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Xiongnu - Rise of Steppe Empires

XiongNu - Rise of Steppe Empires
This episode is about the Steppe people, the nomadic tribes scattered along the Eurasian steppe. These people fascinate and excite history lovers of all kinds. The imagery they provoke is still alive and powerful, even though there is a big distance between our era and theirs. You probably all know about the Mongols, the massive conquest of much of Asia under their famous leader Genghis Khan in the 12th century is the stuff of legend or nightmares depending who you ask, but maybe you don’t know much about the Xiongnu. (Xiongnu map by Gabagool) 


Often neglected, the Xiongnu were an important historical player. They’re basically proto-Mongols or the beta version of what evolved into superior nomadic lifestyle of Mongols and others like them. Xiongnu empire ruled much of Mongolia, Siberia and northern China from 3rd century BC to 1st century AD. Mongols just perfected the art which was already there. Xiongnu and other first steppe empires paved the way for them. Who were these Xiongnu people and what makes them so interesting for historians and archaeologists?

So first let's talk a little bit about the Steppes. Dan Carlin calls the Eurasian Steppe the crucible, the great melting pot, churning out new fierce people like the mongols and the Huns. The Eurasian Steppe also called the Great Steppe is the vast steppe region in Eurasia covering temperate grasslands savannas and shrublands biomes.

The Steppe environment is harsh but it lends itself to pastoral lifestyle, raising cattle, sheep and horses. The Steppe has a lot of grasslands but humans cannot eat the grass but they can eat the animals and use the byproducts of animals that graze upon the land. Far from being primitive pastoral life style is actually an advanced lifestyle which could only evolve when humans learned how to domesticate animals and basically tap into an otherwise unusable source of energy, the grasslands. So it only became a viable lifestyle after domestication of animals around fifth millennium BC. Pastoralists were often not fully nomadic and practiced small-scale agriculture when the environmental conditions were right but we must remember the environment in Eurasian steppe can be quite harsh sometimes.

Craig Benjamin in the book Empires of Ancient Eurasia names 4 primary states which controlled much of Eurasia during the first silk road era, that is roughly between 100 BC to 250 AD. No 1 we have the Han dynasty in China, Then we have the Kushan empire in Central Asia, The Parthian Empire and finally we have the Roman Empire. The ancient Eurasian civilizations were highly interconnected during the first silk road era. One factor which is often overlooked is the importance of the pastoral nomads such as the Xiongnu confederation which we're going to explore in this episode. They were crucial in connecting the agrarian civilizations through mountains and deserts in the steppe which were not easily navigable. They also had horses and other material goods which were highly prized in the settled societies economies. The exchange during the first silk road era was greatly influenced by the range and mobility of the nomads occupying the space in between the great settled societies. They were kinda like the glue holding the great silk road networks all together.

The steppe offered something which was quite unique: Good Horses and great grasslands for grazing. Nomadic technologies such as powerful composite bows and mounted archery gave these people a big advantage. This military edge let the nomads like the Xiongnu, Yuezhi tribes, Scythians and alike to plunder the agrarian civilizations of ancient Eurasia sometimes with impunity. For centuries Eurasian empires cycled through periods of collapse and consolidation never figuring out a real solution to the problem of steppe nomad invasion.

It's said that a Mongol without his horse is like a bird without its wings. A typical steppe nomad toddler would learn to shoot a bow and ride a horse by the age of 5 and would develop into an incredible warrior as an adult. These people were probably the best horsemen the world has ever seen. That all changed with the invention of gunpowder and later when it caught fire, no pun intended. By 1700s, guns were becoming really effective and popular. For better or worse, I mean mostly for the better for settled societies, finally superior horsemanship of the steppe nomads was no match for superior projectile artillery available to almost anyone in modern warfare. The menace of Steppe horse nomads for settled societies was neutralized once and for all.

The title of this episode is Xiongnu: Rise of Steppe empires. I could have called it Xiongnu: The first Steppe Empire. In fact, Nicola Di Cosmo in his book Ancient China and its enemies calles the Xiongnu the first Steppe Empire. But the title of earliest or first Steppe empire is a bit problematic, as there are other candidates that can predate the Xiongnu, such as the Scythians for example. Talking about the nomadic empires in the steppe, I’d like to name couple of other famous nomadic empire spring out of Steppe. Other than Xiongnu and Scythian we have the Sarmatians, Xianbei, Hephthalites or white huns, the Yuezhi tribes and ultimately the late Mongolic and Turkik expansions such as the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan and Timurid Empire under Tamerlane and many many other Central and Inner Asian khanates or khaganates throughout history.

One theory for the main reason these nomads would raid the settled societies around them is called the dependency theory. According to Dependency theory the formation of states among nomads is directly correlated to their chronic economical malnutrition, so since they didn’t possess all the necessary items in their economy which was limited to what Steppe could offer, they have only two options in front of them, either trade or raid the farmers and sedentary peoples around them.

These raids however were not always in large scale. That was the case until sedentary societies got the memo that nomads going to keep on raiding and taking their hard earned material goods so in response they had to establish more sophisticated and centralized administration system to be able to organize themselves and fend off the nomadic invasions.

This in turn forced the nomads to respond in kind by making their own more sophisticated political entities capable of rallying even more raiders to join the pillage and pass through the fortified walls of the settled societies. If you're familiar with evolutionary theory this is very similar to Evolutionary Arms Race. So let me explain first what is evolutionary arms races. Basically it’s the struggle between predator and prey, for predator to get better at catch and eating and for the prey to get better at escaping from the predator. As the Prey evolves to be better at defending or escaping faster from the predator, the predator species evolves even more killer features such as stealth and unbelievable speed and agility like Cheetahs. Nomadic and settled societies in my opinion were stuck in a similar cycle of escalated warfare, as the settled societies developed better defence mechanisms, the nomadic tribes got better at breaking these defence mechanisms. However this comparison may not be applicable at all times because as we've mentioned before the relationship between the pastoral nomads and farmers wasn't always hostile like predator and prey dynamic, it also included long periods of relative peace, trade and even cooperation.

So, Xiongnu were among the first organized nomads who made regular incursions into Chinese held territories during the Han dynasty. One big problem with the idea of seeing Xiongnu as totally fixated on China however is that China was by no means the only sedentary civilization they had access to, from Manchuria to Tarim basin and further west there were so many other agro-pastoral communities that existed within the boundaries of Steppe. This calls the validity of some of historical Chinese sources into question. For sure a lot of dramatizing and exaggerating of the enemies is part of it.

Even though the history of interactions between settled societies and pastoral nomads involved a lot of raids and wars, we shouldn't forget that both sides learned a lot from each other. In many places in inner Asia whether they were under the Xiongnu rule or imperial China, most economies were not purely nomadic or agriculturalist but a combination. According to Krader, war and plunder were quote  abnormal conditions which were caused by interruption of trade due to defective exchange mechanisms unquote. Pastoral nomadic societies were not able to prosper in total isolation.

Right of the bat we have to admit a lot of what do know about the Xiongnu is through the lens of the sedentary Chinese states. They were the ones who wrote the history of Xiongnu. As the saying goes History is written by the victors, in this case by people who had a tradition of writing things down unlike the Xiongnu nomads. Although historians can corroborate many of these claims by putting them against the texts mentioning the same events from other perspectives in neighboring regions, we should still take all the stories about the barbarian in north with more than a grain of salt. Xiongnu confederation was in the peak of its power between  3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD, So roughly corresponding to the Qin and the great Han Dynasty in China around between 200 BC to 200 AD, and there is no shortage of written records about the Xiongnu in Han dynasty Chronicles.

The Xiongnu is talked about mostly in the context of the major threat from north of China, the pillaging looting you get the idea. The great wall of China is a great symbol of the Chinese culture which can well attest to this continuous northern threat. But this notion of Xiongnu as pure barbarians threatening civilization won't explain the empire building aspect and long life of Xiongnu state. Just excessive aggression can't explain empire building and unification of various tribes which were part of Xiongnu Confederation. As any external threat, the relationship between the settled Chinese and the Xiongnu must’ve went through many cycles of hostility and relative stability and even peaceful trade and cooperation in between. The lines get blurred as it's only natural.

The most famous diplomatic policy between the Chinese state and Xiongnu is called Hé qīn or Marriage for peace. Basically it was a way of appeasing the Xiongnu warlords to prevent their attack. It was actually a great deal for the Xiongnu. It was a win win for them however you look at it, firstly the would benefit from the material goods such as silk and grains which the Chinese provided and also the marriage alliance of course, secondly they could use these things to cushion the blow during the harsh times and save their energy to strike at a later time when they had recuperated and could just break their promise and attack the Chinese from the position of power. On the other hand it was really a bad deal for the Chinese. First of all it was humiliating, having to pay and even sometimes send royal brides to try to appease the Xiongnu. Xiongnu could always accept the heqin and still decide to attack anyway later on. The material goods sent as part of heqin diplomacy must've played a role in the early silk road trade. Some of the silk must've been used for internal use the rest would've ended up further west. This movement contributed to the overall exchange of silk and other commodities in the ancient silk road.

Now, let's talk about the rise of Xiongnu during Modun or Modun Chanyu. Xiongnu confederation was in its peak during the reign of Mòdú Chányú. Chanyu is the title of Xiongnu rulers. The rise of Modu Chanyu is a great story that can easily lend itself to a Hollywood movie plot, I don’t know if it has but it certainly should be made into a movie! So the story goes like this, as always narrated by the gran historian sima chien, Herodotus of ancient China. Modun was a gifted child but his father wanted another child by another one of his wives to succeed him. In order to eliminate Modun out of the picture he sent the young boy to the Wusun tribe as hostage. We briefly mentioned the Wusun in the first episode, they had the famous heavenly horses remember. Anyway, as wusun were xiongu's enemies the assumption was that they would kill Modun. As it turned out Modun escaped death and came back to the Xiongnu. This time his father was impressed by his courage and decided to let him live which was his great undoing. Modun climbed the ladders and gathered a group of warriors who were absolutely loyal to him around himself. To train his men, Modun ordered them to shoot his favorite horse. Some of his soldiers hesitated and he executed them all for insubordination. Then he ordered his men to shoot his favorite wife, again a few hesitated and he killed them too. By this time his soldiers must've gotten the memo: follow order no matter what. So finally as you can probably guess he ordered his men to shoot at his father, this time no one hesitated to discharge their arrows. As his father was out of the picture Modun became the next Chanyu or Xiongnu supreme leader. Under his formidable command the Xiongnu became increasingly militarized, kinda like the the Mongols under Genghis Khan. The rise of Modu Chanyu is believed to be in part the result of a Crises that worked as a catalyst in uniting the Xiongnu. Even in Shi Qi it's mentioned that his rise was an answer to a crisis, basically this existential crises was the Qin campaign of Meng Tian against the Xiongnu, who was sent by the famous first emperor of Unified China Qin Shi Huangdi which pushed the Xiongnu further north and away from Chinese state vicinity. The Xiongnu seem to have started to centralize and unify basically after the Chinese state started consolidation of power. This was probably no coincidence.

Back to our archetypal nomadic steppe warrior mentioned in the intro, what really was his identity. What language did he speak?  As I said before these questions are much harder to answer than it might seem at first glance. There are multiple unproven theories about Xiongnu ethnicity and linguistic background. Since the 18th century there have been multiple attempts to identify them in Greek texts surviving from that era but of course the Greeks were so far away from inner Asia that their knowledge was sketchy at best. The most popular theory has always been some kinda proto Mongolic or proto Turkic connection. This is based on their attested lifestyle and few words left behind from their language in Chinese texts. The problem is these words are so few in number and so linguistically vague that cannot be really trusted to clear out the Xiongnu language. Also we should be careful not to equate language with ethnicity, as it is the case with many later steppe confederations they were usually Multi-ethnic and it was common to be united or conquered by one of the dominant tribes from time to time.

Another popular theory has been some sorta connection between Xiongnu and later huns, barbarian tribes that terrorized central Asia and Europe in later centuries. There is no direct evidence that shows the Huns had anything to do with the Xiongnu, but the reason this theory persists is the linguistic resemblance between the two names, Xiongnu and Hun have similar linguistic roots even though it might not sound like it. In some Sogdian texts Xiongnu are called xwn pronounced as khiyun or hoon, you can hear the similarity this way. Indian sources also described the Xiongnu as Huna. But even if we grant that the name Hun and Xiongnu have similar roots it doesn't automatically mean they're related in any meaningful way. More likely this terminology of hun or Xiongnu was like an umbrella term for the ruling elite among the steppe people of inner Asia. Often times names from different groups are given to later groups because of their perceived prestige or notoriety especially in the Steppes were ethno-linguistic relationships are quite fluid and dynamic.

Another theory about the origin of XiongNu is the Yineseian theory. Yineseian language spoken by Yineseian people was once widespread in central Siberia but the only surviving language of the group today is Ket, I assume it's still surviving today but in 2010 there were only 210 native speakers of this language left. The basis for this theory is a single Chinese text of the language of Jie people who were a member of Xiongu confederation. And Jie is clearly related to Yinesian. So if not all of them at least some Xiongnu tribes spoke this language.

Mongol scholars for a long time have believed that Xiongnu must be proto-mongolic, even in one of the books I've been reading to prepare for this topic, called Xiongnu Archaeology is dedicated to the people of Mongolia. It's a tricky issue though as the matter of Xiongnu ethnicity and linguistic is not fully resolved yet. And it's really hard to only rely on Chinese sources because they had the habit of grouping most people on the steppe together under very general lables like the Xiongnu or later Xianbei. I'd say the Multi-ethnic theory for Xiongnu people and language is probably the most likely.

Ok so moving on. Following the fall of the Han dynasty in China, much of the northern territories fell in the hands of Xiongnu. By the Tang dynasty Xiongnu had almost disappeared though. One of the problems they had was the lateral succession meaning if the son wasn’t old enough the power passed to the latest ruler’s brother which often led to civil wars and made Xiongnu state weaker thourough successive generations. The history of wars between Xiongnu and Han dynasty China is quite complicated and interesting, but we have to leave more details to another time, if you want to know more about it I highly recommend Ancient China and its enemies by Nicola Di Cosmo. There's just not enough time to cover everything in these podcast. Maybe after we cover all the major players in early silk road history we shall come back and cover specific periods in more detail. 

The pastoral nomads like the Xiongnu facilitated trade and linked agrarian civilizations like the Han Dynasty in China to other Eurasian sedentary states. Eurasian Steppe is a fascinating ecosystem. It's not really suitable for agriculture, but it lends itself beautifully to pastoral and semi nomadic lifestyle. The lack of complete self sufficiency meant that raiding or trading with sedentary societies were the only two options for the pastoral nomads in the steppe, and Xiongnu were an early example of this type of Steppe empires. The symbiotic relationship between pastoralists and their sedentary neighbors was ongoing till pretty recently.

OK let's sum things up and also talk about the broader impact of Xiongnu on the history of silk roads. I like to divide the effects of Xiongnu on the Silk roads into four categories.

Firstly despite their well deserved reputation of being brutal plunderers the pastoral nomads were also crucial in facilitating long distance trade between different civilizations. They were the only people capable of circumventing all the challenges of steppe and creating trade networks connecting different states together

Second is the tributary system we talked about before, the Heqin policy between the Chinese and Xiongnu. Through their military supremacy Xiongnu could ask for regular tributes from China and many Tarim Basin city states. For example in year 1 BC the Han court sent 7500 catties of floss and 30,000 bales of silk to the Xiongnu. The luxury goods and staples were first and foremost used to support their military but it's not a stretch to imagine how these goods would've ended up in more distant aristocracies further west.

The third impact on the silk road is the relationship of lesser states with Xiongnu and China. As they couldn't directly deal with one of these two super powers in the region, many smaller states tried to hedge their bets on one of these two states and sometimes on both. The state of Loulan for example which we shall talk about in more depth in future went back and forth between Xiongnu and China. This diplomatic dance to deal with these two powers influenced the politics of central and inner Asia for centuries to come. There were also some Han policies which tried to split the Xiongnu confederation by playing one tribe against the other (the old trick of making barbarians fight other barbarians which Romans also used) The domino effect of rise and fall of many of these tribes across the Eurasian Steppe to further west caused a ripple effect reaching all the way up to to Rome and their norther frontier causing their eventual collapse.

The final effect of Xiongnu on the silk road is maybe more indirect and similar to the last one, but if we the ancient Chinese sources are right about this one it was very consequential in the silk road history. It involves a people called the Yuezhi. People of Han dynasty in China were not the only nation which suffered from Xiongnu attacks. Many people in Asia such as the Yuezhi for example suffered Xiongnu aggression. They were also mostly pastoral nomads similar to Xiongnu and that made them their primary competition. They're mentioned a lot in the Chinese sources. They deserve a full episode on their own, but let's just talk about them briefly here. In fact as we have already discussed them briefly in the first episode when we talked about Zhang Qian expedition to Central Asia to seek alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu which really opened up the silk road.

Yuezhi is first mentioned in Chinese sources as a people living in Gansu province in north west of China. After a major defeat by Xiongu they were driven away from Hexi corrdior and split into two groups Dà Yuèzhī or greater Yuezhi and Xiǎo Yuèzhī or lesser Yuezhi. Do you remember the good ole Modun Chanyu? His successor decisively defeated the Yuezhi king and fashioned his skull into a drinking cup. This defeat started a long Yuezhi migration further west.

Displaced from their original Chinese frontier, the Yuezhi later evolved into Kushan Empire in central Asia which is a very important player in the silk road history. I must say some scholars such as Valerie Hansen in her book The Silk Road: A New History voices skepticism over the real historicity of the whole grand exodus of the Yuezhi because of the Xiongnu aggression.  Anyway, after settling in Bactria the Yuezhi became Hellenized to some extent as that region was previously occupied by descendants of Alexander of Macedon. After expanding into northern India they played a major role in transferring Buddhism across central Asia and into China. The whole history of central Asia and the greater silk road would've played out very differently if it wasn't for the dynamics playing out between the nomadic pastoralists of the great Eurasian Steppe.

ListenEpisode 3: Xiongnu - Rise of Steppe Empires


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