Kök Türük (Gokturk)

The history of the Kök Türüks (Old Turkic: 𐰛𐰇𐰜⁚𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰰‎, Chinese: 突厥), the sixth century Turkic nomadic confederation that would come to play a pivotal role in the history and culture of the Turkic people.  


Northern Liang

The immediate ancestors of the Kök Türük may have been related to the Ju-qu (沮渠) of Northern Liang (北涼). The Ju-qu were a Quŋa (匈奴) tribe named after the high Hunnic title of Ju-qu (且渠), of which they were likely given hereditary control.

In 436 C.E., the Ju-qu capital at Gu-zang (姑臧) fell to the Tabğaç (拓拔) Emperor Büri (佛貍) of Northern Wei’s (北魏) forces, who captured the Ju-qu king Muqan (牧犍). Emperor Büri forced Muqan to commit suicide, which led his brothers Ju-qu Bögü (無諱) and Ju-qu An-zhou (沮渠安周) to take control of the tribe, leading its remnants to Qoço (高昌). They managed to hold out until 460 C.E., after which they were conquered and made vassals to the Rouran Khanate. The Ju-qu tribe was said to be all but destroyed.

The Ashina Clan

The Book of Zhou (周書) records two stories in regard to the origins of the Kök Türüks and the A-shi-na clan. The First Narrative is provided below:

“The Türük (突厥) were a separate branch of the Quŋa with the clan name of A-shi-na (阿史那). At one point, their clan was nearly destroyed by neighboring states. The only survivor was a boy of ten. The soldiers, seeing that he was young, were reluctant to kill him. So, they cut off his feet and left him in the middle of a marsh. He was found by a she-wolf who nursed him back to health with meat. In time, the boy grew and mated with the she-wolf, leaving her pregnant. The king heard of this and dispatched troops to kill them. His envoy found the wolf laying on her side and desired to kill her. The wolf (noticed and) immediately escaped the envoy, fleeing to the northern mountains of Qoço. In the mountains, there was a cavern of flat land and lush vegetation. It had a circumference of several hundred li (里) and was surrounded on all four sides by mountains. The wolf hid here and gave birth to ten sons. Here, the ten sons grew strong. They brought back women from the outside, who soon became pregnant. Thereafter, each son had their own surname. One of these was A-shi-na. Each generation raised another, increasing their numbers until they numbered 100 households. After many generations, they (eventually) decided to leave the cave, (thereupon) becoming vassals of the Rou-ran. They made their home on the southern side of the Altai mountains, where they became blacksmiths for the Rouran. Since the Altai mountains are said to resemble a cauldron, and because it was their custom to call a cauldron Türük, they called themselves Türük.”

The Second Narrative follows the first and is provided below:

“It is also said that the Türük originally came from the state of Saqa (索), (located) to the North of the Quŋa. The chief of (their) tribe was named A-bang-bu (阿謗步) (who) had seventeen brothers. One of them was named Ertiş Ni-shi-dou (伊質泥師都), who was also born of a wolf. A-bang-bu and the rest (of his brothers) were foolish and ignorant. As a result, their states suffered (defeats) and (were ultimately) destroyed. Ni-shi-dou alone was affected by a spirit (which) allowed him to summon wind and rain. He married two women. It is said that they were the daughters of the Summer and Winder gods. One of them became pregnant, giving birth to four sons. One was (able to) change into a white swan; one (founded) a state named Qırgır (契骨) between the A-fu (阿輔) and Jian (劍) rivers. One (founded) a state on the Chu-zhe (處折) river. One resided at Jian-si Chu-zhe-shi Mountain (and) was the eldest of the sons. The kinsmen of A-bang-bu still exist on this mountain, where it is often cold and foggy. The oldest son supported them, providing fire for warmth. (Thus, were) they all (able to) survive. They forthwith honored the elder son as their lord. His name was Türük. (When he was entitled, he took the name of) Ne-dou-liu Şad (訥都六設). Ne-dou-liu had ten wives, whose sons were accordingly all given the clan name of their mothers. A-shi-na was (the name given to) the son of the youngest wife. (After) the death of Ne-dou-liu, (they) desired to establish one of the sons of the ten mothers. Therefore, one after another, (they gathered) under a great tree. Together, they agreed to enthrone the one who could jump the highest along the tree. A-shi-na’s son, who was the youngest, was able to jump the highest. They forthwith honored the son as their lord. His name was A-xian Şad (阿賢設).”


Tuo-ba (拓拔) Late Han Chinese *tʰɑk-bɑt. The form noted above is a perfect transcription when we take two things into account: 1. The Late Han Chinese tendency for metaphasis in their transcriptions, hence, k <-> b; 2. Late Han Chinese lacked palatal affricates at one point, thus, t for t͡ʃ (Schuessler, 2014).

Fu-li (佛貍) Late Han Chinese *but-liə. A transcription of Turkic Büri “wolf.” Final -t regularly transcribes Turkic final -r. Initial l- and r- are interchangeable.

Mu-jian (牧犍) Late Han Chinese *muk-kɨɑn. A transcription of Turkic Muqan, which is also the title of Bumın’s son: Muqan Qağan (𐰢𐰆𐰴𐰣𐰴𐰍𐰣).

Wu-hui (無諱) Late Han Chinese *muɔ-huiᶜ. Likely a transcription of Turkic Bögü “sage.”

Tu-jue (突厥) Late Han Chinese *tʰuət-kyɑt. A transcription of Türküt, possibly a conflation of Türük + gut "tribe." -gut, from proto-Turkic *[g]a[d] "tribe," is a commonly used tribal suffix among nomadic tribes. proto-Turkic *[g]ɑ[d] "tribe" > -[g]ɑrʲ, -[g]ɑt͡ʃ, -[g]ut, -[g]urʲ, -[g]uz, etc... Consider: Yağla|qar, Tab|ğaç, Ya|qut, Uy|ğur, O|ğur, Qır|gır > Qır|gız, O|ğuz, and the like. As for the First Narrative's claim regarding the custom to call a cauldron Türk, there are those who believe that dou-mou (兜鍪) exclusively means "helmet." In Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages, Róna-Tas (1999) uses this interpretation to derive Türük from Khotanese tturakä “lid." Dou-mou, however, does not exclusively mean "helmet." In fact, it derives that meaning from the helmet's similarities to a cauldron. Nonetheless, the semantic stretch from "lid" to "helmet" is questionable in spite of Golden (2016). In any event, like many nomadic tribes, the Kök Türük may have forgotten the meaning of the word. The "helmet" etymology could therefore be, and probably is, a folk etymology.

A-shi-na (阿史那) Middle Chinese *ʔâ-ṣɨᴮ-nâ < Late Han Chinese *ʔɑ-ṣiəᴮ-nɑi. Indo-European etymologies for their name are ridiculous and unlikely. The Han characters used for the Turkic speaking Wu-sun (烏孫), meaning “descendants of the crow,” were in all likelihood a translation of a foreign term. It may be that one of their descendants adopted the Chinese translation as a tribal or clan name, resulting in the Middle Chinese pronunciation given above for A-shi-na. Note also the origin myth for the Wusun Kun-mo or “king” recorded in the Shiji and Hanshu. In both versions of the story, the Kun-mo is fed meat by crows and milk by wolves. The story has obvious parallels to the A-shi-na clan’s mythological origin tale (Jila, 2006).

Suo (索) Late Han Chinese *sɑk. A transcription of Saqa. It seems possible that Mahmud al-Kashgari confused the name of this state with that of an individual within his Dīwān Lughāt al-Turk; hence, in reference to the origin of the Türkmän, he claims that "...at that time, the king of the Türks was the young man named Shu" (al-Kashgari, 1990).

Yi-zhi Ni-shi-dou (伊質泥師都) Late Han Chinese *ʔi-tśit nei-ṣi-tɑ. First word is probably a transcription of Turkic Ertiş. It is unclear what the second component is transcribing.

She (設) Late Han Chinese *śat. A transcription of Turkic Şad, a high title.