White and Black Bone.

Alexander Kim of Sarkoboros (see this LH post) has a very interesting post about an idiom I wasn’t familiar with. He starts with Chekhov’s 1894 story “At the Manor” («В усадьбе»), in which noble families are said to have been “strenuously in the course of centuries separating the white bone from the black [белую кость от чёрной],” adding that “white bone” is often rendered “blue blood” in English translations. He then writes:

White bone in opposition to black looks like a direct gloss of the famous Turko-Mongol idiom of noble and common birth, which has reflexes throughout Inner Asia and echoes in the kolp’um “bone rank” system of Silla Korea (C. S. Kim 1971, citing Ryū Imanishi, mentions also the ancient Japanese consanguinity terms kotsumei 骨名 “bone names” and shikotsu 氏骨 “clan bones”) and various Tibeto-Burman lineage and caste configurations (most notably that of the Yi, among whom the “blacks” or “black bones” are, in contrast to the Inner Asian scheme, superior in status to and rigidly averse to intermarriage with the softer-boned “whites”: Schoenhals 2003; Lu Hui 2001).

After a raft of examples, he concludes:

While some of the examples speak to social rank, others are actually cardinal-directional color assignments (the white west, the black north). Not clearly brought out is how qara “black” can also have the senses of great, powerful, terrible or large (e.g., qara mal, large domestic stock like horses and cattle) — but naturally the connotations are often intermingled or tilt from one to another (e.g., Anatolian Turkish Karadeniz ‘Black Sea’, various Kara-prefixed tribal and imperial names).

On an attempted inversion of valence (Vakar 1949:208–209):

One can read of “people of white and black bone” (L. Tolstoy), “black bone students” (Miljukov), and so on. A story prepared by the Soviet officials for use in Berlin schools, and vetoed by American authorities, related the triumph of “the blackboned proletariat over the worthless whiteboned bourgeoisie.” White bone, meaning “free status, noble origin, upper class,” is still a current idiom in Central Asia, presumably the country of its origins. Finally, the expression was given respectability by the Ušakov Dictionary, which defines it in the following terms: “(ironic.) noble, ‘lordly’ breed.”

Some questions:

Is there anything in older East Slavic texts or the rest of Balto-Slavic to injure the idea that “white bone”/”black bone” was a Golden Horde-era transmission?

Vakar asserts (206) that the terms “white” and “black” in connection with present Belorussia did not appear in literature before the fourteenth century. Credible?

What work of Tolstoy was it?

Good questions, and I figure just the sort of thing the multifarious readership of LH will enjoy sinking their collective white-boned teeth into.


  1. My Iranian Azeri wife has never come across the idea, for what that’s worth

  2. slawkenbergius says:

    There’s a minor debate about this in the context of the first Russian encounters with Inner Asia in the sixteenth-seventeenth century. The term for the Russian tsar in Russo-Mongol and then Russo-Qing relations was almost always some variation of “chagan khan” or “white khan.” Some scholars think this was a recognition of the Russian sovereign’s legitimate claim to the Chingisid lineage of the Qipchaq Khanate (= “Golden Horde”), while others think it’s some kind of disparaging reference, something like “khan manqué.” I’ve asked several Inner Asianists and haven’t been able to figure out who is right, or even when the usage originated. Maybe someone in this thread will have a better idea?

  3. White bone/black bone division which was observed among Kazakhs and Uzbeks in 19th century certainly was of Mongol origin (only descendants of Genghis Khan were the “white bone” among Kazakhs).

    So it seems highly likely that Russians got it from the Mongols as well.

    The concept itself could be much older though.

  4. -slawkenbergius

    there is a Trepavlov’s book on the subject called “”Белый царь”. Образ монарха и представления о подданстве у народов России XV-XVIII вв”.

    He convincingly shows that the concept is actually Russian in origin which was based on traditional Russian/Slavic epithets for fair and ideal ruler.

    “не служи-ка королю, ты не езди-ка в орду, не служи-ка королю, служи белому царю” (don’t serve the [foreign] king, don’t go to the Horde, don’t serve king, serve the white tsar)

    “Ты восстань-ко, седь, да православной царь,
    Православной царь, да царь ты белой наш,
    Царь ты белой наш Иван Васильевиць”

    (Ye arise and seat on the throne, the Orthodox tsar,
    Orthodox tsar, our white tsar,
    Our white Tsar, Ivan Vasil’evich) (c) traditional Russian song about Ivan the Terrible

    The epithet was actively used by Russian diplomacy in dealing with Eurasian nomads who already were accustomed to using color-termed ethnic appellations.

    And so it stuck.

  5. J. W. Brewer says:

    On the other side of the Turco-Mongol vastness of Inner Asia is China, where Mao’s widow, after her sudden fall from power circa 1976, was called a “white-boned demon,” which was clearly pejorative but which I never understood (i.e. “what color are demons’ bones generally supposed to be? what extra pejorative oomph is added by the “white-boned”?). Is this another outcropping of the same thing, or an unrelated idiom?

  6. 白骨 Báigǔ “white bones” means “bones of the dead” in Chinese.

    白骨精 Báigǔjīng is a shapeshifting demoness in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journey_to_the_West novel. Her original form is skeleton.

  7. White in China is the color of death, from bloodless corpses, drowning victims, and bleached skeletons (traditional Chinese look on Western bridal clothes with horror). So I think the implication is that the fallenn Jiang Qing was an animated skeleton, one of the walking dead. (White also has the more common connotation of brightness and purity, and is associated with Metal, one of the five traditional Chinese elements.)

  8. @SFReader says:

    White bone/black bone division which was observed among Kazakhs and Uzbeks in 19th century certainly was of Mongol origin (only descendants of Genghis Khan were the “white bone” among Kazakhs).

    The category (I guess as a secondary development) also came to accommodate certain elite religious lineages: sayyids, reputed descendants of the prophet Muhammad, and khojas (from Persian خواجه ‘lord’), who claim as their ancestors particular saintly Sufi sheikhs or early Arab Islamizers of Central Asia (in some cases also sayyid status).

  9. Daniel Todes says:

    You are way over my head here, Stephen, but my wife Eleonora has the Tolstoi source: Лев Толстой. Путь жизни. 1910.

  10. A quick search of Russian National corpus shows references to white/black bone only from the second half of 19th century, which makes the direct borrowing from Golden Horde a bit suspicious.

  11. my wife Eleonora has the Tolstoi source: Лев Толстой. Путь жизни. 1910.

    Excellent, please thank her for me! Here‘s a link; specifically, it’s from section 1 of “Сущность соблазна неравенства” [The essence of the temptation of inequality]:

    В старину люди верили в то, что люди рождаются разной породы, черной и белой кости, Иафетова и Хамова отродья, и что одни люди должны быть господами, а другие рабами. Люди признавали такое деление людей на господ и рабов, потому что верили, что такое деление установлено Богом. Грубое и губительное суеверие это, хотя и в другом виде, признается и до сих пор.

    In ancient times people believed that people were born of different breeds, of black and white bone, the races of Japhet and Ham, and that some people should be masters and others slaves. People recognized such a division of people into masters and slaves because they believed that such a division was established by God. This is a coarse and ruinous superstition, though in another form it is recognized to this day.

  12. General Skobelev, who conquered the khanates of Central Asia for Russian Empire in the 1870s, was always called “White General”, in the same vein

  13. This reminds me of something I learned from Elif Batuman’s recent personal essay, “Cover Story.” In it, she mentions learning of the terms “black Turks” (lower-class, devout Muslim) and “white Turks” (secular intelligentsia). This contrast seems, in Turkish, to be expressed as beyaz Türkler (white) vs. kara Türkler (black); this is funny because it takes one element from each of the two white/black pairs in Turkish, beyaz/siyah from Persian and ak/kara of Turkic origin.

    In any case, Wikipedia has a whole entry on them(!) and claims they’re of recent invention, which is too bad.

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