingling moved farther south and pressed the Xiongnu to migrate to the west. This was possible because the Dingling united with the federation of the Xianbei 鮮卑 and with the Han empire. During the 3rd and 4th centuries some tribes of the Dingling migrated into the territory of the Chinese empire and settled down in the regions of the modern provinces of Shanxi, Hebei and Henan. They were known as the Dingling of Dingzhou 定州丁零, the Dingling of Zhongshan 中山丁零, or the Dingling of Beidi 北地丁零.

When they later merged with the Chinese population surrounding them, a lot of them still bore the surname of Di 翟. In 388 a chieftain of the Dingling founded a short-lived Wei dynasty (the Di-Wei 翟魏) that was annihilated by the Later Yan empire 後燕 (384-409). The Dingling that continued living in the Mongolian steppe (the Northern Dingling Bei Dingling 北丁零) also merged with the rest of the Xiongnu and with the Xianbei and became known to Chinese historians as the federation of the Gaoche Dingling 高車丁零. The Türkic federation of the Tiele 鐵勒 (Tölöš) were probably also identical to the Dingling.

Another part of the Dingling federation already moved to the west during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE). They were known as the Western Dingling Xi Dingling 西丁零. This westward migration was initiated by a lost battle of the Dingling against the the Xiongnu. Shortly later the ruler of the Kangju 康居 that lived in the region of modern Uzbekistan invited the Dingling to move to the west, into the land of the Wusun 烏孫 (living south of Lake Balkhash in modern Kazakhstan), when the latter were defeated. With the death of the Dingling khan (chanyu 單于) Zhidu 郅都 the Western Dingling became subject to the Kangju but again became independant during the 3rd century CE. They settled down, worked the fields and even engaged in trade with the neighbouring peoples of the Sogdhiana more to the south (region of River Syr Darya north of the Hindukush). In the coming centuries the Dingling were an important tradespeople of the nine states of the Soghdiana.

Phonologically, it is quite probable that the term Dingling and its alternatives were early Chinese transcriptions of the word Türk. The Dingling can thus be seen as the ancestors of the Uyghurs 回鶻 and other Türkic federations.

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Qian Boquan 錢伯泉 (1994). "Dingling 丁零", "Xi Dingling 西丁零", in Zhongguo sichou zhi lu cidian 中國絲綢之路辭典 (Ürümqi: Xinjiang renmin chubanshe), 277.
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