In the first millennium BC, “Chinese” writers recorded information about various peoples who lived to their south. These people were called by various names such as Ou, Luo, Western Ou, and Ouluo. At other times more generic terms were used like a term meaning “savages” – Manyi .

Then finally another common term that was used was “Yue” 越/粵, or more generally, the “Hundred Yue” (Baiyue 百越/百粵).

These terms are problematic because there is no evidence that the peoples that Chinese authors identified by these names actually referred to themselves by these names.

This then leads to an important question: What criteria did Chinese authors use to distinguish one group from another? Was it geography? Culture? Language? Ethnicity?

These and other questions were recently addressed in a book by historian Erica Brindley, a book that contains the most up-to-date information and ideas that we have about these early inhabitants of the southern part of the Asian mainland.

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Entitled Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities on the Southern Frontier, c. 400 BCE-50 CE (Cambridge University Press, 2015), this book discusses what we can determine about the ancient Yue from historical texts, linguistic research, and archaeological evidence.

I have been meaning to write about this book for a long time. However, it’s too rich with information to be able to cover in a single blog post, so I will look at different parts of the book in different posts.

The second chapter of the book is on “Linguistic Research on the Yue/Viet.” It can be very difficult for non-linguists to really understand what the most up-to-date ideas in the field of linguistics are, as there tend to be many debates among linguists and it can be difficult for outsiders to determine whose ideas are the most persuasive.

In researching this book, Brindley spent time not just reading published linguistic research, but also talking to the main linguists involved in various debates. When she did so she deliberately presented these scholars with the ideas of their critics to see how they responded and to get a deeper sense of where the boundaries of current linguistic knowledge lie.

The results of that effort are clearly evident in this second chapter, as it is an extremely clear and helpful summary of the current state of linguistic knowledge about the languages spoken in antiquity in what is now southern China and northern Southeast Asia.

That said, the information in that chapter is still too detailed to discuss here in its entirety, so I will attempt to summarize the main points.

Austronesian

There are various language families that are present (or were present) in the first millennium BC in the area of what is now southern China and northern mainland Southeast Asia, such as Austronesian, Tai-Kadai, Austroasiatic, and Hmong-Mien. Brindley discusses what linguistics have determined about the early histories of each of these language families.

Many linguistics agree with the theory of Robert Blust that Austronesian developed on Taiwan and then spread throughout Southeast Asia, into the Pacific, and as far to the west as the island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa. Linguists (Blust) and archeologists (Peter Bellwood) also argue that the inhabitants of Taiwan arrived there from the southeastern coast of China at some point during the fourth millennium BCE.

Some people, however, must have stayed on the Asian mainland. Linguists therefore make the following distinction: whatever was spoken in the area of what is now southeastern China in the fourth millennium BCE can be called “pre-Austronesian” (pre-AN). On the island of Taiwan, “pre-Austronesian” then developed into “proto-Austronesian” (PAN), and then later, different Austronesian (AN) languages developed from “proto-Austronesian.”

Tai Kadai

This story of people migrating from the Asian mainland to Taiwan where their language developed from pre-AN to PAN to AN must, however, be more complex because archaeologists (Bellwood) argue that there was significant back-and-forth movement between the southeastern coast of what is now China and the island of Taiwan.

This means that there is a strong chance that some PAN or even AN speakers could have migrated back to the mainland and interacted with some of the pre-AN speakers who were still there, and this interaction could have led to changes in some pre-AN languages on the mainland, leading them to develop into PAN or AN languages.

One scholar who makes this point is linguist Laurent Sagart who put forth a controversial claim in 2004 that another language family, Tai-Kadai, was created when some Austronesian speakers migrated back to the mainland from Taiwan, and perhaps the Philippines.

Linguistics have long felt that there is some kind of connection between AN and Tai-Kadai, but Sagart’s theory would mean that these two language families are much more closely related than people have understood.

Understandably, there are linguists (Blust) who do not agree with Sagart, and Sagart’s theory remains controversial.

Nonetheless, what is clear from linguistics and archaeology is that pre-AN speakers inhabited the southeastern coast of the Asian mainland in the distant past, and that there was contact over time between those people and members of their group who migrated to Taiwan and developed their language into PAN and AN.

Austroasiatic

Another language family that was present in the past in this region was Austro-Asiatic (AA), a group of languages that can be predominantly found on the Southeast Asian mainland.

In 1976, Jerry Norman and Tsu-lin Mei argued that AA languages had once been spoken much further to the north and that Yue peoples spoke those languages.

More recently Laurent Sagart has provided more up-to-date evidence that challenges this claim, and he argues instead that Yue peoples were more likely pre-Austronesian, or possibly even, Austronesian speakers.

That said, Sagart’s refutation of Norman and Mei’s argument does not rule out the possibility that there were some speakers of Austro-Asiatic languages in the areas of what is today southern China in the first millennium BCE.

Austric

Just as linguists recognize that there is some kind of connection between Austronesian and Tai-Kadai, there are also linguists who detect a connection between Austronesian and Austro-Asiatic. This is an idea that was first proposed in 1906 by Wilhelm Schmidt and is known as the “Austric hypothesis.”

Although for many years linguists were unconvinced by this theory, there is apparently some linguistic research that now provides more support for this theory, and that research is being combined with archaeological evidence by some scholars in order to put forth the claim that there may have been a “linguistic macro-family” that was once based around the area of the upper Yangzi River Valley, and that engaged in rice cultivation.

To quote Brindley, “The Austric hypothesis. . . contends that much of the entire southern frontier of ancient China (generally, south of the Yangzi River) was populated by a diverse range of rice-cultivating Austric peoples whose languages had at some point diverged and developed into AA and AN language groups.

“Some Austric groups migrated down the Mekong or dispersed into southwestern China. Such groups were associated with the development of AA languages, which are most prevalent today in continental Southeast Asia.

“Other Austric groups followed the course of the Yangzi eastward across China to the coast, and were associated with the development of pre-AN languages, which eventually found their way to Fujian and Taiwan (and perhaps back to the coastal Southwest).” (58)

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Laurent Sagart has challenged this Austric hypothesis by pointing out that Austronesian and Austro-Asiatic do not share basic rice vocabulary, which they should if they share origins in a rice-producing homeland on the Yangzi.

Sargart has proposed instead that Austronesian and yet another language family, Sino-Tibetan, are related. His “STAN (Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian)” thesis argues that the speakers of these languages originally dispersed from an area in north or northeast China starting around 8,500 years ago.

Finally, there is another language family in the region called Hmong-Mien. Linguists believe this language family developed in the area of the middle and lower reaches of the Yangzi River around 2,500 years ago, and is therefore somewhat of a latecomer.

yue article

Where does all of this lead us? Erica Brindley wanted to know if there is linguistic evidence that can show us what language, or languages, the peoples that Chinese referred to as “the Yue” spoke in the first millennium BCE. More specifically, she wanted to see if “there may have been some linguistic reasons for ancient Chinese writers to lump peoples from southeast and south China together with southerners of the coastal regions under the rubrics of Yue and Bai-yue [“Hundred Yue”].” (60)

She concludes that “I think it is likely that the majority of the inhabitants of the ancient state of Yue (centered on the eastern seaboard around Lake Tai, Shanghai, and modern-day Zhejiang, c. fifth century BCE) spoke a pre-AN language that was related to the various Austronesian languages that developed in Taiwan and, quite possibly, southern Fujian.

“The people associated with the term, Bai-yue [Hundred Yue], on the other hand, were likely to have been much more mixed linguistically.

“Hua-xia [“Chinese”] authors, referring rather indiscriminately to the Bai-yue as peoples of the South, may not have noticed or been aware of significant linguistic differences among groups that inhabited the Southland.” (60)

In other words, language was probably not a criteria that Chinese authors used when they made up names for various peoples in the south, or when they grouped people together and called them all “Yue.”

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This is important, because ever since the early twentieth century when Edouard Chavannes and Leonard Aurousseau sought to use the terms that Chinese had created for peoples in the south to identify ethnic groups and argue that they had migrated southward over time, ending up in the Red River Delta (a topic I have written about here), this idea that those terms refer to identifiable groups of people has persisted.

As Brindley shows beautifully in her book, there is no grounding for that belief. We can gain some general ideas about the southern Asian mainland as a “multi-cultural” and “multi-lingual” region, but that’s about all we can do.

While that might not seem like a very impressive conclusion or discovery, it is actually extremely important and helpful. One of the great contributions that this book makes is that it shows us the limits of what we can know about “the Yue.”

Too many people, for too long, have ignored those limits and have made all kinds of claims that the textual, linguistic and archaeological evidence simply does not support. Brindley shows us what texts, linguistics and archaeology can tell us, and what they can’t.

And as the above information about linguistic theories indicates, Brindley really did her homework in researching and writing this book, and she worked on this a long time!!

This is an extremely important and helpful book.