The Xiongnu Confederation

The Xiongnu were a pastoral people who already one thousand years before the Mongols came to form a state, or rather a loose confederation of tribes, on the steppes to the north and west of China. The Xiongnu were the original Chinese example of an unsettled, uncivilized, nomadic people and the name itself means “fierce slave” in Chinese. Already the very first Chinese rulers made war on the Xiongnu and Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, drove them away from the plains of the Yellow river and forced them to retreat to the Mongol plains. But the Xiongnu continued to cause trouble for the Chinese.

In 200 BCE, emperor Gaozu personally led a military campaign against them, but was ambushed and only barely escaped. Instead the Han emperors sought to pacify the Xiongnu by means of lavish gifts of silk, liquor and rice, and they sent princesses to their leaders as brides. Official treaties were tried too — the first one signed in 195 BCE — and, unusually for the Chinese, they were concluded on a basis of equality. However, each time the treaty was to be renewed, the Xiongnu asked for higher payments and in the end the Chinese were effectively tribute-bearers to Xiongnu rather than the other way around. Dealing with people like this was humiliating, ineffective and expensive. And despite the various agreements, Xiongnu raids on Chinese settlements continued. Eventually, the Xiongnu declined. The Chinese exploit divisions within the members of confederacy who never found an orderly way to settle matters of succession. Eventually a southern group of Xiongnu tribes defected to the Chinese empire.

The ethnic background of the Xiongnu is disputed — they may have been Turks, Mongols, Huns, Siberian or perhaps Iranian. Recently several  Xiongnu burial sites have been excavated in Mongolia and archeologists have found works of art, including small statues of tigers carrying dead prey and golden stags with heads of eagles. What happened to the Xiongnu is also less than clear. Yet after them other nomadic tribes continued to make life difficult for the Chinese, not least the Mongols in the thirteenth century.

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