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Chinese History - Xiongnu 匈奴

Periods of Chinese History
The Xiongnu 匈奴 were a nomad people living north and northwest of China during the Qin 秦 (221-206 BC) and Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) periods. They founded a mighty federation of tribes living in the steppe and continuously endangered the border regions of Han China and the city-states of the Silkroad. Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) was able to destroy the first Xiongnu empire, so that Chinese troops were able to occupy the Western Territories. Yet in times of Chinese weakness, the Xiongnu rose again. From the 2nd century CE on more and more Xiongnu families migrated eastwards onto Chinese territory and settled down in the modern provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi and Shanxi. Some tribesleaders claiming origin from the Xiongnu founded small empires in northern China during the period of the Sixteen Barbarian kingdoms 十六國 (300~430), especially the Former Zhao 前趙 (304-329), Northern Liang 北涼 (398-439) and Xia 夏 (407-432).
Western scholars tried identifying them with the Huns that threatened Europe during the 4th century BCE, but there is no archeological or historiographical evidence for the Xiongnu's migration to the west. A Central Asian people invading India in the XXX century was called Huna or "White Huns" (in Greek Hephthalites). Although there might be similarities in the name of these peoples, it must be considered that the name of a mighty nomad tribe (Mongols, Tartars) was often used for very different ethnic people. Pulleyblank has shown that the language of the Xiongnu - of which a few words and terms are preserved in Chinese literature - was related to the Siberian ethnics (Samoyeds, Kets) in the River Yennisej area, and not to the Mongols or Turks, while the Hun hords of Attila that tried to conquer Europe were surely Proto-Turks. The native name of the Xiongnu might have been Hungnor or Hunoch, a word that Chinese could neither pronounce nor write and hence created the translitertaion Hungnu (modern pronunciation [ɕiʊŋ nu]). The syllable "hu" like in Hu 胡 is often used for barbarian, i.e. non-Chinese peoples.
The term Hu appears in texts from the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), but some Chinese scholars think that the Xianyun 玁狁 (Quanrong 犬戎, see Rong 戎) or Xunzhou 薰粥 from the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) were probably ancestors of the Xiongnu.

Life of the Xiongnu

The nomad tribes of the Xiongnu developed their power at the end of the Warring States period when the Chinese states were occupied by intensive wars against each other. During the following Qin dynasty 秦 they still not seem to represent a danger for Chinese soil and people. Only at the begin of the 2nd century BC, when a chieftain named Modu 冒頓 (not: Maodun!; his original name might have been Bordur) made himself ruler (chanyu 單于, not danyu! [old: shanyu] a term similar to the Turk-Mongol "khan") over the Xiongnu tribes. The territory that was inhabited or roamed by the Xiongnu tribes stretched from the Ili Basin in the far west of modern China to the pastures of modern Mongolia. When the Xiongnu subjugated neighboring tribes, these were incorporated into the Xiongnu federation and took over the name of the Xiongnu although they might be of a very different ethnic. This custom was followed by all subsequent mighty steppe peoples that should dominate the Mongolian grasslands.

History of the Xiongnu

The contacts, diplomatical and economical, between the Chinese peasant culture and the nomad culture of the steppe people was very intensive - using the border markets (guanshi 關市) -, and Chinese historians are therefore much better informed about the Xiongnu than the western antique writers about the Skythians and Huns, altough we find "barbarian" princes and members of a nobility visiting the "capital of culture" (Rome, Chang'an) - sometimes as hosts - in both spheres of the Eurasian continent. The economy of the Xiongnu was characterized by cattle breeding, especially horses that were used as war horses, transport medium and as a commercial item. They lived in large round tents (qionglu 穹廬; also known as yurt or kibitka), their main food was meat, and their wine brewed of horse milk was famous. Later, the Xiongnu aristocracy lived in small palaces, and their villages were protected by walls. Archeologists have discovered many bronze and also iron tools, partially for military use, but also many items for daily use. The art of the Xiongnu is very different from Chinese art, although we also find Chinese objects among the tomb accessories of the Xiongnu nobility. The entourage of the Shanyu consisted of officials of several degrees that were only partially copied from the Chinese central government system. Under the Qin dynasty when general Meng Tian 蒙恬 conquered some territories north of the Ordos river bend of the Yellow River and installed Jiuyuan 九原 commandery, the new settlers of this region (most of them were resettled there by imperial command) had to be protected from the Xiongnu raids and plundering campaigns by fortified walls (later known as the "Great Wall" 長城). After the downfall of Qin and the subsequent turbulent years of fight for the imperial power the Xiongnu advanced to each direction, subjugated their neighbors like the Yuezhi 月氏 and Dingling 丁零 and invaded the region of modern Shaanxi, Shanxi and Hebei provinces. The efforts of emperor Han Gaozu 漢高祖 (r. 206/02-195 BC), founder of the Han dynasty, to repell the Xiongnu were without positive results and lead to a policy of "peacful approachment" (heqin 和親) that was in fact nothing else than the delivery of tributes by the Chinese to appease the "plundering instinct" of the nomads. The provision of silk and other items of a highly sophisticated culture eventually contributed to the "degeneration" of the barbarian character of the Xiongnu. Many Chinese (alleged) princesses were given to the Xiongnu rulers. For the next few decades, the Xiongnu were able to expand their territory into modern Xinjiang and thereby controlled the region of the later silkroad. But during the same time, the power of the Han dynasty stabilized, and the two realms of Xiongnu and China became rivals. Under the great martial emperor Han Wudi 漢武帝 (141-87 BC) the Chinese generals Wei Qing 衛青 and Huo Qubing 霍去病 conquered the region of modern Gansu and opened the way to Inner Asia. In 60 BC the protectorate of the Western regions (Xiyu duhu 西域都護) was established, and the Chinese became masters of the trade routes to the west. Three years later the Xiongnu divided into a western and an eastern branch, the eastern ruler Huhanya 呼韓邪 surrendered to the Chinese in 51 BC, he was rewarded with a Chinese princess named Wang Zhaojun 王昭君 sent to his court, a famous story often retold and arranged like in the Yuan period 元 theatre play Hangongqiu 漢宮秋 "Autumn in the Han Palace". At the begin of Later Han period (Houhan 後漢, 25-220 AD) the Xiongnu divided into the southern tribes and the northern tribes. While the northern part of the Xiongnu federation roamed the grasslands north of the fortification walls, the southern Xiongnu became sedentate and settled down in the area of modern Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces, side by side with Chinese inhabitants. Cao Cao 曹操, the potentate at the end of Han, forced a planful separation of the Xiongnu aristocracy from the Xiongnu people and thereby lead to the disappearing of the Xiongnu as part of the population of northern China. When the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) suffered under the power struggles of the various princes, the Xiongnu Liu Yao 劉曜 (who was allowed to adopt the surname of the Han dynasty rulers, Liu, as his own) founded the Former Zhao (Qianzhao 前趙) empire, at the end of the 4th century the Xiongnu Helian Bobo 赫連勃勃 founded the Xia dynasty 夏, both dynasties being part of the sixteen Non-Chinese kingdoms (Shiliuguo 十六國) of the north during the time of south-north division. The northern Xiongnu tribes were defeated in 89 AD by the Han generals Dou Xian 竇憲 and Geng Bing 耿秉, and from now on the Xiongnu ceased to represent a military challenge for the Chinese empire. Some older western scholars thought the Xiongnu migrated to the west and reappeared in Eastern Europe as the Huns in the 4th century. From the 3rd century on the Mongolian grassland was occupied by a new challenging nomad people federation - the Xianbei 鮮卑.

Rulers (chanyu 單于) of the Xiongnu

頭曼 Touman
冒頓 Modu (sic!)
老上 Laoshang
軍臣 Junchen
伊稚斜 Yizhixie
烏維 Wuwei
烏師廬 Wushilu
呴犁湖 Houlihu
且鞮侯 Qiedihou
狐鹿姑 Hulugu
壺衍鞮 Huyandi
虛閭權渠 Xulüquanqu
握衍鞮 Woyandi
車犁 Cheli, concurrent proclamation (鼎立) of:
閏振 Runzhen and 郅支 Zhizhi,
challenged by 呼韓邪 Huhanxie, 屠耆 Quqi, 呼揭 Hujie, 烏藉 Wujie
復珠絫若鞮 Fuzhulei ruodi
搜諧若鞮 Souxie ruodi
車牙若鞮 Cheya ruodi
烏珠留鞮 Wuzhuliu di (Wuzhu ruodi?)
烏累若鞮 Wulei ruodi
呼都而屍道臯若鞮 Huduershidaohao ruodi
烏達鞮侯 Wudadihou
蒲奴 Punu

Source: Yu Taishan 余太山 (1992), "Xiongnu 匈奴", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, pp. 1332-1334.

December 15, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail