Xiongnu: Wikis


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Nomadic confederation
3rd century BC–460s  

Territory of the Xiongnu (green) (c. 250 BC).
Capital The Longcheng (蘢城), near Khoshu-Tsaidam in Mongolia, was established as the annual meeting place and de facto capital.
Political structure Nomadic confederation
 - Established 3rd century BC
 - Disestablished 460s

The Xiongnu (Chinese: 匈奴pinyin: XiōngnúWade-Giles: Hsiung-nu) were a confederation of nomadic tribes from Central Asia with a ruling class of unknown origin. The bulk of information on the Xiongnu comes from Chinese sources. What little is known of their titles and names comes from Chinese transliterations from their language.

The identity of the ethnic core of Xiongnu has been a subject of varied hypotheses, because only a few words, mainly titles and personal names, were preserved in the Chinese sources. Proposals by scholars include Mongolic, Iranian peoples, Turkic, and Yeniseian.[1][2] The name Xiongnu may be cognate to the name Huns, but the evidence for this is very controversial.[2][3]

Chinese sources from the 3rd century BC report them creating an empire under Modu Chanyu (who became supreme leader in 209 BC)[4] stretching beyond the borders of modern day Mongolia. In the 2nd century BC, they defeated and displaced the previously dominant Yuezhi and became the predominant power on the steppes north of China. They were active in southern Siberia, western Manchuria, and the modern Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and Xinjiang. These nomadic people were considered so dangerous and disruptive that the Qin Dynasty began construction of the Great Wall to protect China from their attacks. Relations between early Chinese dynasties and the Xiongnu were complex, with repeated periods of military conflict and intrigue alternating with exchanges of tribute, trade, and marriage treaties.


Recorded history

Early history

Sima Qian stated, on the evidence of the preceding Chinese records (Bamboo Annals), that the Xiongnu's ruling clan were descendants of Chunwei (淳維 "Chun tribes"), possibly a son of Jie, the final ruler of the legendary Xia Dynasty (ca. 2070-1600 BC).[5] But the arrival of the pastoral nomads engaged in horse husbandry in the East Asian steppes is dated to no earlier that the 12th c. BC.

The Xiongnu were initially a collection of small and insignificant tribes residing in the barren Mongolian highlands. During the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 BCE), the campaigns by Zhou's vassal states to purge other hostile "barbarians" allowed the Xiongnu the opportunity to fill up niche. These newly arisen nomads became a great problem for the Chinese, as their horseback lifestyle made them ready for rapid invasion and raiding villages and townships. During the Warring States period (476-221 BCE), three out of the seven warring states shared borders with Xiongnu territory, and a series of interconnected defensive fortresses were constructed, which joined later into the Great Wall.

During the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC), the Chinese army, under the command of General Meng Tian, drove the Xiongnu tribes away and recaptured the Ordos region. The presence of the powerful Donghu in the east and Yuezhi in the west also served to check the Xiongnu, forcing them to migrate further north for the next decade. With the collapse of the Qin Dynasty and the subsequent civil war (206–202 BC), the Xiongnu, under Chanyu Toumen, were able to migrate back to the border with China.


Confederation under Modu

Domain and influence of Xiongnu under Modu Chanyu around 205 BC
Asia in 200 BC, showing the early Xiongnu state and its neighbors.

In 209 BC, just three years before the founding of the Han Dynasty, the Xiongnu were brought together in a powerful confederacy under a new chanyu named Modu Chanyu The new political unity transformed them into a much more formidable foe by enabling them to amass larger armies and exercise better strategic coordination. The motivations for creating the confederation, however, remain unclear. Suggestions include the unification of China[6] and the political crisis that overtook them 215 BC, when Qin armies evicted them from pastures on the Yellow River;[7]

After forging internal unity, Modun 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 Hexi Corridor of Gansu (where his son Jizhu made a cup out of the skull of the Yuezhi king). He was able, moreover, to reoccupy all the lands taken by the Qin general Meng Tian. Before the death of Modun in 174 BC, the Xiongnu had driven the Yuezhi from the Hexi corridor completely, killed the Yuezhi king in the process, and asserted their presence in the Western Regions in modern Xinjiang.

Nature of the Xiongnu state

After Modun, a dualistic system of political organisation was formed. The left and right branches of the Xiongnu were divided on a regional basis. The chanyu or shan-yü — supreme ruler equivalent to the Chinese "Son of Heaven" — exercised direct authority over the central territory. Longcheng (蘢城), near Koshu-Tsaidam in Mongolia, was established as the annual meeting place and de facto capital.

Xiongnu Hierarchy

The chief of the Xiongnu was called shan-yü, (Chinese Chengli Gutu Shanyü), "Majesty Son of Heaven". Chengli might be a loanword from Turko-Mongol Tängri, Heaven or God.[8] Under the shanyü served "two great dignitaries, the kings tuqi (t'u-ch'i)" (Turkish word doghri, straight, faithful[citation needed]): i.e., the wise kings of the right and left. Insofar as one can speak of fixed dwellings for essentially nomadic people, the shanyü resided on the upper Orkhon, in the mountainous region where later Karakorum, the capital of the Jengiz-Khanite Mongols, was to be established. The worthy king of the left—in principle, the heir presumptive—lived in the east, probably on the high Kherlen. The worthy king of the right lived in the west, perhaps near present day Uliastai in the Khangai Mountains. Next lower in the hierarchy came more officials in pairs of left and right: the guli (kuli, 'kings'), the army commanders, the great governors, the dunghu (tung-hu), the gudu (ku-tu). Beneath them came the commanders of detachments of one thousand, of one hundred, and of ten men. This nation of nomads, a people on the march, was organized like an army.[9]

The marriage treaty system

In the winter of 200 BC, following a siege of Taiyuan, Emperor Gao personally led a military campaign against Modun. 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 BC, the courtier Liu Jing (劉敬) was dispatched for negotiations. The peace settlement eventually reached between the parties included a Han princess given in marriage to the chanyu (called heqin 和親 or "harmonious kinship"); periodic gifts to the Xiongnu of silk, liquor, and rice; 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 sixty years. Up to 135 BC, the treaty was renewed no less than nine times, each time with an increase in the "gifts". In 192 BC, Modun even asked for the hand of Emperor Gao's widow Empress Lü Zhi. His son and successor, the energetic Jiyu, known as the Laoshang Chanyu, 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 handsomely, from the Chinese perspective marriage treaties were costly, humiliating, 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 BC he personally led 140,000 cavalry to invade Anding, reaching as far as the imperial retreat at Yong. In 158 BC, his successor sent 30,000 cavalry to attack the Shang commandery and another 30,000 to Yunzhong.

War with Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty made preparations for war when the Han Emperor Wu dispatched the explorer Zhang Qian to explore the mysterious kingdoms to the west and to form an alliance with the Yuezhi people in order to combat the Xiongnu. While Zhang Qian did not succeed in this mission, his reports of the west provided even greater incentive to counter the Xiongnu hold on westward routes out of China, and the Chinese prepared to mount a large scale attack using the Northern Silk Road to move men and materiel.

While Han China was making preparations for a military confrontation from the reign of Emperor Wen, the break did not come until 133 BC, following an abortive trap to ambush the chanyu at Mayi. By that point the empire was consolidated politically, militarily and economically, and was led by an adventurous pro-war faction at court. In that year, Emperor Wu reversed the decision he had made the year before to renew the peace treaty.

Full scale war broke out in autumn 129 BC, when 40,000 Chinese cavalry made a surprise attack on the Xiongnu at the border markets. In 127 BC, the Han general Wei Qing retook the Ordos. In 121 BC, the Xiongnu suffered another setback when Huo Qubing led a force of light cavalry westward out of Longxi and within six days fought his way through five Xiongnu kingdoms. The Xiongnu Hunye king was forced to surrender with 40,000 men. In 119 BC both Huo and Wei, each leading 50,000 cavalrymen and 100,000 footsoldiers (in order to keep up with the mobility of the Xiongnu, many of the non-cavalry Han soldiers were mobile infantrymen who traveled on horseback but fought on foot), and advancing along different routes, forced the chanyu and his court to flee north of the Gobi Desert.[10] Major logistical difficulties limited the duration and long-term continuation of these campaigns. According the analysis of Yan You (嚴尤), the difficulties were twofold. Firstly there was the problem of supplying food across long distances. Secondly, the weather in the northern Xiongnu lands was difficult for Han soldiers, who could never carry enough fuel.[11] According to official reports, the Xiongnu lost 80,000 to 90,000 men. And out of the 140,000 horses the Han forces had brought into the desert, fewer than 30,000 returned to China.

As a result of these battles, the Chinese controlled the strategic region from the Ordos and Gansu corridor to Lop Nor. They succeeded in separating the Xiongnu from the Qiang peoples to the south, and also gained direct access to the Western Regions.

Ban Chao, Protector General (都護; Duhu) of the Han Dynasty embarked with an army of 70,000 men in a campaign against the Xiongnu insurgents who were harassing the trade route we now know as the Silk Road. His successful military campaign saw the subjugation of one Xiongnu tribe after another. Ban Chao also sent an envoy named Gan Ying to Daqin (Rome). Ban Chao was created the Marquess of Dingyuan (定遠侯, i.e., "the Marquess who stabilized faraway places") for his services to the Han Empire and returned to the capital Loyang at the age of 70 years old and died there in the year 102. Following his death, the power of the Xiongnu in the Western Regions increased again, and the emperors of subsequent dynasties were never again able to reach so far to the west.

Leadership struggle among the Xiongnu

As the Xiongnu empire expanded, it became clear that the original leadership structures lacked flexibility and could not maintain effective cohesion. The traditional succession of the eldest son became increasingly ineffective in meeting wartime emergencies in the 1st century BC. To combat the problems of succession, the Huhanye Chanyu (58 BC-31 BC) later laid down the rule that his heir apparent must pass the throne on to a younger brother. This pattern of fraternal succession did indeed become the norm.

The growth of regionalism became clear around this period, when local kings refused to attend the annual meetings at the chanyu's court. During this period, chanyu were forced to develop power bases in their own regions to secure the throne.

In the period 114 BC to 60 BC, the Xiongnu produced altogether seven chanyu. Two of them, Chanshilu and Huyanti, assumed the office while still children. In 60 BC, Tuqitang, the "Worthy Prince of the Right", became Wuyanjuti Chanyu. No sooner had he come to the throne, than he began to purge from power those whose base lay in the left group. Thus antagonised, in 58 BC the nobility of the left put forward Huhanye as their own chanyu. The year 57 BC saw a struggle for power among five regional groupings, each with its own chanyu. In 54 BC Huhanye abandoned his capital in the north after being defeated by his brother, the Zhizhi Chanyu.

Tributary relations with the Han

The Han Dynasty world order in AD 2.

In 53 BC Huhanye (呼韓邪) decided to enter into tributary relations with Han China. The original terms insisted on by the Han court were that, first, the chanyu or his representatives should come to the capital to pay homage; secondly, the chanyu should send a hostage prince; and thirdly, the chanyu should present tribute to the Han emperor. The political status of the Xiongnu in the Chinese world order was reduced from that of a "brotherly state" to that of an "outer vassal" (外臣). During this period, however, the Xiongnu maintained political sovereignty and full territorial integrity. The Great Wall of China continued to serve as the line of demarcation between Han and Xiongnu.

Huhanye sent his son, the "wise king of the right" Shuloujutang, to the Han court as hostage. In 51 BC he personally visited Chang'an to pay homage to the emperor on the Lunar New Year. On the financial side, Huhanye was amply rewarded in large quantities of gold, cash, clothes, silk, horses and grain for his participation. Huhanye made two more homage trips, in 49 BC and 33 BC; with each one the imperial gifts were increased. On the last trip, Huhanye took the opportunity to ask to be allowed to become an imperial son-in-law. As a sign of the decline in the political status of the Xiongnu, Emperor Yuan refused, giving him instead five ladies-in-waiting. One of them was Wang Zhaojun, famed in Chinese folklore as one of the Four Beauties.

When Zhizhi learned of his brother's submission, he also sent a son to the Han court as hostage in 53 BC. Then twice, in 51 BC and 50 BC, he sent envoys to the Han court with tribute. But having failed to pay homage personally, he was never admitted to the tributary system. In 36 BC, a junior officer named Chen Tang, with the help of Gan Yanshou, protector-general of the Western Regions, assembled an expeditionary force that defeated Zhizhi and sent his head as a trophy to Chang'an.

Tributary relations were discontinued during the reign of Huduershi (AD 18-48), corresponding to the political upheavals of the Xin Dynasty in China. The Xiongnu took the opportunity to regain control of the western regions, as well as neighbouring peoples such as the Wuhuan. In AD 24, Hudershi even talked about reversing the tributary system.

Late history

Northern Xiongnu

The Xiongnu's new power was met with a policy of appeasement by Emperor Guangwu. At the height of his power, Huduershi even compared himself to his illustrious ancestor, Modu. Due to growing regionalism among the Xiongnu, however, Huduershi was never able to establish unquestioned authority. When he designated his son as heir apparent (in contravention of the principle of fraternal succession established by Huhanye), Bi, the Rizhu king of the right, refused to attend the annual meeting at the chanyu's court.

As the eldest son of the preceding chanyu, Bi had a legitimate claim to the succession. In 48, two years after Huduershi's son Punu ascended the throne, eight Xiongnu tribes in Bi's powerbase in the south, with a military force totalling 40,000 to 50,000 men, acclaimed Bi as their own chanyu. Throughout the Eastern Han period, these two groups were called the southern Xiongnu and the northern Xiongnu, respectively.

Hard pressed by the northern Xiongnu and plagued by natural calamities, Bi brought the southern Xiongnu into tributary relations with Han China in 50. The tributary system was considerably tightened to keep the southern Xiongnu under Han supervision. The chanyu was ordered to establish his court in the Meiji district of Xihe commandery. The southern Xiongnu were resettled in eight frontier commanderies. At the same time, large numbers of Chinese were forced to migrate to these commanderies, where mixed settlements began to appear. The northern Xiongnu were dispersed by the Xianbei in 85 and again in 89 by the Chinese during the Battle of Ikh Bayan, in which the last Northern Chanyu was defeated and fled over to the north west with his subjects.

Southern Xiongnu

Southern and Northern Xiongnu in 200 AD, before the collapse of the Han Dynasty.

Economically, the southern Xiongnu relied almost totally on Han assistance. Tensions were evident between the settled Chinese and practitioners of the nomadic way of life. Thus, in 94 Anguo Chanyu joined forces with newly subjugated Xiongnu from the north and started a large scale rebellion against the Han.

Towards the end of the Eastern Han, the southern Xiongnu were drawn into the rebellions then plaguing the Han court. In 188, the chanyu was murdered by some of his own subjects for agreeing to send troops to help the Han 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, entitled Chizhisizhu (持至尸逐侯), succeeded him, but was then overthrown by the same rebellious faction in 189. He travelled to Luoyang (the Han capital) to seek aid from the Han court, but at this time the Han court was in disorder from the clash between Grand General He Jin and the eunuchs, and the intervention of the warlord Dong Zhuo. The chanyu had no choice but to settle down with his followers in Pingyang, a city in Shanxi. In 195, he died and was succeeded by his brother Hucuquan.

In 216, the warlord-statesman Cao Cao detained Hucuquan in the city of Ye, and divided his followers in Shanxi into five divisions: left, right, south, north, and centre. This was aimed at preventing the exiled Xiongnu in Shanxi from engaging in rebellion, and also allowed Cao Cao to use the Xiongnu as auxiliaries in his cavalry. Eventually, 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 the Han Dynasty

After Hucuquan, the Xiongnu were partitioned into five local tribes. The complicated ethnic situation of the mixed frontier settlements instituted during the Eastern Han had grave consequences, not fully apprehended by the Chinese government until the end of the 3rd century. By 260, Liu Qubei had organized the Tiefu confederacy in the north east, and by 290, Liu Yuan was leading a splinter group in the south west. At that time, non-Chinese unrest reached alarming proportions along the whole of the Western Jin frontier.

Liu Yuan's Northern Han (304–318)

In 304 the sinicised Liu Yuan, a grandson of Yufuluo Chizhisizhu stirred up descendants of the southern Xiongnu in rebellion in Shanxi, taking advantage of the War of the Eight Princes then raging around the Western Jin capital Luoyang. Under Liu Yuan's leadership, they were joined by a large number of frontier Chinese and became known as Bei Han. Liu Yuan used 'Han' as the name of his state, hoping to tap into the lingering nostalgia for the glory of the Han dynasty, and established his capital in Pingyang. The Xiongnu use of large numbers of heavy cavalry with iron armour for both rider and horse gave them a decisive advantage over Jin armies already weakened and demoralised by three years of civil war. In 311, they captured Luoyang, and with it the Jin emperor Sima Chi (Emperor Huai). 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 (known to historians as the Eastern Jin).

Liu Yao's Former Zhao (318–329)

In 318, after suppressing a coup by a powerful minister in the Xiongnu-Han court (in which the Xiongnu-Han emperor and a large proportion of the aristocracy were massacred), the Xiongnu prince Liu Yao moved the Xiongnu-Han capital from Pingyang to Chang'an and renamed the dynasty as Zhao (Liu Yuan had declared the empire's name Han to create a linkage with Han Dynasty—to which he claimed he was a descendant, through a princess, but Liu Yao felt that it was time to end the linkage with Han and explicitly restore the linkage to the great Xiongnu chanyu Maodun, and therefore decided to change the name of the state. However, this was not a break from Liu Yuan, as he continued to honor Liu Yuan and Liu Cong posthumously.) (it is hence known to historians collectively as Han Zhao). However, the eastern part of north China came under the control of a rebel Xiongnu-Han general of Jie (probably Yeniseian) ancestry named Shi Le. Liu Yao and Shi Le fought a long war until 329, when Liu Yao was captured in battle and executed. Chang'an fell to Shi Le soon after, and the Xiongnu dynasty was wiped out. North China was ruled by Shi Le's Later Zhao dynasty for the next 20 years.

However, the "Liu" Xiongnu remained active in the north for at least another century.

Tiefu & Xia (260–431)

The northern Tiefu branch of the Xiongnu gained control of the Inner Mongolian region in the 10 years between the conquest of the Tuoba Xianbei state of Dai by the Former Qin empire in 376, and its restoration in 386 as the Northern Wei. After 386, the Tiefu were gradually destroyed by or surrendered to the Tuoba, with the submitting Tiefu becoming known as the Dugu. Liu Bobo, a surviving prince of the Tiefu fled to the Ordos Loop, where he founded a state called the Xia (thus named because of the Xiongnu's supposed ancestry from the Xia dynasty) and changed his surname to Helian (赫連). The Helian-Xia state was conquered by the Northern Wei in 428-431, and the Xiongnu thenceforth effectively ceased to play a major role in Chinese history, assimilating into the Xianbei and Han ethnicities.

Tongwancheng (meaning "Unite All Nations") was the capital of the Xia (Sixteen Kingdoms), whose rulers claimed descent from Modu Chanyu.

The ancient capital of the Xia (Sixteen Kingdoms) at Tongwancheng, Shaanxi, Inner-Mongolia, China
Inner-Mongolian Hun Museum. Hohhot, Inner-Mongolia, China

The ruined city was discovered in 1996[12] and the State Council designated it as a cultural relic under top state protection. The restorations started, the repair of the Yong'an Platform, where Helian Bobo, emperor of the Da Xia regime, reviewed parading troops, has been finished and restoration on the 31-meter-tall turret will begin soon.[13][14]. There are hopes that Tongwancheng may achieve UNESCO World Heritage status.[15]

Juqu & Northern Liang (401–460)

The Juqu were a branch of the Xiongnu. Their leader Juqu Mengxun took over the Northern Liang by overthrowing the former puppet ruler Duan Ye. By 439, the Juqu power was destroyed by the Northern Wei. Their remnants were then settled in the city of Gaochang before being destroyed by the Rouran.

Languages: origins and descendants

Turkic theories and possible relationship to Huns

Since the early 19th century, Western scholars have proposed various language families or subfamilies as the affines of the language of the Xiongnu. Proponents of the Turkic languages included Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat, Julius Klaproth, Kurakichi Shiratori, Gustaf John Ramstedt, Annemarie von Gabain, and Omeljan Pritsak.[16] Some sources say the ruling class was proto-Turkic,[17][18] while others suggest it was proto-Hunnic.

An inscription in the Iranian language, Sogdian, reports the Turks to be a subgroup of the Huns (Henning 1948).[19][20][21][22][23] Henning (1948) also exorcised the perpetual debate about equivalency of the numerous Chinese phonetic renditions of the word Hun and the Huns known from non-Chinese sources, by demonstrating an alphabetical form of the word coded in the Chinese as Xiongnu.

Relationship between the name Xiongnu and the name Hun

Pronunciation of 匈
Source: http://starling.rinet.ru
Preclassic Old Chinese: [sŋoŋ]
Classic Old Chinese: [ŋ̥oŋ]
Postclassic Old Chinese: [hoŋ]
Middle Chinese: [xöuŋ]
Modern Cantonese: hʊŋ
Modern Mandarin: [ɕɥʊ́ŋ]
Modern Sino-Korean: [hɯŋ]
Modern Sino-Japanese: [kjoː]
Location of Xiongnu and other steppe nations in 300 AD.

The supposed sound of the first character has a clear similarity with the name "Hun" in European languages. Whether this is evidence of kinship or mere coincidence is hard to tell. It could lend credence to the theory that the Huns were in fact descendants of the Northern Xiongnu who migrated westward, or that the Huns were using a name borrowed from the Northern Xiongnu, or that these Xiongnu made up part of the Hun confederation. As in the case of the Rouran with the Avars, oversimplifications have led to the Xiongnu often being identified with the Huns, who populated the frontiers of Europe. The connection started with the writings of the eighteenth century French historian de Guignes, who noticed that a few of the barbarian tribes north of China associated with the Xiongnu had been named "Hun" with varying Chinese characters. This theory remains at the level of speculation, although it is accepted by some scholars, including Chinese ones. DNA testing of Hun remains has not proven conclusive in determining the origin of the Huns.

"Xiōngnú" [ɕɥʊ́ŋnǔ] is the modern Mandarin Chinese pronunciation. At the time of Hunnish contact with the western world (the 4th–6th centuries AD), the sound of the character "匈" 'chest' has been reconstructed as /hoŋ/. The second character, "奴", appears to have no parallel in Western terminology. Its contemporary pronunciation was /nhō/, and it means "slave" — usually a pejorative term, although it is possible that it has only a phonetic role in the name 匈奴. There is almost certainly no connection between the "chest" meaning of 匈 and its ethnic meaning. There might conceivably be some sort of connection with the identically pronounced word "凶", which means "fierce", "ferocious", "inauspicious", "bad", or "violent act".

Although the phonetic evidence is inconclusive, new results from Central Asia might shift the balance in favor of a political and cultural link between the Xiongnu and the Huns. The Central Asian sources of the 4th century translated in both direction Xiongnu by Huns (in the Sogdian Ancient Letters, the Xiongnu in Northern China are named xwn, while in the Buddhist translations by Dharmarakhsa Huna of the Indian text is translated Xiongnu). The Hunnic cauldrons are similar to the Ordos Xiongnu ones. Moreover, both in Hungary and in the Ordos they were found buried in river banks.[24]

Iranic theory

Among scholars who proposed an Iranic origin for the Xiongnu are H.W. Bailey (1985)[25] and János Harmatta (1999), who believe that the Xiongnu confederation consisted of 24 tribes, controlling a nomadic empire with a strong military organization, and that "their loyal tibes and kings (shan-yü) bore Iranian names and all the Hsiung-nu words noted by the Chinese can be explained from an Iranian language of the Saka type. . . . It is therefore clear that the majority of Hsiung-nu tribes spoke an Eastern Iranian language".[26] Jankowski concurs.[27]

Yeniseian theory

Lajos Ligeti was the first to suggest that the Xiongnu spoke a Yeniseian language. In the early 1960s Edwin Pulleyblank was the first to expand upon this idea with credible evidence. 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 the aforementioned sentence do not match the Chinese translation as precisely as using Yeniseian grammar.[28]. The hypothesis of Edwin Pulleyblank (1962) in favor of the Ket also seems to be favored by some scholars[3]

Mongolic theories

Some scholars, including Paul Pelliot, insisted on a Mongolic origin.

Theories on multi-ethnicity

Albert Terrien de Lacouperie considered them to be multi-component groups.[29] Many scholars believe the Xiongnu confederation was a mixture of different ethno-linguistic groups, and that their main language (as represented in the Chinese sources) and its relationships, have not yet been satisfactorily determined.[30]

Language Isolate theory

The Turkologist Gerhard Doerfer has denied any possibility of a relationship between the Xiongnu language and any other known language and rejected in the strongest terms any connection with Turkish or Mongolian.[31]

Archaeology and genetics

In the 1920s, Pyotr Kozlov's excavations of the royal tombs dated to about 1st century CE at Noin-Ula in northern Mongolia 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.[32] 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. Some of these embroidered portraits in the Noin-Ula kurgans also depict the Xiongnu with long braided hair with wide ribbons, which are seen to be identical with the Turkic Ashina clan hair-style.[citation needed]

Geographic location & Xiongnu genetics

The original geographic location of Xiongnu is generally placed at the Ordos[citation needed]. A study based on mitochondrial DNA analysis of human remains interred in the Egyin Gol Valley of Mongolia concluded that the Turkic peoples originated from the same area and therefore are possibly related.[33]

A majority (89%) of the Xiongnu mtDNA sequences can be classified as belonging to Asian haplogroups, and nearly 11% belong to European haplogroups. This finding indicates that the contacts between European and Asian populations were anterior to the Xiongnu culture, and it confirms results reported for two samples from an early 3rd century B.C. Scytho-Siberian population (Clisson et al. 2002).

Another study[34] from 2004 screened ancient samples from the Egyin Gol necropolis for the Y-DNA Tat marker. The Egyin Gol necropolis, located in northern Mongolia in the region of Lake Baikal, is ~2300 years old and belongs to the Xiongnu culture. This Tat-polymorphism is a biallelic marker what has so far been observed only in populations from Asia and northern Europe. It reaches its highest frequency in Yakuts and northern Finno-Ugric peoples. Opinions differ about whether the geographic origin of the T-C mutation lies in Asia or northern Eurasia. Zerjal et al. suggested that this mutation first arose in the populations of Central Asia; they proposed Mongolia as a candidate location for the origin of the T-C polymorphism. In contrast, for Lahermo et al. the wide distribution of the mutation in north Eurasian populations suggests that it arose in northern Eurasia. According to them, the estimated time of the C mutation is ~2400–4440 years ago. (According to some more recent researches of the Y-DNA Hg N the presence of N1c and N1b in modern Siberian and Asian populations is considered to reflect an ancient substratum, possibly speaking Uralic/Finno-Ugric languages.[35][36][37][38] Haplogroup N). Concerning the Xiongnu people, two of them from the oldest section harboured the mutation, confirming that the Tat polymorphism already existed in Mongolia 2300 years ago. The next archaeogenetical occurrence of this N-Tat ancient DNA was found in Hungary among the so-called Homeconqueror Hungarians.[39] Also three Yakuts' aDNA from the 15th century, and of two from the late 18th century were this haplogroup[40]. Additionally two mtDNA sequence matches revealed in this work suggest that the Xiongnu tribe under study may have been composed of some of the ancestors of the present-day Yakut population.

Another study of 2006[41] aimed at the contacts between Siberian and steppe peoples with the analysis of a Siberian grave of Pokrovsk recently discovered near the Lena River and dated from 2,400 to 2,200 years B.P., and proved the existence of previous contacts between autochthonous hunters of Siberia and the nomadic horse breeders from the Altai-Baikal area (Mongolia and Buryatia). Indeed, the stone arrowhead and the harpoons relate this Pokrovsk man to the traditional hunters of the Taiga. Some artifacts made of horse bone and the pieces of armor, however, are related to the tribes of Mongolia and Buryatia of the Xiongnu period (3rd century B.C.). This affinity has been confirmed by the match of the mitochondrial haplotype of this subject with a woman of the Egyin Gol necropolis (2nd/3rd century A.D.). This haplotype was attributed to the mtDNA D haplogroup. The paternal lineage of the Pokrovsk subject seems to differ from the lineages found in the modern population. The mtDNA sequence was compared with databases and the haplotype matched two Buryats from the Baikal area, two West Siberians, two Mansis, one Evenk, one older and two modern Yakuts, and one female from the Egyin Gol necropolis. This mitochondrial haplotype is not found in Koryaks, Chukchi, Itelmen, or Yukaghirs, sometimes considered "Paleo-Asiatic" ethnic groups, or in Central Asian populations. The similarity of the mitochondrial haplotype of the Pokrovsk subject with Buryats and a skeleton from the Egyin Gol necropolis, located 2,000 km to the south, confirms the occurrence of ancient contacts between the Altai-Baikal region and Oriental Siberia before the end of the Xiong Nu period (3rd century B.C. to 2nd century A.D.). Some female ancestors of this Pokrovsk hunter may originate from the First Empire of the Steppes, well known for its military expansion to the south (China) and to the west. However, the man of the Pokrovsk grave shows that these nomadic people may have also tried to explore the north by diffusion along the rivers. The match of our sequence with two Mansis from the Ural Mountains and two western Siberians could be related to an extensive gene flow along the Ienissei River (Starikovskaya et al. 2005). Considering the important frequency of Asian haplogroups present in the Mansi (Derbeneva et al. 2002), this similarity may stem from the wide expansion of the nomadic tribes from the southern steppe to the Ural Mountains. Thus the gene flow seems to have affected autochthonous populations from Oriental and Occidental Siberia during the Xiong Nu period since the 3rd century B.C. The analysis of the Pokrovsk grave corroborates the great influence of the Xiongnu Empire over the Siberian populations and early admixture between populations from the southern steppe and Central Siberia aboriginals.

Another 2006 study observed genetic similarity among Mongolian samples from different periods and geographic areas including 2,300-year-old Xiongnu population of the Egyin Gol Valley. This results supports the hypothesis that the succession over time of different Turkic and Mongolian tribes in the current territory of Mongolia resulted in cultural rather than genetic exchanges. Furthermore, it appears that the Yakuts probably did not find their origin among the Xiongnu tribes as previously hypothesised.[42]

A research study of 2006[43] focused on Y-DNAs of the Egyin Gol site, and besides the confirmation of the above mentioned two N3-Tats, it also identified a Q haplogroup from the middle period and a C haplogroup from the later (2nd century AD). The Q is one of the haplogroups of the indigenous peoples of the Americas (though this is not this subclade), and a minor in Siberia and Central Asia. Only two groups in the Old World are high majority Q groups. These are the Uralic Selkups and the Yeniseian Kets. They live in western and middle Siberia, together with the Ugric Khantys. The Kets originally lived in southern Siberia. The Uralic-Samoyedics were an old people of the Sayan-Baikal region, migrated northwest around the 1st/2nd century AD. According to the Uralistic literature[44] the swift migration and disjunction of the Samoyedic peoples may be connected to a heavy warring in the region, probably due to the dissolution of the Xiongnu Empire in the period of the Battle of Ikh Bayan. The mutation defining this haplogroup C, is restrained in North and Eastern-Asia and in America (Bergen et al. 1998. 1999.) (Lell et al. 2002.). The highest frequencies of Haplogroup C3 are found among the populations of Mongolia and the Russian Far East, where it is generally the modal haplogroup. Haplogroup C3 is the only variety of Haplogroup C to be found among Native Americans, among whom it reaches its highest frequency in Na-Dené populations.

A research project of 2007 (Yi Chuan, 2007[45]) was aimed at the genetic affinities between Tuoba Xianbei and Xiongnu populations. Some mtDNA sequences from Tuoba Xianbei remains in Dong Han period were analyzed. Comparing with the published data of Xiongnu, the results indicated that the Tuoba Xianbei presented some close affinities to the Xiongnu, which implied that there was a gene flow between Tuoba Xianbei and Xiongnu during the 2 southward migrations.

A study of 2010 [46] analysed six human remains of a nomadic group, excavated from Pengyang, Nortern-China. From the mtDNA, six haplotypes were identified as three haplogroups: C, D4 and M10. The analyses revealed that these individuals were closely associated with the ancient Xiongnu and modern northern Asians. The analysis of Y chromosomes from four male samples that were typed as haplogroup Q indicated that these people had originated in Siberia. These results show that these ancient people from Pengyang presented a close genetic affinity to nomadic people, indicating that northern nomads had reached the Central Plain area of China nearly 2500 years ago.

Rock Art

The rock art of the Yinshan and Helanshan is dated from the 9th millennium BC to 19th century. It consists mainly of engraved signs (petroglyphs) and only minimally of painted images.[47].

Excavations conducted between 1924–1925, in Noin-Ula kurgans located in Selenga River in the northern Mongolian hills north of Ulan Bator, produced objects with over twenty carved characters, which were either identical or very similar to that of to the runic letters of the Turkic Orkhon script discovered in the Orkhon Valley. From this a some scholars hold that the Xiongnu had a script similar to Eurasian runiform and this alphabet itself served as the basis for the ancient Turkic writing[48].


  1. ^ Adas 2001: 88
  2. ^ a b Beckwith 2009: 404-405, nn. 51-52.
  3. ^ a b Vaissière 2006
  4. ^ di Cosmo 2004: 186
  5. ^ by Sima Qian
  6. ^ Barfield 1989
  7. ^ di Cosmo 1999: 885-966
  8. ^ Grousset 1970: ch. 1, citing Kurakichi Shiratori ca. 1900
  9. ^ Grousset 1970
  10. ^ Loewe 1974
  11. ^ This view was put forward to Wang Mang in AD 14: Han Shu (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju edition) 94B, p. 3824.
  12. ^ Sand-covered Hun City Unearthed. http://www.china.org.cn/english/travel/45103.htm
  13. ^ National Geographic Online. http://www.geographic.hu/index.php?act=napi&id=5207
  14. ^ Obrusánszky 2006
  15. ^ Ancient Hun Capital Bids for World Cultural Site. http://www.china.org.cn/english/travel/92329.htm
  16. ^ Pritsak 1959
  17. ^ Wink 2002: 60-61
  18. ^ Hucker 1975: 136
  19. ^ Henning 1948
  20. ^ Klyashtorny 1964: 108
  21. ^ Gumilev: ch. 3, p. 3
  22. ^ Zuev 1960: 6-7
  23. ^ Sims-Williams 2004
  24. ^ Vaissière 2005
  25. ^ Bailey 1985: 25-41
  26. ^ Harmatta 1999: 488
  27. ^ Jankowski 2006: 27
  28. ^ Vovin 2000
  29. ^ Geng 2005
  30. ^ Di Cosmo 2004: 165
  31. ^ Di Cosmo 2004: 164
  32. ^ Zhang et al. 2001: 176–225
  33. ^ Genome News Network 2003
  34. ^ Keyser-Tracqui, C (2004). "Does the Tat polymorphism originate in northern Mongolia?". International Congress Series 1261: 325. doi:10.1016/S0531-5131(03)01701-1. 
  35. ^ Derenko, Miroslava; Malyarchuk, Boris; Denisova, Galina; Wozniak, Marcin; Grzybowski, Tomasz; Dambueva, Irina; Zakharov, Ilia (2007). "Y-chromosome haplogroup N dispersals from south Siberia to Europe". Journal of Human Genetics 52 (9): 763. doi:10.1007/s10038-007-0179-5. PMID 17703276. 
  36. ^ Rootsi, Siiri; Zhivotovsky, Lev A; Baldovič, Marian; Kayser, Manfred; Kutuev, Ildus A; Khusainova, Rita; Bermisheva, Marina A; Gubina, Marina et al. (2006). "A counter-clockwise northern route of the Y-chromosome haplogroup N from Southeast Asia towards Europe". European Journal of Human Genetics 15 (2): 204. doi:10.1038/sj.ejhg.5201748. PMID 17149388. 
  37. ^ Kharkov VN, Stepanov VA, Medvedeva OF, et al. (May 2007). "[Gene pool differences between northern and southern Altaians inferred from the data on Y-chromosomal haplogroups]" (in Russian). Genetika 43 (5): 675–87. PMID 17633562.  (English title: Russian Journal of Genetics)
  38. ^ Lappalainen, T.; Laitinen, V.; Salmela, E.; Andersen, P.; Huoponen, K.; Savontaus, M.-L.; Lahermo, P. (2008). "Migration Waves to the Baltic Sea Region". Annals of Human Genetics 72 (Pt 3): 337. doi:10.1111/j.1469-1809.2007.00429.x. PMID 18294359. 
  39. ^ Csányi et al. 2008
  40. ^ F.-X. Ricaut, O. Safedoseva, C. Keyser-Tracqui, E. Crubézy, B. Ludes, in press. Genetic analysis of human remains found in two medieval Yakut graves (At-Dabaan site, 18th century), Int. J. Legal. Med.
  41. ^ Amory S, Crubézy E, Keyser C, Alekseev AN, Ludes B (October 2006). "Early influence of the steppe tribes in the peopling of Siberia". Human Biology 78 (5): 531–49. doi:10.1353/hub.2007.0001. PMID 17506285. 
  42. ^ Keyser-Tracqui C, Crubézy E, Pamzsav H, Varga T, Ludes B (October 2006). "Population origins in Mongolia: genetic structure analysis of ancient and modern DNA". American Journal of Physical Anthropology 131 (2): 272–81. doi:10.1002/ajpa.20429. PMID 16596591. 
  43. ^ Petkovski 2006: 138-140
  44. ^ Helimski
  45. ^ Yu CC, Xie L, Zhang XL, Zhou H, Zhu H (October 2007). "[Genetic analyses on the affinities between Tuoba Xianbei and Xiongnu populations]" (in Chinese). Yi Chuan 29 (10): 1223–9. PMID 17905712. 
  46. ^ Ancient DNA from nomads in 2500-year-old archeological sites of Pengyang, China. Journal of Human Genetics, Feb 2010
  47. ^ Demattè 2006
  48. ^ Ishjamts 1996: 166


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Further reading

Preceded by
Pre-historic Mongolia
States in Mongolian history
BC 209-AD 93
Succeeded by
Xianbei state

External links

  • Downloadable article: "Evidence that a West-East admixed population lived in the Tarim Basin as early as the early Bronze Age" Li et al. BMC Biology 2010, 8:15. [1]

Simple English

Xiongu are nomads to the north of China. The first emperor built the Great Wall of China in 214 BC to keep them out.


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