The Wusun (烏孫 lit: "Grandchildren of The Crow") were a nomadic steppe people who, according to the Chinese histories, originally lived in western Gansu in northwest China west of the Yuezhi people. After being defeated by the Xiongnu (circa 176 BCE) they fled to the region of the Ili river and (lake) Issyk Kul where they remained for at least five centuries and formed a powerful force.
The Royal Court of the Wusun, 赤谷 Chigu (literally, 'Red Valley'), was located in a side valley leading to Issyk Kul.
They are mentioned in Chinese historical sources in 436 CE, when a Chinese envoy was sent to their country and the Wusun reciprocated.
Their later fate is connected with the Turkic Kaganates and the sudden reversals of fortune that fell on Central Asia and, specifically, the Zhetysu area. Considerable traces of their impact on surrounding peoples and events were left in Persian, Muslim, Turkic, and Russian sources extending from the 6th century CE to the present. The modern Uysyn who number approximately 250,000 people, are regarded by some as the modern descendants of the Wusun. The Uysyn have two branches, Dulat and Sary Uysyn ("Yellow Uysyn").
According to Chinese archaeologists the excavated skeletal remains of the presumed Wusun people are of the short-headed Europoid Central Asian interfluvial type.
Wusun women were first described in a Western Han dynasty book of divination, the Jiaoshi Yilin, as "ugly and dark colored people with deep eye sockets," who presumably resembled South Asians, as suggested by the reported skin complexion. However, a very brief pejorative quote from an ancient book of divination is hardly a reliable source for determining ethnic characteristics.
The 7th century commentary to the Hanshu by Yan Shigu says: "Among the various Rong [alien races] in the Western Regions, the Wusun's shape was the strangest; and the present barbarians who have green eyes and red hair, and are like macaques, belonged to the same race as the Wusun."
At the beginning of what is known about the history of the Wusun, they lived near the Yuezhi people.
According to Zhang Qian, the Yuezhi were defeated by the rising Xiongnu empire and fled westward, driving away the Saka). Before this, they overran the Wusun, whose ruler Nandoumi was killed. His infant son Liejiaomi was left in the wild. He was miraculously saved from hunger being suckled by a she-wolf, and fed meat by ravens.
The Xiongnu ruler (Chanyu) was impressed and adopted the child. When the child grew up the Chanyu gave him command in the west. As an act of revenge, the Wusun attacked the Yuezhi, who had taken refuge in the Ili Valley. The Yuezhi were crushed completely and fled further west to Ferghana, and finally settled in Bactria. The Wusun took over the Ili Valley, expanding over a large area and trying to keep away from the Xiongnu. They were said to number 630,000 with 188,000 men capable of bearing arms, and became a powerful force in Central Asia (Hanshu, ch.61 & 96).
When the Han empire began their counter-offensive against the Xiongnu, the Wusun had become a bitter enemy of the Xiongnu, after repeatedly being threatened by them. The Wusun were won over to the Chinese in a martial alliance, sealed by a political marriage.
After the Han retreat from Central Asia, not much was recorded about the Wusun anymore. They were pressured by the Rouran and may have migrated to the Pamir Mountains in the 5th century (Book of Wei, ch.102). From the 6th century onward the former habitat of the Wusun formed part of the western empire of the Göktürks. After this event the Wusun seem to disappear from recorded history, though their name was last mentioned on an offering to the court of Liao Dynasty on September 22, 938 (Liaoshi, ch.4).
The Chinese were involved in a plot with the Wusun with a "fat King", and "Mad King". The Chinese were involved in a plot to kill the mad king, and a Chinese deputy envoy called Chi Tu who brought a Doctor to attend to him was punished by castration when he returned to China.
According to the Shiji (c.123) and the Hanshu (c.96), a daughter from the Han prince, Liu Jian, was sent to the ruler (kunmo or kunmi) of the Wusun between 110 BCE and 105 BCE. She describes them as nomads who lived in felt tents, ate raw meat and drank fermented mare's milk.
On the other hand, the Wusun were notable for their harmony towards their neighbours, even though they were constantly raided by the Xiongnu and Kangju. In 71 BCE, a Chinese envoy cooperated with the Wusun and supplied an army of 50,000 to attack the Xiongnu for them, which ended in a great victory. However, a dispute took place soon after the death of their ruler, Nimi, in 53 BCE. The Wusun were divided into two kingdoms, under a little kunmi and greater kunmi, both of whom recognised Chinese supremacy and remained faithful vassals.
In 2 CE, Wang Mang issued a list of four regulations to the allied Xiongnu that the taking of any hostages from Chinese vassals, i.e. Wusun, Wuhuan and the statelets of the Western Regions, would not be tolerated. The Xiongnu obeyed.
Wusun is a modern pronunciation of the hieroglyphs 烏孫. Originally, Wusun sounded probably more like Asman (*ah-sman < *asman, or *o-sən, *uo-sen or ?ah-swē depending on the authors) suggesting that they may have been the Asii of Geographica.
Around 107 BCE a Han princess married to the Usun Hunmo composed a song that called the Wusun country a Sky (Tian) country, and in China the Wusun horses (Usun ma) were called heavenly horses (Tian ma). Ptolemy (VI, 14, 177 AD) knew an Asman tribe, located east of the Volga River.
The Chinese name Wusun 烏孫 literally means Wu = 'crow' or 'raven' + Sun = 'grandson'. Through the legend of an infant son, left in the wild, miraculously saved from hunger by suckling from a she-wolf, and being fed meat by ravens, they shared a similar ancestor myth with the ruling Ashina clan of the Göktürks (Asena legend), and many other Eurasian peoples. See, for example, the legend of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome.
For some time, it was theorized that the Wusun spoke a Proto-Turkic language. Some scholars, including Chinese scholar Han Rulin, as well as G. Vambery, A. Scherbak, P. Budberg, L. Bazin and V.P. Yudin, noted that the Wusun king's name Fu-li, as reported in Chinese sources and translated as "wolf", resembles Proto-Turkic "böri" = "wolf". Other words listed by these scholars include the title "bag/beg" = "lord".
However, this theory is contradicted by some Turkologists, including Peter B. Golden and Carter V. Findley, who explain that none of the mentioned words are actually Turkic in origin. Carter V. Findley notes that the term böri is probably derived from one of the Indo-European Iranian languages of Central Asia, while the title beg is certainly derived from the Sogdian baga ("lord"), a cognate of Middle Persian baγ (as used by the rulers of the Sassanid Empire), as well as Sanskrit bhaga and Russian bog.
It is evident from Chinese sources that Scythian Sai (Saka) and the Yuezhi who are often identified as Tocharians were among the people of the Wusun state Zhetysu, and some scholars have also tried to identify the Wusun with the Issedones of Herodotus, an Iranian tribe related to the Scythians of antiquity. But this remains uncertain (see below), as it is very difficult to identify the Wusun with the "Tokharian category of Indo-European".
Some scholars have proposed that the Wusun may have been identical with the people described by Herodotus (IV.16-25) and in Ptolemy's Geography as Issedones. Their exact location of their country in Central Asia is unknown. The Issedones are "placed by some in Western Siberia and by others in Chinese Turkestan," according to E. D. Phillips.