Local names for the mountain ranges include: 天山 (Chinese; pinyin: Tiān Shān; Wade–Giles: T'ien1 Shan1; literally: "Celestial Mountains"), Хан Тәңірі (Kazakh; Khan Tengri; literally "Empyrean God"/"Heavenly Mountains"), Теңир-Тоо (Kyrgyz; Tengir-Too; literally "Heavenly Mountains"/"God's Mountains"/"Mountains of Tengri"), Тэнгэр уул (Mongolian; "Tenger Uul";"Heavenly Mountains") and تەڭرى تاغ (Uyghur; Tengri Tagh or Tangritah).
The Chinese name for Tian Shan may be derived from the Xiongnu language name Qilian (Tsilien; Chinese: 祁连), which was described by Sima Qian in the Records of the Grand Historian as the homeland of the pre-Xiongnu peoples of the region, the Yuezhi, and has been said to refer to the Tian Shan rather than to the range 1,500 kilometres (930 mi) further east now known by this name.
The Tannu-Ola Mountains in Tuva Republic of Russia (Tuvan: Таңды-Уула Tangdy-Uula) bear the same name ("heaven/celestial mountains" or "god/spirit mountains").
Tian Shan lies to the north and west of the Taklamakan Desert and directly north of the Tarim Basin in the border region of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of western China. In the south it links up with the Pamir Mountains and to north and east it meets the Altai Mountains of Mongolia. It also extends into the Chinese province of Xinjiang and into the northern areas of Pakistan, where it joins the Hindu Kush.