Between approximately 300 BC and 450 AD, there existed a nomadic group known as the Xiongnu. Their ethnic identity has been greatly contested, but they were a very powerful tribal confederation that were considered a great threat to China. In fact, it was their repeated invasions that prompted the small kingdoms of North China to begin erecting barriers, in what later became the Great Wall of China.
The Xiongnu formed their tribal league in the area that is now known as Mongolia.
It is believed that they stemmed from the Siberian branch of the Mongolian race, although it has been hotly debated whether they are ethnically Turkic, Mongolic, Yeniseian, Tocharian, Iranian, Uralic, or some mixture. Some say the name “Xiongnu” has the same etymological origin as “Hun,” but this is also controversial. Only a few words from their culture, mostly titles and individual names, were preserved in Chinese sources.
It is believed that the Xiongnu created their empire under the supreme leadership of Modu Chanyu sometime around 209 BC. This political unification allowed them to build stronger armies and use better strategic coordination, turning them into a more formidable state.
They adopted many Chinese agriculture techniques, built Chinese-styled homes, and wore silk like the Chinese. The Xiongnu worshiped the sun, moon, heaven, earth, as well as their ancestors. They formed a number of tribes, called the Chubei, Huyan, Lan, Luandi, Qiulin, and Suibu.
The Xiongnu had an established hierarchy system. The leaders following Modu Chanyu formed a dualistic political system, with branches to the right and left. The supreme ruler was known as the “Chanyu” and was equivalent to the Chinese “Son of Heaven.” Under the Chanyu were the “Wise Kings of the Left and Right.” Beneath the Wise Kings were the guli (kuli, 'kings'), the army commanders, the great governors, the dunghu (tung-hu), the gudu (ku-tu). Directly beneath them were the commanders of groups of either 1000, 100, or ten men. When a Chanyu died, power would pass to his son, or to a younger brother if he did not have a son of age.
Although numerous skirmishes were fought between the Xiongnu and the Han Empire, in 129 BC, a great war broke out between the two arch-enemies. The Han emperor wanted to form an alliance with the Yuezhi people to fight against the Xiongnu, but these attempts were unsuccessful. Forty thousand Chinese cavalry attacked the Xiongnu at the border markets. The war was difficult for the Han due to difficulties transporting food and supplies over long distances, and there was low availability of the fuel they needed to survive the harsh Xiongnu climate. Nevertheless, the Chinese gained control over the Xiongnu, causing instability and weakness of the Xiongnu empire.
Between 60-53 BC, the Xiongnu empire faced a civil war. Upon the 12th Chanyu’s death, a grandson of his cousin, known as Woyanqudi, took power. This was viewed as usurpation, and led to turmoil. Few supported Woyanqudi, and he eventually fled and committed suicide. As the lineage provided several heris to the throne, there was disagreement as to who should take over as the 14th Chanyu.
Those who supported Woyanqudi pushed for his brother, Tuqi, to be Chanyu in 58 BC. The following year, three more men declared themselves to be Chanyu. This led to a series of forfeitures and defeats. Tuqi was defeated by Huhanye, and then two more claimants appeared: Huhanye's elder brother Zhizhi, and Runzhen. Zhizhi killed Runzhen in 54 BC, and only Zhizhi and Huhanye were left. Zhizhi grew in power, and Huhanye eventually submitted to the Chinese. After this, power shifted back and forth between the Xiongnu and the Han Dynasty for years, with many battles.
After the Battle of Ikh Bayan in 89 AD, the Northern Xiongnu were driven out of Mongolia, and the Southern Xiongnu became part of Han China. Some believe that the Northern Xiongnu continued west, came under the leadership of Attila, and took on the new name “the Huns.”
The unique culture of the Xiongnu Empire was very powerful during its time. The fortifications that were initially built to keep the Xiongnu away were eventually transformed into the Great Wall of China. This demonstrates the size and power of the Xiongnu – an ancient nomadic group that played an important role in the history of Mongolia and China.
Who were the Xiongnu? – About Education. Available from: http://asianhistory.about.com/od/glossarytz/g/xiongnuglos.htm
The Xiongnu Culture Third Century BCE – Silk Road. Available from: http://www.silk-road.com/artl/xiongnu1.shtml
Xiongnu – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xiongnu
By M R Reese