. 12
( 15)


(with the names of the commanding of¬cers), watchtowers, and storehouses
for military supplies but also roads, topographical features, names of coun-
ties, mountains, rivers and residential areas.87 Geographical knowledge, as
a fundamental component of military science, started to be extended into
the territory beyond the borders also as a consequence of the vast program
of foreign campaigns launched by Ch™in Shih Huang-ti.
Third, together with the military expansion that especially marked the
reign of Han Wu-ti came other forms of contact with non-Chinese peoples,
namely, exploration and trade over longer distances. Chang Ch™ien™s
mission to Central Asia marked only the beginning of of¬cial contacts with
faraway kingdoms. Lands and peoples previously located in the realm of
myth started to acquire names, speci¬c topographical and physical charac-
teristics, social and economic features; in a word, they entered the realm of
Chang Ch™ien was followed not only by the military men but also by a
stream of envoys, adventurers, and merchants eager to travel to the new
“Eldorado” in search of economic pro¬t. Behind them followed the mili-
tary men and ¬nally the poor peasants, exiled criminals, and other people
who formed the rank and ¬le of the Han colonists in the Western Regions.
Besides the members of diplomatic missions, many of them served under
Han ¬‚ags, and others were employed as slaves.88 Moreover, Hsiung-nu who
had surrendered were given ¬nancial aid to resettle in China along
the northern frontier. Given this situation, there can be no gainsaying the
impact that the interaction between Chinese and foreigners abroad, the
Shih chi 34, 1561; 60, 2110; 69, 2248; 81, 2440.
Mathieu, “Fonctions et moyens de la g©ographie dans la Chine ancienne,” p. 150;
Édouard Chavannes, “Les deux plus anciens sp©cimens de la cartographie chi-
noise,” Bulletin de l™École Fran§ais d™Éxtrême Orient 5 (1903): 241; Rickett,
Guanzi, pp. 387“91.
A. G. Bulling, “Ancient Chinese Maps. Two Maps Discovered in a Han Dynasty
Tomb from the Second Century b.c.,” Expedition 20.2 (1978): 16“25; Cao
Wanru, “Maps 2,000 Years Ago and Ancient Cartographical Rules,” in Ancient
China™s Technology and Science, comp. Inst. of History of Natural Sciences,
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1983),
pp. 251“55.
Wilbur, Slavery, pp. 109“17.

military campaigns, and the physical presence of foreigners in China had
on the accretion of new and reliable geographical information, and its close
relationship to the documentation of historical events.
The ¬rst treatise on geography (Ti-li chih, “land patterns” or “the earth™s
system”) in Chinese historiography appears in the Han shu,89 compiled by
Pan Ku (a.d. 32“92), which therefore stands as an original contribution by
Pan Ku. The Shih chi, however, develops a notion of empirical topography
different from the schematic representations of old, which re¬‚ects an earlier
tendency toward an accurate description of the land and its relevance espe-
cially to economic matters. A great deal of the geographic information can
be found in several chapters of the Shih chi, in particular chapter 129 (“The
Money-makers”), and chapter 29 (“The Treatise of the Yellow River and
Canals”), as well as the description of Central Asia in chapter 123 (“Ta
Several passages are devoted to the description of the trade contacts that
the people of the steppe regions had with China. Information about trade
before Ssu-ma Ch™ien is limited to what we can infer from the Yü kung,
from a few passages in the Chan-kuo ts™e, and from some parts of the Mu
T™ien-tzu chuan, which mention the importation of horses and furs, or the
existence of large herds of cattle and horses among China™s neighboring
peoples.91 However, actual information about trade and merchants can be
found only in the Shih chi, and in particular in chapter 129. Here the impor-
tance of trade opportunities in Inner Asia for both states and individuals is
explicit. The transfer of the capital of Ch™in to the city of Yüeh resulted in
the incorporation of the herds of the Jung and the Ti “ believed to be one
of the treasures of the empire “ into the Ch™in economy and in the opening
up of communication and trade with other states in the west.92 In the areas
of Yang and P™ing-yang, to the east of the Yellow River, the people were
accustomed to trading with the Ti, though their lands, bordering on the
Hsiung-nu, were often subject to raids. In this no-man™s-land a mixed
society had developed, where “the inhabitants have mingled with the for-
eigners, and their customs are by no means uniform.”93
The story of a merchant called Ch™iao T™ao is emblematic of the oppor-
tunities created as the Ch™in and the Han dynasties pushed the frontier
farther north. Ch™iao T™ao took advantage of these circumstances and accu-

Cf. Anne Birrell, Chinese Mythology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1993), p. 244.
Wang Ch™eng-tsu, Chung-kuo ti-li-hsüeh shih (Peking: Shang-wu, 1988), p. 41.
Chan Kuo Ts™e 3 (“Ch™in 1”) 178; 18 (“Chao 1”), 608 (J. I. Crump, Jr. trans.,
Chan-Kuo Ts™e, pp. 55, 324); R©mi Mathieu, Le Mu Tianzi zhuan: traduction
annot©e: ©tude critique (Paris: Diffusion de Boccard, 1978), pp. 127“29.
Shih chi 129, 3261 (cf. B. Watson, Records, 2: 441).
Shih chi 129, 3263 (cf. B. Watson, Records, 2: 442).


mulated wealth in the form of animals, such as horses and cattle by the
thousands, in addition to a large quantity of cereals, suggesting that the
trade that he oversaw consisted mainly of grain sold in exchange for animals
and pastoral products. Another merchant able to increase his wealth by
trading with foreigners was Wu-chih Lo, who raised domestic animals, then
sold them for silks and other goods that he sent as gifts to the king of a
Jung state. The king repaid the gift with animals worth ten times the orig-
inal cost. Eventually, this type of commerce made him so wealthy that he
counted his animals only by the number of valleys occupied by the herds.
This example shows not only that trade existed between China and foreign
peoples but also that Chinese merchants were well aware of commercial
practices in a tribal setting, where gifts could yield a high return.
The same type of trade in the shape of gift exchange is alluded to in pas-
sages of the Mu T™ien-tzu chuan, where it is related that the Chief of
Western Mo gave Mu T™ien-tzu 300 ¬ne horses, 10,000 cattle and sheep,
and 1,000 cartloads of millet. In exchange, Mu T™ien-tzu gave him 29
golden necklaces, 30 belts of shells, 300 pouches of pearls, and 100 plants
of cinnamon and ginger. Upon taking leave, Mu T™ien-tzu even saluted “in
the Mo fashion.”94 The situation described here, which unambiguously
points to a barter trade, must have been fairly common in fourth century
b.c. China, around the time of composition of this work, and indicates the
existence of long-established commercial relations between China and the
The establishment of direct contacts with Central Asia under Han Wu-
ti, and the beginning of of¬cial trade, was described by Ssu-ma Ch™ien as
the opening of a land of opportunities for many Chinese subjects, in par-
ticular for those who had criminal records and few scruples. In the Western
Regions great fortunes could be made, and even the lowliest could ¬nd
fortune. The number of commercial missions to the west multiplied rapidly
in concomitance with military operations in the region, and the ¬‚ux of trade
grew to the point that those foreign countries were ¬‚ooded with Chinese
goods, especially silk. In consequence, Han merchandise was devalued, and
Han merchants and traders could no longer buy the coveted western prod-
ucts, particularly horses. At this point, the Han resorted to military means,
and took by force what they could no longer obtain by trade. According
to Ssu-ma Ch™ien, the responsibility for this state of affairs rested mainly
with the emperor, whose inexhaustible greed for foreign products resulted
in granting imperial credentials to travel to the Western Regions to more
and more people, many of whom acted purely in self-interest and had no
qualms about enriching themselves by illicit means, in the process tainting
the reputation of the Han.95

Mathieu, Le Mu Tianzi zhuan, p. 58.
Hulsew© and Loewe, China in Central Asia, pp. 221“22.


To this it must be added that among the soldiers sent to the west on mil-
itary campaigns were many foreigners, ex-convicts, and criminals gathered
from every corner of the empire. For instance, the expeditionary army led
by generals Kuo Ch™ang and Wei Kuang was composed of freed criminals
from the metropolitan area and twenty to thirty thousand soldiers from Pa
and Shu, and the army led by Li Ling was formed by “6,000 horsemen
recruited from the dependent states, and some tens of thousands of men of
bad reputation gathered from the provinces and kingdoms.”96

The Economic Impact of the Hsiung-nu Wars

In the military confrontation between the Han and the Hsiung-nu, Ssu-ma
Ch™ien became a faithful observer of a dramatic escalation that caused wide-
spread misery and threatened to plunge the nascent empire into economic
chaos. While one may not wish to exaggerate the degree of hardship caused
by the Hsiung-nu wars, and while the effort may have been, in the long
run, less costly than the payments exacted by the Hsiung-nu through the
ho-ch™in treaties, these wars were seen, by a portion of the Han intelli-
gentsia, to which Ssu-ma Ch™ien belonged, with great anxiety, as docu-
mented both in Shih chi chapter 30 and Han shu chapter 24.97 As the
con¬‚ict against the Hsiung-nu “became ¬ercer day by day, men set off to
war carrying their packs of provisions, while those left at home had to send
more and more goods to keep them supplied [. . .] the common people were
exhausted and began to look for some clever way to evade the taxes.”98
Besides the provisions for the troops, gifts had to be given to victorious
Chinese generals and soldiers, as well as to Hsiung-nu who had surren-
dered. A project for the large-scale raising of horses proved very costly.
In 121 b.c. the total military expenditures “amounted to over ten billion
cash,” and in 119 b.c. “the government treasuries were so depleted that
the ¬ghting men received hardly any of their pay.”99 Various projects for
irrigation and for the embankment of the Yellow River had to be left un¬n-
ished for lack of funds. Only the merchants, “taking advantage of the fre-
quent changes in currency, had been hoarding goods to make a pro¬t.”100
Ssu-ma Ch™ien could not approve of such military-oriented policies, and his

Shih chi 123, 3171, 3174. The horsemen from the dependent states were nomadic
people who had accepted Han suzerainty.
Throughout the Hsiung-nu wars, for instance, the need for mounts constituted
a major expenditure, which strained Han resources; see Nancy Lee Swann, Food
and Money in Ancient China (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950),
pp. 37“38.
Shih chi chu-yi 30, 1034. 99 Shih chi chu-yi 30, 1037.
Shih chi chu-yi 30, 1040.

thoughts on the matter may have been akin to those expressed in a long
quote ostensibly taken from a memorial by Chu-fu Yen that criticized the
costly wars and concluded that “warfare extended over a long period of
time gives rise to rebellion, and the burden of military service is apt to lead
to disaffection, for the people along the border are subjected to great strain
and hardship until they think only of breaking away.”101
Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s presentation of the dif¬culties faced by his countrymen
in the struggle to survive the consequences of the war gives a fairly accu-
rate sense of the impact of Inner Asia on China™s economy and society.
Several passages illustrate vividly the magnitude of the con¬‚ict, which
dragged on for years, involved innumerable people, and imposed an
unprecedented burden on the people.
[After the episode at Ma-yi] the Hsiung-nu broke the peace treaty and invaded
the northern border; the battles followed one another and the troops could
not be disbanded. The whole empire (t™ien-hsia) bore the brunt of this effort.
As the military con¬‚ict escalated, those who went out on the expeditions had
to carry their own supplies; those who remained at home had to send provi-
sions. Those inside and those outside (the border) both suffered, and had to
contribute supplies. The common people were impoverished and exhausted,
and tried to ¬nd some cunning ways to evade the law. The available resources
were consumed and soon became insuf¬cient. Therefore, those who gave their
own properties were appointed to of¬cial posts, and those who contributed
goods were granted amnesty, and the [normal] system for selecting of¬cials
fell into desuetude.102
Already at the time of Emperor Wen relations with Inner Asia were
considered to be a major economic burden. According to Ssu-ma Ch™ien,
[At the time of Emperor Wen] the Hsiung-nu were frequently raiding the
northern borders, and many border garrisons were set up. The grain pro-
duced on the border was not suf¬cient to feed the troops. Therefore the gov-
ernment enlisted those who could supply grain and transport it to the border
garrisons, and granted them honorary titles; these titles could reach as high
a rank as ta-shu-chang.103
As this passage shows, the source of distress was not the yearly tribute
paid by China to the Hsiung-nu, but the need to keep a large body of troops
as permanent border garrisons. Guidelines concerning the settlement of
border troops had been amply discussed by statesmen such as Ch™ao Ts™o
and remained a central issue in the “Salt and Iron” discussion on frontier
Providing an image different from the China bursting with pride, con¬-
dence, and economic prosperity normally associated with the reign of Han

Shih chi 112, 2955; Shih chi chu-yi 112, 2379.
Shih chi chu-yi 30, 1034. 103 Shih chi chu-yi 30, 1032.

Wu-ti, Ssu-ma Ch™ien also provides evidence of the famine that struck China
in 120 b.c.104
The next year [120 b.c.] the lands to the east of the Mountains suffered from
¬‚oods and many people were starving. Therefore the emperor dispatched
envoys to empty the granaries of the provinces and kingdoms in order to help
the poor. Still, that was not suf¬cient. Then he encouraged the great and
wealthy people to lend money to the poor. But it was still impossible to
provide enough assistance; then he transferred the poor people to the area
east of the Pass and resettled them in the region of New Ch™in,105 to the south
of Shuo-fang. Over seventy thousand people were all given food and cloth-
ing by central government of¬cials.106 [. . .] The expenses of the resettlement
were so huge that they could not be calculated. Therefore the government
granaries were completely exhausted.107
This situation affected the focus and implementation of Han policies in
the north, because people hit by the famine were transferred, as a relief
measure, to the northern frontier, thereby increasing the demographic
pressure on the areas bordering on nomadic territories. The increased Han
presence in the north provided the rationale and the labor to conquer,
occupy, put to cultivation, and defend larger and larger portions of nomadic
Economic distress was caused also by the huge cost of offering rewards
to victorious Chinese troops and surrendered Hsiung-nu people, as it is
recorded in the following passages:
[In 123 b.c.] the Great General [Wei Ch™ing] led six generals in another attack
on the Hsiung-nu (hu), killing or capturing nineteen thousand of them. Sol-
diers who had cut heads or captured prisoners were presented with over two
hundred thousand catties of gold. The several tens of thousands of prison-
ers108 also received rich rewards, and were provided with food and clothing
by the government. But the Han soldiers and horses that were lost amounted
to over one hundred thousand, and the cost of the [lost] weapons and suits
of armor, as well as the expenses for the tranportation of provisions cannot
be calculated.109
On famines during the Former Han, cf. Fang Ch™ing-ho, “Hsi Han te tsai-
huang” Shih-yüan 7 (1976): 12.
The territory within the Great Bend of the Yellow River that Meng T™ien had
occupied was called New Ch™in by Ch™in Shih Huang-ti. The name remained in
use also during the Han dynasty.
These of¬cials are indicated as hsien-kuan, literally, “district of¬cers” (cf.
B. Watson, Records, 2: 87). I am following here the interpretation of the Shih
chi chu-yi.
Shih chi chu-yi 30, 1038.
This number seems to contradict the previous ¬gure.
Shih chi chu-yi 30, 1035.


[In 121 b.c.] the General of Swift Cavalry Huo Ch™ü-ping twice in a row
attacked the Hsiung-nu (hu) seizing forty thousand heads. That fall the Hun-
yeh110 king led several tens of thousands of people to surrender. Consequently
the Han dispatched twenty thousand carriages to receive them. When they
arrived at the capital they received gifts, and rewards were bestowed upon
soldiers who had distinguished themselves. That year the expenditures
amounted to over ten billion cash.111
The Han strategy for which these excerpts provide evidence was to
encourage greed to foster the military activism of Han generals and soldiers
and to reward the prisoners to tempt the enemy to defect. However, the
concurrent need to settle more people in the new territories and to defend
these areas against the Hsiung-nu counterattacks created a circular
problem. A larger area called for more soldiers to defend it, but a larger
military presence often made local production insuf¬cient, so that the need
again arose to colonize new land. At the same time, economic pressure built
up in the interior, so that military enterprises, wasteful of both human and
¬nancial resources, became widely unpopular. Moreover, it was unclear
what advantage these campaigns brought to the general populace. For
Ssu-ma Ch™ien, at least, prolonged wars were able only to produce loss of
life and to destroy the wealth of the country.
The economic effects of the wars against the Hsiung-nu not only were a
crucial part of Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s historical research but formed perhaps
the most important criticism directed toward his government and ruler
and foreshadowed the position of the “scholars” in the Discourses on
Salt and Iron. Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s description of the hardships suffered by
the Chinese people must be placed in the context of the political debate
over the role of the state itself, and the extent of its power. Frontier
defense was naturally a major theme, because it involved complex deci-
sions concerning military expenses, recruitment of troops, settlement of
people on the border, and payment of premiums to both surrendered
enemies and victorious troops. In his implicit criticism of Han Wu-ti, Ssu-
ma Ch™ien avoided the high tones of Confucian philosophy that ¬ll
the rhetoric of the “scholars” in the Discourses on Salt and Iron, but, as
an “objective” witness and reporter of events, he tried to provide room
for those voices raised to denounce the distress of the common people.
It was thanks to the historian™s ability to present not so much the “moral”
argument, but the historical evidence for it, that we are able, through
the vivid images of the Shih chi, to place the political debate in its
actual historical context. By providing the empirical foundations to a given

Hun-yeh is the same name of a Hsiung-nu tribe that lived in the territory to the
west of the Yellow River, today part of Kansu province.
Shih chi chu-yi 30, 1037.


moral, logical, or political argument, the descriptive mode plays a funda-
mental role in de¬ning the nature of historical knowledge and its social


Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s description of the Hsiung-nu and representation of the
history of the northern nomads is entirely different from previous and con-
temporary descriptions; typically, in early Chinese written sources descrip-
tions of the north are embedded in a web of metaphysical theories and
mythological beliefs that bear no relation to their ethnographic or geo-
graphic reality. The Shan-hai ching (Classic of Mountains and Seas) is the
well-known representative work of a literary and oral tradition in which
foreign peoples and lands re¬‚ect an imaginary universe of fabulous, fan-
tastic, or legendary beings. Here peoples are listed whose unworldly attrib-
utes might have inspired the illustrators of medieval bestiaries. For instance,
demons (kuei), people with the heads of beasts and the bodies of men, and
people with human faces and limbs and the bodies of ¬sh are said to inhabit
the northern metropolitan territories described in chapter 12; in the “north-
ern overseas territories” of chapter 8 we ¬nd people without bellies (Wu-
ch™ang) living close to people with hollow eyes (Shen-mu); and chapter 7
describes the country of the one-eyed men to the east of the Jou-li people,
who have one hand and one foot.112 Mathieu™s granting plausibility to this
work™s geographical layout as corresponding to real topographical features
and regarding it as a pioneering work prompted by the “conquest of new
territories and exploration of new lands”113 are questionable. The author
admits that the toponyms are problematic (the same name is used for more
than one geographical location, or different names indicate the same place),
that there are lacunae and omissions, and that the descriptions are techni-
cally insuf¬cient “ all of which tend to discredit the Shan-hai ching as a
work of “scienti¬c” geography.114
The tradition of the Shan-hai ching was alive in the Han and later periods
and was very much present in Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s days. Chapter 4 of the Huai-
nan Tzu on topography derives much of its geographical and mythological

R©mi Mathieu, Études sur la mythologie et l™ethnologie de la Chine ancienne.
Traduction annot©e du Shanhai Jing (Paris: Diffusion de Boccard), pp. 485“89,
418, 414.
Mathieu, Études sur la mythologie et l™ethnologie de la Chine ancienne, p. xvii.
Mathieu, Études sur la mythologie et l™ethnologie de la Chine ancienne, p. cii.
Hervouet denies any scienti¬c value to the geographic and ethnographic data
that we ¬nd in the Shan-hai ching; cf. Yves Hervouet, Un po©te de cour sous les
Han: Sseu-ma Siang-jou (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1964), p. 307.

material from the Shan-hai ching.115 Its contents have little to do with the
actual exploration and description of the geographic space but are consis-
tent with the incorporation of archaic beliefs and mythology in an over-
arching system of cosmic correspondences. In this respect the “geography”
of the Huai-nan-tzu is a pure abstraction produced through the blending
of cosmological, numerological, and mythological ingredients. In section
VI of chapter 4, on the regions beyond the “nine provinces” (i.e., beyond
China), we ¬nd again a long list of fantastic beings and strange countries.
Although some of these localities may have remote connections with vague
geographical notions, they are clearly divorced from any empirical knowl-
edge.116 The abstract and purely “ideological” use of geographical and
ethnographical categories can be exempli¬ed by this passage:
The north is a dark and gloomy place, where the sky is closed up. Cold
and ice are gathered there. Insects in the larval and pupal stages lie con-
cealed there. The bodies of the men of the north are tightly-knit, with short
necks, broad shoulders, and low buttocks; their bodily openings are all con-
nected to their genitals. The bones belong to the north. The color black
governs the kidneys. The people there are like birds or beasts but are long-
lived. That region is suitable for legumes and there is an abundance of dogs
and horses.117
Here we have some realistic elements (the cold of the north and the
abundance of dogs and horses) inserted in a surreal, mythological frame-
work. Other elements derived from what seems to be a genuine knowl-
edge of foreign peoples can be found in chapter 11, where it is said that
“the Hu people see hempseed and do not know that it can be made into
linen. The Yüeh people see downy hair, and do not know that it can be
made into felt.”118 What transpires from this is that the Hu (northern
nomads) knew how to make felt, which is perfectly true, and that the Yüeh
produced good linen, which is equally possible, but the whole sentence
is used as a rhetoric device to illustrate the superior knowledge of China
vis-à-vis the limited knowledge of foreigners. In the same chapters a few
notes on the different customs of the foreigners are used to make a moral
point.119 In every case the description of those foreign customs is never
treated as an independent subject, and this type of knowledge is always

John Major, Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought (Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1993), p. 191.
Major, Heaven and Earth, pp. 161“63.
Huai-nan-tzu 4, 10a/11b; I have followed the translation by Major (Heaven and
Earth, pp. 184“85) with a slight modi¬cation.
Huai-nan-tzu 11, 2b; cf. Benjamin E. Wallacker, The Huai-nan-Tzu Book Eleven:
Behavior, Culture and the Cosmos (New Haven: American Oriental Society,
1962), p. 30.
Huai-nan-tzu 11, 9a; cf. Wallacker, The Huai-nan-tzu Book Eleven, p. 35.


subordinated to philosophical considerations of either a cosmological or an
ethical nature.
Other short pieces of information about foreign peoples, which contain
grains of factual information, appear in the “Yü kung.” Among them we
can distinguish the Yi who wear fur clothes, the Yi of Lai, the Yi of Huai,
the Yi of the islands (Tao Yi) who wear grasses, and the Ho Yi with their
tributary gifts of metal goods to the court of Yao.120 Possibly pastoral
peoples are the felt-wearing Hsi-ching people and the felt-wearing Western
Jung people of K™un-lun. According to Birrell, the “tribute of Yü” consti-
tutes a document that is part history, part mythology, and part idealized
political theory.121 However, these representations hardly amount to any
serious ethnographic information, nor do they incorporate a narrative
history of the type that we ¬nd in the Shih chi.
In fact, Ssu-ma Ch™ien consciously distanced himself from this tradition,
as he endorsed a rational method based on the veri¬cation of sources and
on the examination of ethnographic and geographic realities, an approach
he explicitly states in the concluding remarks to chapter 123:
At present, since Chang Ch™ien returned from his mission to Central Asia,
the source of the Yellow River has been investigated; but where can we see
the K™un-lun Mountains that the “Basic Annals” [pen chi] spoke about?
Therefore, if we talk of the nine continents, mountains and rivers, the “Book
of Documents” is the one that comes closest to the truth. But, as for the
strange beings illustrated in the “Basic Annals of Yü” and in the Shan-hai
ching, I do not dare speak about them.122
This passage constitutes the most direct evidence of the historian™s quest
for a non-mythological, observable, and empirically testable knowledge of
foreign lands. This quest “ and the critique to the tradition from which it
sprang at least in part “ constitutes the foundation for treating Inner Asia
and its people as objects of historical investigation, subject to criteria of
credibility as well as of, arguably, an empirical search for reliable evidence.
Moreover, the history of the northern people was no longer limited to
recording a certain event, such as a battle and the resulting victory or loss,
but was extended to the very causes of historical change.
At the same time, Ssu-ma Ch™en was neither alien nor invulnerable
to the strong intellectual currents of his own times, and especially to the
cosmological thought that sought explanations in the mechanics of heav-
enly designs and in universal equilibria that encompassed heaven, nature,
and human agency. The larger historical processes had to conform to certain

Couvreur, Chou King, pp. 62“76 passim. Note that the term “Yi” is used as a
generic term for foreigners.
Birrell, Chinese Mythology, pp. 243“44.
Shih chi 123, 3179; Shih chi chu-yi 123, 2604.

patterns that would help humans understand better the world they lived
in as well as their position in the greater scheme of things to which
they believed they belonged. In the next chapter, we will see how the treat-
ment of Inner Asia re¬‚ects this “normative” orientation of the historian™s

chapter eight

Taming the North
The Rationalization of the Nomads in
Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s Historical Thought


The Hsiung-nu chapter of the Shih chi was unprecendented in its presen-
tation of a detailed and realistic account of the nomads to the north of
China. However, another aspect of the historiography of the northern
nomads must be considered before we can complete our analysis of the
northern frontier as it was “formalized” in the Shih chi. Together with his
presentation of a full description of the Hsiung-nu empire and the regions
of Inner Asia, Ssu-ma Ch™ien was faced with the task of having to “explain”
it in terms consistent with his own vision of history. To integrate the Inner
Asian nomads (as with any other phenomenon that was truly anomalous
and new in Chinese history) within a uni¬ed historical frame, Inner Asia
had to be understood, or “rationalized,” both according to the intellectual
canons of his own age and according to those principles of historical inves-
tigation that Ssu-ma Ch™ien set for himself. This “rationalization” of Inner
Asia required the seamless juncture of the history of the Hsiung-nu in the
¬‚ow of Chinese history, following primarily the principle of “comprehen-
siveness” (t™ung). In addition, the investigation of the relationship between
“heaven” and “man,” where “man” obviously had to include all the ter-
restrial events worthy of being recorded required that Inner Asia be included
“ for the ¬rst time in Chinese historiography “ into the system of correla-
tions between celestial and human occurrences that formed such an impor-
tant pillar of Han thought.1 In the Tso-chuan, as we have seen, there are

Possibly the earliest mention of a speci¬c of¬ce connected with judicial astrology
and based on the fen-yeh system can be found in the Chou li; see Chou li 26
(“Pao-chan-shih”), 9a“10b (SPPY); (trans. Biot, Le Tchou Li [Paris: L™Imprimerie
Nationale, 1851], 2: 113“16).

passages that can be interpreted in the sense of a temporary opposition
between two opposite principles “ civilization and the lack of it “ but those
passages certainly do not articulate a vision of history whereby the north
and the Central Plain are turned into two metaphysical principles eternally
at war with one another.
Placing the northern nomads within the realm of “prescriptive” history,
where the shape and nature of change is sourced to the intricate web of
correlations at the foundations of yin-yang and ¬ve-phase thought, is evi-
dence of a fuller appreciation of the role of Inner Asia as a genuine part of
Chinese history. Indeed, this impression is further supported by the histor-
ical reconstruction of the genealogy of the northern peoples as a principle
“antagonistic” and yet complementary to the Hua-Hsia civilization from
its very origins. The notion of a yin-yang opposition of the two sides (the
north and the south) that pervades some of the passages concerning Inner
Asia appears to be a product of the Han period, although possibly as a
development based on concepts of antagonistic polarization inherited from
an earlier time.2
The system of “allocated ¬elds” (fen-yeh), that is, the partitioning of sky
and earth stemming from the cosmo-political necessity of establishing cor-
respondences between celestial zones and earthly regions,3 had developed
by the Warring States period into a set of correspondences between con-
stellations and speci¬c Eastern Chou states. The duty of the astronomers
of the various states was to formulate prognostications relative to their
kingdoms on the basis of the observation of the movements of planets in
the portion of sky (or Lunar Lodge) assigned to each. Each lodge repre-
sented a political division of the earth, and the astrological prognostications
referred to the states in whose corresponding Lunar Lodge astronomical
phenomena were observed. However, during this period Inner Asian regions
do not seem to have been included in these heavenly correspondences.
Among the astronomical manuscripts found at Ma-wang-tui, a silk scroll
book written, according to some estimates, between 403 and 206 b.c.,4
illustrates a system of prognostications of human matters based on the
shape and movement of comets. It is signi¬cant for our discussion that all

This notion is re¬‚ected, for instance, in the language of a treaty concluded by
Emperor Wen with the Hsiung-nu in 162 b.c., where the two rulers are compared
to the “mother” and “father” of all the people.
K. Yabuuti, “Chinese Astronomy: Development and Limiting Factors,” in Chinese
Science. Explorations of an Ancient Tradition, eds. S. Nakayama and N. Sivin
(Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1973), p. 92.
T™ien-fu Ku, “A Summary of the Contents of the Ma-wang-tui Silk-Scroll Book
˜Assorted Astronomical and Meteorological Prognostications,™ ” Chinese Studies
in Archaeology, 1 (1979): 57; Michael Loewe, “The Han View of Comets,” Bul-
letin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities 52 (1980): 3.


the prognostications are correlated to historical events (especially military
ones) concerning the Warring States. The space beyond the political bound-
aries of the Hsia-Chou community was simply not included in the cosmo-
logical vision represented in this type of predictive astronomy. The author
of the work did not seem to have believed that the inhabitants of those
regions had any real bearing on the political vicissitudes of the Central
In the literature of the Han period we ¬nd contradictory evidence. We
may take into consideration, for instance, the Huai-nan-tzu, a text that
re¬‚ects beliefs and conceptions about geography and ethnography that must
have been current at the time of Ssu-ma Ch™ien. In section VI of chapter 4
of the Huai-nan-tzu, when the regions beyond the “nine provinces” (i.e.,
beyond China) are discussed, we ¬nd again a long list of fantastic beings
and strange countries. As Major points out, “these strange lands must be
treated with great care, for they belong to a type of literature in which
terrestrial and mythical geography blend together.”5 But the inclusion of
Inner Asian peoples in correlative metaphysical systems was not uncom-
mon during the Han. Statesmen such as Ch™ao Ts™o, who were actively
engaged in foreign policy, referred to the northern nomads within this
The territory of the Hu and Mo is a place of accumulated yin (i.e., very cold),
the tree bark is three inches thick, and the thickness of ice reaches as many
as six feet. They eat meat and drink kumiss. The people have a thick skin,
and the animals have much fur, so the nature of people and animals is such
that they are adapted to cold. The Yang and the Yüeh have little yin and
much yang. Their people have a thin skin, their birds and animals have thin
furs, and their nature is to withstand heat.6
In Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s time correlative correspondences could also inform
the “explanation” of a given historical event. Even the pragmatic Ch™ao
Ts™o could reach the conclusion that “the Ch™in garrison soldiers,” being
neither extremely yin nor extremely yang, “were not accustomed to these
climates, so the soldiers on duty died on the frontier, and those transported
there died on the road.”7 This approach to historical causality was part of
the intellectual climate in which Ssu-ma Ch™ien lived. But in the Shih chi
this normative perspective is applied to Inner Asia and to the Hsiung-nu
in a more systematic fashion, to the point that the northern nomads,
especially after they acquired a far more threatening “imperial” dimension,

J. S. Major, Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought (Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1993), p. 190.
“Ch™ao Ts™o chi chu-yi” Tsu, Ch™ao Ts™o chi chu-yi (Shanghai: Shanghai Jen-min,
1976), pp. 15“16.
Ibid., p. 16.

became the true alter-ego of China, a phenomenon that could not be
ignored, but needed to be addressed and made into a coherent, fully inves-
tigated, agent of “history.”
Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s inclusion of the nomadic north in a set of astrological
correlations was not aimed primarily at establishing some principle of
causality that would concretely offer an explanation for a given historical
event, but was a way of integrating the northern nomads with the rest of
Chinese history. By making the north subject to the same rules, patterns,
and laws that were thought to explain events in Chinese history, one of
which was the dialectic relationship between “heaven and man,” he made
the north be part of a universal and integrated vision of history. Placing
the Hsiung-nu in a “genealogical” relationship to Chinese history was prob-
ably even more important: the emergence of the Hsiung-nu phenomenon
was explained in the context of a set of known historical categories “ the
various northern peoples of old “ and organized into an “invented” geneal-
ogy that would result in the construction of a ¬ctitious ethnic tie with the
past. In this way, the new and ominous phenomenon lost its threatening
With the exception of the ethnic genealogy of the Hsiung-nu, whose
appearance at the beginning of chapter 110 is clearly meant to show con-
tinuity between the present and the past, the “normative” passages on the
northern nomads are not arranged in any systematic way. However
“patchy” their distribution within the Shih chi, there is nevertheless clear
evidence of an effort to transform the north from a morally unsavory and
historically amorphous place into an essential component of Chinese
history. By assigning to Inner Asia certain historical and cosmological
values, the historian brought Inner Asia into a wider rationalistic vision
according to which the ominous north could be “explained” and somehow
controlled. This “ideological” operation, together with the empirical col-
lection of data, paved the way for the incorporation of the northern peoples
into the Chinese historiographical tradition. From the Shih chi onward, this
historiographical tradition became the repository of both Chinese and Inner
Asian history.

Ethnogenealogy of the Hsiung-nu

Ssu-ma Ch™ien wrote the ethnogenealogy of the Hsiung-nu based entirely
on the sources of the classical tradition. The Hsiung-nu emerge from it as
the ¬nal link in a long chain of foreign peoples who had previously played
prominent roles in Chinese history. In forging an association between the
Hsiung-nu and their predecessors, Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s only “objective” crite-
rion can be found in the geographical location of these foreigners, who
inhabited, generally speaking, the area to the north of China.

Of course, linking together in a genealogical sequence and historical
chain a number of peoples, unchanging in their essential characteristics,
who inhabited roughly the same area, cannot be accepted as a valid con-
struction of the history of Inner Asia, considering that, over the course
of more than a millennium, many of those foreigners were absorbed by
Chinese states, or moved elsewhere, or simply disappeared. That at some
time there were peoples who inhabited the northern regions would not nec-
essarily make them the ancestors of the Hsiung-nu. In addition, according
to both Ssu-ma Ch™ien and to other sources, the Hsiung-nu were not the
only inhabitants of those regions: what was, then, the relationship between
other nomads, such as the Lou-fan, the Tung Hu, and the Lin Hu, and the
earlier inhabitants of the north, the Jung and Ti peoples who were regarded
as ancestors of the Hsiung-nu?
A phonetic similarity between Hsiung-nu and ethnonyms such as Hun-
yü and Hsien-yün may have also played a role in Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s creation
of linkages with the northerners of the past records, but no such proxim-
ity existed for the more prominent names in the genealogy, such as the Jung
and the Ti. In general, the “ethnogenealogy” presented by Ssu-ma Ch™ien
is based not on “anthropological” or documentary evidence, but on a his-
torical correlation that aimed to establish a precise connection with the past
and to demonstrate that the Hsiung-nu ¬lled the same antithetical position
to China that had previously been played by other foreigners.
It is unclear whether this construction was purely Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s inven-
tion. It is more likely that Ssu-ma Ch™ien set into writing and detailed
historically a perception widespread among his Han contemporaries. For
instance, we ¬nd this notion plainly expressed in the following passage from
a memorial by Chu-fu Yen:
It is not only our generation which ¬nds the Hsiung-nu dif¬cult to conquer
and control. They make a business of pillage and plunder, and indeed this
would seem their inborn nature. Ever since the times of Emperor Shun and
the rulers of the Hsia, Shang, and Chou dynasties, no attempt has ever been
made to order or control them; rather, they have been regarded as beasts to
be pastured, not as members of the human race.8
Such reconstructions of the Hsiung-nu™s remote past have a highly nor-
mative function and ful¬ll two goals: making the unknown seem familiar,
and establishing a certain subject as one worthy of investigation (and there-
fore worthy of record keeping). The creation of a connection with foreign
peoples of old is an example of a process of reduction to known categories.
These identi¬cations served the purpose of depriving the new enemy of his

Shih chi 112, 2955; Burton Watson, trans., Records of the Grand Historian by
Sima Qian (New York and Hong Kong: Columbia University Press and The
Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1993), 2: 196.


most frightening feature, the mysterious nature of his threat, by a process
of reductio ad notum.9 For although nomads had been in fairly close
contact, and sometimes in con¬‚ict, with the northern states of Ch™in, Chao,
and Yen from the fourth century b.c. onward, a uni¬ed steppe empire had
come into existence only about seventy years before Wu-ti ascended the
throne. The lack of knowledge about the details of the genealogy of the
Hsiung-nu royal house, admitted by Ssu-ma Ch™ien, shows clearly that he
had no records available to him that could yield detailed information con-
cerning the past history of the Hsiung-nu as a distinct ethnic or tribal unit
and could explain their sudden power.
In sum, Ssu-ma Ch™ien strove to establish a genetic relationship between
the Hsiung-nu and past northerners to explain where they had come from.
The creation of a tradition that could link the Hsiung-nu with the remotest
past was essential for making their imposing and troubling presence into a
known quantity in the larger scheme of Chinese (and human) history. On
the methodological plane, historical correlations allowed the historian to
incorporate and rationalize the historical event. And, in addition to pro-
viding the means for a “rational” historical explanation, on the ideological
level the genealogy constructed for the Hsiung-nu intended to demonstrate
how over the course of its history China had been able by the force of civ-
ilization or by the force of arms to conquer the “barbarians” and to neu-
tralize political and military threats from the north. The passages chosen
by Ssu-ma Ch™ien to illustrate the past relations between China and the
northern “nomads” are emblematic in this respect. Their purpose is to show
that these foreign threats were very serious but that they had always been
overcome. Indeed, the historian represents the unfolding of the Chinese
march into foreign territories almost as a “manifest destiny.” This particu-
lar notion is evidently derived from Mencius™s doctrine, which attributes to
the great ancestors of Chinese civilization the ability not only to domesti-
cate nature but also to conquer and transform alien peoples.10
A close examination of the relevant portions of chapter 110 makes the
dual purpose of the Hsiung-nu “ethnogenealogy” all the more clear. In the
passages that follow Ssu-ma Ch™ien begins with the period from the myth-
ical origins of the Hsia dynasty to the Chou conquest (passages I“III). Here
we ¬nd mostly generic names for foreigners, which are used anachronisti-
cally; the presence of northern peoples whose names are known from much
later records is dated back to the time of Yao and Shun and attention is
also focused on the Ch™üan Jung of the Western Chou period, who invaded

O. Maenchen-Helfen, “Archaistic Names of the Hsiung-nu,” Central Asiatic
Journal 6 (1961): 249“61.
James Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol. 2: The Works of Mencius, 2nd ed.
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1895; rpt. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960),
p. 253.

the capital and forced the Chou to move east (passages IV“V). After the
semi-mythical beginnings of Chinese history, the more plentiful records
available for the Eastern Chou period allow Ssu-ma Ch™ien to stand on
¬rmer documentary ground. The next link in the genealogy are the Shan
Jung, followed by people identi¬ed by the generic terms of Jung and Ti (pas-
sages VI“VII). As we have seen in Chapter 3, these were umbrella terms
used in the Chinese records to indicate a variety of different political and
perhaps ethnic groupings. A precise link between them and the Hsiung-nu
could not be established, except by attributing to them the same historical
role with respect to China. This post facto genealogical connection both
resulted from and ful¬lled the need to explain and legitimize the historical
role played by the Hsiung-nu.
In the opening statement of chapter 110 Ssu-ma Ch™ien assigns to the
Hsiung-nu a “Chinese” origin and de¬nes some of their reputed ancestors
as pastoral nomads:11
I. The ancestor of the Hsiung-nu was a descendant of the ruling clan of the
Hsia dynasty, named Shun-wei. As early as the time of emperors Yao and
Shun and before there were people known as Shan Jung, Hsien-yün, and
Hsün-yü; they lived in the northern marches (man) and moved around fol-
lowing their herds.12
Here we have two “postulates” that are essential for the composition of
the genealogy. The “Chinese” origin of the Hsiung-nu makes them into a
legitimate component of Chinese history from the very beginning and also
makes them “part of the family” along the lines of a rhetoric of kinship
already seen in the ho-ch™in treaties. Establishing kinship linkages is an
essential element for giving a historical protagonist legitimacy and credi-
bility. The mention of people to whom Ssu-ma Ch™ien attributes a pastoral
nomadic identity adds to the kinship bond a cultural dimension that is
the second crucial element necessary to establish a link between past and
present. Associations between the sage kings of antiquity and foreign
peoples were by no means foreign to the Chinese tradition. Mencius
regarded Shun as “a man of the Eastern Yi (people),” and King Wen as a
Western Yi. The Ch™iang people had been associated with the Chiang family
name, whose members were said to be the descendents of Shen Nung13 and

All of the passages that follow are from Shih chi 110, 2879“82; see also Shih chi
chu-yi 110, 2313.
Cf. Watson, Records, 2: 129.
Legge, The Works of Mencius, p. 316; Tso-chuan chu (Ai 9), 1653 (James Legge,
The Chinese Classics, vol. 5: The Ch™un Ts™ew with the Tso Chuen [London:
Trübner, 1872; rpt. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960], p. 819). Cf.
also Chung-kuo min-tsu shih, ed. Wang Chung-han, p. 121.


are also mentioned among the peoples who joined the Chou against the
The term “northern marches” refers to one of the zones of the concen-
tric geographical schemes discussed earlier, and to a conception of space
dominated by the notion of a central locus of political and moral author-
ity whose bene¬cial effect on the surrounding lands decreases proportion-
ally to the distance from it. Ssu-ma Ch™ien placed the ancestors of the
Hsiung-nu in an area unaffected by Chinese civilization. The term man (here
translated with “marches”) was also the name of a type of foreigners that
inhabited a faraway zone, which reminded the reader of the geographical
scheme of the “Yü Kung,” in which the Man people were located in the
“wild” (huang) domain, that is, the zone farthest from the center of civi-
lization.15 Kinship closeness and cultural distance are then established at the
outset as the two chief principles adopted to explicate both the continuity
of the relationship between the Hsiung-nu and China and the tension
generated by their presence.
II. At the end of the Hsia dynasty Kung Liu left his post as Minister of Agri-
culture and moved to the land of the Western Jung, were he founded the
city of Pin. Some three hundred years later the Jung and Ti attacked Kung
Liu™s descendant, the Great Lord Tan-fu. Tan-fu ¬‚ed to the foot of Mount
Ch™i [. . .] this was the beginning of the Chou state.16
The story of the king of T™ai™s (Tan Fu) trouble with foreign peoples is
found in Mencius, too, whose account hints at the tribute paid by Tan Fu
to the Ti. First Tan Fu gave them skins and silks, then cattle and horses,
and ¬nally pearls and gems, but none of these gifts was suf¬cient to hold
them back and prevent their incursions. Eventually the Chinese king had
to leave the area.17 The same theme is present in the ode “Mien” of the
Shih ching, which tells of a struggle between Tan-fu and foreign peoples
(k™un-yi). Ssu-ma Ch™ien used the myth according to which ancestral rulers
traveled to new territories and fought with alien peoples to illustrate one
aspect of the process of domestication of the alien and hostile environment
outside the bounds of China. The challenge was not a new one, and the
sage kings had showed how to deal with it.18 The results are made known
in the following passage:
James Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol. 3: The Shoo King, 2nd ed. (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1895; rpt. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960), p. 301.
Chapters 29 and 33. In the Chou li, however, the Man live in the sixth domain
(chi or fu), i.e., an intermediate zone that comes before the Yi, thus implying a
lesser degree of barbarism.
Cf. Watson, Records, 2: 130. 17 Legge, The Works of Mencius, pp. 174“76.
James Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol. 4: The She King (London: Trübner, 1862;
rpt. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960), p. 439.


III. One hundred years later Ch™ang, the Earl of the West of the Chou,
attacked the Ch™üan-yi clan. Some ten years later King Wu overthrew the
Shang ruler Chou, and established his residence at Lo-yi; he re-settled in
the regions of Feng and Hao, and pushed the Jung and Ti to the north
of the Ching and Lo rivers;19 they would bring tribute to the court at
appointed times. Their land was known as “barren domains.”
It is emblematic of Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s ideological approach, and of his con-
struction of a sharp divide between Chinese and “barbarians,” that, while
reporting King Wu™s victory against the Shang, he does not mention that
the Chou had, among their allies, also Western Yi peoples.20 The huang fu
(barren domains) of this passage refer speci¬cally, once again, to the “Yü
Kung,” where both rivers, Ching and Lo, are mentioned and suggests a
gradual expansion of the “civilized” space, which culminates in the fol-
lowing statement:
IV. About two hundred years later, when the power of the Chou was declin-
ing, King Mu attacked the Ch™üan Jung, captured four white wolves and
four white deer and returned. From this time on the people of the “barren
domains” no longer travelled to court.
The Ch™üan Jung, who were later to displace the Chou royal house, are
placed here as the main antagonists of King Mu. Here the reference is to
the Bamboo Annals, which report that King Mu pushed the Jung north-
ward, to the region of T™ai-yüan.21 Ssu-ma Ch™ien represents this as the
beginning of a “loss” of China™s authority in the north, coinciding, appar-
ently, with the decline of the power of the Chou, which resulted in a new
historical cycle when the northerners climbed to a position of power.
V. Two hundred years after the time of King Mu [. . .] the Ch™üan Jung took
away from the Chou the region of Chiao-huo, settled between the Ching
and Wei rivers, and invaded and plundered the Central States. Duke
Hsiang of Ch™in came to the rescue of the Chou court [. . .]
The episode narrated here refers to the last year of King Yu, 771 b.c.,
when the capital itself was attacked and, as a consequence, the Chou court
was forced to move east. This was by all accounts a disastrous defeat for
the Chou, as King Yu and his son were both killed. The counterattack of
Duke Hsiang happened ¬ve years later, under King P™ing.22 The wars con-

These were two large northern af¬‚uents of the river Wei, in Shansi. Lo was located
to the east and Ching to the west.
Chu-shu chi-nien 2 (“Chou Wu Wang”), 1a; (Legge, The Shoo King, “Prole-
gomena,” p. 144).
Chu-shu chi-nien 2 (“Mu Wang”), 5a; (Legge, The Shoo King, “Prolegomena,”
p. 151).
Chu-shu chi-nien 2 (“P™ing Wang”), 12a; (Legge, The Shoo King, “Prolegomena,”
p. 158).


tinued for several decades, a period in which the northerners (this time iden-
ti¬ed with the Shan Jung) continued to threaten the heart of China™s polit-
ical power. What follows at this point is a series of passages in which Ssu-ma
Ch™ien lists all the major wars between Chou states and foreigners. In every
instance the pattern is the same: every foreign attack is effectively resisted
by the Chou states, who defend civilization againt the constant pressure of
these alien enemies. There is no mention here of the expansion of the Chou
VI. Sixty-¬ve years later the Shan Jung crossed the state of Yen and attacked
Ch™i. Duke Li of Ch™i [r. 730“698 b.c.] fought with them in the suburbs
of his capital.23 Forty-four years later the Shan Jung attacked Yen. Yen
asked for help from Duke Huan of Ch™i [r. 685“643 b.c.], who went
north and attacked the Shan Jung, who left.24 Twenty years later the Jung
and the Ti reached Lo-i and attacked King Hsiang of Chou. King Hsiang
¬‚ed to the city of Fan in Cheng.25 [. . .] After this some Jung and Ti settled
in the Lu-hun area, reaching out to the east as far as [the state of] Wei,
invading, plundering and ravaging the Central States. The Central States
were in great distress; therefore poets made lyrics which said “we
defeated the Jung and Ti,” “we attacked the Hsien-yün and reached Ta-
yüan,” “we sent out many rumbling chariots, and built walls in the north-
ern region.”26 [. . .] Duke Wen of Chin repelled the Jung and Ti, who then
settled to the west of the Yellow River, between the rivers Yin and Lo.
They were called Red Ti and White Ti.
The ethnogenealogy and history of the north ends with the victory of
Duke Mu of Ch™in. The implication is that at the end of the seventh century
This passage is reported in the Tso-chuan, which mentions an attack by the Pei
Jung against the state of Ch™i taking place in 706 b.c. Tso-chuan chu (Huan 6),
p. 113.
According to the dates from the Ch™un-ch™iu and Tso-chuan, Duke Huan con-
ducted his ¬rst campaigns against the northern peoples in 668 b.c. (Tso-chuan
chu [Chuang 26], p. 223). Then, in 664 b.c., the Shan Jung attacked Yen, which
at that point required and obtained the help of Duke Huan, who launched an
expedition and in 663 b.c. came back with much booty. Tso-chuan chu (Chuang
30), pp. 246“47; (Chuang 31), p. 249.
The Jung attack on the Chou capital is recorded, in the Ch™un-ch™iu, in the 11th
year of Duke Hsi (i.e., 649 b.c.). In 644 b.c. the king informed Ch™i of the prob-
lems caused by the Jung, who must have in¬ltrated and settled on territories inter-
posed between separate states. Tso-chuan chu (Hsi 11), p. 338.
The Ch™un-ch™iu dates the Ti attack against the state of Wei to the year 639 b.c.
(Tso-chuan chu [Hsi 21], p. 388). However, this development seems to have
resulted from “Central Plain” interstate politics, since the previous year Ch™i had
made a treaty with the Ti against Wei. As for the quotation from the Shih ching,
which collates stanzas from separate poems, such phrases were clich© in Ssu-ma
Ch™ien™s age, as we ¬nd them quoted in a number of philosophical writings, such
as Mencius.

the Chinese states had again gained the upper hand, and that various
peoples of the north had been conquered. Others remained independent but
were scattered, divided into small tribes, and could not be uni¬ed.
VII. Duke Mu of Ch™in [659“621 b.c.] obtained [the help of] Yu Yü and the
eight states of the Western Jung submitted to Ch™in. These are the Mien-
chu, Kun Jung, Ti, and Yüan, which were located to the west of Lung;
and the Yi-ch™ü, Ta-li, Wu-chih and Ch™ü-yen, which were located to the
north of the Ch™i and Liang Mountains, and Ching and Ch™i rivers.
Moreover, to the north of Chin there were the Lin Hu and the Jung
of Lou-fan. To the north of Yen there were the Tung Hu and the Shan
Jung. These people were all living in their valleys, separated from each
other, and each had a ruler. In every place they would not gather together
more than a hundred warriors. Nobody had succeeded in unifying all of
The Hsiung-nu of the Ch™in and Han periods, however, had inaugurated
a new cycle. The nomads had been uni¬ed, were extremely powerful, and
once again were threatening China. What Ssu-ma Ch™ien was conveying
was the existence of a pendular, or cyclical pattern in the alternation of
power between north and south.
In conclusion, in tracing the ethnogenealogy of the Hsiung-nu back to
the primordial stages of Chinese history, Ssu-ma Ch™ien drew not only a
cultural but also a political line between the two camps. On the one side
we ¬nd the Jung, Ti, and various other peoples; on the other, the Central
States. From a historical viewpoint, as we have seen in Chapter 4, this
demarcation line never existed because the political picture was extremely
¬‚uid, and alliances between Chinese states and alien peoples were common
throughout the Eastern Chou. Although anachronistic (and consciously
so), the representation of the Central States and northern peoples as oppo-
site political realities served Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s purpose of showing that
a northern threat had faced China since the mythical beginning of its

Inner Asia and Correlative Cosmology

In chapter 27 of the Shih chi, the “Treatise on the Heavenly Of¬cials,” for
the ¬rst time in the history of Chinese cosmological thinking, the peoples
of Inner Asia are made a part of that all-inclusive vision of the universe.
Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s incorporation of a much broader range of geographic and
ethnographic data is accompanied by a corresponding expansion of the
system of “anthropo-cosmic” correlations. Thus the northern nomads are
placed in a system of astrological correlations that makes them “depen-
dent” upon the movement of certain heavenly bodies.

The Hsiung-nu are ¬rst mentioned in connection with the constellations
of the Western Palace, in particular the Pleiades. The “Heavenly Route”
(t™ien-chieh) constellation is said to be the cosmic equivalent of the frontier
lines that mark the boundary between the the Hsiung-nu and China. The
nomadic countries of the north manifest the characteristics of the yin
principle, whereas in the south there are those kingdoms that reveal the
characteristics of the yang principle.
[The Lodge of] Mao27 is called Mao-t™ou: this is the star of the Hu [i.e., the
Hsiung-nu], and presides over funerary matters.28 The Lodge of Pi29 is called
Han-ch™e, and symbolizes military engagements on the borders, it presides
over hunting with bows and arrows. [. . .] Between the Lodges of Mao and
Pi there is the T™ien-chieh [Heavenly Route] constellation; to the yin [north-
ern] side of it there are the yin countries, to its yang [southern] side there are
the yang countries [i.e., the Central States, China].30
The heavenly bodies corresponding to the Central States (in the
yang region), were the Sun, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. These were located
to the south of the Heavenly Route, and presided over by the Lodge of
Pi. In contrast, the northwest was inhabited by the peoples whose clothes
were made of felt and furs, and who used bows and arrows; this was the
yin region, the female principle associated with coldness and darkness,
whose corresponding planets were the Moon, Venus, and Mercury, located
to the north of the Heavenly Route and presided over by the Lodge of
From this analogy, whereby the inhabitants of the western and northern
lands “ described as having the stereotypical attributes of nomadic peoples
“ are identi¬ed with the yin principle, and the Chinese are identi¬ed with
the yang principle, we can also infer that, among all the foreigners that
surrounded China, the northerners occupied a special position in such a
dialectically construed China versus north polarity. Being the “yin” people,
they occupied a position that was the anthropological and historical oppo-
site to, and at the same time the complementary principle of, China™s
In Shih chi, chapter 27, the southern peoples of Yüeh, Shu, and Pa are
also assigned certain astrological values, but Ssu-ma Ch™ien does not give
to their position the same prominence as the northern nomads. The use of
the basic correlational pattern to explain the signi¬cance of the northern

One of the 28 Lunar Lodges, it is the fourth of the seven western lodges, and
corresponds to the constellation of the Pleiades.
Literally: “gatherings with white garments.” White was the color for mourning.
The Lodge of Pi corresponded to the constellation of the Hyades.
Shih chi 27, 1305“1306; Shih chi chu-yi 27, 937 (E. Chavannes, Les m©moires
historiques de Se-ma Ts™ien, 5 vols. [Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1895“1905], 3:

nomads™ relation to China is particularly evident in the historian™s
concluding remarks to chapter 27:
The Grand Historian says: From the time when people ¬rst came into exis-
tence, has there ever been a time when rulers of states have not observed the
sun, the moon and the many stars and planets? Then, since the time of the
Five Emperors and Three Dynasties, they have continued to keep records, and
have clari¬ed them. Inside there were those who wear caps and sashes; outside
there were the Yi and Ti peoples. The Central States were divided into twelve
regions. If we raise our heads, we observe phenomena in the sky, if we lower
it, we take as models the many living beings on the earth. In the sky there
are the sun and the moon, on the earth there are the yin and yang (princi-
ples). In the sky there are the Five Planets, on the earth there are the Five
Phases. In the sky we have the different Lodges, on the earth regions and pre-
fectures. The Brilliant Triad [i.e., the Sun, Moon and Stars] are the vital
essence of the yin and yang (combination); the origin of this energy is on the
earth; the wise man unites and harmonizes them.31
By fully integrating the Yi and the Ti at one end of the binary combina-
tions that were thought to form the cosmic patterns of a dialectically con-
ceived universe, Ssu-ma Ch™ien guaranteed these foreign peoples a perennial
place within the cosmology and history of China.

Formulation of Prognostications Involving
Northern Peoples

In the Shih chi, the correlation between heavenly bodies and foreign peoples
found an application also in the area of astrological predictions. The move-
ment of the planet Venus, which presided over war and con¬‚icts, was
thought to affect the relationship between the northern peoples and China.
The movements and relative positions of the stars of the Northern Palace
were also linked, on the human plane, to foreign wars and military expe-
ditions, while the position of Venus in the sky was thought to in¬‚uence the
relative strength of the opposite armies, thus allowing prognostications
to be made as to the likely outcome of a military encounter between the
nomads and China.
When it [Venus] appears in the west and it is proceeding towards the east,
this is auspicious for the western countries; if it appears in the east going west,
this is a good omen for the eastern countries. If Venus appears in the west
and misses its ordinary course, then the foreign countries will be defeated. If
it appears in the east and loses its regular course, then China will be defeated.
If it appears in the west at dusk on the yin [i.e., northern] side, then the yin
[northern] soldiers will be strong. If it appears at the time of the evening

Shih chi 27, 1343; Shih chi chu-yi 27, 954 (Chavannes, M©m. hist., 3: 401).

meal, they will be a bit weaker. At midnight they will reach the point of
medium weakness, and at day-break they will reach their maximum weak-
ness; this is the time when it is said that the yin principle is subdued by the
yang. If Venus appears in the east during the day on the yang side, then
the yang soldiers shall be strong; if it appears at the chant of the rooster
they will be a bit weaker; at midnight they reach the point of medium weak-
ness, and dusk is the time of their maximum weakness; this is when it is said
that the yang principle is subdued by the yin. If Venus is hidden [below the
Equator line] and soldiers are sent out [on an expedition], the troops will
meet with disaster. If it appears to the south of the Lodge of Mao,32 then the
South will vanquish the North. If it appears to the north of Mao then the
North will vanquish the South; if it appears exactly in Mao, then the eastern
countries will pro¬t. If Venus appears to the north of yu,33 the North
will defeat the South; if it appears to the south of yu, the South will defeat
the North; if it appears exactly in yu, then the western countries will be

It is by no means surprising that Ssu-ma Ch™ien, in his capacity as astrologer,
applied the principles of correlative cosmology to make historical agents
part of universal patterns of interaction. Because correlative thought is
based on the belief that celestial phenomena affect events on earth, knowl-
edge about correspondences involving Inner Asia was also supposed to
provide guidance in matters such as military campaigns against the for-
eigners. For instance, Mercury was the planet associated with the Man-Yi
peoples “ a generic literary term for foreigners that could include also the
Hsiung-nu. In Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s treatise the position of Mercury determined
the course of the war between Chinese and foreign armies; according to it,
soldiers were mobilized, advanced, or withdrawn, and battles were won
or lost:35

When Mercury appears in the east, and it is large and white, if troops have
been sent abroad, they should be recalled. If it remains constantly in the east,
and its color is red, China will be victorious; if it appears in the west and its
color is red, then the foreign countries will be victorious. If there are no troops
abroad and it is red, then soldiers should be mobilized. If it appears in the
east in conjunction with Venus, and they are both red and emit rays, foreign
countries will suffer a great defeat, and China will win. If it appears in the
east in conjunction with Venus, and they are both red and radiant, foreign
countries will bene¬t. When the ¬ve planets stay in one half of the sky, and

In the twelve branch system mao corresponds to the east.
Yu is also one of the twelve branches, and represents the west.
Shih chi 27, 1326; Shih chi chu-yi 27, 944“45 (Chavannes, M©m. hist., 3:
For the association between Mercury and the Man-Yi, see Shih chi 27, 1330; Shih
chi chu-yi 27, 947.


gather on the eastern side, China shall triumph; if they gather on the western
side, foreign countries will gain the upper hand in war.36
In actual war situations, military commanders did not take much notice of
these astrological matters, but it is possible that astrological criteria were
observed when choosing an auspicious day to start a campaign or that they
were invoked to justify the outcome of a given event.
Some of Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s notions of correlations between heaven and
earth show archaic elements of the mythical geography discussed earlier,
such as the fen-yeh system of correlation between portions of the sky and
corresponding regions on the earth. Ssu-ma Ch™ien expanded this system “
which during the Eastern Chou included only the Chinese states “ to encom-
pass foreign areas, and in particular the lands of nomadic peoples, as can
be seen in the following passage:
After Ch™in annexed the three states of Chin, Yen and Tai, all that extended
to the south of the Yellow River and Han-shan became the Kingdom of the
Middle, which is situated in the south-eastern part of [the land] within the
Four Seas; this [region] belongs to the yang principle. The yang corresponds
to the Sun, and to Jupiter, Mars and Saturn; prognostications are made when
these [heavenly bodies] appear to the south of the T™ien-chieh [Heavenly
Route] constellation. The Lodge of Pi presides over it. The north-western part
[of the land within the Four Seas] is the region of the Hu, Mo, Yüeh-chih
and of all other peoples who wear felt and furs and draw the bow; it belongs
to the yin principle, which corresponds to the Moon, Venus and Mercury.
Prognostications are made when these [heavenly bodies] appear to the north
of the T™ien-chieh constellation; the Lodge of Mao presides over it. There-
fore, the mountain chains and the rivers are orientated on a north-eastern
gradient, and their system is such that their ˜head™ is located in the regions
of Lung and Shu, and their tails enters Po-hai and Chieh-shih. Therefore,
again making prognostications based on Venus [for the time when] Ch™in and
Chin excelled in warfare, [we ¬nd that] Venus presided over the Central
States. Conversely, if we take the time when the Hu and Mo made frequent
incursions, and make prognostications based on Saturn, we ¬nd that Saturn
appears and disappears in a restless and rapid manner, and often dominates
[the actions of] foreign peoples. These are the general rules.37
The extension of those categories to new political and historical circum-
stances is also present in another passage referring to divination based on
the shape of clouds:
The clouds that represent the northern peoples are similar to herds of animals
and tents; the clouds that represent the southern foreigners have the shape of
boats and square sails.38

Shih chi 27, 1328; Shih chi chu-yi 27, 946 (Chavannes, M©m. hist., 3: 380“81).
Shih chi 27, 1347; Shih chi chu-yi 27, 956 (Chavannes, M©m. hist., 3: 405“406).
Shih chi 27, 1338; Shih chi chu-yi 27, 951 (Chavannes, M©m. hist., 3: 395).


To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence that northern peoples
(and foreign peoples in general) were the subject of “meteorological fore-
casting” of the type just quoted in any of the works that Ssu-ma Ch™ien
may have used as sources for chapter 27, although the observation of the
clouds as a means of prediction was known before Ssu-ma Ch™ien. However,
one of the Warring States astrological manuscripts excavated at Ma-wang-
tui clearly shows that clouds were associated with a historical “space” that
did not include foreign peoples. In this particular source analogies are estab-
lished with Chinese states such as Chao, Han, and Wei, and predictions,
such as the one relative to the battle between Wu and Ch™u, remain con-
¬ned to the wars among Chinese states.39
In the Tso-chuan, the appearance of comets is also used to formulate
political predictions, but these predictions are strictly limited to the Chinese
geographical and political sphere.40 Although we cannot exclude the possi-
bility that texts now lost may have already applied astrological forecasting
to foreign peoples, at the present state of research, it appears that Ssu-ma
Ch™ien was the ¬rst astrologer to have crossed the boundaries of the Chinese
political and cultural sphere to include the non-Chinese, and the northern
nomads in particular, in the correlative cosmological apparatus.
Besides the essential shift to the inclusion of foreigners within the system
of astral correspondences, Ssu-ma Ch™ien also presents speci¬c cases of
prognostications related to Inner Asia, linked with astronomical and natural
phenomena. Although rare, these occurrences make it clear that the histo-
rian employs the “prescriptive” approach to Inner Asia to explain or justify
certain events. In this way, the defeats and the victories that had dotted the
history of the relations between China and Inner Asia since the foundation
of the empire, and in particular the extensive campaigns launched by Han
Wu-ti, could be reported by the historian in terms that were acceptable to
the intellectual elite of his age. The following passages are representative of
this method.
The ¬rst summarizes the relationship between China and Inner Asia from
the time of Ch™in Shih-huang-ti to the Han conquest of Ferghana:
At the time of Ch™in Shih Huang in ¬fteen years there were four sightings of
comets; the longest lasted eighty days, and it was so long that it appeared
across the entire length of the sky. After that, by force of arms, Ch™in
destroyed the six kings and uni¬ed the central states, and abroad expelled the
four foreign nations. [. . .] When the Han rose to power the Five Planets
appeared in conjunction in the Lodge of Tung-ching. At the time when Han
Kao-tsu was surrounded (by the Hsiung-nu) at P™ing-ch™eng, a lunar halo

Ku, T™ien-fu. “A Summary of the Contents of the Ma-wang-tui Silk-Scroll Book
˜Assorted Astronomical and Meteorological Prognostications,™ ” Chinese Studies
in Archaeology, 1 (1979): 61“62.
Tso-chuan (Chao 17), p. 1390 (Legge, The Ch™un Ts™ew, p. 668).

enveloped the Lodges of Shen and Pi in seven layers. [. . .] During the yüan-
kuang (134“129 b.c.) and the yüan-shou (122“117 b.c.) reign periods [of
Han Wu-ti], the Banner of Ch™ih-yu appeared twice; it was so large as to
cover half of the sky. After this the imperial armies were sent out four times,
punitive expeditions against Yi and Ti lasted many years, and the wars
against the Hsiung-nu were very ¬erce. At the time of the demise of the
state of Yüeh (112 b.c.) Mars had entered the Dipper; when Ch™ao-hsien
was subjugated (109 b.c.) a comet appeared on the defensive line along
the Yellow River. When our armies conquered Ta-yüan (104“101 b.c.) a
comet appeared in Chao-yao. These were all clearly visible great celestial
The next passage refers to the perceived relationship between Wen-ti™s
disregard of his duties, and the occurrence of new disturbances with the
Hsiung-nu. Evidently Ssu-ma Ch™ien interpreted the Hsiung-nu invasion as
a consequence of a series of events whose connection was not logical, but
ideological. It was Wen-ti™s neglectful behavior toward the proper conduct
of rites that created a disruption in the order of things that then “caused”
the event. The relationship between “cause” and “effect” is established by
mentioning the two facts next to each other, but the event of the Hsiung-
nu invasion is not meant as a “historical record” per se, but as evidence of
the incorrect behavior of the emperor, a line of reasoning based on the Con-
fucian dogma of the proper handling of rites.
From this point on [i.e., after the execution of Hsin-yüan P™ing], Emperor
Wen neglected matters concerning changing the calendar system and the color
of garments, and making sacri¬ces to the spirits. He sent sacri¬cial of¬cials
to administer [the temples and the altars of] the Five Emperors at Wei-yang
and Ch™ang-men, and to perform the rites on prescribed occasions, but he
himself did not go.42 The following year, the Hsiung-nu invaded the borders
several times, and troops were mobilized for garrison and defense duties. In
the last years [of his reign] the harvest was often poor.43
A “classic” example of association between a historical event and the
observation of a heavenly “anomaly” is the following:
On the day hsin-hai of the seventh month [of the year 144 b.c.] there was
an eclipse of the sun. In the eighth month the Hsiung-nu invaded Shang

Shih chi 27, 1348“49; Shih chi chu-yi 27, 957 (Chavannes, M©m. hist., 3:
The term for “sacri¬cial of¬cials” is tz™u kuan. I assume it refers to the tz™u-ssu
of¬cials. See Charles Hucker, A Dictionary of Of¬cial Titles in Imperial China
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), n. 7570.


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