An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Xiongnu 匈奴

Dec 15, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

The Xiongnu 匈奴 were a nomad people living north and northwest of China during the Qin 秦 (221-206 BC) and Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) periods. They founded a mighty federation of tribes living in the steppe and continuously endangered the border regions of Han China and the city states of the Silk Road. Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE) was able to destroy the first Xiongnu empire, so that Chinese troops were able to occupy the Western Territories. Yet in times of Chinese weakness, the Xiongnu rose again.

From the 2nd century CE on more and more Xiongnu families migrated eastwards onto Chinese territory and settled down in the modern provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi and Shanxi. Some tribesleaders claiming origin from the Xiongnu founded small empires in northern China during the period of the Sixteen Barbarian kingdoms 十六國 (300~430), especially the Former Zhao 前趙 (304-329), Northern Liang 北涼 (398-439) and Xia 夏 (407-432).

Western scholars tried identifying them with the Huns that threatened Europe during the 4th century BCE, but there is no archaeological or historiographical evidence for the Xiongnu's migration to the west. A Central Asian people invading India in the late 5th century was called Huna or "White Huns" (in Greek Hephthalites, see Yeda 嚈噠). Although there might be similarities in the name of these peoples, it must be considered that the name of a mighty nomad tribe (Mongols, Tartars) was often used for very different ethnic people. Pulleyblank has shown that the language of the Xiongnu - of which a few words and terms are preserved in Chinese literature - was related to the Siberian ethnics (Samoyeds, Kets) in the River Yennisej area, and not to the Mongols or Türks, while the Hun hords of Attila that tried to conquer Europe were surely Proto-Türks.

The native name of the Xiongnu might have been Hungnor or Hunoch, a word that Chinese could neither pronounce nor write and hence created the translitertaion Hungnu (modern pronunciation [ɕiʊŋ nu]). The syllable "hu" like in Hu 胡 is often used for barbarian, i.e. non-Chinese peoples.

The term Hu appears in texts from the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), but some Chinese scholars think that the Xianyun 玁狁 (Quanrong 犬戎, see Rong 戎) or Xunzhou 薰粥 from the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE) were probably ancestors of the Xiongnu.

Life of the Xiongnu

The nomad tribes of the Xiongnu developed their power at the end of the Warring States period when the Chinese states were occupied by intensive wars against each other. During the following Qin dynasty 秦 they still not seem to represent a danger for Chinese soil and people. Only at the begin of the 2nd century BC, when a chieftain named Mo-du 冒頓 (not: Maodun!; his original name might have been Bordur) made himself ruler (chanyu 單于, not danyu! [old: shanyu] a term similar to the Türk-Mongol "khan") over the Xiongnu tribes. The territory that was inhabited or roamed by the Xiongnu tribes stretched from the Ili Basin in the far west of modern China to the pastures of modern Mongolia. When the Xiongnu subjugated neighbouring tribes, these were incorporated into the Xiongnu federation and took over the name of the Xiongnu although they might be of a very different ethnic. This custom was followed by all subsequent mighty steppe peoples that should dominate the Mongolian grasslands.

History of the Xiongnu

The contacts, diplomatical and economical, between the Chinese peasant culture and the nomad culture of the steppe people was very intensive - using the border markets (guanshi 關市) -, and Chinese historians are therefore much better informed about the Xiongnu than the western antique writers about the Skythians and Huns, altough we find "barbarian" princes and members of a nobility visiting the "capital of culture" (Rome, Chang'an) - sometimes as hosts - in both spheres of the Eurasian continent.

The economy of the Xiongnu was characterized by cattle breeding, especially horses that were used as war horses, transport medium and as a commercial item. They lived in large round tents (qionglu 穹廬; also known as yurt or kibitka), their main food was meat, and their wine brewed of horse milk was famous. Later, the Xiongnu aristocracy lived in small palaces, and their villages were protected by walls. Archaeologists have discovered many bronze and also iron tools, partially for military use, but also many items for daily use.

The art of the Xiongnu is very different from Chinese art, although we also find Chinese objects among the tomb accessories of the Xiongnu nobility. The entourage of the Shanyu consisted of officials of several degrees that were only partially copied from the Chinese central government system. Under the Qin dynasty when general Meng Tian 蒙恬 conquered some territories north of the Ordos river bend of the Yellow River and installed Jiuyuan 九原 commandery, the new settlers of this region (most of them were resettled there by imperial command) had to be protected from the Xiongnu raids and plundering campaigns by fortified walls (later known as the "Great Wall" 長城).

After the downfall of Qin and the subsequent turbulent years of fight for the imperial power the Xiongnu advanced to each direction, subjugated their neighbours like the Yuezhi 月氏 and Dingling 丁零 and invaded the region of modern Shaanxi, Shanxi and Hebei provinces. The efforts of emperor Han Gaozu 漢高祖 (r. 206/02-195 BC), founder of the Han dynasty, to repell the Xiongnu were without positive results and lead to a policy of "peacful approachment" (heqin 和親) that was in fact nothing else than the delivery of tributes by the Chinese to appease the "plundering instinct" of the nomads. The provision of silk and other items of a highly sophisticated culture eventually contributed to the "degeneration" of the barbarian character of the Xiongnu. Many Chinese (alleged) princesses were given to the Xiongnu rulers.

For the next few decades, the Xiongnu were able to expand their territory into modern Xinjiang and thereby controlled the region of the later silkroad. But during the same time, the power of the Han dynasty stabilized, and the two realms of Xiongnu and China became rivals. Under the great martial emperor Han Wudi 漢武帝 (141-87 BC) the Chinese generals Wei Qing 衛青 and Huo Qubing 霍去病 conquered the region of modern Gansu and opened the way to Inner Asia.

In 60 BC the Protectorate of the Western Regions (Xiyu duhufu 西域都護府) was established, and the Chinese became masters of the trade routes to the west. Three years later the Xiongnu divided into a western and an eastern branch, the eastern ruler Hu-han-ye 呼韓邪 surrendered to the Chinese in 51 BC, he was rewarded with a Chinese princess named Wang Zhaojun 王昭君 sent to his court, a famous story often retold and arranged like in the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) theatre play Hangongqiu 漢宮秋 "Autumn in the Han Palace".

At the beginning of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) the Xiongnu split up into the southern tribes and the northern tribes (Nan Xiongnu 南匈奴, Bei Xiongnu 北匈奴). While the northern part of the Xiongnu federation roamed the grasslands north of the fortification walls, the southern Xiongnu became sedentate and settled down in the area of modern Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces, side by side with Chinese inhabitants.

Cao Cao 曹操, the potentate at the end of Han, forced a planful separation of the Xiongnu aristocracy from the Xiongnu people and thereby lead to the disappearing of the Xiongnu as part of the population of northern China.

When the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) suffered under the power struggles of the various princes, the Xiongnu Liu Yao 劉曜 (who was allowed to adopt the surname of the Han dynasty rulers, Liu, as his own) founded the Former Zhao 前趙 (304-329) empire, at the end of the 4th century the Xiongnu Helian Bobo 赫連勃勃 founded the Xia dynasty 夏 (407-431), both dynasties belonging to the Sixteen Barbarian States 五胡十六國 (300~430) controlling north China during the 4th and early 5th centuries.

The northern Xiongnu tribes were defeated in 89 AD by the Han generals Dou Xian 竇憲 and Geng Bing 耿秉, and from then onward, the Xiongnu ceased to represent a military challenge for the Chinese empire. Some older western scholars believed the remaining Xiongnu migrated to the west and reappeared in Eastern Europe as the Huns in the 4th century. From the 3rd century on the Mongolian grassland was occupied by a new challenging nomad people federation - the Xianbei 鮮卑.

Table 1. "Khans" (chanyu 單于 or xian chanyu 賢單于) of the Xiongnu, Luanti Family 攣鞮氏
頭曼 Tou-man (?-209 BCE)
冒頓 Mo-du (sic!) (209-174)
老上賢單于 Lao-shang Khan (174-161)
軍臣賢單于 Jun-chen Khan, oldest son of Lao-shang (161-126)
伊稚斜賢單于 Yi-zhi-xie Khan, second son of Lao-shang (126-114)
烏維賢單于 Wu-wei Khan, oldest son of Yi-zhi-xie (114-105)
兒單于 Er Khan, personal name Wu-shi-lu 烏師廬, oldest son of Wu-wei (105-102)
呴犁湖賢單于 Hou-li-hu Khan, second son of Yi-zhi-xie (102-101)
且鞮侯賢單于 Qie-di-hou Khan, youngest son of Yi-zhi-xie (101-96)
狐鹿姑賢單于 Hu-lu-gu Khan, son of Qie-di-hou (96-85)
壺衍鞮賢單于 Hu-yan-di Khan, oldest son of Hu-lu-gu (85-68)
虛閭權渠賢單于 Xu-lü-quan-qu Khan, second son of Hu-lu-gu (68-60)
握衍朐鞮賢單于 Wo-yan-qu-di Khan, personal name Tu-xi-tang 屠耆堂, descendant of Wu-wei (60-58)
呼韓邪單于 Hu-han-ye Khan, personal name Ji-hou-shan 稽侯狦, second son of Xu-lü-quan-qu
concurrent proclamation of Run-zhen Khan 閏振單于 (60), Tu-xi Khan 屠耆單于 (58-56) Che-li Khan 車犂單于 (57), Wu-ji Khan 烏籍單于 (57), Hu-jie Khan 呼揭單于 (57), Zhi-zhi-gu-du-hou Khan 郅支骨都侯單于 (56-36, personal name Hu-tu-wu-si 呼屠吾斯)
復珠絫若鞮單于 Fu-zhu-lei-ruo-di Khan, personal name Diao-tao-mo-gao 雕陶莫皋, oldest son of Hu-han-ye (31-20)
搜諧若鞮單于 Sou-xie-ruo-di Khan, personal name Qie-mi-xu 且麋胥, second son of Hu-han-ye (20-12)
車牙若鞮單于 Che-ya-ruo-di Khan, personal name Qie-mo-che 且莫車, third son of Hu-han-ye (12-8 BCE)
烏珠留若鞮單于 Wu-zhu-liu-ruo-di Khan, personal name Nang-zhi-ya-si 囊知牙斯, fourth son of Hu-han-ye, and ancestor of the Southern Xiongnu 南匈奴 (8 BCE-13 CE)
烏累若鞮單于 Wu-lei-ruo-di Khan, personal name Xian 咸, fifth son of Hu-han-ye (13-18 CE)
呼都而屍道臯若鞮單于 Hu-du-er-shi-dao-hao-ruo-di Khan, personal name Yu 輿, sixth son of Hu-han-ye (18-46)
烏達鞮侯單于 Wu-da-di-hou Khan, son of Hu-du-er-shi-dao-hao-ruo-di (46)
蒲奴單于 Pu-nu Khan, youngest son of Hu-han-ye, and founder of the Northern Xiongnu 北匈奴 (48-?)
Table 2. "Khans" of the Northern Xiongnu 北匈奴
蒲奴單于 Pu-nu Khan, youngest son of Hu-han-ye 呼韓邪 (48-? CE)
優留單于 You-liu Khan, oldest son of Pu-nu (?-87)
北單于 The Northern Khan, personal name and title unknown, second son of Pu-nu (88-91)
於除鞬單于 Yu-chu-jian Khan, youngest son of Pu-nu (91-93)
逢侯單于 Feng-hou Khan, son of the southern khan Xiu-lan-shi-zhu-hou-ti 休蘭尸逐侯鞮 (94-118)
Table 3. "Khans" of the Southern Xiongnu 南匈奴
䤈(醯)落尸逐鞮單于 Xi-luo-shi-zhu-di Khan (呼韓邪單于 Hu-han-ye Khan II), personal name Su-tu-hu 蘇屠胡 or Bi 比, oldest son of Wu-zhu-liu-ruo-di 烏珠留若鞮
Usurper Yu-ti 薁鞬, the Left Wise King 左賢王 (50)
(48-56 CE)
丘浮尤鞮單于 Qiu-fu-you-ti Khan, personal name Mo 莫, second son of Wu-zhu-liu-ruo-di (56-57)
伊伐於慮鞮單于 Yi-fa-yu-lü-di Khan, personal name Han 汗, youngest son of Wu-zhu-liu-ruo-di (57-59)
䤈(醯)僮尸逐侯鞮單于 Xi-tong-shi-zhu-hou-di Khan, personal name Shi 適, oldest son of Xi-luo-shi-zhu-ti (60-63)
丘除車林鞮單于 Qiu-chu-che-lin-di Khan, son of Qiu-fu-you-ti (63)
胡邪尸逐侯鞮單于 Hu-ye-shi-zhu-hou-di Khan, personal name Chang 長, second son of Xi-luo-shi-zhu-ti (63-85)
伊屠於閭鞮單于 Yi-tu-yu-lü-di Khan, personal name Xuan 宣, oldest son of Yi-fa-yu-lü-ti (85-88)
休蘭尸逐侯鞮單于 Xiu-lan-shi-zhu-hou-di Khan, personal name Dun-tu-he 屯屠何, youngest son of Xi-luo-shi-zhu-ti (88-93)
安國單于 Anguo Khan, oldest son of Yi-fa-yu-lü-ti (93-94)
亭獨尸逐侯鞮單于 Ting-du-shi-zhu-hou-di Khan, personal name Shizi 師子, son of Xi-tong-shi-zhu-hou-di (94-98)
萬氏尸逐鞮單于 Wan-shi-shi-zhu-di Khan, personal name Tan 檀, oldest son of Hu-ye-shi-zhu-hou-di (98-124)
烏稽侯尸逐鞮單于 Wu-ji-hou-shi-zhu-di Khan, personal name Ba 拔, second son of Hu-ye-shi-zhu-hou-di (124-128)
去特若尸逐就單于 Qu-te-ruo-shi-zhu-jiu Khan, personal name Xiu-li 休利, youngest son of Hu-ye-shi-zhu-hou-di (128-140)
車紐單于 Che-niu Khan, son of the former (140-143)
呼蘭若尸逐就單于 Hu-lan-ruo-shi-zhu-jiu Khan, personal name Dou-lou-chu 兜樓儲, son of the former (143-147)
伊陵尸逐就單于 Yi-ling-shi-zhu-jiu Khan, personal name Ju-che-er 居車兒, son of the former (147-172)
屠特若尸逐就單于 Tu-te-ruo-shi-zhu-jiu Khan, son of the former (172-178)
呼徵單于 Hu-zhi Khan, son of the former (178-179)
羌渠單于 Qiang-qu Khan, son of the former (179-183)
持至尸逐侯單于 Te-zhi-shi-zhu-hou Khan, personal name Fu-yu-luo 於夫羅 (or 於扶羅), oldest son of Qiang-qu
usurper Xu-bu-gu Khan 須卜骨都侯 (188-189)
呼廚泉單于 Hu-chu-quan Khan, youngest son of Qiang-qu (195-216)
Liu Bao 刘豹, son of Te-zhi-shi-zhu-hou ()
Liu Yuan 劉淵, courtesy name Yuanhai 元海, son of Liu Bao, and founder of the Former Zhao 前趙 or Han-Zhao 漢趙 (304-329) (304-309)
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Further reading:
Xiongnu Pulleyblank, E. G. (1962). "The Consonantal System of Old Chinese", Asia Maior, IX: 58-144; 206-265. [Appendix: "The Hsiung-nu Language", 329-265.
Yü, Ying-Shih (1994). "The Hsiung-nu", in Denis Sinor, ed. The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 118-150.