On the etymology of the title Tham of Burusho kings

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[The following is a guest post by John Mock.  I am impressed by how much detailed scholarship (although perhaps not always of great precision and rigor) on such an esoteric matter as that discussed herein already existed in the 18th and 19th centuries.]

John Biddulph in his book Tribes of the Hindoo Koosh (Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing, 1880), p. 24, wrote:

I have been told by a Nepalese gentleman that Thum is a Chinese title, meaning Governor, and that it is used in a reduplicated form Thum Thum, to signify a Governor General. [footnote: It is perhaps a corruption of the word Tung, which appears in many titles. The Chinese Governor of Kashgaria is called Tsung Tung, and the officer who commands the troops is styled Tung-lung.] Its very existence in these countries, where its origin has been completely lost sight of, is curious and must be extremely ancient.

Henry H. Howorth, in his article "The Northern Frontagers of China. Part VIII. The Kirais and Prester John", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 21 no. 2 (1889), pp. 383-5, discussing Tang relations with Uighurs, wrote:

The Chinese emperor at this time was called Tham vu tsum.", and, “During the reign of Tham yi tsum, from 860 to 874….

According to this list of emperors of the Tang dynasty, this would be Emperor Li Cui 李漼, reign 13 September 859–15 August 873; regnal era Xiantong 咸通, 860–873.

Emperor Yizong of Tang (December 28, 833 – August 15, 873), né Li Wen, later changed to Li Cui (Chinese: 李漼), was an emperor of the Tang dynasty of China. He reigned from 859 to 873. Yizong was the eldest son of Emperor Xuanzong. After Emperor Xuanzong's death in 859, Emperor Yizong was placed on the throne by the eunuch Wang Zongshi (王宗實), who killed other eunuchs supporting another son of Emperor Xuanzong, Li Zi the Prince of Kui.


Howorth cites as a reference a work by the Jesuit Claude de Visdelou (1656-1737), “Histoire de la Tartaire” (1780), p.70; p. 80.

However, Edwin H. Parker, in his article "China and the Pamirs", The Contemporary Review, 72 (December 1897), pp. 867-879, wrote on p. 872:

…Hunza and Nagar…, whose rulers, according to Dr. Leitner [Leitner seems to have adopted this etymology from Alexander Cunningham, Ladak (1854/1977), whom he quotes], used to bear the “Chinese title of Tham.” There is no such title in China, but it is conceivable that the somewhat contemptuous word t’ou-mu, or head-man (not a title), may be meant, for until quite recently the “head-man of the Kamchuti” (Kunjut) sent a small annual tribute of gold to Yarkand….

Parker continues his theory in “A Few Chinese Notes about Chitral, Hunza, &c”, in The China Review (1897), pp. 787-9.

The 'headeye' or t'ou-mu (a slightly contemptuous word, not a title, having much the same shade of meaning as 'boss') is in one place called Mir Rajah, and in the other Khamchüt. Here, clearly, we have a third form of Khandjut, and also the origin of the mysterious 'Chinese title of thun.'

However, Parker's t’ou-mu seems more likely to be from tümän-begi: “chief of ten thousand”, listed in KIM Hodong, “Eastern Turki Royal Decrees of the 17th Century in the Jaring Collection”, in Studies on Xinjiang Historical Sources in 17-20th Centuries, edited by James A. Millward, Yasushi Shinmen, and Jun Sugawara (Tokyo: Toyo Bunko, 2010), pp. 59-107. Kim cites Gustaf Raquette's 1912 Eastern Turki Grammar: Practical and Theoretical Vocabulary:

As Raquette has already remarked, tümän-begi, ming-begi, yüz begi and on-begi were originally military titles, but as the Moghuls moved into the Tarim Basin and their nomadic tribal bonds became gradually weakened, these titles seem to have transformed into those of civil officials governing local districts.

So, is Parker correct that there is no Chinese title of Tham, refuting Howorth and de Visdelou?  If so, then perhaps we should look to the Turkish title as the source of Burushaski Tham. Or, it may be an indigenous term.

Although the Turkish etymology is attractive, Tham, used in folklore/legends, seems earlier.

[VHM:  I have encountered some of these words in Tocharian, so that language should also be taken into account.  See, for example, "Tocharian, Turkic, and Old Sinitic 'ten thousand'" (4/23/19) — tummen, tumane, tmām for "ten thousand", which also has a cognate in Persian.]



John Mock, “A Tibetan Toponym from Afghanistan”, Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 27, Octobre 2013, pp. 5-9.


  1. Michael Watts said,

    May 17, 2020 @ 3:42 am

    There does seem to be a very strong match between "tham yi tsum" and what would be Tang Yizong in modern Mandarin. I'd be interested to know how closely it would match the Tang dynasty pronunciation.

  2. Michael Watts said,

    May 17, 2020 @ 3:44 am

    I take it Tham vu tsum was Tang Wuzong (840-846)?

  3. Chris Button said,

    May 17, 2020 @ 1:17 pm

    Just to be clear, are we talking about Burushaski? If so, since Burushaski appears to have a velar nasal coda, wouldn't it be weird for it to treat Chinese -ŋ as -m ?

  4. Michael Watts said,

    May 17, 2020 @ 2:24 pm

    I also wonder how the Uyghurs woud have known the name of the currently reigning emperor. If wikipedia is to be believed, Tang Wuzong and Tang Yizong are temple names, which were given posthumously.

  5. Francesco Brighenti said,

    May 17, 2020 @ 5:54 pm

    tham ‘prince, king’, pl. Yasin dialect thámu, Hunza dialect thámo
    thámkuṣ, Yasin dialect tháṅuṣ ‘kingship, sovereignty’
    tháaṅ ‘residence of the king, palace’,
    théeṅuṣ ‘king’s residence’
    (?) thaṅá ‘success, good reputation’
    According to Ilija Čašule, the etymology would indicate that the forms with ṅ are older, i.e. the change is ṅ > m.

  6. Chris Button said,

    May 17, 2020 @ 10:45 pm

    But what would the conditioning environment be? A shift of "thámkuṣ" to "tháṅuṣ" can be explained as -mk- becoming -ŋ- (-ṅ-)

  7. Not a naive speaker said,

    May 18, 2020 @ 3:07 am

    How is "Tham" pronounced?

    Is TH a dental fricative or an aspirated t?

  8. Michael Watts said,

    May 18, 2020 @ 5:42 pm

    With respect to the Uyghur transcriptions, I assume "th" is an aspirated t. That is the sound at the beginning of Tang. (Though again, it's the sound at the beginning of Tang now, not necessarily 1200 years ago.)

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 18, 2020 @ 7:09 pm

    This table of Burushashki phonology may be helpful:


  10. Chris Button said,

    May 19, 2020 @ 6:47 am

    Regarding possible associations with Tocharian "ten thousand", military titles like centurion, brigadier, etc. come to mind.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    May 19, 2020 @ 11:09 am

    The analogy with "centurion" I understand, Chris, but not that with "brigadier". Is there some numeric standard for the size of a brigade of which I am unaware ?

  12. Francesco Brighenti said,

    May 19, 2020 @ 4:05 pm

    The title _ṣoṭhaṃga_, attested in Kharoṣṭhī documents from Kroraina and indicating a collector of tributes and police commissioner, has been interpreted by some as a compound of Tibetan _so_ ‘soldier, keeper, guard, watchman, spy’ and the title _tham_, used for chiefs and kings in Gilgit-Baltistan.

    Bailey, however, derives _ṣoṭhaṃga_ from an Iranian source.

    It is further guessed that _tham_ is a Tibeto-Burman loanword identical or cognate with MC 天/tʰen/ ‘sky, heavens – see, e.g., at https://tinyurl.com/yct27oz4 (p. 62). The title would, thus, have meant something like ‘son of heaven’ or ‘heaven-born’.

  13. Francesco Brighenti said,

    May 19, 2020 @ 4:39 pm

    Moreover, D.L.R. Lorimer transcribes the Burushaski word for ‘king’s palace’ as /t(ʰ)ε•ŋʊš-/ (cp. H. Berger’s transcription théeṅuṣ-). MC 天 ‘sky, heaven’ is transcribed as /tʰɛn/ by E. Pulleyblank. Therefore, we have here a possible comparison of tʰɛn : : tʰε•ŋ-ʊš.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2020 @ 8:26 am

    Middle Sinitic reconstructions for 唐

    Zhengzhang Shangfang /dɑŋ/

    Pan Wuyun /dɑŋ/

    Shao Rongfen /dɑŋ/

    Edwin Pulleyblank /daŋ/

    Li Rong /dɑŋ/

    Wang Li /dɑŋ/

    Bernard Karlgren /dʱɑŋ/

    Axel Schuessler (2007) /dâŋ/

    Expected Mandarin Reflex táng

  15. John Mock said,

    May 20, 2020 @ 2:13 pm

    Muller-Stellrecht, Hunza: Materiallien Zur Ethnographie Von Dardistan (Pakistan): Aus Den Nachgelassenen Aufzeichnungen von D.L.R. Lorimer, vol. 1: Hunza, Graz: Akademische Druck, 1979, p.111;

    "The heavenly one (bur. áyaśo) has come down from the heavens, So "Ayáśo" remained as the name of Shah Tham."

    See Biddulph 1880 (op. cit.) pp.27-28 for an earlier notice of this term.

    Turner, R. L. (Ralph Lilley), Sir. A comparative dictionary of Indo-Aryan languages. London: Oxford University Press, 1962-1966. Includes three supplements, published 1969-1985. (accessed at https://dsalsrv04.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/soas/), entry 1009:

    1009 *ākāśiya — , ākāśyà — ʻ of the sky ʼ Pāṇini Kāśikāvr̥tti, ākāśīya- Suśruta [ākāśá — ] Prakrit āgāsiya — ʻ having reached the sky ʼ; Shina of Gilgit ăgái f. ʻ sky ʼ, Gurēsī dialect of Shina aṅáï (earlier *agāši → Ḍumāki *lgōṣ f. ʻ sky ʼ if ṣ recorded for š, Burushaski aiy*lš, Parachi (Parāčī — Iranian) āgḗš G. Morgenstierne, Indo-Iranian Frontier Languages. Oslo, 1929-56. i 232).

  16. Michael Watts said,

    May 20, 2020 @ 8:02 pm

    If the middle chinese pronunciation of 唐 uses a /d/ onset, I'm curious how modern Mandarin and… modern Uyghur? both came to use /tʰ/.

    When is the "tham vu tsum" rendering supposed to be from? Does it reflect how the Uygurs wrote the name in the 9th century? How they wrote it in the 19th century? How they pronounced, in the 19th century, a name that took an official written form in the 9th century? A direct transcription into 19th-century Uyghur of the 19th-century Chinese pronunciation?

  17. John Mock said,

    May 21, 2020 @ 12:26 am

    The two renderings, "Tham vu tsum" and "Tham yi tsum" were published in 1889 by H.H.Howorth (op.cit.), Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25208940.

    Howorth's source is referenced as Claude de Visdelou, a Jesuit missionary sent to China in 1687 by Louis XIV. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Claude_de_Visdelou

    Howorth appears to have been writing about Uighurs using de Visdelou's translations "from Chinese historians [of] unique documents on the peoples of Central and Eastern Asia, Huns, Tatars, Mongols, and Turks" (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Claude_de_Visdelou)

    It seems that Howorth was correct that there was a "Chinese title" corresponding to the Hunza title of "Tham", but there are problems with assigning the Hunza title as a borrowing from the Chinese, as indicated in the insightful posts above, largely on phonological grounds.

    The semantic field is very broad and the concept of heavenly kings, which extends beyond what has been mentioned, is a separate topic.

    The etymology of 'Tham" opens to Chinese, Sanskrit, Turkic, Tibetan and possibly an as-yet unidentified substrate. Data emerging from genetics, anthropology, linguistics, history and archaeology may lead to some concurrence on the various hypotheses proposed. I don't think we're there yet, but appreciate and welcome all communication.

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