Examining clan lineages: Who were the Yabgyu princes and who were the Hepthalites?

The Yabgyu clan is associated with some of Japans most famous swordsmen and samurai figures, see the extract from the Yabgyu Clan of History below:

“The Yagyū clan was a real clan of warriors during the Japanese feudal warring states period, the Sengoku Jidai. during the late 14th century, Lord Yagyū Ieyoshi, a great practitioner of bushido and kenjutsū, found his lands being invaded by the Miyoshi clan and the Tsutsui clan. Ieyoshi who was the official guardian of the Kasugi shrine of Yamato, together with General Kisawa Nagamasa, lead the Kinki samurai of Yamato to fight against these invaders. However the Miyoshi managed to surround Koyagyu castle and force the Yagyū into surrendering. 

Ieyoshi’s son Yagyū Muneyoshi, had proven himself a great prodigy of swordsmanship at the early age of fifteen. Muneyoshi would go on to be praised by the Miyoshi lord for his heroic deeds in battle. He would later act as sword instructor to great warlords and samurai such as , Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Takeda Shingen, and many others.

Yagyū Muneyoshi would eventually travel the land on his Shugyosha (warriors pilgrimage), and have many duels and many adventures. One of the most famous of these is when visiting his long time friend, Hozoin Kakuzenbo Inei at Hozoin Temple, he would encounter the famous Kamiizumi Nobutsuna Izunomaki. 

In 1564, Isenokami  was travelling to Kyoto with his student and nephew Hikita Bungorō and his long-time student Suzuki Ihaku. 

Muneyoshi agreed, and met Isenokami at Hōzōin. Accounts differ on the specifics of the match: according to the Edo Yagyū family record Kyū Yagyū-hanki, Muneyoshi faced Hikita Bungoro and was roundly beaten with a fukuro-shinai. An account by Muneyoshi’s great-great-grandson Toshinobu says that Muneyoshi faced Suzuki Ihaku three times. Based on family documents and oral history, Yagyū Toshinaga suggested that Muneyoshi’s opponent was Hidetsuna himself in three matches over three days. In any event, the common point of all the accounts is that Muneyoshi lost, and became Isenokami’s disciple.

He went take Isenokami’s style of sword fighting the Shinkage Ryu and create the Yagyū Shinkage ryu. Which would eventually become Japan’s most famous school of sword fighting.

Yagyū Muneyoshi eventually changed his name to Yagyū Sekishusai meaning “Stone Ship”, and became a monk, retiring to Yagyū valley where he could continue perfecting his sword fighting skills.

His son Yagyū Mataemon Munenori, would become perhaps an even greater swords master then his own father…” Read more here.

What was the origin of the Japanese Yabgyu lineage of warriors? Where were they from? We try hereon to trace their lineage.  Yabgyu is an almost identical word as and cognate with the Central Asian Yabghu/yavugo, Yabgu and to a lesser extent, with the Chinese equivalents e-khu/yephou/Sihou.

We find mention Yabgyu princes associated with Central Asia, particularly with “five princes of the Kushans [who] carried the Turkic title “Yabghu”. See below the extracted passage from a thesis paper by Kurbanov.

“She considers that the Chionites were related not only to the Huns, but also with the Yuezhi state (Kushans). Concerning the Yuezhi, she writes that: “In the composition of the Kushan state entered the Sakas (Scythians), Tokharians, Turks”. In her opinion, the presence of the Turkic element is proved because five princes of the Kushans carried the Turkic title “Yabghu”.” — Source: See also The Hepthalites: Archaeological and Historical Analysis  by AYDOGDY KURBANOV

In the same paper, Kurbanov characterizes the Hephthalites as peoples from “states founded by relatively small mountain folks” and who reached Samarkhand and who had conquered Tokharistan, see:

“B. Marshak agrees with the theory of Gumilev mentioned above. He wrote that the states of the Kidarites and the Hephthalites were “comparable not with Central Asian steppe empires, but with states, founded by relatively small mountain folks, which led the cruel fight against nearby monarchies with varying success”.

The Hephthalites, at the end of the 5th C. AD in AD 509, reached Samarquand, conquered Tokharistan… “


Other literature adds further information and helps to distinguish the Hepthalites. the White Huns from the Red Huns (Chionites, Xiyon in Middle Persian perhaps the origin of the word Xiongnu?):

From the Middle Persian word xiyon, ”Hun”, a Hunnic tribe that began encroaching upon the frontiers of Iran and the the Kushan state circa 320 A.D. A distinct people from the Hephtalites, the Chionites were also called ”Red” Huns. Shortly after 340 (?) A.D., the enigmatic leader Kidara pushed the Kushans out of northern Pakistan and gave his name to this short-lived dynasty. At the end of the 4th century, a new wave of Hunnic tribes (Alchoni) invaded Bactria, pushing the Kidarites into Gandhara. The Kidarites in northern India continued to mint debased gold and copper coins until the end of the 5th century. Dates and attributions below are questionable. Kidarite principalities may also have existed at Kota Kula, in Kashmir and Taxila; the names of the monarchs in those areas are unknown.

Source: Chionites Red Huns

Were the Hepthalites related to the Kidarites and the Chionites — the Red Huns?

“…  Ghirshman and Enoki on the basis of certain coin legends in Greek cursive script, maintained the hypothesis that the language of the Hepthalites was an Iranian dialect. …

However, this view seems to have been overtaken by the discovery of the inscriptions of Surkh Kotal … which show that the Iranian language in question, was in fact the local dialect of Bactria, and not the language of the Huns themselves. The view of Minorsky, however, that the Hepthalites was a Turkish dialect, therefore holds the field at present.   

… at pp 213  whether any linguistic differences exist between the Chionites Kidarites and the Hepthalites is uncertain but Bailey has shown that the Persian and Indian neighbors distinguished between different groups as Red Huns and White Huns respectively.”

— Source: The Cambridge History of Iran: The Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian periods edited by Ehsan Yarshate

According to Ghirshman, Chionites, Kidarites and Hephthalites were merely different names used at various periods for the same tribal groups …

But others think that while Chionites and Kidarites may have been the same groups, the Hepthalites were different because they were distinguished by their tall and fair complexions and by the fact that they practised inhumation instead of the cremation practices of the Chionites and Kidarites (Procopius, Wars I.3):

“Procopius claims that though Hun by name and race, the Hepthalites did not live as nomads; They were of fair and regular features; and practised inhumation of the dead, up to twenty of his boon companions being buried with each of their chiefs. In respect of their funeral rites, the customs of the Hepthalites contrast with those of the Chionites and suggest these two groups were wholly distinct.”  — The Cambridge History of Iran: The Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian periods ed. Ehsan Yarshate

Apart from the Kushan princes who held the Yabgu title, we also know that the Ashina clan used the Yabgu titles to mean

“a state office in the early Turkic states, roughly equivalent to viceroy. The title carried autonomy in different degrees, and its links with the central authority of Khagan varied from economical and political subordination to superficial political deference.

The position of Yabgu was traditionally given to the second highest member of a ruling clan (Ashina), with the first member being the Kagan himself. Frequently, Yabgu was a younger brother of the ruling Kagan, or a representative of the next generation, called Shad (blood prince). Mahmud Kashgari defined the title Yabgu as “position two steps below Kagan”, listing heir apparent Shad a step above Yabgu.” — Yabgu (Wikipedia)

The same article shows that Yabgu was an Indo-European title used by the Kushans, borrowed by the Turks, but there is some uncertainty as a competing theory is that it may have come from the Chinese title ” sihou (<*xiap-g’u). On the other hand, the Chinese may have adopted it from the yavugo or yabgu through interactions with the Kushans or Wusun/Usun tribes.

“Although believed by some to be a derivation from early Turkic davgu,[4] most scholars believe that that the word Yabgu is of Indo-European origin, and was perhaps borrowed by the Türks from the Kushan political tradition, preserved by the Hephtalites.[5]

Friedrich Hirth suggested that the earliest title “Yabgu” was recorded in literary Chinese with regard to Kushan contexts with transliteration Xihou “e-khu (yephou)” (Chinese: 翖侯; literally “United/Allied/Confederated Prince”).[2] However, the Chinese does not make clear whether the title was the one bestowed on foreign leaders or rather a descriptive title indicating that they were allied, or united.

The Chinese word sihou (<*xiap-g’u) is a title. The second part of this compound, hou (<g’u), meant a title of second hereditary noble of the five upper classes. Sihou (<*xiap-g’u) corresponds to the title yavugo on the Kushan (Ch. Uechji) coins from Kabulistan, and yabgu of the ancient Türkic monuments [Hirth F. “Nachworte zur Inschrift des Tonjukuk” // ATIM, 2. Folge. StPb. 1899, p. 48-50]. This title is first of all a Kushan title, also deemed to be “true Tocharian” title.[6] In the 11 BC the Chinese Han captured a Kushan from the Hunnu state, who was a “chancellor” (Ch. sijan) with the title yabgu (sihou). After 4 years he returned to the Hunnu shanyu, who gave him his former post of a «second [after Shanyu] person in the state”, and retained the title yabgu (sihou). The bearer of this high title did not belong to the Hunnu dynastic line, well-known and described in detail in the sources. Probably, he was a member of the numerous Kushan (Uechji) autonomous diasporas in the Hunnu confederation. This history suggests, that in the Usun state Butszü-sihou, who saved the life of a baby Gunmo in the 160es BC, also was an yabgu.[7]

[Note: The Iranian/Iranic and Sogdian equivalents are “Yabgu” and “Shad”. The rulers of some Sogdian principalities are known to have title “Ikhshid”, so one competing theory is that “Yabgu” originated from earlier Iranic forms]

Whatever the earliest use of the term Yabgu (whether Indo-European or Chinese or Wusun-Xiongnu/Hunnu, i.e. Eastern Red Huns), the Japanese Yabgyu clan most likely originated with the Ashina and Wusun clans, as well as the Kushans, both groups having much deep history and presence in Japan (as is shown elsewhere on this website) comprising the elite ruling and warrior castes of early tumulus and later medieval eras.

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