Questionable Sino-Mongolian toponymy

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News article from Xinhua (1/16/18, by Quan Xiaoshu, Qu Ting, Cao Pengyuan):

"Ancient tripartite-city of Xiongnu a special religious and meeting site: archaeologists"

It starts:

The ruins of an ancient tripartite-city, known as Sanlian City, in midwest Mongolia's Khermental City, demonstrates that the Xiongnu tribe used to perform religious ceremonies and hold alliance meetings there.

Bathrobe comments:

Now, it may be due to my poor web research skills, but I'm having considerable difficulty finding any Sanlian city or even a Khermental city in Mongolia outside of the Xinhua news article.

Is this another mangled news story where Chinese news reporters are too incompetent (or maybe arrogant) to check the names of geographical places outside of China? I'm also wondering at the thickskinned-ness of calling the archaeological site of a non-Chinese culture in a foreign country by a name so transparently Chinese as "Sanlian".

Comment by Jichang Lulu:

As usual, the Xinhua article is horribly mangled up. Of course 'Sanlian' is not a Mongolian word, and there is no such a 'city' in Mongolia. This is just Xinhua translators and editors not bothering to understand what they write about.

Here's the original article in Chinese.

'Sanlian City' is actually Sānliánchéng 三连城, a name archaeologists have given to 'three continuous/connected fortresses' at a site in Mongolia. The location is known as Khermen/Kheremt Tal Хэрмэн/Хэрэмт Тал in Mongolian. Kherem can mean 'city wall', just like chéng 城 in Chinese (the Great Wall is called Цагаан хэрэм Tsagaan kherem – the 'white wall'). Kheremt is an adjectival form. Tal means field or valley.

The site is located in Ögiinuur sum (district), Arkhangai aymag. Google "Uginuur, Mongolia" to see it on Google Maps.

The site has been excavated by a joint team since '14 (report here).

This was in the news a couple of months ago when a Henan team departed for Arkhangai (news article here).

As I noticed on Twitter back then:

Curious bit (mistake?) in EN version: "Xiongnu and China" clashed during Han. Official-ish view is that Xiongnu were a 'Chinese minority'

The new Xinhua article in Chinese is also quite cautious in referring to the Xiongnu's importance to the history of both countries. In purely internal propaganda, you can find references to the Xiongnu as somehow helping build a 'Chinese nation' and merging into it; we've discussed this on LL, e.g., this comment.

The Xinhua article avoids this nonsense, possibly due to (a) receiving input from actual serious historians and archaeologists who don't see their work as an aspect of propaganda and (b) the fact that this is joint research carried out abroad with Mongolians scientists. Any Chinese construal of the research results as supporting Chinese retroactive claims to the Xiongnu in today's Mongolia would certainly backfire over there.

Xinhua aside, this is certainly very interesting research.

For challenges in the Chinese transcription of Mongolic, Tibetan, and Turkic names, cf.:

"The Last Lesson — in Mongolian" (1/11/18)

"A confusion of languages and names" (7/8/16) — mostly about transcriptional practice for names in Xinjiang

"Weaponized Tibetan Pinyin" (5/12/17) — citing other posts dealing with Chinese transcriptions of Tibetan names

For interesting comments on the relationships between Xiongnu ( || Hun) and Mongolic, see:

"'Lie Fallow Small And Pave" (4/19/12)

When I began the study of Chinese history and culture in the mid-60s, everything that I learned about the Xiongnu and the Han (Chinese) is that they were mortal enemies, and there was plenty of historical, literary, and archeological evidence to support such a view.  By the time I started to travel to China in the early 80s, it had become politically convenient (actually de rigeur) in the PRC to speak of the Xiongnu as brothers of the Han who together forged the Chinese nation, as mentioned by Jichang Lulu above.


  1. Lazar said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 10:11 pm

    Tal means field or valley.

    That's a lovely false cognate of German Tal.

  2. Adrian said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 3:38 am

    Bathrobe's search skills are a tad off. My Google search for "khermental mongolia" throws up Khermen Tsav as the 4th result, and a search for "khermen tal mongolia" is even more productive. One does need to be a bit creative, and follow up such leads like a detective, in order to find places that have been badly transcribed. It's certainly a valid point that journalists report foreign place names without checking whether they're correctly spelled/transcribed. A few years ago I had a similar problem with news reports about a so-called "Salehana" in Pakistan:

  3. Bathrobe said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 5:05 am

    Khermen Tsav is in South Gobi province. Khermen Denj is in Tuv province. Neither has anything to do with Kherment Tal.

    Kheremt is a short form of Kheremtei, meaning 'having a wall/fort'. Tal means 'field, steppe, plain'. So it means 'wall on a plain' or 'plain with a wall'. There is no 'Khermental City'.

    It is true, however, that a search on 'khermen tal mongolia' does yield a page on Chinese archaeology at which refers to 'Khermen Tal site in Arkhangai Province' (located in Ogiinuur Sum, not Kheremtal City), a search on which then leads to further information. A search on Хэрэмт Тал (but not Хэрэм Тал) in Mongolian also yields a few hits.

    The best way is to do as Jichang Lulu did: find the Chinese original.

    No doubt I was wrong to accuse the Xinhua translators of arrogance when the error can be put down entirely to incompetence. Unfortunately, the atmosphere within the PRC, which makes it difficult to see the world through anything but a Chinese (and Chinese-language) lens, helps foster this kind of sloppiness.

    I doubt whether Western people would be so forgiving if a Chinese article mentioned a visit to the famous City of Jiujinshan in the US, with the highlight being a view of Golddoor Bridge. The only thing that appears to stop Chinese from writing 'Jiujinshan' instead of San Francisco is that San Francisico is famous enough to be widely known and easily looked up.

  4. Bathrobe said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 5:13 am

    The Salehana example is entirely apposite. The only difference is that the people who write news in the UK are ordinary hacks and aren't very sophisticated when it comes to foreign languages. The people who translate Xinhua articles for consumption by the rest of the world are supposed to be more linguistically informed and more meticulous in their work.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 6:53 am

    That's a lovely false cognate of German Tal.

    More so in spelling than in pronunciation: the German one has a long vowel (unmarked in spelling because monosyllabic words always get long vowels if they don't end in too many consonants).

  6. Marcel Erdal said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 8:15 am

    May I add that kermen 'citadel' is a term used all around the Turkic world all the way to present-day Ukraine.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 8:59 am

    If only the piece had run into an editor with an unreasoning prescriptivist dislike for passive constructions, the phrase "known as Sanlian City" might have elicited the appropriate question "known to whom?"

  8. languagehat said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 9:22 am

    May I add that kermen 'citadel' is a term used all around the Turkic world all the way to present-day Ukraine.

    In case anyone's wondering: no, that's not the source of Russian кремль [kreml'] 'kremlin' (which is cognate with кремень [kremen'] 'flint').

  9. Jichang Lulu said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 3:35 pm

    This article (in Mongolian) by J. Gantulga discusses work in the area by Mongolian archaeologists (in some cases with partners from Hungary and Monaco) going back to the '50s. Our site is mentioned both as Kheremt and Khermen tal, with its three 'citadels'. The Xiongnu connection has been known for a long time.

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