Following the donkey’s trail: A linguistic and archaeological study on the introduction of domestic donkeys to China


Samira Müller, Milad Abedi, Wolfgang Behr, Patrick Wertmann, University of Zurich

Datum und Zeit

1. Juni 2022, 15:00–16:00 Uhr

Ort (online und vor Ort)

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Die Vorlesung findet zudem als Präsenzveranstaltung statt: Universität Zürich, Hörsaal SOD-1-104, Schönberggasse 9, 8001 Zürich


Forschungsprojekt «Sino-Indo-Iranica rediviva», Asien-Orient-Institut – Sinologie


In this talk, we will compare archaeological evidence, art historical data as well as historical sources and manuscripts with findings from historical linguistics to trace the tangled paths trodden by domestic donkeys and their hybrid relatives on their way to Early China. The data at hand suggest that donkeys were already known in Achaemenid Persia and quickly gained popularity among the adjacent steppe peoples as powerful pack and draft animals. As such they moved further east where they ultimately became known to the Han dynastic court as domestic animals valued by the Xiōngnú 匈奴.

It is noteworthy that Chinese words for donkeys and donkey-like animals emerge at least a century before the reign of the Han Emperor Wǔ 武 (157–87 BCE) who decided to procure large amounts of donkeys to for his war campaigns into the Western deserts. In the Early Chinese textual record, the word *C-ra (> lǘ 閭), associated with an animal with a long face, a long forehead and rabbit-like ears, along with its more widespread orthography lǘ 驢 and the variant *rˁoj (> luó 驘/騾) suddenly appear around the end of the third century BCE. All these terms seem to reflect attempts to transcribe foreign words for the beast of burden, which were ultimately derived from dialect forms or reflexes of different diachronic borrowing stages of an etymon related to Middle Persian χar ‘donkey’ and congeners. However, the Middle Persian word χar itself is highly controversial in terms of its traditional etymology and may have originally been related to the broader semantic field of ‘dark, obscure, dumb’. A comparable metonymic shift of meaning seems to be reflected in earlier Chinese designations for dark horses.

We hope that our comparative linguistic analysis will allow a diachronic anchoring and trajectory useful for a further interpretation of the archaeological and historical data.