Episode 3 Early Nomads and China
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)
Dr Kenneth Harl
Jade burial ornaments imported from the Tarim Basin* are the earliest evidence of contact between steppes nomads and the Xua (2205-1766 BC) and Shang (1766-1122 BC) Dynasty. The discovery of spoked wheels and light chariots from this period also suggests contact with steppes nomads. Harl supports the theory that copper and bronze technology spread from Mesopotamia to China via steppes nomads.
Following the invention of the composite bow around 1000 BC, steppes nomads made repeated raids on China’s settled cities to seize luxury goods and other booty. As early as 600 BC, the independent Chinese kingdoms began building walls to discourage nomad incursions.
With the unification of the Xiongnu confederacy under the first major steppe conqueror Modu Chanyu (234-174 BC), the first Qin dynasty emperor Shi Huangdi 221-210 BC undertook the first serious military campaign against the Xiongu nomads. After leading an expedition driving the Xiongu into the Gobi Desert, General Mang Tieng successfully claimed a handful of frontier territories for the emperor. However lacking horses strong enough to pursue nomad horsemen further north, the Chinese settled for strengthen their frontier fortification (with more walls).
The first Han emperor Gaozu (202 – 195 BC) was the first to pursue an (unsuccessful) campaign to capture nomad territory for the Chinese. In the end, he resorted to the so-called “Five Baits” strategy. This involved a system of elaborate gifts
- Fine food “to corrupt their mouths”
- Clothes and carriages “to corrupt their eyes”
- Music and women “to corrupt their ears
- Lofting buildings, granaries and slaves “to corrupt their stomach
- Wine and food “to corrupt their mind”
According to Harl, the actual gifts mainly consisted of silks, gold and Chinese princesses for the Xiongnu to marry.
The Chinese benefited from this trade through the horses they received from the Xiongnu and collaboration with the nomads on developing the Silk Road trade.
After the Xiongu escalated their demands and escalated their raids, a later Han emperor launched a new series of military campaigns against them (140 -87 BC).
*The Tarim Basin, also known as the Taklaman Desert, is currently part of China’s Uyghur Autonomous Region. It was formally annexed by China in the 18th century.