Here is what the German sinologist Friedrich Hirth (1845–1927) wrote about “the oldest Turkish word on record”:
The word used by Ssï-ma Ts’ién for the dagger with which Wu-wang stabbed the dead emperor is king-kién, which means a “light two-edged sword.” But this is clearly not the original reading. The latter is preserved in the Chóu-shu, a work which Chavanne (Les mémoires historique, vol. i, p. 235, note 1, and vol. v, p. 457) has good reason to believe to be older than the Shï-ki. In the corresponding passage of the Chóu-shu, which appears with but slight alterations in Ssï-ma Ts’ién’s text, the word used for Wu-wang’s dagger is king-lü (king = “light,” lü = “a musical pipe”). The two characters employed in describing this sound give absolutely no sense in ordinary Chinese, and the commentators found it necessary to add that the term represents the “name of a double-edged sword,” or” a dagger” (kién-ming). Ssï-ma Ts’ién, or perhaps some later editor of his text, who did not understand the word, substituted king-kién, “light double-edged sword.” But the word is easily explained if we look upon it as a foreign term. We receive a broad hint as to its origin in the account of a historical event preserved in the history of the earlier Han dynasty. (Ts’ién-han-shu, ch. 94 b, p. 6.) When, in 47 b.c., the chief of the Hiung-nu, or Huns, was about to conclude a treaty with the Chinese court, the ceremony of swearing a solemn oath had to be gone through, in which the Great Khan, or Shan-yü, had to swallow a beverage prepared by himself and consisting of the blood of a white horse mixed with wine. The khan stirred the wine with a king-luk and a golden cyathus, and the scholiast explains the term king-luk as “the precious sword of the Hiung-nu.” I have for years, in the course of my readings of Chinese texts regarding the Turkish nations in central Asia, tried to trace the prototypes of Chinese transcriptions representing Turkish words; and quite a number of examples seem to suggest that the language used by the ancient Huns, or Hiung-nu, was actually Turkish, as has been suggested by Klaproth and others. The word corresponding to the Chinese transcription king-luk may be easily recognized in a word found in the modern Turki language and some other Turkish dialects; namely, kingrak, “a two-edged knife, a sabre.” I do not hesitate to apply this identification to the word used for Wu-wang’s dagger, king-lü, which may be merely another transcription for the purely Turkish word kingrak. If my deductions are correct, they would indicate that a Turkish name was in use for a kind of weapon which the first emperor of the Chóu dynasty carried with him in the twelfth century b.c., and that this is the oldest Turkish word on record. But it seems also to suggest that Wu-wang, whose dominions lay on the western border of China, stood in certain relations with his nextdoor neighbors, the ancestors of the Hiung-nu. It is highly probable that the barbarians mentioned in connection with certain inroads they made on Chinese territory during the remotest periods of Chinese history are identical with the well-known hereditary enemy of the Chinese, the Hiung-nu, whose history begins to be told with palpable detail from the beginning of the third century b.c.
The various names under which these northern and western neighbors of the Chinese are mentioned during the earlier periods of history appear to be variants in the transcription of the same name Hun or Hunnu. Thus we find the Hun-yü mentioned as a tribe on the northern borders, against whom the Emperor Huang-ti is supposed to have made war in the twenty-seventh century b.c. A later name was Hién-yün, the designation in use previous to the introduction of the term Hiung-nu in the third century b.c. The root Hun or Kun will appear to those gifted with a lively imagination to occur in various other names for the ancestors of King Attila’s people, then occupying the northern and western borders of China. The reason why the Chinese compare these northern nomads and other barbarous tribes to “dogs” (K’üan or K’ün) may have originated in a kind of jeu de mot. As early as 689 b.c. we read in Tso’s commentary on the “Spring and Autumn Annals” (Legge, Ch’un-ts’iu, p. 126.) that the “dog barbarians,” in Chinese K’üan-jung, were defeated. If this word K’üan (in Cantonese K’ün), “dog,” is another transcription for Hün or Hun, this may remind us of the popular etymology of the German abusive term Hundsfott, which has been wrongly explained as having originated in the words Hunnus fuit. One of these tribes, whom Wön-wang is supposed to have defeated 1138 b.c., was called Kuan, Kun, or Hun, and has been located by the Chinese historians in the south of the present Ordos territory. Mencius praises Wön-wang for the wisdom with which he “served” the Kun barbarians. “It requires a perfectly virtuous prince,” he says, (Mencius, ed. Legge, p. 31) “to be able with a great country to serve a small one, as, for instance, King Wön served the Kun barbarians. And it requires a wise prince to be able with a small country to serve a large one, as King T’ai [Wön-wang’s grandfather, 1327 b.c.] served the Hün-yü.” The two ethnic names here mentioned probably both refer to the Huns. How Wön-wang served his neighbors, the Huns, may be seen from another passage in Mencius, (Mencius, ed. Legge, p. 52) who says:–
“Formerly, when King T’ai dwelt in Pin, the barbarians of the north were constantly making incursions upon it. He served them with skins and silks, and still he suffered from them. He served them with dogs and horses, and still he suffered from them. He served them with pearls and gems, and still he suffered from them. Seeing this, he assembled the old men, and announced to them saying: ‘What the barbarians want is my territory. I have heard this — that a ruler does not injure his people with that wherewith he nourishes them. My children, why should you be troubled about having no prince? I will leave this.’ Accordingly, he left Pin, crossed the mountain Liang, built a town at the foot of Mount K’i, and dwelt there. The people of Pin said: ‘He is a benevolent man. We must not lose him.’ Those who followed him looked like crowds hastening to market.”
We learn from this passage that T’ai-wang, known also as Ku-kung, whose personal name was T’an-fu, the grandfather of Wön-wang, changed his residence from a place called Pin to another called K’i, and that the move was due to the grinding tribute exacted from him by his neighbors, the Hün-yü (Hunnu), or, as they were afterward called by the Chinese, Hiung-nu tribes. The foundation of the duchy of Chóu is, therefore, closely connected with this historical fact, placed by Chinese standard chronologists, whether rightly or not, in the year 1327 b.c. I am inclined to believe that the steady growth in the power of this house of Chóu was due to two main causes: (1) the rottenness of the Chinese government under Chóu-sin, who lacked the backbone absolutely essential to protect the nation against the common enemy that, after the lapse of fifteen hundred years, was to become fatal to powerful Europe; (2) the exposed position of the dukes of Chóu, who had for generations to defend their distant palatinate against the common enemy, while the responsible head of the nation roasted his subjects to please his favorite Ta-ki. But for the dukes of Chóu, China would have then become a prey to the Huns. In one of his speeches to the assembled army, preserved in the Shu-king, (Legge, op. cit., p. 301) Wu-wang mentions eight ethnic names: “O ye men of Yung, Shu, Kiang Mau, Weï, Lu, P’ong and Po, lift up your lances, join your shields, raise your spears! I have a speech to make. ”The Chinese commentators hold that these names belong to barbarian tribes living outside of China proper, and insinuate that they were subject to the dukes of Chóu without falling under the dominions of the emperor of China. Some of them may be safely located in the south and southwest of the Chóu duchy; others are stated to have occupied the western and northern borders. In the Bamboo Books Wu-wang is represented as “assembling the barbarians of the West (si-i) and the princes to attack Yin” (i.e. Shang); (Legge, Shu-king, Prolegomena, p. 144) which seems to imply that his ascendency was actually brought about by a foreign army. It is, therefore, quite possible that a portion of Wu-wang’s army was formed by the Kun barbarians, or Huns, of the Ordos territory, his nearest neighbors, defeated and, as we may assume, incorporated into his dominions by his father Wön-wang in 1138 b.c.
We need not be astonished from all this to find that Turkish words, like the one for Wu-wang’s dagger, have crept into the Chinese language, which is as much mixed up with foreign elements as is Chinese civilization generally. I wish to lay stress on this idea, which, it appears to me, has not been sufficiently appreciated by the historians, although at this stage we can but faintly trace the foreign influences affecting the nation, which during later centuries, in spite of the well-known conservative character of Chinese culture, have assumed such dimensions as almost to amount to amalgamation.
Ancient History of China to the End of the Chóu Dynasty, Friedrich Hirth, 1908, pp. 65–70.
Ancient History of China to the End of the Chóu Dynasty, Friedrich Hirth, 1908, pp. 65–70.