Registered & Protected  EWYF-AUCZ-AAR8-HLZT Bulgarians: Xiongnu


Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Xiongnu Empire
The Xiongnu were nomadic peoples  who lived north and north-west of China during the Qin (221-205 BC) and Han (205 BCE-220 CE) dynasties. At the end of the 3rd century BC they formed a tribal confederation and were able to dominate central Asian steppe for more than 500 years. They ruled over the steppes north of China, an area known later as Mongolia. The Xiongnu were a constant threat to China’s northern frontier and their repeated invasions prompted the erection of the Great Wall of China to defend China from the cavalry raids of the Xiongnu. Relations between the Han Chinese and the Xiongnu were complicated but eventually the Han and the Xiongnu achieved a peace agreement which included trade and marriage treaties and regular gifts to the Xiongnu in exchange for the recognition of the Great Wall as a mutual border. However the Great Wall of China slowed but did not stopped Xiongnu from raiding North China periodically. Eventually the Han emperor Wudi (140-86 BC) waged wars against nomadic Xiongnu and expeditions were sent to central Asia and Manchuria to outflank them.
defeating their previous overlord, the Yuezhi, the Xiongnu became a dominant power on the

Origin and early history of Xiongnu

Ordos Loop from where Huns and Bulgars originated
Ordos Loop

The earliest mention of the Xiongnu in Chinese sources dates to 318 BCE, it is a passage in the Basic Annals of Qin (Shiji 5: 207). The ethnic origin of the core Xiongnu tribes has been a subject of varied hypotheses. Xiongnu were driven north of Ordos across the Yellow River in 214 BCE in the time of the First Emperor of Qin. They were akin to people known earlier as Rong or Di who lived as sedentary inhabitants of the upland regions of Shaanxi and Shanxi between the Wei and Fen valleys and the steppe and their conversion to pastoral nomadism was a consequence of the spread of this new military technique across the Eurasian steppes from west to east from around 800 BCE onward. The actual linguistic affinities of the Xiongnu are difficult to determine. Their language may have been unrelated to any known language or it may have belonged to the isolated Yeniseian family of languages, of which Ket is now the sole survivor, as first suggested by Louis Ligeti (1950) and explored further in Pulleyblank (1962). Although the hypothesis of Pulleyblank seems to be well-founded it is by no means certain that all of the tribal groups of the confederation belonged to the same linguistic group. In 2000, Alexander Vovin reanalyzed Pulleyblank's argument and found further support for it by utilizing the most recent reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology by Starostin and Baxter, and a single Chinese transcription of a sentence in the language of the Jie (a member tribe of the Xiongnu confederacy). Previous Turkic interpretations of that sentence do not match the Chinese translation as precisely as the interpretation using Yeniseian grammar.
Ordos region from where Huns and Bulgars originated
Ordos region

According to an ancient and probably legendary Chinese records they were of the same origin as the Chinese and descended from China's first dynasty, the Xia Dynasty. Others believed that they were Siberian branch of the Mongol race, but also it has been debated Turkic, Yeniseian, Tocharian, Iranian and Uralic origin or some mixture. According to Pulleyblank although there were probably already Mongolian speakers in Mongolia when the Chinese first reached the steppe frontier, namely the people known as (Eastern) Hu , the Xiongnu were quite distinct from them. The Xiongnu first appear as nomads at the Ordos Desert.

According to the Chinese historian Sima Qian Xiongnu originated in the Ordos region in what is now Inner Mongolia. He claimed that Xiongnu descended from a Chinese cultural hero in the mythical past and gave us the names by which the Xiongnu were known to the Chinese before the unification of China in the 3rd century BC : Chunwei, Shanrong, Xianyun, and Xunyu. Scholars have identified the names Chunwei, Xunyu and Xiongnu with the later name Hun. The relation between Xiongnu and the Huns who invaded Europe in the 4th century CE was discussed on my article Origin of Bulgarians and will be explore further at the end of this post. The name is the same and there is certainly a lineal connection between groups of Huns (namely Chieh/Jie) from the former Xiongnu confederation who moved westwards in the first half of the 4th century CE and the Huns who a bit later appeared in Eastern Europe. There is no doubt that apart from the ruling tribes that bore the name Hun, the European Huns also included other tribes with different ethnic affinities.

By the Warring States period three groups of barbarian people (Hu) were distinguished by the Chinese: Rong in the west, Di in the north, and Yi in the east. Chinese historical sources have very little to tell us about the actual steppe frontier to the north and northwest before the end of the 4th century BCE. A group called Quanrong ( literally dog martial people) seems to be identical with early Xiongnu according to Sima Qian. The Di, sometimes differentiated into White Di and Red Di, were close neighbours of the Chinese state of Jin. The Eastern Hu as a whole were proto-Mongol in language, see Ligeti (1970), Pulleyblank (1983: 452–454).

The Xiongnu Empire

The Xiongnu tribes were destabilized in 215 BCE by the offensive campaign of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi, a cruel tyrant who unified China in 221 BC. Qin sent the general Meng Tian to occupy and fortify the pastoral areas of the Ordos and to drive the Xiongnu and their shanyu Touman to the north. The first Xiongnu ruler whom we know by name, Touman, had been forced to move north because of pressure from Qin. Qin Shi Huangdi erected the famous Great Wall in order to ward off nomadic Hu. It is said that thousands of workers perished while building the Wall. The Qin dynasty collapsed after a rebellion and China fell into a period of anarchy.

Xiongnu and Han Chinese wars drove the Huns west
Xiongnu and Han Empires

In 209 B.C.E., just three years before the founding of the Han Dynasty, the Xiongnu were brought together in a powerful confederacy under a new shanyu Modu who killed his father Touman. The reason for the creation of the Xiongnu confederation remains unclear. Probably the unification of China prompted the nomads to rally around a political center in order to strengthen their position. Modu expanded the empire on all sides. To the north he conquered a number of nomadic peoples, including the Dingling of southern Siberia. He crushed the power of the Donghu of eastern Mongolia and Manchuria, as well as the Yuezhi in the Gansu corridor. The Xiongnu's political unity transformed them into a formidable enemy. Xiongnu crushed the Emperor Gaozu, forced him to sign a humiliating treaty in 198, and reoccupied the Ordos. Before the death of Modu in 174 B.C.E., the Xiongnu had driven the Yuezhi from the Gansu corridor completely and asserted their presence in the Western Regions in modern Xinjiang. Then Modu subdued the Wusun, Loulan, the Hu Jie and “twenty-six peoples” of the region. In 162 the shanyu Laoshang again crushed the Yuezhi refugees in the valley of the Ili and forced them to migrate to the southwest into sedentary Iranian-speaking Central Asia (Sogdiana, Bactriana). At that time all of Central Asia recognized, at least formally, the suzerainty of the Xiongnu: “whenever a Xiongnu envoy appeared in the region [i.e., western Central Asia] carrying credentials from the Shanyu, he was escorted from state to state and provided with food, and no one dared to detain him or cause him any difficulty” (Shiji, tr. Watson, p. 244). Nevertheless, their control was primarily exercised in the northeast of the Tarim Basin and Turfan, with the Lob Nor as a western frontier: The Office of the Commander in Charge of Slaves, responsible for raising taxes, was established near Karashahr (Qarašahr). Control of the West seems to have been limited to the collection of tribute from the Wusun (Dzungaria) and Kangju (middle Syr Darya and Sogdiana), while further to the south the Yuezhi (Bactriana) were hostile to them.

The Marriage Treaty System and  War with Han China

Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (r. 221 - 206 B.C.E.), who unified China under the Qin, built the Great Wall, extending 2600 miles from modern Gansu Province in the west to the Liaodong Peninsula in the east, to defend China from the raids of the Xiongnu. In the winter of 200 B.C.E., following a siege of Taiyuan, Emperor Gao personally led a military campaign against Modu. At the battle of Baideng, he was ambushed reputedly by 300,000 elite Xiongnu cavalry. The emperor was cut off from supplies and reinforcements for seven days, only narrowly escaping capture.

After the defeat at Pingcheng, the Han emperor abandoned a military solution to the Xiongnu threat. Instead, in 198 B.C.E., the courtier Liu Jing  was dispatched for negotiations. The peace settlement eventually reached between the parties included a Han princess given in marriage to the shanyu (called heqin 和親 or "harmonious kinship"); periodic gifts of silk, liquor and rice to the Xiongnu; equal status between the states; and the Great Wall as mutual border.

This first treaty set the pattern for relations between the Han and the Xiongnu for some 60 years. Up to 135 B.C.E., the treaty was renewed no less than nine times, with an increase of "gifts" with each subsequent agreement. In 192 B.C.E., Modu even asked for the hand of the widowed Empress Lü. His son and successor, the energetic Jiyu, known as the Laoshang Shanyu, continued his father's expansionist policies. Laoshang succeeded in negotiating with Emperor Wen, terms for the maintenance of a large-scale government-sponsored market system.

While the Xiongnu benefited from the marriage treaties, from the Chinese perspective they were costly and ineffective. Laoshang showed that he did not take the peace treaty seriously. On one occasion his scouts penetrated to a point near Chang'an. In 166 B.C.E. he personally led 140,000 cavalry to invade Anding, reaching as far as the imperial retreat at Yong. In 158 B.C.E., his successor sent 30,000 cavalry to attack the Shang commandery and another 30,000 to Yunzhong.

The status quo then prevailed until 134 BCE, a period during which the Xiongnu secured their pre-eminence over the steppe societies of East Asia. This period was brought to an end by the initiative of the Chinese, who expelled the Xiongnu to the north of the Gobi in 121 and 119 BCE. Between the years 115 and 60 BCE, the weakening of the Xiongnu confederation gave rise to a struggle between the Chinese and the Xiongnu for control of the western regions. The principal events of this struggle included the missions of Zhang Qian in search of alliances in 137 and 115 BCE, the raid on Farḡāna (Ferghana) by a Chinese army in 101 BCE, and the battles for control of the region of Turfan (Jushi) between 67 and 60 BCE. In 57 BCE the disintegration of the confederation led to its division between five and then two shanyu, one in the South (Huhanye) who submitted to China in 53 BCE, the other (Zhizhi) controlling the North and West. The latter, finally taking refuge in Kangju, carved out a kingdom in the valley of the Talas and was defeated there by the Chinese general Zhen Tang in 36 BCE, an episode that marks the farthest advance of the Xiongnu and Chinese armies into the Iranian-speaking West.

The ensuing peaceful period ended when the Xiongnu took advantage of troubles in China (reign of Wang Mang, 9-23 CE) and widely recaptured control of the West before once again splitting into two groups, the Southern Xiongnu and the Northern Xiongnu, in 48 CE. The first group took refuge in the north of China in 50 CE, giving rise to areas of Xiongnu population within the frontiers between Taiyuan and the Yellow River that would endure for several centuries. Their last shanyu disappeared at the beginning of the 3rd century, but the Xiongnu, though highly sinicized, preserved their identity and played a major role in the disturbances and plundering that put an end to the Jin dynasty in North China at the beginning of the 4th century. 

While the Northern Xiongnu for a time succeeded in playing a role in the West (their armies intervened at Khotan and Yarkand after 61 CE), China regained control of the region of Turfan in 74 CE and chased them from Mongolia: the shanyu took refuge in the Ili valley in 91 CE, while many Northern Xiongnu tribes surrendered to China and were settled within the frontiers. The Northern Xiongnu, with several thousand men, continued to intervene at Hami and in the region of Turfan throughout the first half of the 2nd century. We know nothing of their fate: in the Wei Lue, written in the middle of the 3rd century, the Xiongnu are completely absent from the plateau north of the Tianshan.

Southern Xiongnu

While we hear nothing more about the Northern Xiongnu after the begining of the 2nd century CE, Southern Xiongnu had a longer history. Economically, they relied almost totally on Han assistance and tensions between settled Chinese and nomadic people were evident. For example there was a large scale rebellion in 94 CE led by Anguo Shanyu against the Han. In 188 the Shanyu was murdered by his own people for agreeing to help Chinese by sending troops to suppress a rebellion in Hebei. Many of the Xiongnu feared that it would set a precedent for unending military service to the Han court. The murdered chanyu's son Yufuluo succeeded him, but was then overthrown by the same rebellious faction in 189 and settled down with his followers at province Shanxi. In 195, he died and was succeeded by his brother Hucuquan. The Xiongnu aristocracy in Shanxi changed their surname from Luanti to Liu for prestige reasons, claiming that they were related to the Han imperial clan through the old intermarriage policy. After Hucuquan, in A.D. 215-216, the southern Xiongnu were partitioned into five local tribes.

Huchuquan Chanyu assumed the patronymic name Liu, thus showing his imperial ancestry. In 304, Liu Yuan became Chanyu of the Five Hordes. In 308, declared himself emperor and founded the Han Zhao Dynasty. Between 311 and 316 CE his son and successor Liu Cong captured two Chinese Emperors from the Jin dynasty, humiliated and finally executed them. North China came under Xiongnu rule. In 318 the Xiongnu prince Liu Yao moved the Xiongnu-Han capital from Pingyang to Chang'an and renamed the dynasty as Zhao. Liu Yao wanted to end the linkage with Han and explicitly restore the linkage to the great Xiongnu chanyu Maodun. However, the eastern part of north China came under the control of a rebel Xiongnu-Han general of Jie ancestry named Shi Le. Liu Yao and Shi Le fought a long war until 329, when Liu Yao was captured in battle and executed. North China was ruled by Shi Le's Later Zhao dynasty for the next 20 years. The "Liu" Xiongnu remained active in the north for at least another century.


Political center of the Xiongnu state was in Mongolia and almost all of the Xiongnu kings buried in Mongolia. In the 1920s, Pyotr Kozlov's excavations of the royal tombs at the Noin-Ula burial site in northern Mongolia that date to around the first century CE provided a glimpse into the lost world of the Xiongnu. Other archaeological sites have been unearthed in Inner Mongolia and elsewhere; they represent the Neolithic and historical periods of the Xiongnu's history. Those included the Ordos culture, many of them had been identified as the Xiongnu cultures. The region was occupied predominantly by peoples showing Mongoloid features, known from their skeletal remains and artifacts. Portraits found in the Noin-Ula excavations demonstrate other cultural evidences and influences, showing that Chinese and Xiongnu art have influenced each other mutually. Well-preserved bodies in Xiongnu and pre-Xiongnu tombs in the Mongolian Republic and southern Siberia show both Mongoloid and Caucasian features. Analysis of skeletal remains from sites attributed to the Xiongnu provides an identification of dolichocephalic Mongoloid, ethnically distinct from neighboring populations in present-day Mongolia. Russian and Chinese anthropological and craniofacial studies show that the Xiongnu were physically very heterogenous, with six different population clusters showing different degrees of Mongoloid and Caucasoid physical traits.

Xiongnu and the Huns

Could these Xiongnu have given rise to the Huns who appeared on the Volga from the year 370 CE before they invaded Europe? The question is highly controversial and has been the subject of numerous works since de Guignes first proposed the identity of the two groups in 1758.

First, we can prove that the names are indeed identical. In 313 it was a Sogdian merchant writing in the Gansu corridor who, in a letter to a correspondent at Samarqand, described with precision the plundering of the Southern Xiongnu in China and called them Xwn, a name which must be connected to that of the Huns (Henning, 1948). In addition one must also cite the Buddhist translations of Zhu Fahu, a Yuezhi of Dunhuang, who in 280 CE translating from Sanskrit to Chinese, rendered Hūṇa by Xiongnu, and then did the same in 308 in another  translation.  

Moreover, the Wei shu, taking up information precisely dated to 457, states: “Formerly, the Xiongnu killed the king (of Sogdiana) and took the country. King Huni is the third ruler of the line”. This leads us to place the “Xiongnu” invasion of Sogdiana in the first half of the 5th century. Here, too, there is hardly any reason to doubt this direct testimony stemming from the report of an official Sogdian envoy in China (Enoki, 1955) Also, the personal names found in the Sogdian caravaneer graffiti of the Upper Indus (3rd to 5th century CE) frequently include the first or last name Xwn, whereas it no longer exists in the later texts. This reflects the presence of Hun invaders in Sogdiana and the fusion of the populations (la Vaissière, 2004) during a precise period of time.

From an archaeological point of view, there are now few doubts that the Hunnic cauldrons from Hungary are indeed derived from the Xiongnu ones. Moreover, they were used and buried on the same places, the banks of rivers, a fact which proves the existence of a cultural continuity between the Xiongnu and the Huns (Erdy, 1994; de la Vaissière, 2005b). 

The Huns of Central Asia thus consciously succeeded the Xiongnu and established themselves as their heirs, and an authentic Xiongnu element probably existed within them, although it was probably very much in the minority within a alliance with other people. This is the only hypothesis that accounts for all of the known facts given the current state of our information. Indeed we cannot neglect the fact what we read in ancient sources: 

" swarms of Huns and monstrous Massagetae filled the whole earth with slauther"
( St Jerome, page 182 here

or, the western Huns were actually two groups of people, Huns and Massagetae.  

to be continued...

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