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Missing image
A Xiongnu belt buckle.

The Xiongnu (Template:Zh-cpw) 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 extending 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 remain 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 - "chanyu" (單于) - presumably reflects the sound of the foreign tongue.


Origins and early history of the Xiongnu

According to Sima Qian, the Xiongnu were descendants of Chunwei (淳維), possibly a son of Jie.

Confederation under Modu

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 chanyu named Modu (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, 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 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 Modu 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 Modu, a dualistic system of political organisation was formed. The left and right branches of the Xiongnu were divided on a regional basis. The chanyu - 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 Modu. At the battle of Pingcheng, he was ambushed reputedly by 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 princess given in marriage to the chanyu (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 the 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, Modu even asked for the hand of the widowed Empress L. His son and successor, the energetic Jiyu (稽粥), known as the "Laoshang chanyu" (老上單于), continued his father's expansionist 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 the Shang commandery and another 30,000 to Yunzhong.

War with Han China

Han China was making preparations for a military confrontation from the reign of Emperor Wen. The break came in 134 BC, following an abortive trap to ambush the chanyu 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 chanyu 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, fewer 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 cohesion. 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 chanyu 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 chanyu's court. During this period, chanyu were forced to develop power bases in their own regions to secure the throne.

In the period 114 BC to 60 BC, the Xiongnu produced altogether seven chanyu. Two of them, Chanshilu and Huyanti, assumed the office while still children. In 60 BC, Tuqitang, the "wise king of the right", became chanyu Wuyanjuti. No sooner had he come to the throne, than he began to purge from power those whose base lay in the left group. Thus antagonised, in 58 BC the nobility of the left put forward Huhanye as their own chanyu. The year 57 BC saw a struggle for power among five regional groupings, each with its own chanyu. In 54 BC Huhanye abandoned his capital in the north after being defeated by his brother, the chanyu Zhizhi.

Tributary relations with the Han

Missing image
The Han world order.

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 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 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), 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 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, 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 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 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 AD 50. The tributary system was considerably tightened to keep the southern Xiongnu under Han supervision. The chanyu 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 practitioners of the nomadic way of life. Thus, in 94 chanyu 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 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. 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 in Shanxi, where they had earler been resettled by the warlord-statesman Cao Cao for use as auxiliary cavalry in his armies. Under the leadership of the sinicised Liu Yuan 刘渊, they were joined by a large number of frontier Chinese. Claiming to be related to the Western Han dynasty by marriage, Liu Yuan used 'Han' as the name of his state. The Xiongnu use of large numbers of heavy cavalry with iron armour for both rider and horse gave them a decisive advantage over Jin armies already weakened and demoralised by three years of civil war. In 311, they captured the Western Jin capital of Luoyang, and with it the Jin emperor Sima Chi (Emperor Huai). In 316, the next Jin emperor was captured in Chang'an, and the whole of north China came under Xiongnu rule while remnants of the Jin dynasty survived in the south (known to historians as the Eastern Jin dynasty).

In 318, after suppressing a coup by a powerful minister in the Xiongnu-Han court (in which the Xiongnu-Han emperor and a large proportion of the aristocracy were massacred), the Xiongnu prince Liu Yao 刘曜 moved the Xiongnu-Han capital from Pingyang to Chang'an and renamed the dynasty as Zhao 赵(it is hence known to historians collectively as Han Zhao). However, the eastern part of north China came under the control of a rebel Xiongnu-Han general of Jie 羯 (probably Sogdian) ancestry named Shi Le 石勒. Liu Yao and Shi Le fought a long war until 329, when Liu Yao was captured in battle and executed. Chang'an fell to Shi Le soon after, and the Xiongnu dynasty was wiped out. North China was ruled by Shi Le's Later Zhao dynasty for the next 20 years.

However, the Xiongnu remained active in the north for at least another century. The Tiefu 铁弗 branch of the Xiongnu gained control of the Inner Mongolian region in the 10 years between the conquest of the Tuoba Xianbei state of Dai by the Former Qin empire in 376, and its restoration in 386 as the Northern Wei. After 386, the Tiefu were gradually destroyed by or surrendered to the Tuoba, with the submitting Tiefu becoming known as the Dugu 独孤. Liu Bobo 刘勃勃, a surviving prince of the Tiefu fled to the Ordos Loop, where he founded a state called the Xia (thus named because of the Xiongnu's supposed ancestry from the Xia dynasty) and changed his surname to Helian 赫连. The Helian-Xia state was conquered by the Northern Wei in 428-431, and the Xiongnu thenceforth effectively ceased to play a role in Chinese history, assimilating into the Xianbei and Han ethnicities.

Did the Xiongnu become the Huns?

The Xiongnu have been identified with the Huns, who plagued the frontiers of Europe. This theory, once influential, has now fallen out of favour among many historians.

It is interesting to note that a slightly different pronunciation of the word 匈 (Xiong) is preserved in older languages such as Cantonese, i.e., /hUN/. It could lend credence to the theory that the Xiong were in fact the Huns, or that the Chinese refered the tribes generically as such. In the film Mulan the original title song by Jackie Chan referred to defeating the Xiongnu, and the English version refers to defeating the Huns.


  • 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.


Primary sources

  • 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.

Secondary sources

  • 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.[1] (http://depts.washington.edu/uwch/silkroad/texts/hhshu/hou_han_shu.html)
  • 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. [2] (http://depts.washington.edu/uwch/silkroad/texts/weilue/weilue.html)
  • Hulsew, 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.
  • Y Ying-shih, "Han foreign relations", Cambridge History of China, pp. 377-462.de:Hsiung-nu

fr:Xiongnu ja:匈奴 nl:Xiong Nu pl:Xiongnu zh:匈奴


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