The bearded barbarian

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Ben Zimmer mentioned to me that he was on the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley talking about the origins of the word "gringo":

It's most likely derived from Spanish "Griego" 'Greek' to refer to the "gibberish" of foreign speakers. That has led to some discussions of similar words for foreigner-talk in various languages. On Twitter, Mara Katz (a linguistics MA student at Simon Fraser University) wrote:

To continue the "gringo" discussion: you know how "barbarian" prob comes from Greek, in which foreigners say "bar bar bar"? well that "barbarian" shares a root with "barber" and the Spanish (barba) and French (barbe) words for beard. Not only that, but in Chinese the word for beard (胡子) has an archaic root meaning "foreign." It seems that in cultures that call themselves civilized, you're weird if you don't shave.

I responded that the connection between "barbarian" and Latin "barba" 'beard' is a folk-etymological one, posited for instance by Cassiodorus in his Expositio Psalmorum, but that modern etymologists reject the beard story. She asked about the Chinese beard/foreigner connection, and I said I'd check on that one!

This is a tough call in Chinese.  Let me begin by saying that there are lots of expressions in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) that are formed through combination with hú 胡.  Here are just a few examples:

húshuō(bādào) 胡说(八道) — "nonsense; ridiculous; bullshit"

húrén 胡人 — "barbarian"

húzi 胡子 — "beard"

húluàn 胡乱 — "casually; randomly; carelessly"

hújiāo 胡椒 — "black pepper (Piper nigrum)"

hú(sī luàn)xiǎng 胡(思乱)想 ("imagine things; think wild thoughts")

húbiān (luànzào) 胡编(乱造) ("fabricate; make things up")

húnào 胡闹 ("act wild; be mischievous")

From the time I began studying Chinese long ago, I have often wondered if all of these expressions — which include some of my favorite parts of the Chinese lexicon — had something to do with wild, bearded barbarians from the west (whence derived pepper and other hú 胡-prefixed plants that came to China from primarily Iranian-speaking areas early on).

The question is, when we use these expressions, what is implied by the hú 胡 part?  That's up in the air, so we have to approach this character carefully.  Here are some of its main meanings:


1. beard

2. non-Sinitic person from the north or northwest

3. lane, alley


4. recklessly, foolishly, wildly

5. wantonly

6. carelessly


7. why?

We can eliminate #3 and #7 from consideration in this context, since the former is simply used to transcribe the sound of the first syllable of a Mongolian word for well at the end of an alley (hútòng 胡同 [simpl.] / 衚衕 [trad.]) and the latter represents a completely separate morpheme.

Now it begins to get really tricky, because it is possible that certain non-Sinitic peoples to the north and northwest were thought of as hú 胡 because they had hú 胡 ("beards") and that these hú 胡 folk behaved in a very hú 胡 ("wild; uncontrolled; unruly") fashion.  But this is a semantic and etymological minefield upon which we must tread cautiously.

Some points to consider:

1. The earliest meaning of hú 胡 is generally considered to be "tissue drooping down under the chin of an animal (e.g., dewlap)" — note that the character has a "flesh" radical.

2. By extension, it came to mean "part of a weapon that hangs down", and this is probably also how the meaning "beard" arose ("the pendulous mass of hair under a man's chin").

3. Hú 胡 also developed the meaning of "neck" (the part of an animal behind the thing hanging down) and "broad; large", which I've written about extensively in Victor H. Mair, " Was There a Xià Dynasty?", Sino-Platonic Papers, 238 (May, 2013), 1-39. See esp. p. 9 where the Old Sinitic reconstruction of hú 胡/鬍 (“beard; bearded person”) is given as *’ga (in Jerry Norman’s spelling system according to David Branner), together with cognates in Tibetan.

4. We do not know exactly when hú 胡 came to mean "non-Sinitic people from the north or northwest" and when exactly it came to mean "beard", but both of these meanings were already in place at least a millennium and a half ago.  The earliest mention I know of for hú 胡 with the meaning of "non-Sinitic people from the west" is in the Zhōu lǐ 周 礼 (Rituals of the Zhou), which is a Western Han (206 BC-9 AD) text, whereas the earliest occurrence of hú 胡 with the meaning "beard" that I'm aware of is considerably later, during the Liang period (502-587) of the Southern Dynasties.

5. When hú was first used to signify the meaning of "beard", it was written with the same character as that for "fleshy appendage hanging beneath the chin / throat of an animal", viz., 胡.  It was only about half a millennium later (as I recall from memory) that a separate character, 鬍, with a "hair" radical added to the top, was invented for the meaning "beard" to distinguish it from the other meanings of hú 胡.  The simplified form in use today in China has simply gone back to the original character, whereas the "traditional" form in use in Taiwan is relatively younger.

6. Before the rise of hú 胡 in the sense of "full beard hanging beneath the chin", there was another word for beard, and that was rán 髯, which can be attested in works concerning the Han (206 BC-220 AD) and Three Kingdoms (220-280 AD) periods.  It is noteworthy, however, that rán 髯 refers specifically to whiskers on the side of the cheeks.

7. Another early word for "beard; whiskers; facial hair" was xū 鬚 (that's the "traditional", i.e., "complicated" form; the PRC simplified form is and early form is 須), with many attestations from the Han period and even before.

8. Prior to the rise of hú 胡 in the sense of "full beard hanging beneath the chin", Chinese texts referring to people from the west with big, full beards would describe them as having duō xūrán 多须髯 ("lots of whiskers"), as well as deep-set eyes and "high" (i.e., "long") noses.

9. The etymology of hú 胡 in the sense of "steppe nomads" is generally considered to be "unknown".  See Axel Schuessler's ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, p. 281.

So, after all that, where do we stand?

I asked half a dozen educated Chinese, some of whom actually specialize on the study of the northern and western non-Sinitic peoples in Chinese history, if they associate expressions like húshuō bādào 胡说八道 ("nonsense; ridiculous; bullshit") and húrén 胡人 ("barbarian") with húzi 胡子 ("beard"), and — without hesitation — every single one of them said that they do not.  On the other hand, several of them speculated that there might be a historical association between hú 胡 in the sense of "beard" and hú 胡 meaning "person with a beard" and "person with a beard who acts / speaks wildly / carelessly".  Judging from this statue and the well-documented essay it accompanies, you can get a clear impression of how Chinese of the Tang period (618-907) conceived hú 胡 people with their huge hú 胡 ("beards") hanging beneath their chins.  It shows a band of musicians with a dancer on top of a camel's back!  There are many examples of statues like this, though sometimes the musicians on the camel's back are a girl band, so no beards.

[Thanks to Dali Yao, Haiqing Wen, Sanping Chen, Fangyi Cheng, Xiuyuan Mi, and Jing Wen]


  1. Frank said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 9:52 am

    There seems to be a lot of play with this when it comes to traditions around Bodhidharma. The second Koan in the Gateless Gate collection has Baizhong saying something about him like, "I knew the barbarian had a red beard, but now I see that he was a red-bearded barbarian." The translations of this passage are often wildly at odds with each other trying to get the pun (and the zen?) to come out right.

  2. Eidolon said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 11:21 am

    It sounds as though 胡 as in "beard" is a neologism of the 5th-6th centuries, and therefore was not a referent to the bearded visage of western/northern "barbarians" when it first gained the usage of "barbarian." In that case, it may have been a phonetic transcription, eg a cognate of "Hun".

    In any case, I always found it amusing that 胡子 is literally "son of a barbarian" – and therefore, a man's beard was his son. Of course, this is a misreading of the suffix 子, which is simply a noun indicator here. Still, an useful witticism for parties.

  3. Mara K said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

    Thank you very much for answering my question! Although I feel that in learning this, I've lost one of my Professional Linguist Party TricksTM. What do you recommend to replace it?

  4. Mara K said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

    Dangit, that was supposed to be a superscript…

  5. John Cowan said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 12:29 pm

    Is the Zen koan "Why has the western barbarian no beard?" related to this somehow? Bodhidharma, the western barbarian in question is generally shown with a beard.

  6. Y said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

    Thanks for the statue photos. Now I know what smurfs looked like before they shaved.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 1:54 pm

    Eidolon was very sharp to suggest that the pre-"beard" hú 胡 name assigned to some of the northern and northwestern nomads was probably a transcription of the sound of the name of one of the groups in question.

  8. flow said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 2:23 pm

    The guys on the camel's back look *exactly* like German garden gnomes (Gartenzwerge), also widely known as Heinzelmännchen (see and, maybe apart from them being imagined as being of rather short, stocky and often slightly obese stature in Germany, whereas in the Tang figurine they look rather slender. Especially remarkable is the similarity of their bonnets with the tops drooping to the front, a feature often seen in garden dwarfs and prominently displayed in the Cologne house gnome fountain.

  9. hanmeng said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

    Don't forget 狐臭与胡臭.

  10. K Chang said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 8:45 pm

    Recently did check the origin of húshuō(bādào) 胡说(八道), and it seems indeed to have been folklorized. The story on Baike was it was indeed derived from húrén 胡人, who don't speak the language in the "central plains" 中原 and thus, anything they say, thus 胡說 is unintelligible nonsense. The 八道 (badao) was probably embellishment, evoking an image of 胡人 trying to explain the 8 principles of taoism 八道. Sounds a bit too "convenient" and retcon to me.

    But there is no link with that and beard, though "history of facial hair in Asian cultures" may be an interesting study.

  11. George Gibbard said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 11:25 pm

    According to wikipedia, the term Hui for Han-speaking Muslims was formerly Huihe or Huihu (later Huihui), derived from "Uyghur". Is the -hu in this word possibly related to the one you're talking about? (Wikipedia does not have the tones) Is there a connection to Turkic Oghur/Oghuz? (

  12. George Gibbard said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 11:36 pm

    Oghur is also said to be part of the etymology of "Hungary" (while Hungarian is Finno-Ugric, it contains early borrowings from Turkic, specifically the branch spoken by the Bulgars who were the ancestors of the Chuvash and possibly a division of the Huns).

  13. George Gibbard said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 11:51 pm

    The successors of the Huns in the west included Kutrigurs and Utigurs:

  14. fisheyed said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 1:44 am

    How did a man from Kanchi get a red beard?

    But didn't the Chinese themselves have beards at this point (of associating beards with foreigners)? I admit my knowledge of Chinese history comes primarily from Run Run Shaw, in which every older man has a beard for thoughtful stroking.

  15. Michael Cargal said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 2:01 am

    If I didn't know as much as I do about memory, I'd be sure of this one. One would of course want to check with an actual epigrapher, but I recall from undergraduate college 40+ years ago reading an (akkadian/sumerian/ god knows where) document where foreigners were called something like "bera bera," and the footnote said it was an approximation of the sound of a foreign language. Since some words came from generically mespotamian languages, I wonder if (1) I am remembering correctly and (2) if they are in fact related.

  16. flow said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 2:28 am

    @K Chang—reading your comment on what they have to say about 胡說八道 on Baike, 七上八下 and 亂七八糟 come to my mind. It looks as though 七, 八 act as 'conflicting, non-small numbers' here (they are coprime and Euler's phi function reaches a maximum for seven among the numbers below ten), so they're used to describe "a group of people split up into factions that act in conflicting ways", hence, "chaotic".

    One could conjecture that 胡說八道 originated as sth. like 胡說(就是)亂七八糟 "the Hu people say / the Hu people's speech is a mess / incomprehensible"; later, that may have become shortened to 胡說八糟 (in itself a pun where 胡說 replaces 亂七, thereby 'making a mess' of the expression that expresses "a mess"). Still later, the almost homophone and rhyming 道 might have replaced 糟, maybe in an effort to make the expression more (or less, as the case may be) understandable, or to bring in some religious reference. Just a wild conjecture. Incidentally, there's also 胡道 (, a synonym for 胡說.

    Maybe just a coincidence, but now we've collected a fair number of expressions a la hu——(d/z/n/ji)ao.

    In any case, i'm wondering whether 胡說 has anything to do with 糊塗 "stupid" (i believe i've heard that one pronounced as [hudu] for [hutu].)

  17. julie lee said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 11:08 am

    @ Victor Mair's post: "deep-set eyes and "high" (i.e., "long") noses."

    I understand "high noses", a common phrase in Chinese used to describe Caucasians, to mean, not _long_ noses but _high_ noses. That "high" refers to the bridge of the nose (between the eyes). The Chinese nose-bridge is typically low or flat, whereas the Caucasian, Middle Eastern, and South Asian (Indian) nose-bridge is high.

    I suffer personally from having a low nose-bridge because my eye-glasses keep sliding down my nose, and often down to the floor. This is when I wish I had a high nose-bridge—a "high" nose. Our eye-glasses were designed for "high" noses, Caucasian noses, i.e., high nose-bridges, on which the eye-glasses (spectacles) can sit firmly and not slide down the nose. The designer obviously didn't think of the "flat" nose-bridges of Chinese and other East Asians like myself.

  18. julie lee said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 11:46 am


    Re. the connection of Hu "barbarian, wild (behavior), foreign" and the word "Hun (s)" , I always agreed with the scholars who believed Mandarin _xiong nu_匈奴 was a transcription of the word "Hun" because of the description of their activities on the northern borders of China and in Central Asia during the Han dynasty and before. But I'd pronounced "Huns" to rhyme with English "buns".
    One evening I sat next to a visiting scholar from Turkey, and we began talking of the Uighurs in western China whose language, Uighur, is a Turkic language. And he said : "We Turks in Turkey are the descendants of the Hoons." Then I realized Mandarin xiongnu must have been pronounced "Hoong nu", two characters because the Chinese topolect used probably didn't have a syllable "hoon" and hoongnu was the closest they could come up with. The character/syllable "nu“奴 was a nice pick because it means "slave", a pejorative term like "infidel". "You slave!" means "You dog!" or "Infidel !" (When my dad was angry with us children, he'd say: "(You) slave!! (i.e., lazy, stupid)" in Mandarin.)

    So it's not inconceivable that the word Hu (Hoo) is a cognate of Hoong (Hun).

  19. Victor Mair said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 12:05 pm

    I had thought of these two important articles by the late Qing-early Republican period scholar, Wang Guowei 王 国维 (1877-1927), but neglected to include them in the o.p.:

    Xī Hú kǎo 西胡考 ("Studies on the Western Hu")

    Xī Hú xùkǎo 西胡续考 ("Further Studies on the Western Hu")

    They are collected here:

    Wang Guowei, Guantang jilin 观堂集林 (Shijiazhuang: Hebei jiaoyu chubanshe, 2003), vol. 13, pp. 307-314.

    They may be read online here:

    Wang does not identify the name of the original group on which the presumable transcription Hú 胡 was based, but he assembles a large amount of relevant references to the Hu in early sources.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

    Julie Lee raises a very interesting point about "high" versus "long" noses. The term in Chinese, particularly popular during the medieval period is gāobí 高鼻, which literally does mean "high nose". As a translator, however, I have almost always demurred from rendering it as "high nose", because that might imply something else in English. This brief forum thread is not a fully adequate response to the dilemma of how to handle gāobí 高鼻 in English, but at least it gives one an idea of the difficulties involved.

    Cf. bízi hěn gāo 鼻子很高 ("a prominent nose")

    In earlier times, there was another expression for "long / high nose", namely lóngzhǔn 隆準, where lóng 隆 is "grand" and zhǔn 準 is "nose" (I think esp. "bridge of the nose" and lots of other meanings such as "norm; rule[r]; something that may be used to determine straightness and levelness", whence "[straight] bridge of the nose" is probably derived), hence "high bridge of nose".

    The founding emperor of the Han Dynasty, Gaozu 高祖 (personal name Liu Bang 刘邦; 256 / 247-195 BC, r. 202-195 BC), was described as having such a nose (he also had a "dragon countenance" (龙颜). In fact, so distinctive was Gaozu's grand proboscis that in many texts, including those written centuries later, he was sometimes referred to as lóngzhǔn 隆准 ("high bridge of nose").

  21. Chau said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 9:20 pm

    @ flow

    Hútú 糊塗 sometimes stands alone (short form) and sometimes goes with húlĭ 糊裏 to form húlĭ hútú 糊裏糊塗 (long form). Both the short and long forms mean the same thing, ‘muddled, foolish’ (adj.) and ‘stupidly, foolishly’ (adv.). Húlĭ 糊裏 (Taiwanese hô·-lí) corresponds to Old Norse (ON) fóli ‘fool’ and hútú 糊塗 (Tw hô·-tô·) to the first element of ON furðu-heimskr ‘very foolish’. When fóli combines with furðu-heimskr, we have a pleonastic combination of 2 synonyms, fóli-furðu-heimskr ‘fool very foolish’. The long word gets simplified by losing the last element heimskr so that *fóli-furðu is obtained. This may be the origin of húlĭ hútú 糊裏糊塗.

  22. julie lee said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 10:41 pm

    @Victor Mair, re "high nose".

    I've often had this experience, that when I contradict Victor Mair, it boomerangs—either I turn out to be wrong, or it turns out he has a very good reason for making what looks like a mistake.

    Thank you Victor for the early classical term lóngzhǔn 隆准 ("high bridge of nose"), which I never knew before.

  23. julie lee said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 10:51 pm


    Fantastic. Old Norse*fóli-furðu does look like the origin of Mandarin húlĭ hútú 糊裏糊塗 "muddled; addled". Initial f- and h- are often interchanged. People in Hunan province, for instance, pronounce Mandarin h- as f- . So they'll say "Funan" instead of "Hunan" , and say fuli-futu "muddled" for Mandarin huli-hutu.

  24. Chris C. said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 3:25 pm

    Your "Was There a Xia Dynasty?" paper was fascinating by itself, but it also led me to E. Bruce Brooks' pages, and what I had intended to be a brief visit to LL turned into several hours of absorbing reading. Thank you!

  25. Victor Mair said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 4:43 pm

    Marc S. Abramson, author of Ethnic Identity in Tang China (UPenn Press, 2007), writes:


    I don’t recall detailing that particular linkage (VHM: beards and barbarians) in my book, but it’s been more than a few years — I remember spending some time on the connection between foxes (hu) and barbarians (hu) and the layered meanings of the term huchou (body odor). The link you draw below seems very plausible, at a minimum on the level of popular etymology.


  26. Calvin said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 6:12 pm

    @Victor Mair, there should be a forth category of definition for 胡:
    9. foreign

    You gave one example of such use:
    胡椒 — literally means "foreign peppercorn". This is to distinguish from 花椒 (Sichuan pepper) which was native to China.
    胡蘿蔔 — carrot
    胡瓜— cucumber (now called 黃瓜

    There are similar usages with 西, 洋, 番:
    西紅柿 — tomato
    西瓜 — watermelon
    西洋菜 — watercress
    洋火 — match
    洋燭 — white candle made from paraffin wax
    番茄 — tomato
    番薯 — sweet potato
    番石榴 — guava

  27. Victor Mair said,

    August 29, 2015 @ 8:50 pm


    Fair enough, but that hú 胡 which you define as "foreign" is actually derived from the hú 胡 which is the main topic of discussion in this post (those western, non-Sinitic people, chiefly Iranian speakers, during medieval times). Hújiāo 胡椒 ("black pepper"), which I mention in the o.p., is one of those "hú 胡-prefixed plants that came to China from primarily Iranian-speaking areas early on".

    See Berthold Laufer, Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran (Chicago 1919), pp. 374-375, and the húluóbo 胡蘿蔔 ("carrot") that you cite is another; see pp. 451-454 in Laufer, Sino-Iranica, for which there is a beautiful facsimile here.

    The huājiāo 花椒 that you mention is discussed at great length in this post:

    "Wonton in Zanthoxylum schinifolium etzucc sauce"

    Just as the sense of hú 胡 as "foreign" is derived from "western, non-Sinitic people", so too did the notion of "foreign" derive from earlier, more specific meanings of xī 西 ("west[ern]"), yáng 洋 ("ocean"), and fān 番 ("people in the southwestern border area and things pertaining to them").

  28. Birdseeding said,

    August 30, 2015 @ 2:47 am

    A rather antiziganist-tinged Swedish word for "foreign gibberish" is rotvälska which I understand shares a common germanic root with the word Welsh, as in person from Wales. (As well as a whole bunch of other ethnic exonyms, apparently:

    Is this sort of connection (word for "stranger" -> ethnic exonym) more common than the reverse as in the "all greek to me"/"Gringo" example?

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