China Elevator Stories

“Did you know that Hungarians are descendants of the Chinese?”

A stranger in Shenzhen chats with me about history.


Ruth Silbermayr
Ruth Silbermayr


It’s February 2014. My husband and I take the subway in Shenzhen. Upon hearing me speak in Chinese with my husband, a stranger in his early 30s sitting right next to me starts chatting with me. 

After asking me where I’m from, where I’ve learned to speak Chinese and inquiring about my mother tongue, he asks: “Which ethnic group do you belong to? Are you Hebrew (希伯来族)?”
I reply: “No, I would count as Germanic in China (日耳曼族).”

He then asks: “Did Austria once belong to Germany?”
I tell him: “I don’t think so.”
“Not even at the time of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire before the First World War?”
“No, not even then. Quite a few countries were part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but Germany was not one of them.”

He then wants to know: “Does Austria still have an emperor?”
I tell him: “No, it doesn’t.”

illustration xiongnu - Ruth Silbermayr

He says: “I see. Did you know that Hungarians are descendants from the Chinese?”
“I thought that the Mongol Empire once stretched as far as Hungary, but I have never heard that Hungarians are regarded as descendants of the Chinese.”
“They are. They are descendants of the Xiongnu (匈奴), which came from China.”

Have you ever been asked about your ethnicity?


After having been asked about my ethnicity various times in China, I decided to do a google search and found out that the majority of Austrians would be considered to be of Germanic ancestry .

The term “Xiongnu” (匈奴) is often translated as “the Huns”, but researchers do think that the English term “Huns” does not describe the same people the Chinese term “Xiongnu” describes. The Xiongnu were nomads whose empire once spread from Central to East Asia, stretching from Mongolia to areas in today’s southern Siberia and the Chinese provinces of Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia. A more accurate translation for the Huns would be “Xiongren” (匈人). The first character of the Chinese word for Hungary [匈牙利] is also 匈 Xiōng.)

While Germans consider Austria to have been a part of the Holy Roman Empire and thus part of Germany during this period of time, Austrians contest this view and do not usually consider Austria to have been a part of Germany.

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