. 7
( 15)



sent to the army camps to provide for the salaries of the soldiers. Every day
he killed several cows to feed his soldiers, he taught his soldiers to shoot
arrows and ride horses, and he carefully maintained the beacon towers. He
issued a regulation that said: “If the Hsiung-nu invade the border to plunder,
you must quickly enter the forti¬cations, and unauthorized capturing of
enemies will be punished by decapitation.” Every time the Hsiung-nu invaded,
the soldiers lit the beacon ¬res, and afterwards ran for protection into the
fort, and not daring to engage in battle. After having gone on in this fashion
for a few years, still there were no casualties or losses. However, the Hsiung-
nu thought that Li Mu was a coward, and even the soldiers sent by Chao to
protect the border thought that their general was a coward. The King of Chao
blamed Li Mu and sent another person to replace him as commander. Over
a year later, every time the Hsiung-nu invaded the borders, the new general
led the soldiers into an attack. Every time they went out to battle, they suf-
fered many setbacks and had many people killed or injured. Therefore they
could not cultivate the land or raise animals on the border. Therefore the King
of Chao once again sent for Li Mu. Li Mu would not go, insisting that he
was ill. The king forced him to come, and then sent him to lead the army. Li
Mu said: “If the great king certainly wants to appoint me, then he should let
me use my former method, then I will dare receive the order.” The King
allowed it. When Li Mu arrived at the border, he followed the old arrange-
ment. For several years the Hsiung-nu did not get anything, but the people
continued to believe that Li Mu was a coward. The rewards that the border
soldiers used to get were no longer available, and all of them wanted to
¬ght the Hsiung-nu. Li Mu then prepared a large army that consisted of 1,300
war chariots, 13,000 cavalry, 50,000 picked infantry and 100,000 expert
archers. With the full army he carried out military exercises. Then he scat-
tered this large force around the pastures and the countryside. The Hsiung-
nu ¬rst sent a small contingent to raid the border, and Li Mu pretended to
be defeated, and abandoned to the Hsiung-nu a few thousand men. The shan-
yü [title for the chief of the Hsiung-nu] heard of this and then sent a large
force to invade [Chao]. Li Mu with his large array of troops, divided into
two armies, from right and left encircled and beat the Hsiung-nu, and in¬‚icted
a great defeat on them, killing hundreds of thousands of men and horses. Fol-
lowing this, he exterminated the Tan Lan, defeated the Tung Hu, forced the
Lin Hu to surrender, and made the shan-yü ¬‚ee far away. Ten years after
this, the Hsiung-nu still did not dare come close to the cities on the border
of Chao.57
The events related to Li Mu™s military management of the frontier illus-
trate two points. First, Chao was continuing in its attempt to expand its
northern borders; and second, the defense of the border against the nomads
was becoming a more serious affair, requiring ever-larger resources. The
soldiers™ impatience with Li Mu™s defensive approach can be interpreted, in

Shih chi 81, 2249“5; Shih chi chu-yi 81, 1895; see also Shih chi chu-yi 81,

my view, as evidence of an interest of the Chao troops in advancing further
into nomadic lands, or at least in plundering their territory. Otherwise
the accusation of cowardly behavior would be dif¬cult to justify in a
military tradition that placed a premium on the preservation of one™s own
forces if no bene¬t could be reaped by attacking the enemy. Moreover,
looking at the array of forces mobilized by Li Mu to ¬ght the Hsiung-nu,
it seems that the nomads were able by this time to concentrate their troops
in fairly sizable numbers. These attacks allegedly were directed against the
border cities of Chao, and the reason for those raids could be to pro¬t from
plunder or to recover lost territory, or both. It is possible that by its con-
centrating a large number of troops on the northern border Chao™s ability
to ¬ght against other Central Plain states became seriously handicapped. At
the same time, it shows that the Hsiung-nu were closest to the Chinese
borders and were bearing the brunt of Chao™s expansion. Li Mu™s punitive
action was not directed exclusively against the Hsiung-nu, but eventually
reached other nomads in the area, presumably located farther from the
Like Chao, the state of Yen also had substantial contacts with the
northern nomads, leading to the appearance of military people who spe-
cialized in warfare against the nomads. This applies to a Yen general named
Ch™in K™ai, who was sent as hostage to the nomads. The nomads are said
to have placed (or rather misplaced) their trust in him. During his captiv-
ity he learned their ways, and, as soon as he returned to Yen, he led an
attack on the Tung Hu that is said to have driven them back for a thou-
sand li.58
By the mid-third century b.c. the Hsiung-nu had become an important
element in Central Plain politics. This passage, found in the Chan-kuo ts™e,
refers to the reign of King Hsi, the last ruler of Yen (254“222 b.c.):
Your Highness [Prince Tan of Yen] must banish General Fan to the Hsiung-
nu so that he would be killed. Then I beg that in the west you make a treaty
with the Three Chin, in the south you ally with Ch™i and Ch™u and in the
north you come to term with the ch™an-yü.59
Recognized as a regional power, the Hsiung-nu were conducting regular
foreign relations with the Chinese states, characterized by hostage
exchanges, alliances, treaties, and occasional wars. This type of relations is
closely reminiscent of the system operating in the past between the Chou
and the Ti, Jung, and other foreigners and suggests that the quality of
Central States™ foreign relations vis-à-vis the north was not affected
too deeply by the fact that these new neighbors were pastoral nomads

Cf. B. Watson, Records, 2: 133. Watson translates chü hu as “to guard against
the attacks of the barbarians.”
Chan Kuo Ts™e, 31 (Yen 3), 1129 (Crump, Chan-Kuo Ts™e, 553).


rather than the probably semi-sedentary northerners of old (although the
hu must have been recognized as the more accomplished soldier). Relations
along the northern frontier during the late Warring States period bore little
resemblance to the relations that developed between Hsiung-nu and Han
after the uni¬cation of China, when the Chinese sent goods in tribute to
the Hsiung-nu under the “paci¬cation” policy known as ho-ch™in (see
Chapter 5).

Conclusion: Con¬guring the Northern Walls in Late
Warring States History

During the Spring and Autumn period the relationship between Chou
and non-Chou peoples was characterized by two parallel tendencies:
seeking expansion into the territory of Jung and Ti, and using Jung and
Ti either as allies or as additional troops in the struggle against other
Chou states. In the course of this process several northern states of the
Jung and Ti were assimilated. Some others, however, continued their
existence into the Warring States period (403“221 b.c.). The most impor-
tant feature in the history of the northern frontier at this time are the
instances of direct contact between Chou states and nomadic peoples,
resulting from the disappearance of the Jung and Ti peoples as an inde-
pendent force caused by the conquest wars waged by the Chou states
against them and also possibly by the expansion of nomadic polities in
the north.
The Great Wall has been cast, correctly, as marking a new phase “ a
new plateau “ in the history of the northern frontier. However, this
phase is often understood as one of worsening tensions between nomads
and agriculturalists deriving from the expansion and strengthening of
the nomadic economy and society in the north. Contrary to this view, I
have argued that the walls™ presence in the northern regions is consistent
with a pattern of steady territorial growth by the states of Yen, Chao, and
Ch™in, which adopted a defense technology developed among the Central
States to expand into the lands of nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples
and then to fence off the conquered territory from other nomadic people
who either had been displaced or had grown aggressive because of the
military presence of Chinese states in these regions. The walls were part of
an overall expansionist strategy by Chinese northern states meant to
support and protect their political and economic penetration into areas
thus far alien to the Chou world. This is consistent not only with the general
trends in relations with foreign peoples as they developed through
the Spring and Autumn period but also with the political, economic,
and military imperatives facing the Central States in the late fourth
century b.c.

The “narrative” of the genesis of the northern walls formulated here,
based on the discussion of various forms of evidence, forces us to recon-
sider the argument often brought to bear to illustrate the nature of the
early relations between the nomads and Chinese. This is, in brief, the theory
that the nomadic economy was dependent upon Chinese production and
that nomads “traded and raided” to counterbalance this de¬ciency. Being
exclusively reliant on animal products and unable to produce themselves
an adequate source of carbohydrates, the nomads had to procure cereals
by gaining access to resources outside their productive base. From this
point of view, then, the quality and depth of the nomads™ historical rela-
tions with the agriculturalists is explained as determined by their degree of
“need” and by their ability to exchange pastoral products for agricultural
ones. Naturally, this theory leads to the assumption that there was an
economic frontier that in time became political and highly militarized, as
the nomads had to exert pressure to extract cereals from their sedentary
In ancient nomadic societies, however, such as the Scythians of the Pontic
Steppes, it is clear that, where ecological conditions allowed them, nomads
incorporated cultivators within their own society. The nomadic aristocracy
formed a privileged stratum that appropriated part of the agricultural rev-
enues by political rather than commercial means. Nomads could also trade
with communities other than the Chinese states. From the archaeological
remains it is clear that farming continued to be practiced in northern China
outside the political control of the northern states, thus making the notion
that nomads and agriculturalists were divided by sharply demarcated eco-
nomic lines (defended by the walls) impossible to sustain.
In his investigation of the origin of the “great wall,” Waldron ¬nds this
theory a useful fulcrum to explain why the pre-imperial Chinese states
needed protection. But to the extent that the Chinese sources that refer
explicitly to the building of the walls do not mention it as protection against
nomadic attacks, this theory in the end rests uniquely on a series of hypo-
thetical links “the need for cereals triggering nomadic incursions leading to
the need for defences” that simply cannot be endorsed on the basis of the
available evidence. Neither the adoption of mounted archery and cavalry
nor the building of walls can be automatically taken as evidence of an
aggressive nomadic pressure against China. The wall building undertaken
by Yen took place when the state was economically and politically at the
height of its power, and the state of Chao started to build walls in the far
north after the adoption of cavalry by its military forces. The logical
sequence that can be inferred from the historical events directly related to
the walls supports the notion that it was the military expansion by Chinese
states that led to the incorporation of new lands, driving out the nomads,
after which the walls were built and commanderies established. Only several
years after the building of walls did a Chinese state, Chao, need to defend

these borders against Hsiung-nu attacks, but these attacks are likely to have
been a reaction to a previous Chinese expansion.
Moreover, the sources yield considerable evidence that it was not the
nomads, but the Chinese states that had more interest in the commercial
development of the northern areas eventually incorporated by means of the
walls. Because these walls were built right in the middle of large stretches
of grassland used for pastoral production, it is not too great a leap of imag-
ination to assume that a possible driving force for the expansion of Chao,
for instance, was the need to acquire horses and warriors for its nascent
In addition, there is no evidence to support that the walls were protect-
ing Chinese settlements in areas traditionally inhabited by alien peoples
engaged mainly in pastoral activities. Could we assume that a massive
migration of Chinese settlers took place into these areas just before the walls
were built, so as to justify the massive investment required? There is no evi-
dence for this scenario. In fact, relations between nomads and China down
to the end of the fourth century b.c. remain fundamentally extraneous to
the historical record. The beginning of the relationship can be dated only
to the time of the military expansion. It is therefore not surprising that the
¬rst mention of the Hsiung-nu in the Chinese sources dates to the end of
the fourth century b.c. Although the degree of organization of the Hsiung-
nu at this early stage is unknown, since Chinese sources of this period give
us insuf¬cient information as to their social and political structure, it
appears that by the late fourth century b.c. the Hsiung-nu were a separate
political entity.60 Another passage from the Shuo-yüan refers to a swift
Hsiung-nu incursion below the territory of Lou-fan in the year 312 b.c.61
Although doubts have been cast on the reliability of this information,62 and
it is possible that Ssu-ma Ch™ien™s unsubstantiated statement is mistaken as
far as the Hsiung-nu™s involvement in that speci¬c episode is concerned, it
would not be anachronistic to ¬nd that nomads had begun to play a role
in Central Plain politics.
It was at this time that Chinese states began to pay attention to cavalry
and to the use of mounted warfare, although large cavalry contingents were
not being used at this time. The forts along the wall were meant to host
garrisons that controlled these still foreign areas and peoples and protected
their “tamed” inhabitants against those nomads that had been expelled. In
contrast, the argument that the walls were a protection for Chinese farming
populations against nomadic raids lacks any textual or archaeological

Ssu-ma Ch™ien records that in 318 b.c. the Hsiung-nu were part of a joint force
with Han, Chao, Wei, Yen, and Ch™i in a military campaign against Ch™in; Shih
chi 5, 207.
Shuo-yüan 1, 1a.
E. G. Pulleyblank, “The Hsiung-nu,” unpublished manuscript.

evidence. Such an understanding of the early functions of the walls has
several historical implications. First, the expedition to the north led by
Meng T™ien under Ch™in Shih Huang-ti in 215 b.c. was not a reversal from
a defensive to an offensive strategy, which is a notion that has no textual
basis but is one that we would need to endorse and somehow to explain if
we were to believe that the early function of the walls was purely defen-
sive. In fact, Ch™in™s expedition to the north was not a reversal, but a con-
tinuation of a policy of colonization and militarization of the north,
culminating in the uni¬cation of all the extended forti¬cations built earlier
Second, the thesis that the early walls had a fundamentally offensive
function provides an insight into the process of formation of the Hsiung-
nu confederacy, by making it consistent with a historical phase of increas-
ing militarization of the region where the forts were built, subsequent
strengthening of the aristocratic warrior class among the nomads, and
eventual centralization of political authority into the hands of ever more
powerful tribal chiefs. The military pressure exercised on the borders by
various Chinese generals, such as Ch™in K™ai of Yen, Li Mu of Chao, or
Meng T™ien of Ch™in, posed a territorial threat in response to which the
nomadic aristocracy was able to increase its social prestige and political
A pattern in the relations between China and the north in the late
Warring States, then, can be outlined. The northern states of Ch™in, Chao,
and Yen expanded into territory belonging to alien peoples and built forti-
¬cations as a measure of military control and to facilitate the colonization
of these areas. Continuing along this pattern, the state of Ch™in, after its
victorious reuni¬cation of the Central Plain, sent General Meng T™ien to
conquer and colonize the Ordos region. This action can be assumed to be
at the root of the formation of the Hsiung-nu empire. In the next chapter
we will examine the historical evidence concerning the rise of the founder
of the Hsiung-nu empire, Modun, and illustrate the process of state for-
mation of the earliest steppe empire in world history.

part iii
chapter five

Those Who Draw the Bow
The Rise of the Hsiung-nu Nomadic Empire
and the Political Uni¬cation of the Nomads


Before the Ch™in uni¬cation in 221 b.c., the northern states were able to
“contain” the nomads, to push them away from the borders, and to in¬‚ict
upon them resounding defeats, all without much trouble. In contrast,
having emerged from the smoldering ashes of the Ch™in, the Han dynasty
(202 b.c.“a.d. 9) was forced for decades to accept humiliating peace treaties
and, being incapable of defending the borders effectively, was subject to the
nomads™ initiative both politically and militarily. Unless the point is made
that the nomads at the time of the late Warring States period were quali-
tatively different from the Hsiung-nu of the Han period, we would have to
conclude, paradoxically, that the states of Chao and Yen were more pow-
erful and effective in their struggle against the nomads than the Han dynasty
under Kao-tsu (206“195 b.c.), Wen-ti (179“157 b.c.), or Ching-ti (156“141
Seeking a solution to the “mystery”of the ethnic origin of the Hsiung-
nu, much has been said on the linguistic af¬liation of the Hsiung-nu and
other possible indicators of their ethnicity. This debate, of which I present
a summary in the ¬rst part of this chapter, has been so far inconclusive, and
opinions as to the language and ethnicity of the Hsiung-nu remain divided.
A more promising line of investigation, based on anthropological and his-
torical questions, has concentrated on the economic and other social mech-
anisms that may have played a role in the formation of nomadic empires.
However, these explanations have often remained divorced from a close
scrutiny of the historical events.
Even though various studies have referred to the Hsiung-nu empire as a
new and different type of political organization, the standard narrative is
often con¬ned to pointing out the “threat” that the nomads constituted for

the Chinese, presenting the issue in terms of a greater nomadic force that
endangered not only the people who lived in the frontier region but even
the stability of China as a newly born empire. At the root of this manner
of portraying the history of the relations between early imperial China and
Hsiung-nu there is, as we have pointed out in Chapter 4, the common
assumption that the military confrontation was caused ¬rst of all by pil-
laging inroads into Chinese territory that periodically disrupted peaceful
relations.1 According to this interpretation, such actions in turn produced
a Chinese military reaction to stabilize the frontier zone. In consequence,
the expedition launched by the state of Ch™in into the Ordos region after
the uni¬cation of China is not understood as part of a Chinese policy of
imperial expansion, but as a measure necessary “in order to keep the
Hsiung-nu out of raiding range.”2 At the other end of the spectrum, the
argument that the Hsiung-nu had as their ultimate goal the conquest of
China, and in particular that in the process of formation of the Hsiung-nu
state the leader Modun aimed to build a state power that could ultimately
conquer China, has not gathered much support.3
The uni¬cation of the northern nomads within the Hsiung-nu empire is
a phenomenon that cannot be explained by presenting it as an extreme case
of one and the same pathology, namely, their inveterate aggressive behav-
ior. This chapter will examine the events associated with the uni¬cation of
the Hsiung-nu, aiming to establish the most plausible historical interpreta-
tion, and to formulate a more comprehensive hypothesis to explain the qual-
itative difference between the Hsiung-nu empire and the nomads of the
Warring States period, and the new relationship that developed between the
nomads and China at the beginning of the Han dynasty. Particular impor-
tance will be attached to two wide-ranging aspects of foreign politics: the
formation of a bipolar world order, and the formulation, on the Han side,
of the so-called ho-ch™in or “appeasement” policy. Although based in part
on older conceptions of foreign policy, the tributary relationship established
between China and the nomads under the aegis of ho-ch™in was a new devel-
opment in Chinese theories of foreign policy. This policy deviated dramat-
ically from previous rubrics in that it was no longer pursuant of a project
Hucker maintains that the Hsiung-nu, given the possibility, “unhesitatingly raided
the Han frontiers” (Charles Hucker, China™s Imperial Past: An Introduction to
Chinese History and Culture [Stanford: Stanford University Press], pp. 125“26);
see also J. Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1982), p. 119; Yü Ying-shih, “Han Foreign Relations,” in The Cam-
bridge History of China, vol. 1: The Ch™in and Han Empires, 221 B.C.“220 A.D.,
ed. M. Loewe and D. Twitchett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986),
p. 385.
Hucker, China™s Imperial Past, p. 45.
W. Eberhard, A History of China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977
[1960]), p. 73.


of expansion (by incorporating foreigners) or strengthening (by using for-
eigners as resources or allies) of the state. It was instead a defensive stance
whose primary link with past conceptualizations was that it too embraced
the notion of the use of a devious “stratagem” against non-equals.

The Ethnic Origin of the Hsiung-nu

The question of the ethnic origin of the Hsiung-nu has long been the subject
of heated scholarly debates.4 Attempts dating back to the nineteenth century
to identify them with peoples that appear in Greek sources, such as the
Phrynoi and Phaunoi, have led to blind alleys.5 On the basis of linguistic
evidence valiant efforts have been made to identify at least the linguistic
af¬liation of the Hsiung-nu. The identi¬cation of the Hsiung-nu with the
“Tartar” race, comprising Huns, Turks, and Mongols, goes back to the
eighteenth-century French literatus H. Deguignes.6 This theory, inspired by
the belief that the Hsiung-nu were the forebears of the very Huns who
invaded the Roman empire, survived well into the twentieth century. Hirth,
de Groot, and Shiratori all endorsed the “Turkish” equation. The ethnonym
“Ti” of the Chinese sources was taken to be an early transcription of the

In the following discussion I shall not touch on the old dispute round the rela-
tionship between Hsiung-nu and Huns. The gist of the matter is that, although
archaeological evidence and descriptions of the Huns in Western sources point
rather convincingly in the direction of an Asiatic component among the Huns,
there is no evidence that the ruling elite of the Huns, which bore Germanic names,
was related to the Asian Hsiung-nu. Whereas the names Hsiung-nu, Huna, and
Hun have been recognized to have a common linguistic basis (Paul Pelliot, “A
propos des Comans,” Journal Asiatique [1920]: 141), one must make allowance
for the fact that the name, unquestionably prestigious after ¬ve centuries of
existence as the major nomadic power in Inner Asia, might have had multiple
referents, and be equally common across Asia to designate nomads in general, or
a certain nomadic tribe or statelet, or the people who spoke a certain language
(whose identity is unknown to us), and may have been transferred to Western
Asia and Eastern Europe in the wake of the migrations that took place in the
Volkerwanderung period without a speci¬c or even approximate relationship to
the Hsiung-nu tribal chieftains and peoples of East Asia. Some of archaeological
evidence relevant to the issue of the relationship between Huns and Hsiung-nu is
exposed in Miklos Erdy, “Hun and Xiongnu Type Cauldron Finds throughout
Eurasia,” Eurasian Studies Yearbook (1995): 5“94.
Paolo Daf¬nà, Il nomadismo centrasiatico. Parte Prima (Roma: Istituto di studi
dell™India e dell™Asia orientale, 1982), pp. 87“92; cf. W. Tomaschek, “Die
Strassenzuge der Tabula Peutingeriana,” Sitzungsberichte der Wiener Akademie
der Wissenschaften, 102 (1883): 205“206.
H. Deguignes, Histoire general des Huns, des Turks, des Mongols et des autres
Tartares, 5 vols. (Paris: Desaint & Saillant, 1756“58), 2: 1“124.

name of the Turks, which of course added currency to this prevailing thesis.
The ancestors of the Hsiung-nu were identi¬ed with other peoples, too, such
as the Hsien-yün; indeed, according to Pritsak, the Hsün-yü, Hsien-yün,
Ch™üan Jung, and others all emerged from a common ethnic universe to
which the Hsiung-nu also belonged.7
Karlgren refuted the identi¬cation of Hsiung-nu with the Hsien-yün on
the basis of linguistic evidence. Haloun and Maspero denied that the tribes
of northern China, such as the Ti and Jung, were “Turkish,” and in fact
contended that the latter were more akin to the Chinese than to Altaic
peoples, a thesis later supported by Creel.8 Ligeti was the ¬rst to question
the correctness of the Altaic hypothesis for the Hsiung-nu language, and
he began to follow an alternative route that took him among the South-
Siberian languages of the Yenissei, in particular the Ostyak language.9 This
thesis has been further pursued by Pulleyblank, who in 1962 also concluded
that the Hsiung-nu spoke a language of the Yenissei group. As a result,
Altaic elements seemingly present in the language of the Hsiung-nu were
interpreted as titles that were originally Siberian words but were later bor-
rowed by the Turkic and Mongolic peoples who came to build their own
states in the steppe.10 Bailey, on the other hand, viewed the Hsiung-nu as
Iranian speakers,11 while Doerfer denied the possibility of a relationship
between the Hsiung-nu language and any other known language and
rejected in the strongest terms any connection with Turkish or Mongolian.12

Pritsak maintained that the Hsiung-nu spoke a Turkic language similar to today™s
Chuvash. The “Turkish” hypothesis is also upheld by Eberhard, Bazin, and more
cautiously, by Samolin; see Omeljan Pritsak, “Kultur und Sprache der Hunnen,”
in Festschrift Dmytro Chyzhewskyj zum 60. Geburstag (Berlin: Harrassowitz,
1954), pp. 238“49, and id., “Xun der Volksname der Hsiung-nu,” Central Asiatic
Journal 5 (1959): 27“34; W. Samolin, “Hsiung-nu, Hun, Turk,” Central Asiatic
Journal 3 (1957“58): 149“50. Bazin based his conclusions on the translation of
a Hsiung-nu Turkic fragment in Chinese script of the fourth century a.d.; see
Louis Bazin, “Une texte proto-turc du IVe siecle: le distique Hiong-nou du
˜Tsin-chou,™ ” Oriens 1 (1948): 208“19.
Herrlee Creel, The Origins of Statecraft in China, vol. 1: The Western Chou
Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 200.
L. Ligeti, “Mots de civilisation de Haute Asie en transcription chinoise,” Acta
Orientalia Hungarica 1.1 (1950): 140“88.
E. G. Pulleyblank, “Chinese and Indo-Europeans,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic
Society (1966): 9“39; “The Chinese and Their Neighbors in Prehistoric and Early
Historic Times,” in The Origins of Chinese Civilization, ed. D. N. Keightley
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 451.
Harold W. Bailey, Indo-Scythian Studies. Khotanese Texts (Cambridge: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1985), pp. 25“41.
Gerhard Doerfer, “Zur Sprache der Hunnen,” Central Asiatic Journal 17.1
(1973): 2“7.


For the time being we cannot go beyond the conclusion that the Hsiung-
nu confederation was a mixture of different ethnic and linguistic groups,
albeit one whose “kingly” language “ to the extent that it is represented in
the Chinese records “ is not currently identi¬able.
Following the tradition established by the Shih chi and later Chinese his-
tories, most scholars in China have accepted as a working hypothesis the
view that the Hsiung-nu were the descendants of a number of peoples that
appear in the early sources “ Jung, Ti, Hsien-yün, and so on “ and, at the
same time, the ancestors of the later Turks and Mongols.13 In an in¬‚uen-
tial study, Wang Kuo-wei mantained that the Kuei-fang, K™un-yi, Hsün-yü,
and Hsien-yün of the Shang and Chou periods, the Jung and Ti of the Spring
and Autumn period, and the Hu of the Warring States period all belonged
to the same ethnic group as the Hsiung-nu.14 This view, held also by Liang
Ch™i-ch™ao and several other historians of the 1930s, was not universally
accepted. Others maintained that the ancestors of the Hsiung-nu were no
different from the Chinese, and in the sixth century b.c. they established a
Hsien-yün state: Chung-shan. According to this interpretation, in 295 b.c.
when Chung-shan was destroyed by Chao, its people moved to the central
territory of Inner Mongolia and Ning-hsia, where the Hsiung-nu leader
Modun subsequently became their ch™an-yü, and formed the Hsiung-nu
confederation. The theory that the Hsiung-nu were related to the Chinese
was derived from a passage in the Shih chi, where it is said that the Hsiung-
nu were the descendants of the Hsia consort clan. However, several schol-
ars have rejected this thesis.
In an article published in 1958, Meng Wen-t™ung maintained that
Kuei-fang, Ch™üan-yi, Hun-mi, and Hsien-yün were not the real Hsiung-
nu, but were related to the Hsiung-nu™s ancestors. Huang Wen-pi also
believed that that Kuei-fang, Hun-mi, and Hsien-yün were related to the
Ch™iang family “ often classi¬ed as proto-Tibetan “ rather than to the
Hsiung-nu ethnic group and that the Lin Hu and the Lou-fan were
the only groups that gave rise to the Hsiung-nu state and constituted its
inner core.
Another group of scholars, publishing in the 1940s, was inclined to
believe that the Hsiung-nu were not a Far Eastern people, but had instead
come from the west. Along similar lines, Lin Lü-chih tried to establish an
ethnic genealogical tree that could account for all foreign peoples that
appear in the sources; his history of the relations between the foreign
peoples and China developed in six phases and culminated in the creation

The inadequacy of this view was criticized by Maenchen-Helfen, in his “Archais-
tic Names of the Hsiung-nu,” Central Asiatic Journal 6 (1961): 249“61.
The positions of Chinese scholars were summarized in J. Prus ek, Chinese Statelets

and the Northern Barbarians in the Period 1400“300 B.C. (Dordrecht: Reidel,
1971), pp. 18“26.

of the Hsiung-nu state.15 Ma Ch™ang-shou, in his work of 1962 hypothe-
sized a link between Northern Ti and Hsiung-nu.16
In his Complete History of the Hsiung-nu, Lin Kan, rather than trying
to establish ethnic and historical links between the Hsiung-nu and their
hypothetical predecessors, explains the process of formation of the Hsiung-
nu confederation within a more orthodox Marxist framework. According
to Lin, during the Warring State period certain Jung and Ti tribes united
and achieved a considerable degree of development; these people then
“entered civilization” and established the Hsiung-nu state, while those who
had been lagging behind (such as the Tung Hu) remained at a tribal stage.
The Hsiung-nu state was in the end the outcome of a basically autonomous
development of Jung and Ti tribes settled to the north and south of the
Gobi Desert, later joined by fugitives from the state of Chung-shan. Other
Jung and Ti, who had previously settled in the Yellow River plain, were
subsequently absorbed by the Chinese states. The Hsiung-nu are there-
fore conceived of as a mixed group that incorporated all peoples (Hun-
yü, Kuei-fang, Hsien-yün, Jung, Ti, and Hu) that had previously been
active north and south of the Gobi.17 As for whether the Hsiung-nu
originally formed a single tribe, Lin Kan tends to identify them more
closely with Hun-yü, Kuei-fang, and Hsien-yün on the basis of the phonetic
In discussing the ethnic identity of the Hsiung-nu, Chinese scholars, like
their Western counterparts, have also argued about the relative plausibility
of a Turkic, Mongolian, Finno-Ugrian, or Indo-European af¬liation. The
majority opinion is that they were of Mongol stock, but this point remains
controversial. Mongol scholars have long maintained that the Hsiung-nu
were proto-Mongolic people and trace the origins of the historical Mongols
back to them.19 Of¬cial historiography of the former Mongolian People™s
Republic maintained that as for “social development, customs and culture
the Huns [i.e., the Hsiung-nu] were very close to the proto-Mongolian tribes
of the Tungus group. It is quite possible that the Huns were of Mongolian
origin [sic] but that subsequently, after they seized the ˜Western Territory™
(Eastern Turkestan, Central Asia), they were largely assimilated by Turkic
Lin Lü-chih, Hsiung-nu shih (Hong Kong: Chung-hua wen-hua shih-yeh kung-
ssu, 1963), p. 17.
Ma Ch™ang-shou, Pei Ti yü Hsiung-nu (Peking: San-lien, 1962).
Lin Kan, Hsiung-nu shih-liao hui-pien, (Peking: Chung-hua, 1988), pp. 1“3.
Lin Kan, Hsiung-nu shih-liao hui-pien, p. 4.
Irincin, “Dumdatu ulus-un umaradakin-u ugsagatan nugud bolon monggolcud-un
ugsa an ijagur,” in Monggol teüke-yin tuqai ügülel-üd (Huhhot: –bör Monggol-
un Arad-un Keblel-un Qoriy-a, 1981), pp. 4“12.
Ye Zhukov et al., History of the Mongolian People™s Republic (Moscow: Nauka,
1973), p. 72.


Early State Formation

Given that the long philological and linguistic debate has remained incon-
clusive, simplistic solutions that posit the Hsiung-nu as the ethnic progen-
itor of Turco-Mongol empire builders have been largely discarded, and
attention has shifted in recent years to economic and political processes.
Because the Hsiung-nu ruled over the ¬rst historically documented Inner
Asian empire, questions have been asked as to why and how the empire
came about, and whether it was really an empire, or was a state or a
confederation of tribes loosely kept together.
The autonomous evolution of nomadic society is sometimes held respon-
sible for the achievement of a level of complexity and a capacity for mass
mobilization comparable to those of an “early state.”21 A rather quaint
hypothesis was proposed by Eberhard, who envisaged three models of
nomadic societies “ Tibetan, Mongol, and Turkish “ each de¬ned by a
certain type of pastoral specialization. The most advanced of them, the
“Turkish” type, was a society divided into tribes and specialized in horse
breeding “ in contrast to the sheep and cattle specialization of the Mongol
and Tibetan models “ and was characterized by the formation of a social
and political hierarchy of tribes. These horse-breeding tribes had a migra-
tion range wider than other models, which brought them into contact
with other tribes. As a consequence, these nomads developed experienced
military and diplomatic leadership, which was in turn responsible for the
creation of the state.22 In reality, these models of separate specializations
coupled with ethnic and linguistic af¬liations cannot be tested at the level
of historical analysis.
Krader studied extensively the social structures of pastoral nomads as
well as problems of state formation, and assumed the existence of two
mutually dependent specialized societies, the agricultural and the pastoral,

For a de¬nition of the early state, see Henri J. M. Claessen, “The Early State: A
Structural Approach,” in The Early State, ed. Henri J. M. Claessen and Peter
Skalnik (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1978), pp. 533“96. Claessen divides the
early states into three types: (1) “inchoate,” characterized by dominant kin,
family, and community, a limited number of full-time specialists, vague ad hoc
taxation, and direct contacts between ruler and ruled; (2) “typical,” whereby ties
of kinship are counterbalanced by those of locality, the principles of heredity are
counterbalanced by competition and direct appointments, and non-kin of¬cials
and title holders played a leading role in government; (3) “transitional,” charac-
terized by an administrative apparatus dominated by appointed of¬cials, kinship
ties affecting only marginal aspects of government, and prerequisites for the emer-
gence of private ownership of the means of production, of a market economy,
and of overtly antagonistic classes were already found.
Wolfram Eberhard, Conquerors and Rulers (Leiden: Brill, 1952), pp. 69“72.


and of a continentwide exchange network between the two. Under this
scheme, the development of class differentiation among the nomads is
linked to the exchange of the pastoralists™ surplus for agricultural goods.
As the aristocracy controlled the exchange and exacted tribute from the
commoners, the evolution of the state proceeded from the growing gap
between these two antagonistic classes. War, plunder, and conquest are,
according to Krader, abnormal conditions resulting from the interruptions
of trade owing to a defective exchange mechanism.23 The locus of political
and social change is placed within the nomadic society™s internal ability to
generate surplus.
The attractiveness of this scheme, based on the doubtless existence of
both social classes and trade in traditional pastoral societies, tends to be
called into question as we ¬x our attention on speci¬c instances of state
formation. For instance, what was the exchange mechanism that went
wrong when Modun rose to power, and what was his role in that mecha-
nism? How was this continentwide exchange network organized? What was
the volume of exchanged goods? Why is it that at certain times restrictions
imposed on trade do not produce any military clash, whereas at other times
the openings of border markets are immediately followed by large raiding
expeditions? Can we really reduce the inhabitants of Inner Asia, divided as
they were into tribes often at war among themselves, to one large special-
ized society of animal breeders? Finally, why is it that some Eurasian steppe
nomads remained stateless?24 These questions, generated by the historical
records themselves, cannot be answered within Krader™s scheme, especially
because the economic basis of “nomadic” social and political units nor-
mally encompassed a variety of types of production, of which pastoral
production was the most important but not the only one.
This point leads us to discuss an issue already broached in Chapter 4,
namely, the hypothesis that a permanent insuf¬ciency of nomadic produc-
tion and a corresponding need for agricultural products in due course led
the nomads to form political structures functional to the extraction of these
products.25 Anthropological research shows that seldom, if ever, have
pastoral nomadic societies been able to prosper in isolation from other
economies, in particular agriculture-based ones; moreover, historical

Lawrence Krader, “The Origin of the State among the Nomads of Asia,” in The
Early State, pp. 93“107.
On this question, see Peter Golden, “The Qipcaq of Medieval Eurasia: An
Example of Medieval Adaptation in the Steppe,” in Rulers from the Steppe: State
Formation on the Eurasian Periphery, ed. Gary Seaman and Daniel Marks (Los
Angeles: Ethnographics/USC, 1991), pp. 132“57.
A survey of various theories on the causes of the nomadic invasions of sedentary
societies can be found in Hsiao Ch™i-ch™ing, “Pei-ya yu-mu min-tsu nan-ch™in ke
chung yüan-yin te chien-t™ao,” Shih-huo yüe-k™an 1.12 (1972): 1“11.


sources are rife with accounts of nomads preying upon settled peoples.
Based on these premises, this theory of “dependency” postulates that phe-
nomena of state formation are linked to the nomads™ chronic need for basic
necessities lacking in their economy.26 Because of the “non-autarchy” of
pastoral economy, nomads were forced to trade with farmers or raid them.
Raids, however, were small-scale enterprises until strong sedentary states
imposed a new order on the frontier, making it more secure. To pressure
these states into yielding to their economic demands, then, the nomads
would respond by creating their own larger political entities, managed by
a “supra-tribal” political class, responsible chie¬‚y for military expeditions,
and the management of the “extortion” from the military state. According
to this theory, the “supra-tribal” nomadic organization would then appear
as a response to the emergence of a powerful sedentary state against which
small tribal bands were powerless, and which therefore “forced” the
nomads to organize themselves into larger political unions.27
The assumption that nomads were dependent on the agricultural prod-
ucts of the Chinese presupposes a number of conditions, that is, that the
production of nomadic social units excluded subsistence farming, that an
exchange system existed between the nomads and China whereby cereals
could be obtained for pastoral products, that a surplus of agricultural
produce was available in China for trade with the nomads, and, ¬nally, that
there were no other sources of cereals available to the nomads besides
China. This type of information normally cannot be obtained from the his-
torical sources, so that it is next to impossible to calculate the number of
nomads, and their needs, on the eve of the creation of their empire. Hence,
this type of hypothesis, while it can be tested in the context of modern rela-
tions between nomadic and sedentary societies, remains speculative as an
explanation of historical phenomena.
In fact, neither the written sources nor material evidence seem to sub-
stantiate this thesis. Archaeological ¬ndings show that some degree of
farming was practiced among the nomads.28 Historical sources repeatedly
indicate that nomadic raiding parties, sometimes as large as armies, carried

Among the most eloquent contributions to this important theory see Anatoly
Khazanov, Nomads of the Outside World (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1989); Thomas Bar¬eld, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and
China (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989); Peter Golden, “Nomads and Their Sedentary
Neighbors in Pre-Cinggisid Eurasia,” Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi 7 (1987“91):
See the important contribution by Bar¬eld, expressed, for instance, in The
Perilous Frontier, p. 37.
Nicola Di Cosmo, “The Economic Basis of the Ancient Inner Asian Nomads
and Its Relationship to China,” Journal of Asian Studies 53.4 (1994): 1092“

away animals and people, not agricultural products.29 Anthropological
studies of traditional pastoral communities also reveal that not all the
people regarded as “nomadic” had the same productive basis.30 Further
anthropological evidence indicates that even in this age of economic
interdependence and ease of exchange, at least among some contemporary
Inner Asian pastoral nomads consumption of cereals is minimal, and,
although carbohydrates are of course essential to subsistence, they are com-
plementary to a diet based essentially on meat and dairy products.31 Finally,
China was by no means the only source of cereals available to the nomads,
because oasis and riverine farming existed from Manchuria to the Tarim
Basin. An integrated network of commercial and economic relations linked
together the Hsiung-nu, the city-states in the Western Regions, and the
non-Chinese agro-pastoral communities who lived within the steppe.
Centers of agricultural production and of other economic activities, includ-
ing handicraft and trade, also appear to have existed deep in Hsiung-nu
territory, far from the border with China, in northern Mongolia and Trans-
These considerations call into question the historical validity of theories
based on the premise that Inner Asian empires were created by nomads
for the purpose of forcing agriculturalists, by the sheer power of military
force (or the threat of it), to surrender products the nomads needed
or desired, namely, cereals and luxury products. In reality, no such sharp
demarcations between nomads and sedentary peoples can be drawn
when we look at the internal economy or political organization of large
“nomadic” states. Even though the core of the state may have been monop-
olized by the nomadic aristocracy, in areas ranging from imperial ideology
to government structure, military organization, and ritual practices,
nomadic and non-nomadic traditions tended to merge and to form original

Hayashi Toshio, “The Development of a Nomadic Empire: The Case of the
Ancient Türks (Tujue),” Bulletin of the Ancient Orient Museum 11 (1990):
A comparison between Khalkha, Chahar, and Daghur Mongol communities
shows economic variations that range from almost exclusive animal husbandry
to levels of integration of farming and pastoralism. See H. Vreeland, Mongol
Community and Kinship Structure (New Haven: Human Relations Area Files,
N. Shakhanova, “The System of Nourishment among the Eurasian Nomads: The
Kazakh Example,” in Ecology and Empire. Nomads in the Cultural Evolution
of the Old World, ed. Gary Seaman (Los Angeles: Ethnographics/USC, 1989),
pp. 111“17.
S. Minajev, “Les Xiongnu,” Dossiers d™Archeologie 212 (April 1996): 74“83;
A. P. Davydova and V. P. Shilov, “K voprosy o zemledelii y gunnov,” Vestnik-
drevnei istorii 2.44 (1983): 193“201.


socio-political architectures.33 While it is true that much of the history of
the relations between nomads and agriculturalists along the frontier is a
history of raids and wars, both sides tended to incorporate parts of the
other™s people, economic resources (such as land and livestock), or terri-
tory. Eventually the border zone became an area in which, no matter
whether the dominant power was China or a nomadic state, local
economies and cultures were neither purely nomadic nor purely sedentary
but a combination of both.
Finally, taking into consideration those historical cases that may show
that the nomads™ need for agricultural goods might have led to state for-
mation, we see that the Mongol conquest “ arguably the most important
example of a nomadic state “ is regarded as an anomaly, and that Türks
and Uighurs achieved predominance after a victorious rebellion against
their own nomadic overlords. The only other case left, the Hsiung-nu, does
show that their leadership imposed on China a tribute payment that
included silk, bullion, and grains, but whether the state was created for that
purpose is not demonstrable on the basis of the written sources, which
instead point to the creation of a political coalition as a reaction against
China™s invasion of the nomads™ territory.34
Another line of approach to state formation among Inner Asian peoples
has emphasized the role played by sedentary states and has regarded state
formation among the nomads as directly subordinate to the in¬‚uence of
previously established states.35 The idea that nomads developed their states
not in isolation from, but in relation to sedentary states is certainly shared
widely, though different theories stress different aspects, such as the impor-
tation of the idea of universal emperorship or the utilization of the admin-
istrative knowledge developed by sedentary states. The “sacral” nature of
emperorship and the notion of a “mandate” granted to the political leader
by a divine entity are often believed to have been borrowed from the

Among the most in¬‚uential works on the cultural-economic differences between
Khitan, Jin, and Yuan dynasties, and their bearing on “sinicization,” are the
writings by Yao Ts™ung-wu; see, for instance, Yao Ts™ung-wu hsien-sheng ch™üan-
chi, vol. 5: Liao Chin Yüan lun-wen (shang) (Taipei: Cheng-chong shu-chü,
Thomas Bar¬eld, “The Hsiung-nu Imperial Confederacy: Organization and
Foreign Policy,” Journal of Asian Studies 41.1 (November 1981): 45“61; Nobuo
Yamada, “The Formation of the Hsiung-nu Nomadic State,” Acta Orientalia
Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 36.1“3 (1982): 575“82.
This is referred to in the anthropological literature as secondary state formation.
See Barbara J. Price, “Secondary State Formation: An Explanatory Model,” in
Ronald Cohen and Elman R. Service, Origins of the State: The Anthropology of
Political Evolution (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978),
pp. 161“86.


Chinese political tradition.36 The ¬rst evidence that, among the nomads, the
notion of a king-making divine entity existed is found in Chinese sources
of the second century b.c., and refers to the Hsiung-nu term ch™eng-li, which
re¬‚ects the Turco-Mongol tengri. On the other hand, the Chinese term for
the heavenly god, “t™ien,” was introduced to China by the Chou at the time
of their conquest of the Shang (c. 1045 b.c.). The Chou themselves belonged
to a periphery that included many non-Chinese groups with whom they
may have shared elements of their belief system. Moreover, in China the
theory of “heaven™s mandate,” a form of divine legitimation of political
rule, is usually attributed to the thought of Mencius, which after all does
not come long before the appearance of the Hsiung-nu empire.37 Given the
absence of a relatively long period of sedimentation and experimentation
during which the doctrine of “Heaven™s Mandate” could have seeped
through the frontier and taken root among the nomads, it is indeed possi-
ble that the notion of a sacral sanction of political rule was an ancient belief
initially shared by both northerners and Chinese that eventually generated,
in China, a proper doctrine of Heaven™s Mandate, and, among the Hsiung-
nu, the notion of a legitimizing supernatural deity.38
Doubtless, institutions set up by Inner Asian polities for the administra-
tion of settled people were borrowed mainly from the political traditions
of China and other sedentary states. However, the issue is not as clear-cut
as it might appear at ¬rst sight. A number of Inner Asian states survived,
as states, without borrowing civil institutions from sedentary states; exam-
ples include the Hsiung-nu, the Türks, and the Uighurs. To say that they

J. J. Saunders, “The Nomad as Empire-Builder: A Comparison of the Arab and
Mongol Conquests,” in Muslims and Mongols, ed. G. W. Rice (Christchurch: Uni-
versity of Canterbury, 1977), pp. 36“66; Herbert Franke, “From Tribal Chieftain
to Universal Emperor and God: The Legitimation of the Yuan Dynasty,”
Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, philosophische- historische klasse,
sitzungsberichte 2 (1978): 1“85; Igor de Rachewiltz, “Some Remarks on the Ide-
ological Foundations of Chingis Khan™s Empire,” Papers on Far Eastern History
7 (March 1973): 21“36.
The doctrine according to which Heaven became the ultimate source of tempo-
ral authority may have acquired actual political relevance only at the time of
Wang Mang™s accession (9 a.d.). See Michael Loewe, “The Authority of the
Emperors of Ch™in and Han,” in State and Law in East Asia. Festschrift Karl
Bünger, ed. Dieter Eikemer and Herbert Franke (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz,
1981), pp. 80“111. It is interesting to note in this respect that Wang Mang™s
envoys attempted to have the ch™an-yü accept the legitimacy of Wang Mang™s rule
by invoking the t™ien-ming doctrine; see Han shu 94B, 3821. I am grateful to
Dr. Loewe for this reference.
For an identi¬cation of the Chou deity t™ien with the Turco-Mongol deity tengri,
see Shirakawa Shizuka, Kimbun tsushaku, series “Hakutsuru bijutsukan shi” 4
(1973): 184.

were not states unless they borrowed civil institutions and acquired a state
bureaucracy is a spurious argument, which is not supported by recent
research on the early state.39
The issue of civil institutions became important only when Inner Asian
states were established astride pastoral regions and sedentary areas that had
already developed a tradition of political rule and bureaucratic adminis-
tration. In several instances, although not always, the forms of administra-
tion employed by the “nomadic-type” polity in these areas were derived
from the pre-existing civil tradition. However, if we consider the Inner Asian
states to which this argument applies, such as the Khitan, Jurchen, Mongol,
and Manchu states, we ¬nd that the Khitan borrowed some essential ele-
ments of their administration, such as the use of multiple capitals, from the
conquered state of Po-hai.40 This example is emblematic of the way in which
the frequent assumptions that all civil traditions the nomads employed were
derived from the dominant civilizations “ China or Persia “ tend to obscure
an often more complex picture. The Jurchen certainly conformed more
closely to the Chinese tradition, but in many ways they also remained faith-
ful to the synchretic nomadic-sedentary model developed by the Liao. The
Mongols in China adopted models of government developed by Uighur,
Khitan, Jurchen, and Central Asian administrators, and, ¬nally, the Manchu
model of governance re¬‚ects more closely the mixed Sino-Inner Asian model
rather than any purely Chinese tradition of statecraft. In general, when insti-
tutions were in fact borrowed, this process was a critical one and depended
on the particular composition of the already formed Inner Asian state
in question. Possibly even more important is the consideration that the
borrowing occurred in a multi-cultural environment and resulted in the
formation of a speci¬c Sino“Inner Asian tradition of “mixed” institu-
tions. Hence the postulate that the administrative knowledge developed by
sedentary states was essential for the creation of Inner Asian states is only
partially true, and potentially misleading.
In conclusion, the theories mentioned so far highlight important areas
of investigation and offer precious insights into the mechanisms of state
formation whereby the relationship between nomadic polities and central
states emerge as a central factor. Yet for these theoretical schemes to be
useful, the idea that Inner Asian states developed “in relation to” sedentary

According to the typology outlined by Claessen and Skalník, these states would
fall into the “typical” category of early states; cf. Henry Claessen and Skalník,
“The Early State: Theories and Hypotheses,” The Early State, p. 23, and Claessen,
“The Early State: A Structural Approach,” The Early State, pp. 589“93.
Although Po-hai was largely settled, its civil tradition was different from that of
the Chinese. On this state, see Johannes Reckel, “Bohai: Geschichte und Kultur
eines mandschurisch-koreanischen Königreiches der Tang-Zeit,” Aetas Manjurica
5 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1995).

states needs to be substantiated with historical evidence that illustrates how
that relationship came into being.

The Rise of Modun™s Military Power

The rise of the Hsiung-nu empire unfolded in three “acts.” The ¬rst
was the conquest of the Ordos area, where the Hsiung-nu presumably
had their pasturelands, by the Ch™in general Meng T™ien. The second
was the epic, and somewhat legendary, rise of Modun to the throne of
supreme chief. The third was the institution of a centralized structure of

Act I: General Meng T™ien, the Conqueror

Meng T™ien™s expedition to the north took place in 215 b.c. The following
three passages relate the main lines of this expedition:
I. Later on Ch™in destroyed the six states, and the First Emperor sent
Meng T™ien to lead an army of one hundred thousand north to attack
the Hu, and to completely acquire the territory south of the Yellow River.
Because the Yellow River had become the [new] border, he built forty-
four walled county towns overlooking the river, and ¬lled them with
people sentenced to guard the borders. Moreover, as a means of com-
munication [he built] the Direct Road, from Chiu-yüan41 to Yün-yang.42
Then, taking advantage of mountain ravines, and cutting ditches through
the valleys, he built border defenses in order to administer this territory,
which covered ten thousand li from Lin-t™ao43 to Liao-tung, and even
extended, through the Yang Mountains44 and Pei-chia,45 beyond the
Yellow River.46

Name of a commandery and of its administrative center located to the west of
the present-day city of Pao-t™ou, in Inner Mongolia. See Chung-kuo Li-shih ti-t™u
chi. The Historical Atlas of China, ed. T™an Ch™i-hsiang [Tan Qixiang] et al.
(Peking: Ti-t™u ch™u-pan-she, 1982) 2: 5“6, 1“6.
County township, located to the northwest of present-day Ch™un-hua county, in
Shansi. Sometimes this place name is used to indicate the neighboring locality of
Kan-ch™üan (see earlier) (Chung-kuo li-shih ti-t™u chi, 2: 5“6, 4“6).
County township located in present-day Min county, in Kansu (Chung-kuo li-
shih ti-t™u chi, 2: 5“6, 4“4).
Mountain range, today the Lang Mountains in Inner Mongolia (Chung-kuo li-
shih ti-t™u chi, 2: 5“6, 1“5).
Region to the north of the Great Bend of the Yellow River (Ho-t™ao area) in Inner
Mongolia (Chung-kuo li-shih ti-t™u chi, 2: 5“6, 1“5, 6).
Shih chi 110, 2886.


II. The First Emperor then sent general Meng T™ien with an army of three
hundred thousand to the north to attack the Hu, and to invade and seize
the land south of the Yellow River.47
III. After Ch™in uni¬ed the empire, [the emperor] sent Meng T™ien to lead an
army of three hundred thousand men to the north to drive out the Jung
and the Ti, and acquire the territory south of the Yellow River. He built
long walls, and constructed forti¬cations taking advantage of passes,
according to the con¬guration of the terrain, from Lin-t™ao to Liao-tung,
stretching over a distance of more than ten thousand li. Then he crossed
the Yellow River, and took possession of the Yang Mountains, which
wind to the north like a snake.48
The attack on the nomads (hu) is explicitly mentioned in two of the pas-
sages, whereas the third refers to Jung and Ti, which in this case are simply
archaic names to refer generically to northern peoples.49 It is generally con-
ceded that the Hsiung-nu were among the “Hu,” although the absence of
any reference to them may also re¬‚ect their relative lack of power and cohe-
sion at this time. This expansion was the ¬rst deep and massive conquest
of nomadic territory by a Chinese state; although it followed the pattern
established already in the Warring States period, with the building of for-
ti¬cations and establishment of garrisons in nomadic and semi-nomadic
areas, its scale was much larger, and its effects on the Hsiung-nu probably

Act II: Modun, the Parricide

At this point we need to shift focus to the Hsiung-nu camp. The romanti-
cized story of Modun™s career and the founding of the Hsiung-nu state was

Shih chi 6, 252 (E. Chavannes, Les m©moires historiques de Se-ma Ts™ien, 5 vols.
[Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1895“1905], 2: 167).
Shih chi 88, 2565“6.
Mentioning the Jung and the Ti, and in¬‚ating the number of troops to 300,000,
can be interpreted as a classical allusion to Duke Huan of the state of Ch™i, who
acquired fame for the wars against Jung and Ti and, in particular, to the expedi-
tion he led in 663 or 662 b.c. In the Ch™un ch™iu this expedition is not reported,
and the Tso-chuan does not offer an explanation for the omission, but the episode
is condemned in the Kung Yang tradition (Kung Yang chu shu, 9, 3a). Ssu-ma
Ch™ien™s allusion may have meant to be a condemnation of Meng T™ien™s action,
which stood for authoritarian hubris and hunger for power. The two historical
characters also offered material for a triangulation that was meant to have as ulti-
mate target Han Wu-ti, also responsible for pouring enormous resources into the
conquest of the north. In the colophon of the biography of Meng T™ien, in chapter
88, Ssu-ma Ch™ien charges him with showing disregard for the distress of the
common people. See Ssu-ma Ch™ien, Statesman, Patriot and General in Ancient
China, trans. Derk Bodde (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1940), p. 62.


narrated by Ssu-ma Ch™ien. The hero, Modun, was a gifted child, but his
father, Ch™an-yü T™ou-man, wanted the son of another of his wives to
succeed him. To eliminate the competitor, he sent the young Modun to the
Wu-sun people as a hostage; then he attacked the Wu-sun, hoping that they
would kill their hostage in retribution. Modun escaped his fate and returned
to the Hsiung-nu and his father, who was impressed with his ability as a
warrior. This was to be T™ou-man™s undoing. Modun gathered a group of
warriors who were bound to remain absolutely loyal to him. To train them,
as the story goes, Modun ordered each man to shoot Modun™s favorite
horse, summarily executing any who refused; then he ordered each to shoot
Modun™s favorite wife, but again a few hesitated, a mistake they paid for
with their own lives. Once the lesson had been learned, Modun ordered his
followers to shoot his father. Apparently this time no one failed to discharge
his arrows.50 Having in this way eliminated his own father, Modun became
the ch™an-yü, and, immediately upon succeeding to the throne, proceeded
to defend the Hsiung-nu from the aggression of other nomadic tribes. His
success allowed him to create a large empire that would humiliate the Han
dynasty in 198 b.c. and, over the next few decades, impose its rule widely:
from Manchuria to northern and western Mongolia, to the Altai region, to
the Tian-shan region, and beyond. Despite the legendary and romanticized
elements in the account reported by Ssu-ma Ch™ien, to the extent that we
accept the historical existence of Modun, we cannot exclude that his rise
to power was achieved through the creation of an ef¬cient bodyguard and
the slaying of his own father.

Act III: A New Leadership

The standard narrative of the political organization of the Hsiung-nu after
the rise of Modun is given in the Shih chi. This is the ¬rst detailed account

One might be tempted to note a vague analogy with the terrorist method adopted
by Sun-tzu to train the palace women of the king of Wu, but the similarity is only
super¬cial. The execution of insubordinate soldiers by a general to enforce disci-
pline is not a particularly original idea exclusive to a single story. More impor-
tant, whereas the giggling of the palace women brings ridicule upon Sun-tzu, the
crucial aspect in Modun™s creation of his bodyguard is the preparation of his
troops for a coup d™©tat. Sun-tzu does not ask the soldiers to kill anybody dear
to him; in fact, the king of Wu requested that the lives of his concubines be spared.
In the case of Sun-tzu discipline is enforced for discipline™s sake, but the author-
ity of the king over the general is not disputed. In the case of Modun, the cre-
ation of an absolutely loyal bodyguard was part of a subversive project. On these
grounds we may discard the notion of a hypothetical derivation of Modun™s
story from Sun-tzu™s. For a translation of Sun-tzu™s story, see Ralph D. Sawyer,
The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993),
pp. 151“53.


of the political and administrative structure of an early Inner Asian nomadic
ruling elite:
[In the Hsiung-nu state] there are the Left and Right Wise Kings, Left and
Right Lu-li Kings, Left and Right Generals, Left and Right Commandants,
Left and Right Household Administrators and Left and Right Ku-tu Mar-
quises. The Hsiung-nu word for “wise” is t™u-ch™i, therefore they often refer
to the Heir Apparent as the T™u-ch™i King of the Left. Starting from the Wise
Kings of the Left and Right, down to the Household Administrators, the most
important ones [command] ten thousand horsemen, the least important a few
thousand; altogether they are referred to as the twenty-four high dignitaries
(erh-shih-ssu ta ch™en).51
Below the supreme “khan,” who was endowed with the charisma of
“divine” appointment, was an upper-aristocratic stratum. The twenty-four
ta ch™en formed a supreme political council, headed by the ch™an-yü, which
effectively ruled the empire.52 This was not a “tribal council,” but a pyra-
midal structure of “kings” and military commanders. By “kings” are meant,
as this was a common term in Han society as well, high-ranking members
of the aristocracy who had control over certain portions of the Hsiung-nu
empire, territories that were in fact appanages over which they exercised a
virtually independent rule. The other high dignitaries, such as the generals,
commandants, and household administrators, were members of the court
and held high positions, both civil and military, in the central government.
Key characteristics of the government “ the appanage system, the division
of of¬cial posts into two halves (“left” and “right,” corresponding to east
and west), the decimal military structure (e.g., units divided into tens,
hundreds, thousands, etc.), and the limited number of top-ranking com-
manders and ministers gathered in council “ are all traits that can also be
found in later Inner Asian states.
The term ta ch™en, for instance, is used in the Chinese sources to refer
to the top members of the government of the Türk (T™u-chüeh) empire (a.d.

Shih chi chu-yi 110, 2318 ff.; Shih chi 110, 2890“2.
This institution is described in detail in Omeljan Pritsak, “Die 24 Ta-ch™en. Studie
zur Geschichte des Verweltungsaufbaus der Hsiung-nu Reiche,” Oriens Extremus
1 (1954): 178“202. See also Masao Mori, “Reconsideration of the Hsiung-nu
State. A Response to Professor O. Pritsak™s Criticism,” Acta Asiatica 24 (1973):
20“34. Bar¬eld™s description is ambiguous, since he assumes the existence of three
levels, the ¬rst of which was formed by the ch™an-yü and Ku-tu marquises,
whereas the twenty-four imperial leaders formed the second tier, and the third
level was formed by a large class of indigenous tribal leaders. The ambiguity arises
from the fact that the Ku-tu marquises were not regarded to be part of the twenty-
four imperial leaders, and that there is no mention of the Lu-li kings of the right
and left, or of the wise kings of the right and left. See Bar¬eld, The Perilous
Frontier, pp. 37“38.

551“630). Of course, the T™ang chroniclers could have borrowed the term
as a rhetorical device to establish a historical analogy between Hsiung-nu
and Türks. There is proof that this was not their intent. The Hsiung-nu
were said to have had twenty-four high dignitaries, and the Türks were said
to have had twenty-eight. The numerical difference would be inconsistent
with an effort to construct a historical analogy. This difference can be
explained only as the result of speci¬c information about the Türks that
the Chinese chronicle was documenting; the similarity between the Hsiung-
nu and the Türk government structures was because of the institutional
continuity within the Inner Asian political tradition. Likewise, the decimal
structure of the army continued among the Inner Asian polities that had
grown into states, and in which the tribal armies had been replaced by a
central army.
Finally, the following passage reveals the tribal element in the Hsiung-
nu government:
The highest positions are all hereditary of¬ces. The three clans of Hu-yen,
Lan, and, more recently, Hsü-pu are their aristocratic families. [. . .] Each
group has its portion of territory [. . .] but the Wise Kings of the Left and
Right and the Lu-li Kings hold the largest [lands]; the Left and Right Ku-tu
Marquises assist in the government. Each of the twenty-four supreme chiefs
appoints his own “chiefs of thousands,” “chiefs of hundreds,” “chiefs of
tens,” subordinate vassals, ministers, commanders-in-chief, household admin-
istrators, chü-ch™ü and so on.53
Tribal and clan af¬liations were a central feature of the Inner Asian polit-
ical system. Only members of certain lineages could occupy the highest
political of¬ces, and, normally, supreme political power was regarded as
the monopoly of a single clan, that of the “charismatic” leader who uni¬ed
the many tribes into a state. Hereditary access to state positions was to
endure as an essential aspect of Inner Asian politics down to the Ch™ing
dynasty (1644“1911).

The Formation of the Hsiung-nu State
in Historical Perspective

On the basis of examples drawn from other instances of state formation
among Inner Asian peoples, the plausible details in the story of Modun™s
rise are his creation of a bodyguard, the coup d™©tat against the tribal aris-
tocracy, and the centralization of political power. Presumably, the succes-
sion struggle occurred in a moment of crisis for Hsiung-nu society, as the
expedition of Meng T™ien forced the Hsiung-nu to leave their pasturelands,

Shih chi chu-yi 110, 2318 ff.; Shih chi 110, 2890“2.

and Modun™s creation of an independent military force emerged out of the
heightened military mobilization of Hsiung-nu society, as some men took
up arms and became professional soldiers. The rise of Modun corresponded
to the centralization of power, evident in the composition of the Hsiung-nu
government, which Ssu-ma Ch™ien described in great detail.
Crisis, militarization, and centralization are concepts common to the
political process of state formation in Inner Asia history. The initial momen-
tum for “state building” often came from a challenge to the current lead-
ership at a time of economic and social crisis, followed by generalized
violence, and then by military mobilization. Eventually, under an effective
military leader, a process of political centralization occurred that would lay
the foundation for territorial and political expansion. Before we examine
this process further, and focus on the Hsiung-nu in Modun™s time, an expla-
nation of each of these stages of state formation is in order.54


Traditional pastoral societies were typically divided into kin groups
that shared a common lineage and territory, and whose smallest social unit
was the familial nucleus.55 This social organization provided the basis for
political cohesion, necessary for production, defense, migration, and war.
Social strati¬cation entailed the existence of two separate classes, the
commoners and the aristocracy. Members of the aristocracy owed their
privileged position to birth and personal qualities. Some lineages were
recognized as being endowed with higher prestige, and the top political
people usually belonged to these lineages. Social positions within the lineage
depended on inherited wealth and status, as well as on individual abilities.
The aristocracy provided leadership in the organization of large hunts and
of raids against neighboring groups (whether nomadic or settled), which
served the purpose of establishing social ranks and testing leadership
Sparse, extensive pastoral production, supplemented with hunting and
limited farming, allowed for little surplus, which was often exchanged with
neighboring communities. This economic basis left limited margins for the
formation of any class not directly involved in production; as a result, the

The following sections are based in part on Nicola Di Cosmo, “State Formation
and Periodization in Inner Asian History,” Journal of World History 10.1 (Spring
1999): 1“40.
Lawrence Krader, Social Organization of the Mongol-Turkic Pastoral Nomads
(The Hague: Mouton, 1963), pp. 316“72; Elisabeth Bacon, Obok: A Study of
Social Structure in Eurasia (New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation, 1958),
pp. 106“19.


number of members of the tribal aristocracy effectively disengaged from
direct production was, under normal circumstances, limited.56 Moreover,
pastoral nomadism is an extremely fragile economic system, and a number
of unfavorable circumstances could easily ignite an economic crisis.57 His-
torically, the delicate balance between consumption and production came
to be altered when the crisis involved more than a restricted number of
people; at these dif¬cult times entire tribes and peoples mobilized for war
or for large-scale migrations. The notion of crisis, then, is central to the
state-building process.
Crises could be of different types. In a pastoral environment a severe
winter, a drought, or an epidemic could reduce the size of their herds below
the level suf¬cient to sustain the people. Overgrazing could reduce the fer-
tility of the soil and nutritional value of the grass, thus forcing the people
to seek better land elsewhere. Economic need, however, did not automati-
cally produce political unity. On the contrary, among the tribal peoples and
chiefdoms of Inner Asia on the eve of the emergence of a state the more
common picture was one of social disaggregation, with the poorest aban-
doned to their own fate, and the more daring members of the tribe banding
together in semi-lawless associations.
Time and again the sources indicate that when large raiding parties
attacked sedentary states they took away animals and people. This need for
the very products that they were supposed to produce themselves is a pos-
sible indicator of an ongoing economic crisis. On the one hand, economic
need in general disrupts social relations; on the other hand, the breakdown
of tribal bonds allowed for a greater degree of social mobility. Leadership
ability counted more than birth or lineage, and effective leaders could prove
themselves and emerge at these times, thus becoming catalysts for new
forms of political organization.
A crisis situation could also be brought about by other causes. For
instance, tensions between ethnic groups, or between “enslaved” and
“master” tribes, could result in protracted friction, and ¬nally explode into
an all-out war. In the rebellion of the Türks against their Jou-jan overlord
(a.d. 551) and in the struggle of the Jurchen against the Khitan (1115), we
can identify two such crises. A crisis could also be ignited by an invasion
by the regular army of a sedentary state, which would occupy and settle
the land. If the established tribal leadership was unable to respond to the

According to a census carried out in Mongolia among traditional herders in 1918,
only six of the 401 families examined were considered to be members of the nobil-
ity, whereas the overwhelming majority were direct producers. See Herbert Vree-
land, Mongol Community and Kinship Structure (New Haven: Human Relations
Area Files, 1957).
On this question, see the excellent synopsis in Khazanov, Nomads of the Outside
World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 69“84.


challenge, an emergency situation would arise, thereby creating the condi-
tions for the advent of new leadership.
In a social and economic crisis the political power of the military aris-
tocracy was enhanced. Unfortunately, the beginnings of Inner Asian states
are often shrouded in mystery or covered in a thick coating of legend. But
generally the rise of new protagonists was marked by a disregard for
traditional rules of seniority, by individual ambition, by sheer military
ability, and by personal charisma. When successful, these new leaders were
able to impose a new political order by dismantling the obsolete tribal
Returning to the Hsiung-nu, at the beginning of chapter 110 Ssu-ma
Ch™ien identi¬es the “crisis” (chi) as the catalyst for political action among
the nomads, and then goes on to provide an account of the rise of Modun.
This offers textual support for the notion that the uni¬cation of the Hsiung-
nu took place in reaction to a crisis.


A key aspect of the “crisis,” in its social and political implications, was the
militarization of society. Although it is true that “nomadic-type” peoples
were all accustomed to ¬ghting, it is not true that they were constantly
engaged in war. More often, their armed con¬‚icts were limited to raiding
the camp of a traditional enemy, avenging a wrong, or stealing a wife. When
a crisis arose, however, the mobilization for war was not limited to the for-
mation of small armed bands, but meant the creation of actual tribal armies
and the proliferation of military leaders. Every male able to ¬ght became a
soldier and engaged in actual campaigns against nomadic foes or against
the regular armies of sedentary states that were much longer and more
complex than the occasional raids. When the crisis forced tribal groups to
move away from their ancestral lands, their migrations also required tightly
organized military escorts. As an example of the extent of militarization of
Inner Asian societies at certain times, it has been calculated that when
Chingis Khan rose to power the total number of adult males ¬t for mili-
tary service was no more than ¬fty to one hundred thousand, yet the
Mongol army in 1206 has been estimated at over one hundred thousand
men. If the ¬gures are even approximately correct, they suggest that prac-
tically every adult male had been drafted.58

Valery P. Alekseev, “Some Aspects of the Study of Productive Forces in the Empire
of Chengiz Khan,” in Rulers from the Steppe, p. 191; Desmond H. Martin, The
Rise of Chingis Khan and His Conquest of North China (Baltimore: The Johns


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