Kunlun: the origins and meanings of a mysterious place name

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A recent post introduced the evocative place name, Kunlun:

"Kunlun: Roman letter phonophores for Chinese characters" (2/16/21)

As we learned from the previous post, Kunlun is known from historical and fictional sources dating to the last two millennia and more to refer to mythological and geographically locatable mountains in Central Asia and in the far west as well as to vague places in Southeast Asia and blacks associated with them.

Simply because of the wide range of referents, one cannot help but be intrigued how it transpired that the same unusual name, which mostly refers to mountains, can be so broadly dispersed.

To get a handle on this mysterious name, we first have to see how it is written.  In traditional characters, it normally appears as Kūnlún 崑崙.  In simplified form, which actually has a long history, it is written 昆仑.  Among the multiplicity of variant orthographic / Sinographic forms that Kunlun possesses, it also may be written as 崐崘,崑崘, and so forth.  As with so many other old disyllabic Sinitic words that have variant orthographic / Sinographic forms, and whose sounds are like rhyming binoms, the phonology of "Kunlun" suggests a dimidiated nature that masks a consonant cluster.

What might be the original sound of the undimidiated word whence the rhyming binom kūnlún evolved?

  • Old Sinitic reconstruction
(Zhengzhang): /*kuːn  ruːn/

That may reflect an undimidiated /*kruːn/.  What word does *kruːn resemble in which language where it most likely would signify a sacred / holy / mystical mountain?

Kunlun reminds me vaguely of the 1997 American epic biographical film about the Dalai Lama, Kundun.  However, since "Kundun" (སྐུ་མདུན་ Wylie: sku mdun in Tibetan), meaning "presence", is a title by which the Dalai Lama is addressed, the semantics don't seem right to match with Kunlun, nor do the phonetics match.

Kunlun also suggests the latter two syllables of another mountain range name, viz., Karakoram (Hindi:  kārākoram काराकोरम; similar pronunciations in Pashto, Urdu, and Uyghur).

Karakoram is a Turkic term meaning black gravel. The Central Asian traders originally applied the name to the Karakoram Pass. Early European travellers, including William Moorcroft and George Hayward, started using the term for the range of mountains west of the pass, although they also used the term Muztagh (meaning, "Ice Mountain") for the range now known as Karakoram. Later terminology was influenced by the Survey of India, whose surveyor Thomas Montgomerie in the 1850s gave the labels K1 to K6 (K for Karakoram) to six high mountains visible from his station at Mount Haramukh in Kashmir Valley.

In ancient Sanskrit texts (Puranas), the name Krishnagiri (black mountains) was used to describe the range.


Does ostensibly Turkic "Karakoram" ("black gravel") have anything to do with "Kunlun"?  Let's take a closer look at "Kunlun":

The Kunlun Mountains (simplified Chinese: 昆仑山; traditional Chinese: 崑崙山; pinyin: Kūnlún Shān, pronounced [kʰu̯ə́nlu̯ə̌n ʂán]; Mongolian: Хөндлөн Уулс, Khöndlön Uuls; Uighur: كۇئېنلۇن تاغ تىزمىسى) (the name is originated from the Mongolian word Хөндлөн Khöndlön, meaning "Horizontal", referring to its characteristics) constitute one of the longest mountain chains in Asia, extending for more than 3,000 kilometres (1,900 mi). In the broadest sense, the chain forms the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau south of the Tarim Basin.

The exact definition of this range varies. An old source uses Kunlun to mean the mountain belt that runs across the center of China, that is, Kunlun in the narrow sense: Altyn Tagh along with the Qilian and Qin Mountains. A recent source has the Kunlun range forming most of the south side of the Tarim Basin and then continuing east south of the Altyn Tagh. Sima Qian (Records of the Grand Historian, scroll 123) says that Emperor Wu of Han sent men to find the source of the Yellow River and gave the name Kunlun to the mountains at its source. The name seems to have originated as a semi-mythical location in the classical Chinese text Classic of Mountains and Seas.


Despite the superficial resemblance between Kunlun (*kruːn) and (Kara)koram and the fact that they both refer to sacred or mythical mountains of Central Asia, there are problems in trying to link up the two names.  First, Sinitic Kunlun is a very old name dating back to at least the first millennium BC, whereas Turkic (Kara)koram cannot be attested before the first millennium AD.  Second, the phonological correspondence between Kunlun (*kruːn) and (Kara)koram is not compelling.

Similar problems obtain in trying to connect Sinitic Kunlun and Mongolian Хөндлөн Уулс (Khöndlön Uuls), since the Mongolian term is much later than the Sinitic and, although it has a seemingly relevant meaning of its own ("horizontal"), if it is indeed related to the Sinitic, it would have been borrowed from the latter, whose semantic connotation is unknown.  Moreover, the source of the "d" between "n" and "l" is not immediately obvious.

So, although I continue to be fascinated by the name Kunlun (*kruːn) and its far-reaching correspondences, its signification and origins remain unknown, though I will keep looking for convincing, verifiable connections.


Selected readings


  1. Avi Rappoport said,

    February 24, 2021 @ 12:29 pm

    Hi, I think there's a typo:

    "vague places in Southeast Asia and blacks associated with them"

    You mention black mountains further down, is that what you meant?

  2. Marcel Erdal said,

    February 24, 2021 @ 1:39 pm

    qorum ‘massive rock, heap of rocks’ is attested in Old Uyghur, e.g. in the binome qorum qaya, as well as in the 11th century Qutadgu Bilig, in the Secret History of the Mongols and in Middle Turkic, and appears in several entries in the 11th century encyclopedia of Mahmûd of Kâshghar. It is still in use as a noun with this meaning in a number of south Siberian Turkic languages. Sources written in Semitic alphabets can also reflect the pronunciation qorom with the second vowel assimilated to the first, and this shape of the word regularly became qoram in Modern Uyghur. Qara means ‘black’ in both Turkic and Mongolic, and the place name Qara Qorum in central Mongolia is connected with the person of Jinggis Khan. The name of that city as well as that of the mountain range, in Pakistan and in a number of adjacent countries, must have come from Turkic and must have this Turkic etymology. It is, I think, quite unlikely that it should have preceded the advent of the Turks.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    February 24, 2021 @ 2:26 pm

    @Avi Rappoport

    No, I meant black people, as mentioned and discussed in the previous post on Kunlun:

    "Kunlun: Roman letter phonophores for Chinese characters" (2/16/21)


  4. Hang Zhao said,

    February 24, 2021 @ 6:25 pm

    In China there are a hugh gathering of word have similar meaning 祁连kilian(sky in Xiongnu language), 库伦kulun(mongolian camp), 丘陵kiuling(Hügelland), 轱辘kha rog(wheel) all have some connection with Kunlun, they both represent something which is round, this possibly originated from Accient Tocharian, and have a connection with how accient Chinese see the world 天圆地方(Sky is round, earth is suqare).

    The word Kunlun could be a symbol how accients see the word sky, when gather down the sky, during the night sky shows nothing but a round, black peace, and the meaning black in Turkic Karakoram Mongolian Kara and are derivation of Kunlun.

  5. Chris Button said,

    February 24, 2021 @ 11:15 pm

    "Of reindeer and Old Sinitic reconstructions" (12/23/18)

    … along with the Qilian and Qin Mountains …

    This reminds me of Pulleyblank's ("Chinese and Indo-Europeans 1966) suggestion that 麒麟 might have some connection with 祁連.

    It then also brings to mind Lin Meicun's "Qilian and Kunlun – The Earliest Tokharian loanwords in Ancient Chinese" (1998)

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