BY EMILY LEONG, OOI SHU HUI, WONG CHIEW LING
Think of China’s iconic symbols and an impressive, monolithic structure comes to mind - The Great Wall. Do you know how the Great Wall of China came about? It was initially a barrier erected to deter the invasion of the formidable Xiongnu tribe, which was later expanded to form the Great Wall. So, who are the Xiongnu people? Let us venture back to ancient China around 300 BCE to explore the origins and ethnic diversity of these people. We will also be delving into their nomadic lifestyle and military prowess.
Geographical location & ethnic background
Xiongnu (pronounced Hsiung-nu) was a powerful empire north of China that existed in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. The Xiongnu is one of the regional polities on the northeastern steppe, which comprises the territories of Mongolia, South Siberia, and Inner Mongolia. This steppe zone is a large area of flat, unforested, dry grassland. The Xiongnu was a nomadic group living in the same time period as the Qin and the Eastern and Western Han dynasties of China. They are significant for being one of the first of many later steppe polities to control a large area of Inner Asia and especially the main territory of modern-day Mongolia. The empire is noted to have "directly or indirectly controlled regions of Manchuria to Kazakhstan, southern Siberia to Inner Mongolia, and the Tarim Basin of present day Xinjiang Province in western China, home of the Silk Road" (Schmidt, 2013).
The core pillar of the Xiongnu’s economy was tending to livestock and nomadic pastoralism was practised. This means that the people had to periodically move their herds from place to place in search of fresh pastures, and this was practiced due to infertile lands. By the 1st century BCE, the agricultural production of millet, barley, and wheat flourished. Iron and bronze were also used to create a variety of crafts like fine tools, weaponry, household utensils, jewelry, and ceramics.
According to early Chinese historian Sima Qian (145-90 BCE), men in the Xiongnu tribe were impressive warriors, who learnt how to hunt on horseback using bow and arrows from young. The founder of the Xiongnu coalition was Maodun, who was the son of a prominent overlord among the nomads of the Ordos. He (shockingly) assassinated his father after becoming a military commander, then led the unification of the diverse nomad groups successfully.
The military might of the Xiongnu was at its peak from 209 to 128 BCE, where it expanded in all directions after anchoring its base in the Ordos. They reclaimed the lands to the south which had been lost in previous invasions by the Qin dynasty, and subdued the smaller nomadic factions in the North that covered Inner Mongolia. They conquered the Eastern Hu (people living east of them which included the Wuhuan and Xianbei) with their military prowess, and defeated the Yuezhi (their nemesis) in the west, forcing them to flee into Central Asia, as far as northern Afghanistan. (Refer to map above for locations of these tribes! Like the Wuhuan, Xianbei, and Yuezhi.)
In the course of the Xiongnu’s relentless westward expansion, they also supervised several oasis communities that had settled in the Tarim Basin. The sub-commander in charge of administering these subjugated city-states was known as “general-in-charge-of-slaves”, which suggests the Xiongnu’s domineering attitude towards the slaves who they conquered, and whose daily activities they oversaw.
The military domination of the Xiongnu led to proto-urbanization construction, like fortresses, villages, towns, and a capital. The domination also gave the Xiongnu control of Central Asia and allowed them to interact with Iranian-speaking populations.
End of the Xiongnu
By 129 BCE, the rising Han Dynasty waged war against the Xiongnu. This was due to the Han's desire to revive trade along the Silk Road, which the Xiongnu were an obstacle to. As mentioned in the sections above on their geographical location and military might, the Xiongnu controlled the Tarim Basin, home of the Silk Road, Hence, the Han Empire could have seen this as an obstacle to their plans of reviving trade along the Silk Road successfully.
Thus, the Xiongnu were defeated after the Battle of Ikh Bayan led by Dou Xian. The Northern Xiongnu were driven out of Mongolia to Europe, where they were later called the Huns and were led by Attila, while the Southern Xiongnu were assimilated into Han China.
SIGNIFICANCE TO HISTORY
Understanding the lifestyle of the Xiongnu is significant for us to envision how they lived and why they engaged in constant warfare. We conjecture that in that period of time, there were constant military conquests between empires that bordered on their territories. Despite living lives as nomads, these wars disrupted their peaceful lifestyle and they had to constantly train to protect themselves from enemies.
It is also significant to learn about the Xiongnu Empire as it is less well-known than the Huns or the Mongol Empire but had an influence on them. They were the predecessors of these great empires which came after them and their military might could have influenced later empires. They were also one of the first steppe polities to conquer such a vast extent of land in Inner Asia and their military prowess is significant. Additionally, their interaction with and defeat by the Han Dynasty reflects the tension for land and power between the various empires in China's history. Therefore, we hope that you have gained more knowledge about this under-rated but equally fascinating empire through our post.