The Xiongnu (Hsiung-nuMongolian: Хүн or Хүннү, Khün or KhünnüChinese: 匈奴; pinyin:Xiōngnú; Wade–Giles: Hsiung1-nu2Guangyun (Middle Chinese): [xi̯woŋ˥˩nu˩]) were ancient nomadic-based people that formed a state or confederation located north of China. Most of the information on the Xiongnu comes from Chinese sources. What little is known of their titles and names comes from Chinese transliterations of their language.

The identity of the ethnic core of Xiongnu has been a subject of varied hypotheses, because only a few words, mainly titles and personal names, were preserved in the Chinese sources. Proposals by scholars include TurkicMongolicYeniseianTocharianIranian, andUralic. They also possibly practiced Tengriism. The name Xiongnu may be cognate to the name Huns, but the evidence for this is controversial.

Chinese sources from the 3rd century BC report them as having created an empire under Modu Chanyu, the supreme leader after 209 BC. This empire stretched beyond the borders of modern-day Mongolia. After defeating the previously dominant Yuezhi in the 2nd century BC, Xiongnu became a dominant power on the steppes of central and eastern Asia. They were active in regions of what is now southern SiberiaMongoliaSouthern MongoliaGansu and Xinjiang. Relations between early Chinese dynasties and the Xiongnu were complex, with repeated periods of military conflict and intrigue alternating with exchanges of tribute, trade, and marriage treaties.

Early[edit source]Edit

An early reference to the Xiongnu was by Sima Qian who wrote about the Xiongnu in theShiji (ca. 100 BC), drawing a distinct line between the settled Huaxia people (Chinese) to the pastoral nomads (Xiongnu), characterizing it as two polar groups in the sense of a civilization versus an uncivilized society. Sources from the pre-Han Dynasty  eras often classified the Xiongnu as the Hu people, even though this was more a blanket term for nomadic people in general; it only became an ethnonym for the Xiongnu during the Han.

Ancient China often came in contact with was described as the "Hsien-yün" and the "Jung" nomadic people. In later Chinese historiography, some groups of these peoples were believed to be the possible progenitors of the Xiongnu people. These nomadic people often had repeated military confrontations with the Chinese dynasties of the Shang and especially the Zhou, who often conquered and enslaved the nomads in an expansion drift. During the Warring States period, the Chinese armies from the QinZhao, and Yan states were encroaching and conquering various nomadic territories that were inhabited by the Xiongnu and other Hu peoples.

The Chinese Qin empire was set on preemptively attacking the Xiongnu and expanding their territory at the expense of the Xiongnu. In 215 BC, Qin Shi Huang sent General Meng Tian to conquer the Xiongnu and drive them from the Ordos region, which he did later that year. After the catastrophic defeat at the hands of General Meng Tian, the Xiongnu leader Touman was forced to flee far into theMongolian Plateau. The Qin empire became a threat to the Xiongnu, which ultimately led to the reorganization of the many tribes into a confederacy.

State formation[edit source]Edit

War with Han Dynasty[edit source] After forging internal unity, Modu 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 of the Donghu of eastern Mongolia and Manchuria, as well as theYuezhi in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu where his son Jizhu made a cup out of the skull of the Yuezhi king. Modu also reoccupied all the lands previously taken by the Qin general Meng Tian. Under Modu's leadership, the Xiongnu threatened the Han Dynasty, almost causing Liu Bang to lose his throne in 200 BCE. By the time of Modu's death in 174 BC, the Xiongnu had driven the Yuezhi from the Hexi Corridor, killing the Yuezhi king in the process and asserting their presence in the Western Regions of Xinjiang.In 209 BC, three years before the founding of the Han Dynasty, the Xiongnu were brought together in a powerful confederacy under a new chanyu named Modu Chanyu. This new political unity transformed them into a more formidable state by enabling formation of larger armies and the ability to exercise better strategic coordination. The reason for creating the confederation remains unclear. Suggestions include the need for a stronger state to deal with the Qin unification of China[17] that resulted in a loss of Ordos at the hands of Meng Tian, or the political crisis that overtook the Xiongnu in 215 BC, when Qin armies evicted them from their pastures on the Yellow River; They were recognized as the most prominent of the nomads bordering the Chinese Han empire.

Main article: Han–Xiongnu War

While Han China was making preparations for a military confrontation from the reign of Emperor Wen, the break did not come until 133 BC, following an abortive trap to ambush the chanyu at Mayi. By that point the empire was consolidated politically, militarily and economically, 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.The Han Dynasty made preparations for war when the Han Emperor Wu dispatched the explorer Zhang Qian to explore the mysterious kingdoms to the west and to form an alliance with the Yuezhi people in order to combat the Xiongnu. While Zhang Qian did not succeed in this mission, his reports of the west provided even greater incentive to counter the Xiongnu hold on westward routes out of China, and the Chinese prepared to mount a large scale attack using the Northern Silk Road to move men and material.

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 retook the Ordos. In 121 BC, the Xiongnu suffered another setback when Huo Qubing 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 100,000 footsoldiers (in order to keep up with the mobility of the Xiongnu, many of the non-cavalry Han soldiers were mobile infantrymen who traveled on horseback but fought on foot), and advancing along different routes, forced the chanyu and his court to flee north of the Gobi Desert.[26] Major logistical difficulties limited the duration and long-term continuation of these campaigns. According to the analysis of Yan You (嚴尤), the difficulties were twofold. 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.[27] According to official reports, the Xiongnu lost 80,000 to 90,000 men. And out of the 140,000 horses the Han forces had brought into the desert, fewer than 30,000 returned to China.

As a result of these battles, the Chinese controlled the strategic region from the Ordos and 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.

Ban Chao, Protector General (都護; Duhu) of the Han Dynasty embarked with an army of 70,000 men in a campaign against the Xiongnu insurgents who were harassing the trade route we now know as the Silk Road. His successful military campaign saw the subjugation of one Xiongnu tribe after another. Ban Chao also sent an envoy named Gan Ying to Daqin (Rome). Ban Chao was created the Marquess of Dingyuan (定遠侯, i.e., "the Marquess who stabilized faraway places") for his services to the Han Empire and returned to the capitalLoyang at the age of 70 years old and died there in the year 102. Following his death, the power of the Xiongnu in the Western Regions increased again, and the emperors of subsequent dynasties were never again able to reach so far to the west.

Xiongnu Civil War (60–53 BC)[edit source]Edit

When a Chanyu died, power could pass to his younger brother if his son was not of age. This system, which can be compared to Gaelic tanistry, normally kept an adult male on the throne, but could cause trouble in later generations when there were several lineages that might claim the throne. When the 12th Chanyu died in 60BC, power was taken by Woyanqudi, a grandson of the 12th Chanyu's cousin. Being something of a usurper, he tried to put his own men in power, which only increased the number of his enemies. The 12th Chanyu's son fled east and, in 58BC, revolted. Few would support Woyanqudi and he was driven to suicide, leaving the rebel son, Huhanye, as the 14th Chanyu. The Woyanqudi faction then set up his brother, Tuqi, as Chanyu (58BC). In 57BC three more men declared themselves Chanyu. Two dropped their claims in favor of the third who was defeated by Tuqi in that year and surrendered to Huhanye the following year. In 56BC Tuqi was defeated by Huhanye and committed suicide, but two more claimants appeared: Runzhen and Huhanye's elder brother Zhizhi Chanyu. Runzhen was killed by Zhizhi in 54BC, leaving only Zhizhi and Huhanye. Zhizhi grew in power, and, in 53BC, Huhanye moved south and submitted to the Chinese. Huhanye used Chinese support to weaken Zhizhi, who gradually moved west. In 49BC a brother to Tuqi set himself up as Chanyu and was killed by Zhizhi. In 36BC Zhizhi was killed by a Chinese army while trying to establish a new kingdom in the far west near Lake Balkhash.

Tributary relations with the Han[edit source]Edit

Huhanye 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 Lunar 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.In 53 BC Huhanye (呼韓邪) decided to enter into tributary relations with Han China. The original terms insisted on by the Han court were that, first, the chanyu or his representatives should come to the capital to pay homage; secondly, the chanyu should send a hostage prince; and thirdly, the chanyu 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 of China continued to serve as the line of demarcation between Han and Xiongnu.

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 36 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 him at the Battle of Zhizhi and sent his head as a trophy to Chang'an.

Tributary relations were discontinued during the reign of Huduershi (18 AD–48), corresponding 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 24 AD, Hudershi even talked about reversing the tributary system.

Northern Xiongnu[edit source]Edit

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, Modu. Due to 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 chanyu's court.

As the eldest son of the preceding chanyu, Bi had a legitimate claim to the succession. In 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 chanyu. 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 50. The tributary system was considerably tightened to keep the southern Xiongnu under Han supervision. The chanyuwas ordered to establish his court in the Meiji 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. The northern Xiongnu were dispersed by the Xianbei in 85 and again in 89 by the Chinese during the Battle of Ikh Bayan, in which the last Northern Chanyu was defeated and fled over to the north west with his subjects.

Southern Xiongnu[edit source]Edit

Towards the end of the Eastern Han, the southern Xiongnu were drawn into the rebellions then plaguing the Han court. In 188, the chanyu was murdered by some of his own subjects for agreeing to send troops to help the Han suppress a rebellion in Hebei – many of the Xiongnu feared that it would set a precedent for unending military service to the Han court. The murdered chanyu's son Yufuluo, entitled Chizhisizhu (持至尸逐侯), succeeded him, but was then overthrown by the same rebellious faction in 189. He travelled to Luoyang (the Han capital) to seek aid from the Han court, but at this time the Han court was in disorder from the clash between Grand General He Jin and the eunuchs, and the intervention of the warlord Dong Zhuo. The chanyu had no choice but to settle down with his followers in Pingyang, a city in Shanxi. In 195, he died and was succeeded by his brother Hucuquan.Economically, the southern Xiongnu relied almost totally on Han assistance. Tensions were evident between the settled Chinese and practitioners of the nomadic way of life. Thus, in 94, Anguo Chanyu joined forces with newly subjugated Xiongnu from the north and started a large scale rebellion against the Han.

In 216, the warlord-statesman Cao Cao detained Hucuquan in the city of Ye, and divided his followers in Shanxi into five divisions: left, right, south, north, and centre. This was aimed at preventing the exiled Xiongnu in Shanxi from engaging in rebellion, and also allowed Cao Cao to use the Xiongnu as auxiliaries in his cavalry. Eventually, the Xiongnu aristocracy in Shanxi changed their surname fromLuanti to Liu for prestige reasons, claiming that they were related to the Han imperial clan through the old intermarriage policy.

Post-Han Dynasty[edit source]Edit

After Hucuquan, the Xiongnu were partitioned into five local tribes. The complicated ethnic situation of the mixed frontier settlements instituted during the Eastern Han had grave consequences, not fully apprehended by the Chinese government until the end of the 3rd century. By 260, Liu Qubei had organized the Tiefu confederacy in the north east, and by 290, Liu Yuan was leading a splinter group in the south west. At that time, non-Chinese unrest reached alarming proportions along the whole of the Western Jin frontier.

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