The Xiongnu Confederation
The Xiongnu were an ancient pastoral and nomadic people who formed a state, or confederation, located north of China. Their ethnicity has been a matter of considerable dispute, with scholars proposing Turkic, Mongolic, Yeniseian, Toucharian, Iranian and Uralic origins. They appear in Chinese sources during the 3rd century BCE. They were the dominant power on the steppe of central and eastern Asia at this time, active in today’s Siberia, Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang. They were the original image of the unsettled, uncivilized, people, in contrast to the settled, civilized, Chinese. They had repeated military confrontations with the Shang and the Zhou dynasties in China, who often conquered and enslaved them. The first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, set out to conquer them, drove them away from the plains of the Yellow river, and they were forced to retreat to the Mongol plains. The term itself is pejorative, meaning “fierce slave” in Chinese. The supposed ancient pronunciation hong has arguably a connection to the word “Hun,” but this theory is generally rejected.
They were brought together in a confederacy in 209 BC, just before the founding of the Qin dynasty, under Modu Chanyu, its leader. They were able to field larger armies. The Xiongnu adopted Chinese agricultural techniques, and lived in Chinese style homes. Modu expanded the empire on all sides. He conquered various nomadic peoples to the north. He also retook all the lands previously taken by the Qin, expanded in Xinjiang. They put considerable pressure on the Han dynasty. They were divided into a left and a right part, the leader was called chanyu, and the capital was near present-day Khöshöö Tsaidam in Mongolia.
Relations with the Chinese. In 200 BCE, emperor Gaozu personally led a military campaign against them, but was ambushed by some 300,000 elite Xiongnu troops at the battle of Baideng, and only barely escaped. The Han sent princesses to marry the Xiongnu leaders and gifts to stop them from attacking – silk, liquor, and rice. There were extensive, state-sponsored, markets which connected the Xiongnu and China. They Han abandoned military solutions. Relations conducted on the basis of equality. The first treaty, of 195 BCE, was renewed 60 years later and eight times after that, each time with an increase in the “gifts.” The Xiongnu benefited from these arrangements, but to the Chinese it was costly, humiliating and ineffective. The Xiongnu were not respecting the peace and made repeated, and successful, raids into Chinese territory and cities. They were also harassing the trade on the silk road.
“According to the customs of the Xiongnu, if the Han envoys did not remove their tallies of authority, and if they did not allow their faces to be tattooed, they could not gain entrance into the yurts. Wang Wu and his company removed their tallies, submitted to tattoo, and thus gained entry.”
Full-scale war broke out in 129 BCE, when 40,000 Chinese cavalry made a surprise attack on the Xiongnu at a border market. The Xiongnu were pushed back and the court retreated into the Gobi desert. But campaigns were difficult for the Chinese due to the long distances and problems with logistics and the weather. The Chinese were also not as mobile as the Xiongnu since they could not fight on horseback. Yet the Xiongnu were considerably reduced in power and the threat to China diminished. But they bounced back again. In the first century BCE, there were extensive civil wars among the various pretenders to the throne of the Xiongnu.
In 53 BCE, they enter tributary relations with the Han. They came to China to present tribute and submit themselves. In official Chinese correspondence the Xiongnu were changed from “brotherly state” to “outer vassal.” Yet the Xiongnu retained political sovereignty and full territorial integrity. The Xiongnu were handsomely paid off by the Chinese. The Xiongnu asked to be the emperor’s son-in-law, but the emperor refused – a sign of declining Xiongnu influence. The Xiongnu once again reassert their power in the first century CE, but they are torn by internal regionalisms – they were divided into northern and southern Xiongnu. The southern Xiongnu are tightly included into the Chinese tributary system, and Chinese subjects are forced to emigrate to their areas. The northern Xiongnu were defeated in battles in 85 and 89 CE.
Sinicized versions of the Xiongnu continued to yield considerable influence in China after the fall of the Han dynasty. They liberated themselves and took over large parts of northern China. In 311 CE, they captured Luoyang, and with it the Jin emperor Sima Chi. 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. By now the Xiongnu were laying claims to the Han legacy – through their intermarriages.
The Xiongnu confederation was unusually long-lived for a steppe empire. The purpose of raiding China was not simply booty, but to force the Chinese to pay regular tribute. The power of the Xiongnu ruler was based on his control of Chinese tribute which he used to reward his supporters. The Han and Xiongnu empires arose at the same time because the Xiongnu state depended on Chinese tribute. A major Xiongnu weakness was the custom of lateral succession. If a dead ruler’s son was not old enough to take command, power passed to the late ruler’s brother. This worked in the first generation but could lead to civil war in the second generation. The weaker part would move south and submit to Chinese power and then use Chinese resources to defeat the Northern Xiongnu and reestablish the empire. If the strategy succeeded, Chinese influence would increase; if the strategy failed, the empire would remain divided.
Regional alliances also tended to shift or get broken forcibly depending on the situation as one party gained the upper hand in a certain territory over the other. The Han empire’s political influence expanded deeply into Central Asia. As the situation deteriorated for the Xiongnu, civil war befell and weakened the confederation. Eventually, the Southern Xiongnu submitted to the Han empire while the Northern Xiongnu continued to resist. Marked by significant events involving the conquests over various smaller states for control and many large-scale battles, the war resulted in the total victory of the Han empire over the Xiongnu state in 89 AD. they ended up deep into Central Asia.
During Emperor Jing’s reign, the Han court initiated breeding programs for military horses and established 36 large government pastures in the border regions, extending from Liaodong to Beidi. In preparation for the military use of the horses, the best breeds were selected to partake military training. The Xiongnu frequently raided the Han government pastures, because the military horses were of great strategic importance for the Han military against them. By the time of Emperor Wu’s reign, the horses amounted to well over 450,000.
were raiding horses as far away as in present-day Xinjiang, and here they came into contact with various Turkic speaking peoples of Central Asia, and with the Xiongnu [Read more: The Xiongnu confederacy] Great battles were fought before the Han armies eventually retired. Chao Cuo was one of the first known ministers to suggest to Emperor Wen that Han armies should have a cavalry-centric army to counter the nomadic Xiongnu to the north, since Han armies were still primarily infantry with cavalries and chariots playing a supporting role. He advocated the policy of “using barbarians to attack barbarians”, that is, incorporating surrendered Xiongnu and other nomadic tribes into the Han military, a suggestion that was eventually adopted, especially with the establishment of dependent states of different nomads living on the Han empire’s frontiers.
The Tang dynasties were fighting wars here too. After the widespread Göktürk revolt of Shabolüe Khan (d. 658) was put down at Issyk Kul in 657 by Su Dingfang (591–667), Emperor Gaozong established several protectorates governed by a Protectorate General or Grand Protectorate General, which extended the Chinese sphere of influence as far as Herat in Western Afghanistan. In the year 630, Tang armies captured areas of the Ordos Desert, modern-day Inner Mongolia province, and southern Mongolia from the Turks. After this military victory, Emperor Taizong won the title of Great Khan amongst the various Turks in the region who pledged their allegiance to him and the Chinese empire (with several thousand Turks traveling into China to live at Chang’an). On June 11, 631, Emperor Taizong also sent envoys to the Xueyantuo bearing gold and silk in order to persuade the release of enslaved Chinese prisoners who were captured during the transition from Sui to Tang from the northern frontier; this embassy succeeded in freeing 80,000 Chinese men and women who were then returned to China. During the Islamic conquest of Persia (633–656), the son of the last ruler of the Sassanid Empire, Prince Pirooz, fled to Tang China. According to the Old Book of Tang, Pirooz was made the head of a Governorate of Persia in what is now Zaranj, Afghanistan. During this conquest of Persia, the Islamic Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan (r. 644–656) sent an embassy to the Tang court at Chang’an. By the 740s, the Arabs of Khurasan had established a presence in the Ferghana basin and in Sogdiana. At the Battle of Talas in 751, Qarluq mercenaries under the Chinese defected, helping the Arab armies of the Islamic Caliphate to defeat the Tang force under commander Gao Xianzhi. Although the battle itself was not of the greatest significance militarily, this was a pivotal moment in history; it marks the spread of Chinese papermaking into regions west of China as captured Chinese soldiers revealed secrets of Chinese papermaking to the Arabs. These techniques ultimately reached Europe by the 12th century through Arab-controlled Spain. Although they had fought at Talas, on June 11, 758, an Abbasid embassy arrived at Chang’an simultaneously with the Uyghur Turks bearing gifts for the Tang Emperor. From even further west, a tribute embassy came to the court of Taizong in 643 from the Patriarch of Antioch. In 788–9 the Chinese concluded a military alliance with the Uighur Turks who twice defeated the Tibetans, in 789 near the town of Kuch’eng in Jungharia, and in 791 near Ning-hsia on the Yellow River
emperor Qianlong during the Qing dynasty. The Ten Great Campaigns (Chinese: 十全武功; pinyin: shí quán wǔ gōng) were a series of wars fought during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, much celebrated in the official Qing dynasty annals. They included three to enlarge the area of Qing control in Central Asia: two against the Zunghars (1755–1757) and the pacification of Xinjiang (1758–1759). The other seven campaigns were more in the nature of police actions on frontiers already established – two wars to suppress the Jinchuan rebels in Sichuan, another to suppress rebels in Taiwan (1787–1788), and four expeditions abroad against the Burmese (1765–1769), the Vietnamese (1788–1789), and the warlike Gurkhas in Nepal on the border between Tibet and India (1790–1792), the last counting as two. Of the ten campaigns, the final destruction of the Dzungars was the most significant. The 1755 Pacification of Dzungaria (zh) and the later suppression of the Revolt of the Altishahr Khojas (zh) secured the northern and western boundaries of Xinjiang, eliminated rivalry for control over the Dalai Lama in Tibet, and thereby eliminated any rival influence in Mongolia. It also led to the pacification of the Islamicised, Turkic-speaking southern half of Xinjiang immediately thereafter.
There was also a scheme to assassinate the Xiongnu leader in order to throw them into chaos. in the end there was a Xiongnu civil war and they fell apart, submitted to the Han. They had problems with succession.