Xiongnu:Quasi-Peaceful Relations



          The Xiongnu, also known as the Asiatic Huns (Ihsan, n.d.), were one of the nomadic peoples of Ancient Central Asia originated from the Siberian branch of the Mongolian race. They emerged to distinguished dominance and became a tribal confederation during the third and second centuries BCE.

          Xiongnu exploited the Chinese economy and caused instability in the already shaken nation, which built up their own economic power to hold monopoly over the flow of Hans goods (Barfield, 1981). As the Xiongnu empire expanded with its daring and aggressive motions towards ancient China, during the period of Qin dynasty (Pines, 2003), it became evident that the current leadership structures lacked flexibility and was unable to maintain effective cohesion. The traditional succession of the eldest son became more and more unsuccessful in facing wartime emergencies in the first century B.C.E.

          To tackle such problems, Huhanye (58 B.C.E – 31 B.C.E), the younger brother of Zhizhi Chanyu, decreed that his heir apparent must pass the throne on to a younger brother, and this pattern of fraternal succession became the standard practice at the time.

          It was around this period that the extension of regionalism became evident as local kings were unwilling to attend the annual meetings at the Chanyu’s court. During this period, the Chanyu had no choice but to develop power bases in their own regions to secure the throne.



          At the initial period of the Han dynasty, from 206 BCE to 220 AD, Xiongnu was at the upper hand for being one of the mightiest force around (Reese, 2014). Between 208 BCE to 175 BCE, Xiongnu was at the peak of their influence and conquered a massive territory from Lake Baikal on the north to the Ordos plateau on the south and the Liao River on the east.

          In the second century BCE, Han Wudi dispatched Zhang Qian, a Chinese explorer and royal ambassador, to the states in the region. Zhang Qian’s social call started multiple decades of dispute between the Xiongnu and Han China over the sovereignty of the territory, which ultimately inaugurated in Chinese triumph.

          In spite of the deeply-rooted conflicting relationship with the Han dynasty, the Xiongnu sought to mediate peace on multiple occasions, but the Han court never compromised on anything less than receiving concrete tributes from the Xiongnu.

          Tributary ties with the Han incorporated various matters (2013). Firstly, the Chanyu or his deputy was obliged to personally present tribute to the Han court. Secondly, the successor or a prince was necessary to be handed over to the Han court as captive. Thirdly, the Chanyu had to offer homage to the Han emperor and in exchange will receive royal endowments.


Battle of Baideng (白登之圍) between the Huns and Han Chinese troops

Battle of Baideng (白登之圍) between the Huns and Han Chinese troops


          The origins of heqin began with the defeat of Han forces in the Battle of Baideng. According to what the people said and believed, Emperor Gaozu of Han (漢高祖, born Liu Bang [劉邦]) who led a military campaign in person against Modu, was ambushed by 300,000 elite Xiongnu Cavalry at the battle of Baideng. As such, he loss access to human and material resources, barely avoiding capture.

          After the defeat at Pingcheng, the adviser Liu Jing (劉敬, previously named Lou Jing [婁敬]) was sent to negotiate a peace settlement. Both parties, the Han emperor and the Xiongnu, agreed on the marriage of a Han princess to the Chanyu; gifts of silk, liqor and rice to the Xiongnu on regular intervals; equal status between the states; and the Great Wall as common border. This was how it all began in establishing the relationship between the Han and the Xiongnu which lasted for about 60 years.



          Commencing on the tributary procedure indicated that the Xiongnu were subordinated to the position of outer subject, giving Xiongnu a lower status than Han. On the other hand, the marriage alliance signified that the two nations were appraised as corresponding domains, balancing both the powers of Xiongnu and Han.

          In 119 BCE, Yizhixie Chanyu (126-114) who reigned during the era of Han Wudi dispatched an ambassador in anticipation of achieving harmonious ties with of Han. Nevertheless, the amicable arbitration shattered, since the Han court omitted his conditions and provided him the choice to become an outer subordinate instead, which enraged Yizhixie Chanyu.

          Later in 107 BCE, Wuwei Chanyu (114-105) also sought to mediate harmonious ties and even ceased border raids. The Han reacted by neglecting his conditions and pressed for the Chanyu to deliver his successor as a captive to Chang’an, which resulted in a repeated collapse of the harmonious mediations (Yu, 1986).

          Despite the several failures to accomplish peaceful negotiations with the Han, the Xiongnu administered marriage alliances, also known as heqin, with the Han officers and officials who absconded to their wing.

          The older sister of Chanyu was married to the Xiongnu general Zhao Xin, the Marquis of Xiongnu heritage who was serving the Han dynasty. The daughter of the Chanyu was married to the Han Chinese General Li Ling after he succumbed and absconded. The Yenisei Kirghiz Khagans alleged inheritance from Li Ling. Another Han Chinese General who absconded to the Xiongnu was Li Guang Li who also married a daughter of the Chanyu.


Zhang Qian leaving emperor Han Wudi around 130 BCE, for his expedition to Central Asia. Mural in Cave 323, Mogao Caves, high Tang Dynasty, circa 8th century CE.

Zhang Qian leaving emperor Han Wudi around 130 BCE, for his expedition to Central Asia. Mural in Cave 323, Mogao Caves, high Tang Dynasty, circa 8th century CE.


          The treaty was extended at least nine times, with the “gifts” increasing after each ensuing agreement. While it appears that the Xiongnu benefited immensely from the marriage treaties, from the Chinese point of view, the Xiongnu were costly and ineffective. This could imply that the Xiongnu were greedy and were taking advantage of the marriage treaties, as they fail to contribute anything worth noting to the table.

          Xiongnu’s attempts of negotiating peaceful relations with the Hans are significant to portray the willingness to take one step down as a great power in defense of their territories. It was not the most common tactic in the period of conflicts due to the typical ambition of holding on to sovereignty. To be willingly to move one step back signified that Xiongnu had a flexible leadership who understood the importance of maintaining diplomatic ties instead of the deeply rooted aggressive nature towards their competition.

          Not only could the efforts of Xiongnu rebut the general perception of its hostility, it managed to pull itself further before the collapse of Xiongnu.



*Note for image citations: Click on the images for their respective sources.*

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