The Göktürks, Celestial Turks, Blue Turks or Kok Turks (Old Turkic: 𐰜𐰇𐰛:𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰰, Kök Türük; Chinese: 突厥/تُركِئ; pinyin: Tūjué, Middle Chinese: *duət̚-kʉɐt̚ (türkut), Dungan: Тўҗүә; Khotanese Saka: Ttūrka, Ttrūka; Old Tibetan: Drugu) were a nomadic confederation of Turkic peoples in medieval Inner Asia. The Göktürks, under the leadership of Bumin Qaghan (d. 552) and his sons, succeeded the Rouran Khaganate as the main power in the region and established the Turkic Khaganate, one of several nomadic dynasties which would shape the future geolocation, culture, and dominant beliefs of Turkic peoples.
Strictly speaking, the common name Göktürk is the Anatolian Turkish form of the ethnonym. The Old Turkic name for the Göktürks was 𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰰 Türük, 𐱅𐰇𐰼𐰰:𐰜𐰇𐰛 Kök Türük, or Türk. They were known in Middle Chinese historical sources as the tɦutkyat (Chinese: 突厥; pinyin: Tūjué). According to Chinese sources, the meaning of the word Tujue was “combat helmet” (Chinese: 兜鍪; pinyin: Dōumóu; Wade–Giles: Tou1-mou2), reportedly because the shape of the Altai Mountains where they lived, was similar to a combat helmet.
Göktürk means “Celestial Turks”, or sometimes “Blue Turks” (i.e. because sky blue is associated with celestial realms). This is consistent with “the cult of heavenly ordained rule” which was a recurrent element of Altaic political culture and as such may have been imbibed by the Göktürks from their predecessors in Mongolia. The name of the ruling Ashina clan may derive from the Khotanese Saka term for “deep blue”, āššɪna.
The word Türk meant “strong” in Old Turkic.
The Göktürk rulers originated from the Ashina clan, who were first attested to 439. The Book of Sui reports that in that year, on October 18, the Tuoba ruler Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei overthrew Juqu Mujian of the Northern Liang in eastern Gansu, whence 500 Ashina families fled northwest to the Rouran Khaganate in the vicinity of Gaochang. Peter Benjamin Golden points out that the khaghans of the Turkic Khaganate, the Ashina, who were of an undetermined ethnic origin, adopted Iranian and Tokharian titles. German Turkologist W.-E. Scharlipp points out that many common terms in Turkic are Iranian in origin.
According to the Book of Zhou and the History of the Northern Dynasties, the Ashina clan was a component of the Xiongnu confederation, but this connection is disputed, and according to the Book of Sui and the Tongdian, they were “mixed Hu (barbarians)” (雜胡) from Pingliang. Indeed, Chinese sources linked the Hu on their northern borders to the Xiongnu just as Graeco-Roman historiographers called the Pannonian Avars, Huns and Hungarians”Scythians”. Such archaizing was a common literary topos, and implied similar geographic origins and nomadic lifestyle but not direct filiation.
As part of the heterogeneous Rouran Khaganate, the Türks lived for generations north of the Altai Mountains, where they ‘engaged in metal working for the Rouran’. According to Denis Sinor, the rise to power of the Ashina clan represented an ‘internal revolution’ in the Rouran Khaganate rather than an external conquest. According to Charles Holcombe, the early Tujue population was rather heterogeneous and many of the names of Türk rulers, including the two founding members, are not even Turkic. This is supported by evidence from the Orkhon inscriptions, which include several non-Turkic lexemes, possibly representing Finno-Ugric or Samoyedic words.