Who were the Xiongnu?
A Vast Horizon
Members of a vast family of herd-breeding peoples from the Asian steppes, the Xiongnu appear in history's pages at the end of the fourth century BC and their power remained considerable up through the second century AD. Skillful horsemen and the founders of a federated state, they threatened China on numerous occasions; word of their force spread as far as Europe via fellow tribes such as the Huns.
For nearly half a millennium, they reigned over the steppes from Southern Buriatia to northern China —a vast horizon that comprised all of present-day Mongolia. This setting consisted mainly of lakedotted plateaus that ended in mountain chains. The landscape, depending on the latitude, ranged from wooded contours through grassy steppe to desert.
A particular way of life
In the 1st century BC, the Chinese historian Sima Qian described their way of life: "They raise many horses, cattle, sheep and goats. Rarer animals include camels, donkeys, mules, hinnies, superior stallions and small horses." The horse was the key animal among this livestock—it was essential for traveling and waging war, and was used as a form of currency. Sima Qian also pointed out the Xiongnu's techniques for raising livestock when he described the seasonal movement of people and herds. Animal breeding was the basis of food resources, but also important for hides and fleeces that
provided materials for clothing and shelter.
Although the question has been substantially researched, the origins of the Xiongnu are still veiled. Nevertheless, we have been able to establish—particularly through comparing burial methods—that there were connections with several other cultures between the eighth and the third centuries, but still much uncertainty remains in this field of research.
An Eventful HistoryTheir place in history is rather more clear thanks to Chinese chronicles. Starting in the late fourth century BC, they raided the small states of northern China. In order to protect themselves from these incursions, the Chinese began to erect walls. With the unification of China in 221 BC, the First Emperor continued this construction project by endeavoring to link the walls into a single entity—the Great Wall of China. But this was not enough to protect the frontiers and the emperor entrusted General Meng Tian with their defense. In 214, Meng Tian was able to defeat the chanyu Touman, the supreme leader of the Xiongnu. His eldest son Maodun succeeded him and reigned until 174, bringing the Xiongnu power to its zenith. To do this, he strengthened the family authority around the head of the clan and reorganized the armies with an iron fist. His son, Laoshang, succeeded him. He set about unifying the various confederations into a strong state, forcing the Han emperors to recognize them as a independent power. In 152, in an effort to put an end to the incessant raids, Emperor Xindi opened the markets to the borders to provide agricultural products and foodstuffs for the needs of the Xiongnu. Under Emperor Wudi, the Chinese gained the upper hand, and between 129 and 119 the nomadic cavalry suffered serious setbacks at the hands of the Han armies. In addition, the Han subdued he kingdom of Loulan in 109 and that of Fergana in 101. This cut the Xiongnu off from their western bases, which were an important source of provisions.
At the end of reign of Wudi, the Xiongnu once again gained the upper hand. In 90 BC, they crushed the Chinese army, then carried out new forays into Han territory, as the Chinese response was relatively weak. However, internal quarrels at the centre of power undermined the Xiongnu forces and the situation continued to disintegrate during the first century BC. In 80, they lost their allies, the Wusun, who sided with the Chinese, followed by the Dingling and the Wuhuan, who rebelled in 72. In 62, they met with a fresh defeat at the hands of the Chinese. Finally, in 57, following clashes in a fight for the throne, the Xiongnu world split into two confederations, one led by Zhizhi who rallied the northern populations, and the other led by Huhanye, his older brother, who controlled the south. In 53, Huhanye submitted to the Han tribe, in order to benefit from their protection. He was given a royal welcome at Chang'an, the capital of the Han, and became a vassal to the emperor. The Zhizhi clan,
on the other hand, migrated west. Their leader was killed and, starting in 48, Huhanye occupied northern Mongolia. Integration with the Chinese was given a further boost in 33 with the marriage of Huhanye to a Chinese princess. During the first century AD, relations with the Chinese began to deteriorate, even as the disintegration of the Xiongnu state loomed. In 89, the Eastern Han inflicted a crushing defeat on the Xiongnu in northern Gobi. In 151, the Northern Xiongnu met with defeat at the hands of another nomadic people, the Xianbei. As for the Southern Xiongnu, they established a presence in Shaanxi, and were the source of a series of short-lived dynasties, with some of their leaders eclaring that they were the direct descendants of Maodun.