Some funerals and a wedding: Women of the Eurasian steppe and marriage customs in Western and Chinese written accounts

Sandra Wabnitz

July 15, 2023 | Sandra Wabnitz | HI Research Blog

“On this day, men and women gather at the grave in beautiful clothes. If a man gets a woman’s interest, he returns home and immediately sends someone with a marriage proposal to the woman's parents, who usually give their consent.” (ZS 50.910)

This quote describing the Turks from the seventh-century Chinese Book of Zhou provides a glimpse into the society of the peoples of the Eurasian steppe, a society which left behind few, if any, written records except for reliefs and inscriptions. Not only does it report on marriage customs but it is also one of many examples of representation of steppe women in contemporary historiographical accounts from China and the Latin and Greek west. Although they often played minor parts in these accounts, women within the steppe peoples’ society nevertheless appeared in various roles primarily based on the outside perspective of an almost solely male authorship and their idea of gender roles. This included various representations of women, such as the atypical female combatants or ‘warrior women’, used by authors from both east and west, to highlight the steppe peoples’ otherness, as well as the traditional, namely as brides, wives, mothers and widows which are, unsurprisingly, the most prominent roles accorded to women in the source material. These various representations of the women of the steppe peoples are part of my PhD project Horse Lords of the Eurasian Steppe: A Comparison of Latin, Greek, and Chinese Accounts on Steppe Peoples, 4th-9th c., which analyses and compares reports on steppe peoples in Latin, Greek and Chinese historiographical sources to reveal how authors perceived and represented Eurasian steppe peoples, providing new insights into the construction and realities of their cultural habitus. Here, however, I shall focus on representations of steppe brides and wives to demonstrate the way in which external Latin, Greek and Chinese sources allow us to perceive something of the realities of steppe peoples’ marriage customs.

As the quote from the Book of Zhou shows, marriage is one of the key moments when women are mentioned in the written accounts and the first step on the road to wedded bliss was to find a suitable partner. From our current perspective a burial might not be the first choice of venue for finding a spouse. However, the burials of steppe peoples happened at specific times in the year, usually in spring or autumn, and since endogamous matches could be achieved anywhere, it can be assumed that several families came together for the occasion to allow for a choice of partners. A passage from the Book of Later Han, reporting on the Xianbei, describes a similar custom of looking for partners at a certain time: “In the final month of spring they [the Xianbei] have a great meeting at Raoleshui [Xilamulun River in Inner Mongolia]; after they have finished feasting and drinking, they find themselves a partner.” (HHS 90.2985). In this case, however, the search for partners happened at a large annual gathering after having food and drink. It is likely that the Xianbei, like the Turks, tried to avoid marrying a blood relative by searching for partners at gatherings of different kin groups. Intriguingly, the passage from the Book of Zhou further indicates that women had a right to a say in the choice of spouse, although this could be based on a romantic exaggeration by the author. Nevertheless, the Book of Zhou was written in a period of closer connection between the Chinese and the Turks, which may make it more reliable.

Unfortunately, the marriage ceremony itself is not covered in surviving texts, but Chinese sources do inform us about certain events which followed a marriage. We learn, for example, that it was customary among the Wuhuan for the married couple to stay with the wife's family for a while; thereafter the wife left with her husband and became part of his family. Although this passage refers specifically to the Wuhuan, various Chinese sources reveal that this was also practised by other steppe peoples. Not only did the newlywed bride become part of a new family, but according to Chinese texts she also changed her outer appearance. The Book of Later Han tells us that Xianbei women shaved their hair when they got married but describes an almost opposite custom for Wuhuan women: “They scalp their heads for convenience. After a woman gets married, she lets her hair grow and divides it into buns wearing a jujue [句決] decorated with gold and precious stones.” (HHS 90.2979). This headdress in the form of a high horned cap is not unique to the Wuhuan, but is also reported for the Hephthalites suggesting a point of connection between the two peoples. Edwin Pulleyblank points out that, later, this kind of headdress was also common among the Mongols and through the Mongol conquests became known as a hennin in Western Europe (Pulleyblank 1983, pp. 453–454).

Whether this headdress or its stones remained in the woman’s possession or whether it was a kind of dowry we do not know for sure. However, we find evidence for both dowry and bride price in the Chinese sources which also show that they could occur together (see HHS 90.2979). Among the Wuhuan the dowry even defined the role of women within their society: “Because all the housing and other property of a married couple come from the wife’s family, their custom is to consult their women in making any plans, with the sole exception of wartime, during which the men may make decisions by themselves.” (HHS 90.2976). Here, a rather typical image of women as advisers and peaceful beings is conveyed, with men being portrayed along stereotypically masculine lines, making the military decisions.

As you may have noticed, no Latin or Greek sources have been mentioned so far. The reason for this lacuna is that hardly any general descriptions of women as brides or marriage customs practiced by steppe peoples are to be found in contemporary western texts. However, what they do mention are political alliances through marriage, in which women played a significant role in crossing cultural borders and were of interest to those authors whose respective empires were affected by these matches. An interesting example of such a marriage alliance is reported by Theophanes, who wrote that: “[…] emperor Leo betrothed his son Constantine to the daughter of the Chagan, that is the ruler of the Scythians. He made her a Christian and named her Irene. She learned Holy Scripture and lived piously, thus reproving the impiety of those men.” (Theophanes, Chronographia 6224; trans. Mango and Scott, p. 567). This passage refers to the marriage between Irene, also known as Çiçek and daughter of the Chagan of the Khazars, and the future Byzantine emperor Constantine V. However, the author emphasises the achievement of the Byzantine emperor in not only acculturating a once-barbarous woman but also converting her into such piety that her example discredits her own people. This is not the only example of such a marriage alliance but, interestingly, there are hardly any reports for the other way around, meaning e.g. a Byzantine princess marrying a leader of a steppe people. A likely reason for this is that the marriage of a Christian woman to a ‘pagan’ was unthinkable to those in late antique/early medieval Christian society. Against this background, the following words of the Byzantine emperor Tiberius II can be seen in a new light: “[…] I should rather betroth to him [Chagan of the Avars] one of my daughters than willingly surrender the city of Sirmium. Even if he should take it by force, I, while awaiting the retribution of God whom he has insulted, shall never consent to abandon any part of the Roman state.” (Menander, frag. 25.2, ed. and trans. Blockley, p. 227). The proclamation that he would rather give his daughter away than lose the city highlights the sacrifice he was willing to make for holding Sirmium.

The Chinese court by contrast did not have such concerns. The Book of Later Han, for example, tells us about Zhaojun, a member of the court who was sent to become the wife of the leader of the Southern Xiongnu, Huhanye, as part of a marriage alliance. After his death Huhanye’s son and successor wanted to marry her: “She [Zhaojun, wife of Huhanye] gave birth to two sons. When Huhanye died, the son of the former Queen Yanshi was placed on the throne, and he had wanted to marry Zhaojun. She submitted a memorial requesting to be repatriated. Emperor Cheng decreed that she should abide by the Hu custom; hence, she became the Yanshi of Hou Chanyu.” Although Zhaojun was not a steppe woman, this passage provides an insight into a marriage custom that was practised by steppe peoples, namely levirate marriage, i.e. a widow marrying a male relative of her deceased husband who was not a blood relative of hers. In general, levirate marriage was practised for reasons of family cohesion and economic matters, but the steppe peoples’ elite also used it to further legitimize succession. For Chinese authors, the practice instead highlighted the steppe peoples’ uncivilized and barbaric nature. For the sake of peace, however, Zhaojun, was instructed to concede to the custom. These examples demonstrate that women, regardless of their origin, were perceived as diplomatic tools but also as an important link between two parties.

These reports on marriage customs and descriptions of steppe women as brides and wives are, of course, primarily based on our authors’ point of view as well as their perception of typical gender roles, like that of bride and wife. These descriptions served a role in emphasising the otherness of steppe peoples in comparison to the society providing the commentary. Suggestions by these authors concerning the relatively equality of women of the steppe peoples could be dismissed as romantic exaggerations by authors influenced by their own cultural norms and the custom of levirate marriage is evidently meant to highlight the steppe peoples’ barbaric character. Nevertheless, especially with Chinese sources, the context of certain writings in periods of close cross-border relations, the details concerning women crossing these borders and a desire to highlight these differences are valuable factors in the quest for knowledge concerning steppe peoples’ marriage customs and broader traditions. Through their interests, connections and the occasional crossing of cultures, Latin, Greek and Chinese sources also provide glimpses into the realities of steppe people’s customs, whether it be marrying your father’s widow or meeting your future spouse at a funeral.



HHS = Hou Hanshu (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1965).
ZS = Zhoushu (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1974).

Menander, ed. and trans. Roger C. Blockley, The History of Menander the Guardsman (Liverpool: Francis Cairns, 1985).

Theophanes Confessor, Chronographia, trans. Cyril Mango and Roger Scott, The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History AD 284–813 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

Further reading:

Amitai, Reuven and Biran, Michal (eds.), Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change: The Mongols and Their Eurasian Predecessors (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015).

Chen, Sanping, Multicultural China in the Early Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

Dien, Albert E., ‘A New Look at the Xianbei and their Impact on Chinese Culture’, in Ancient Mortuary Traditions of China. Papers on Chinese Ceramic Funerary Sculptures, ed. George Kuwayama (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991), 40–59.

Filippov, Igor S., ‘Baptismal Names and Identity in the early Middle Ages’ in Identity in the Middle Ages: Approaches from Southwestern Europe, ed. Flocel Sabaté (Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2021), 67–111.

Holmgren, Jennifer, ‘Imperial Marriage in the Native Chinese and Non-Han State, Han to Ming’, in Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society, ed. Rubie S. Watson/Patricia Buckley Ebrey (Berkeley-Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), 58–96.

Miyawaka-Okada, Junko, 'The Role of Women in the Imperial Succession of the Nomadic Empire', in The Role of Women in the Altaic World. Permanent International Altaistic Conference 44th Meeting, Walberberg, 26-31 August 2001, ed. Veronika Veit (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2007), 143–150.

Pohl, Walter, 'Gender and ethnicity in the early Middle Ages', in Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and west, 300-900, ed. Leslie Brubaker/Julia M. H. Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 23–43.

Pohl, Walter, The Avars: A Steppe Empire in Central Europe, 567–822 (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 2018).

Pulleyblank, Edwin G., ‘The Chinese and Their Neighbors in Prehistoric and Early Historic Times’, in The Origins of Chinese Civilization, ed. David N. Keightley (Berkely-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press, 1983), 411–466.

Image Credits:

Figure of a female warrior, Northern Dynasties (A.D. 386 - 581), excavated in Jing County, Hebei Province, 1948 (© Editor at Large Ayelie, CC-BY-SA-2.5);
Southern Song edition of the Book of Tang edited and annotated by Chen Jian 陳鑒, 12th century (© BabelStone);
Composition by S. Wabnitz