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The Xiongnu (Chinese:匈奴; Wade-Giles: Hsiung-nu) were a nomadic pastoral people of Central Asia, generally based in present day Mongolia. From the 3rd century BC they controlled a vast steppe empire which extended west as far as the Caucasus. They were active in the areas of southern Siberia, western Manchuria and the modern Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang. Nevertheless their origins and ethnic composition remains unclear.
Relations between the Chinese and the Xiongnu were complicated and included military conflict, exchanges in tribute and trade, as well as marriage treaties.
The overwhelming amount of information on the Xiongnu comes from Chinese sources. There is no way of reconstructing any substantial part of the Xiongnu language. What little we know of their titles and names come from Chinese transliterations. The Chinese terms for the people - "Xiongnu" - or its leaders - "shanyu" (單于) - presumably reflects the sound of the foreign tongue.
Origins and early history of the Xiongnu
Confederation under Modun
In 209 BC, just three years before the founding of the Han Dynasty, the Xiongnu were brought together in a powerful confederacy under a new shanyu named Modun (冒頓). The Xiongnu's political unity transformed them into a much more formidable foe by enabling them to concentrate larger forces and exercise better strategic coordination. The cause of the confederation, however, remains unclear. It has been suggested that the unification of China prompted the nomads to rally around a political centre in order to strengthen their position.1 Another theory is that the reorganisation was their response to the political crisis that overtook them 215 BC, when Qin armies evicted them from their pastures on the Yellow River.2
After forging internal unity, Modun expanded the empire on all sides. To the north he conquered a number of nomadic peoples, including the Dingling of southern Siberia. He crushed the power Dong-Hu of eastern Mongolia and Manchuria, as well as the Yuezhi in the Gansu corridor. He was able, moreover, to recover all the lands taken by the Qin general Meng Tian . Before the death of Modun in 174 BC, the Xiongnu had driven the Yuezhi from the Gansu corridor completely and asserted their presence in the Western Regions in modern Xinjiang.
Nature of the Xiongnu state
Under Modun, a dualistic system of political organisation was formed. The left and right branches of the Xiongnu were divided on a regional basis. The shanyu - supreme ruler equivalent to the Chinese "Son of Heaven" - exercised direct authority over the central territory. Longcheng (蘢城), near Koshu-Tsaidam in Mongolia, was established as the annual meeting place and de-facto capital.
The marriage treaty system
In the winter of 200 BC, following a siege of Taiyuan, Emperor Gao personally led a military campaign against Modun. At the battle of Pingcheng, he was ambushed by reputedly 300,000 elite Xiongnu cavalry. The emperor was cut off from supplies and reinforcements for seven days, only narrowly escaping capture.
After the defeat at Pingcheng, the Han emperor abandoned a military solution to the Xiongnu threat. Instead, in 198 BC, the courtier Liu Jing (劉敬) was despatched for negotiations. The peace settlement eventually reached between the parties included a Han princes given in marriage to the shanyu (called heqin or "harmonious kinship"); periodic gifts of silk, liquor and rice to the Xiongnu; equal status between the states; and the Great Wall as mutual border.
This first treaty set the pattern for relations between Han and the Xiongnu for some sixty years. Up to 135 BC, the treaty was renewed no less than nine times, with an increase of "gifts" with each subsequent agreement. In 192 BC, Modun even asked for the hand of the widowed Empress Lü. His son and successor, the energetic Jiyu (稽粥), known as the "Laoshang shanyu" (老上單于), continued his father's expansionistic policies. Laoshang succeeded in negotiating with Emperor Wen terms for the maintenance of a large-scale government-sponsored market system.
While much was gained by the Xiongnu, from the Chinese perspective marriage treaties were costly and ineffective. Laoshang showed that he did not take the peace treaty seriously. On one occasion his scouts penetrated to a point near Chang'an. In 166 BC he personally led 140,000 cavalry to invade Anding, reaching as far as the imperial retreat at Yong. In 158 BC, his successor sent 30,000 cavalry to attack Shang comandery and another 30,000 to Yunzhong.
War with Han China
Han China was making preparations for a military confrontations from the reign of Emperor Wen. The break came in 134 BC, following an abortive trap to ambush the shanyu at Mayi. By that point the empire was consolidated politically, militarily, and financially; and was led by an adventurous pro-war faction at court. In that year, Emperor Wu reversed the decision he had made the year before to renew the peace treaty.
Full scale war broke out in autumn 129 BC, when 40,000 Chinese cavalry made a surprise attack on the Xiongnu at the border markets. In 127 BC, the Han general Wei Qing (衛青) retook the Ordos. In 121 BC, the Xiongnu suffered another setback when Huo Qubing (霍去病) led a force of light cavalry westward out of Longxi and within six days fought his way through five Xiongnu kingdoms. The Xiongnu Hunye king was forced to surrender with 40,000 men. In 119 BC both Huo and Wei, each leading 50,000 cavalrymen and 30,000 to 50,000 footsoldiers, and advancing along different routes, forced the shanyu and his court to flee north of the Gobi Desert.3
Major logistical difficulties limited the duration and long-term continuation of these campaigns. According the analysis of Yan You (嚴尤), the difficulties were two-fold. Firstly there was the problem of supplying food across long distances. Secondly, the weather in the northern Xiongnu lands was difficult for Han soldiers, who could never carry enough fuel.4 According to official reports, each side lost 80,000 to 90,000 men. Out of the 140,000 horses the Han forces had brought into the desert, less than 30,000 returned to China.
As a result of these battles, the Chinese controlled the strategic region from the Gansu corridor to Lop Nor. They succeeded in separating the Xiongnu from the Qiang peoples to the south and also gained direct access to the Western Regions.
Leadership struggle among the Xiongnu
As the Xiongnu empire expanded, it became clear that the original leadership structures lacked flexibility and could not maintain effective cohsion. The traditional succession to the eldest son became increasingly ineffective in meeting wartime emergencies in the 1st century BC. To combat the problems of succession, the shanyu Huhanye (58 BC-31 BC) later laid down the rule that his heir apparent must pass the throne on to a younger brother. This pattern of fraternal succession did indeed become the norm.
The growth of regionalism became clear around this period, when local kings refused to attend the annual meetings at the shanyu's court. During this period, shanyu were forced to develop power bases in their own regions to secure the throne.
In the period 114 BC to 60 BC, the Xiongnu prodcued altogether seven shanyu. Two of them, Chanshilu and Huyanti, assumed the office while still children. In 60 BC, Tuqitang, the "wise king of the right", became shanyu Wuyanjuti. No sooner had he come to the throne that he began to purge those whose base lay in the left group from power. Thus antagonised, in 58 BC the nobility of the left put forward Huhanye as their own shanyu. The year 57 BC saw a struggle for power among five regional groupings, each with its own shanyu. In 54 BC Huhanye abandoned his capital in the north after being defeated by his brother, the shanyu Zhizhi.
Tributary relations with the Han
In 53 BC Huyanye decided to enter into tributary relations with Han China. The original terms insisted on by the Han court were that, first, the shanyu or his representatives should come to the capital to pay homage; secondly, the shanyu should send a hostage prince; thirdly, the shanyu should present tribute to the Han emperor. The political status of the Xiongnu in the Chinese world order was reduced from that of a "brotherly state" to that of an "outer vassal" (外臣). During this period, however, the Xiongnu maintained political sovereignty and full territorial integrity. The Great Wall continued to serve as the line of demarcation between Han and Xiongnu.
Huyanye sent his son, the "wise king of the right" Shuloujutang, to the Han court as hostage. In 51 BC he personally visited Chang'an to pay homage to the emperor on the Chinese New Year. On the financial side, Huhanye was amply rewarded in large quantities of gold, cash, clothes, silk, horses and grain for his participation. Huhanye made two more homage trips, in 49 BC and 33 BC - with each one the imperial gifts were increased. On the last trip, Huhanye took the opportunity to ask to be allowed to become an imperial son-in-law. As a sign of the decline in the political status of the Xiongnu, Emperor Yuan refused, giving him instead five ladies-in-waiting. One of them was Wang Zhaojun, famed in Chinese folklore as one of the Four Beauties.
When Zhizhi learned of his brother's submission, he also sent a son to the Han court as hostage in 53 BC. Then twice, in 51 BC and 50 BC, he sent envoys to the Han court with tribute. But having failed to pay homage personally, he was never admitted to the tributary system. In 33 BC, a junior officer named Chen Tang, with the help of Gan Yanshou, protector-general of the Western Regions, assembled an expeditionary force that defeated Zhizhi and sent his head as a trophy to Chang'an.
Tributary relations were discontinued during the reign of Huduershi (AD 18-48), which corresponded to the political upheavals of the Xin Dynasty in China. The Xiongnu took the opportunity to regain control of the Western Regions, as well as neighbouring peoples such as the Wuhuan. In AD 24, Hudershi even talked seriously about reversing the tributary system.
Northern and southern Xiongnu
The Xiongnu's new power was met with a policy of appeasement by Emperor Guangwu. At the height of his power, Huduershi even compared himself to his illustrious ancestor Modun. Due to the growing regionalism among the Xiongnu, however, Huduershi was never able to establish unquestioned authority. When he designated his son as heir apparent in contravention of the principle of fraternal succession established by Huhanye, Bi, the Rizhu king of the right, refused to attend the annual meeting at the shanyu's court.
As the eldest son of the preceding shanyu, Bi had a legitimate claim to the succession. In AD 48, two years after Huduershi's son Punu ascended the throne, eight Xiongnu tribes in Bi's powerbase in the south, with a military force totalling 40,000 to 50,000 men, acclaimed Bi as their own shanyu. Throughout the Eastern Han period these two groups were called the southern Xiongnu and the northern Xiongnu, respectively.
Hard pressed by the northern Xiongnu and plagued by natural calamities, Bi brought the southern Xiongnu into tributary relations with Han China in AD 50. The tributary system was considerably tightened to keep the southern Xiongnu under Han supervision. The shanyu was ordered to establish his court in the Meichi district of Xihe commandery. The Southern Xiongnu were resettled in eight frontier commanderies. At the same time large numbers of Chinese were forced to migrate to these commanderies, where mixed settlements began to appear.
Economically, the southern Xiongnu relied almost totally on Han assistance. Tensions were evident between the settled Chinese and the nomadic way of life. Thus, in 94 shanyu Anguo joined forces with newly subjugated Xiongnu from the north and started a large scale rebellion against the Han.
The Xiongnu after the Han Dynasty
The complicated racial situation of mixed frontier settlements instituted during the Eastern Han had grave consequences which were not fully apprehended by the Chinese government until the end of the 3rd century. At that time, non-Chinese unrest reached alarming proportions along the whole of the Western Jin frontier.
In 304 the descendants of the southern Xiongnu rose in rebellion. Under the leadership of the sinicised Liu Yuan (劉淵), they were joined by a large number of frontier Chinese. After the fall of the Western Jin in 317, the southern Xiongnu succeeded in establishing the first alien dynasty in Chinese history, known to history as the Liu Song (劉宋).
Did the Xiongnu become the Huns?
It's also intersting to note that the pronunciation of the word 匈 (Xiong) is preserved in older language such as Cantonese ie: /hUN/. It could be based on the theory that the Xiongs were in fact the Huns or that the Chinese refered the tribes generically as such.
- 1 Barfield, Thomas. The Perilous Frontier (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).
- 2 Di Cosmo, "The Northern Frontier in Pre-Imperial China", in The Cambridge History of Ancient China, edited by Michael Loewe and Edward Shaughnessy, pp. 885-966. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- 3 These campaigns are described in detail by Michael Loewe, "The campaigns of Han Wu-ti", in Chinese ways in warfare, ed. Frank A. Kierman, Jr., and John K. Fairbank (Cambridge, Mass., 1974).
- 4 This view was put forward to Wang Mang in AD 14: Han Shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju edition) 94B, p. 3824.
- Ban Gu (班固), Han shu (漢書). Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1962.
- Fan Ye (范曄) et al., comp. Hou Han shu (後漢書). Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1965.
- Sima Qian (司馬遷) et al., Shi ji (史記). Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1959.
- de Crespigny, Rafe. Northern frontier: The policies and strategies of the Later Han empire. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1984.
- Hill, John E. 2004. The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu. Draft annotated English translation.
- Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West from the Weilue 魏略 by Yu Huan 魚豢: A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 CE. Draft annotated English translation. 
- Hulsewé, A. F. P. and Loewe, M. A. N. 1979. China in Central Asia: The Early Stage 125 BC AD 23: an annotated translation of chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty. E. J. Brill, Leiden.
- Yü Ying-shih, "Han foreign relations", Cambridge History of China, pp. 377-462.
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