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The Huns are thought by many historians to be the first Turkic people mentioned in history. References in Chinese sources to a people called the 'Hiung-nu' go back to 1400 BC, and may be the ancestors of the later, better-known Huns, though not all scholars agree. An entry in a Chinese dictionary says xiong1 nu2, (匈奴) n., The Huns, Mongolian tribes in northeastern China and Mongolia, historically under various names (玁狁 xian3 yun3, 匈奴 xiong1 nu2, and 胡 hu2) 1000 B.C. to 6th cen. A. D. In the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries, five northern tribes, including Tartars, Mongols, Turkics invaded and occupied North China. These tribes are catagorically labelled hu2 di2 (胡狄), such period is referred to as "Five barbarian tribes' invasion to China" (五胡亂華) by Chinese historians. By the 6th century, the term hu2 simply means the barbarian invaders including more than the Huns.

A group called the European Huns and led by Attila the Hun is considered, with little certainty, to be the western extension of this tribe. Establishment of the first Hun state is one of the first well-documented appearances of the culture of horseback migration in history. These tribespeople achieved superiority over their rivals, most of which were highly cultured, by the help of their splendid state of readiness and amazing mobile capabilities.

Subsequently the term has become an derogatory term for Germans. It was particular use amoung the Allied Forces during World War II, although has partly died out nowadays.