Chinese dictionaries give various meanings of yi. Besides "Dongyi", it also means "foreign" (外夷), "flat and safe" (化险为夷), "calm (and composed)" (夷然自若), "to level" (夷为平地), "same kind" (夷等:同辈), "kill" (族夷), "name" (伯夷), "joyful" (通“怡” as in 我心则夷), "hoe" (锄), etc.
The first Chinese dictionary, Shuowen Jiezi by Xu Shen interpretated "夷" as "big bow". The character itself consists of two Chinese characters: "大", meaning "big" and depicting a frontal view of a person with arms outstretched, and "弓", meaning "bow". Dongyi people are usually referred to as the eastern bowmen, who also first invented the bow in China. Houyi, one of the legendary leaders of Dongyi, is the Chinese God of Archery.
Literature describing a pre-Xia Dynasty period does not use the character yi. As for the Xia Dynasty, some groups of people are referred to as the Yi. For example, "Yu Gong" (禹貢) of the Classic of History calls people in Qingzhou and Xuzhou as Laiyi (萊夷), Yuyi (嵎夷) and Huaiyi (淮夷). Another yi-related term is Jiu-yi (九夷), literally Nine Yi, which could have also had the connotation The Numerous Yi or The Many Different Kinds of Yi, and which appears in the famous passage in The Analects that reads, "The Master (i.e., Confucius) desired to live among the Nine Yi." The term "Dongyi" is not used for this period.
The Shang Dynasty has contemporary sources, in other words, oracle bone inscriptions. These records state that King Wu Ding (reign c. 1250 BC-1192 BC) made military expeditions to the Yi. The enclave of the Yi people is considered to have been located to the southeast of the Shang Dynasty. King Di Xin, the last king, made a massive military campaign against the Yifang (夷方). The word "yifang" is often interpreted as "renfang" (人方) because the pictures of "夷" and "人" (meaning: person, humans) look alike in oracle script. Some history books use "Dongyi" for Shang-related episodes, but judging from oracle bone inscriptions, the Shang people themselves did not use this term.
It appears that the Yifang were the same people as Huaiyi (Huai River Yi), Nanhuaiyi (Southern Huai Yi), Nanyi (Southern Yi) and Dongyi in bronzeware inscriptions of the Western Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou Dynasty attempted to keep the Yi under its control. The most notable is the successful campaign against the Huaiyi and the Dongyi by the Duke of Zhou.
During the Spring and Autumn Period, Jin, Zheng, Qi and Song tried to seize control of the Huai River basin, which was occupied by the Huaiyi. But the region finally fell under the influence of Chu in the south. At the same time, people in the east and south ceased to be called Dongyi as they founded their own states.
References to Dongyi became ideological during the Warring States period probably because selves and others had subtle cultural differences among Chinese. The Classic of Rites (early 4th BC) made the first reference to the combination of "Dongyi" (east), "Xirong" (west), "Nanman" (south) and "Beidi" (north) in fixed four directions. At the same time "Dongyi" acquired a clearly pejorative nuance.
The more "China" expanded, the further east the term "Dongyi" was applied to. The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian uses the term "Manyi" (蠻夷), but not "Dongyi". It puts the section of "Xinanyi (southwestern Yi) liezhuan (biographies)", but not "Dongyi liezhuan". The Book of Han does not put this section either but calls a Dongye (濊) chief in the Korean Peninsula as Dongyi. The Book of Later Han puts the section of "Dongyi liezhuan" and covers Buyeo, Yilou, Goguryeo, Dongwozu, Hui, Samhan and Wa, in other words, eastern Manchuria, Korea, Japan and some other islands. The Book of Jin positioned Dongyi inside the section of "Siyi" (barbarians in four directions) along with "Xirong", "Nanman" and "Beidi". The Book of Sui, the Book of Tang and the New Book of Tang adopt the section of "Dongyi" and covers eastern Manchuria, Korea, Japan and optionally Sakhalin and Taiwan. During the Song Dynasty, the official history books replaced Dongyi with Waiguo (外國) and Waiyi (外夷).
These two history books do not assign many chapters to describe the history of Dongyi. However, it includes the simple description Wiman Joseon. Wiman fled from Han dynasty to Gojoseon, and he diguised as if he was Gojoseon people. As decribing the disguise of Wiman, Sima Qian says that that Gojoseon people are Manyi(蠻夷) instead of Dongyi. Book of Han uses the same term as Records of the Grand Historian.
This book was written by Chen Shou, and also contains the chapter about 'Dongyi'. The chapter of "Wuwan Xianbei Dongyi" describes the Wuwan tribes, Xianbei tribes, and Dongyi tribes respectively. In the section of Dongyi, this book explains the Korean and Japanese ancient kingdoms such as Buyeo, Goguryeo, Okjeo, Dongye, Samhan, and Wa (Japan).
4) Book of Jin
This book was written by Fang Xuanling at Tang dynasty. It has the chapter of 'Four Yi', and describes the Korean, Manchurian, and Japanese history such as Buyeo, Mahan confederacy, Jinhan confederacy, Sushen, and Wa (Japan)
5) Book of Song
This history book describes the history of Liu Song Dynasty, but also contains the simple explanation the neighbor states. The Chapter of Dongyi of this book describes the ancient history of Korea and Japan such as Goguryeo, Baekje and Wa (Japan).
6) Book of Qi
The Book of Qi is the history book of Southern Qi. In the 58th volume, the history of Dongyi's history is described, which includes the ancient Korean and Japanese history such as Goguryeo, Baekje, Gaya and Wa (Japan).
This book is about the history of Liu Song, Southern Qi, Liang Dynasty, and Chen Dynasty, but also includes the history of Dongyi. In the chapter of Dongyi, this book describes the Korean and Japanese history such as Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla, Wa (Japan), and so on. . Interestingly, this book says that Dongyi's state was Gojoseon while Sima Qian says that Gojoseon people is Manyi. .
8) Book of Sui
The Book of Sui describes the history about the Sui Dynasty, and was compiled at Tang dynasty. The chapter of Dongyi's history describes the history of Korean, Manchurian and Japanese such as Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla, Mohe, Liuqiu, and Wa (Japan).
People called Dongyi in this sense lived in Haidai (海岱) region, the lower reaches of the Yellow and Huai Rivers, from the Neolithic period.
The cultural evolution in Haidai region is considered as follows:
The ages differ among scholars
The Shandong Longshan culture was characterized by large-scale hierarchical groups of walled settlements. The Yueshi culture which replaced the Longshan culture around 2000 B.C. saw a decline of civilization. Groups of settlements were dissolved and the highly-developed pottery technology of the Shandong Longshan culture was lost.
(Note: The Longshan Culture was not just Dongyi and did not just exist in Shandong and other eastern coastal areas of China. Areas further west, including much of the middle and lower Yellow River Valley region, was also a part of the Longshan Culture area. Historians such as Jacques Gernet think that the Longshan Culture was also culturally ancestral to the Erlitou Culture and the later Shang dynasty in the middle Yellow River Valley region. There are some good evidence for this claim, for both the Longshan and Shang cultures shared the following basic elements:
Furthermore, the Shang dynasty technology of bronze metallurgy seems to be the descendant of high temperature ceramic-making techniques used by the late Neolithic Longshan Culture.
The Longshan Culture might have been replaced by the Yueshi Culture in Shandong but further to the west it continued and developed into the Erlitou Culture around 1900 - 1800 BC.)
During the Yueshi culture in Shandong, the Erlitou culture and the subsequent Erligang culture gradually stretched from the Yellow River valley in the west. Since sites of the Yueshi culture distributed complementarily with those of the Erligang culture, the traditional theory that the Shang Dynasty originated in the east was shattered. Shang civilization extended to central Shandong at the end of the Shang Dynasty and it was during the middle Western Zhou Dynasty that the central civilization covered the entire Haidai region.
It is notable that Longshan people seemingly had their own writing system. A pottery inscription of the Longshan culture discovered in Dinggong Village, Zouping County, Shandong Province contains eleven characters and they do not look like the direct ancestor of Chinese characters. Chinese scholar Feng Shi (馮時) argued in 1994 that this inscription can be interpreted as written by the Longshan people. Other scholars, like Ming Ru, are doubtful about attributing a Neolithic date to the inscription. Some other scholars also claim a connection between ancient Dongyi and the modern Yi people in southwestern China.
Silhak scholars of later Joseon period studied mentions of Dongyi in Chinese texts, to connect it with ancient Korean history, such as with Han Chi-yun's Haedong Yeoksa. Some modern Korean scholars continue to examine the ethnic characteristics, geography, and cultural development of the Dongyi as they may relate to Korean history.
Some have attempted to explain Gija Joseon with a theory of Dongyi migration, but many reject this as unsupported by archeology.