Ancient China at War with the Xiongu Nomads and Collapse of the Han Dynasty

Episode 10: The Han Dynasty and the Xiongu at War

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture provides excellent background on early Chinese history they never teach in school.

Harl describes how Wudi, the first Han emperor (141 – 87 BC), weary of sending tribute to the Xiongu steppes nomads,* undertook military action against them. A strong advocate of Confucian imperial expansion, Wudi also aspired to gain control of the Gansu Corridor between the steppes and the Tibetan plateau and the Tarim Basin with its rich caravan cities.**

As the Chinese infantry with their chariots and crossbows was no match for Xiongu mounted archers with composite bows, he hired Xiongu mercenaries from rebel tribes.

in 127 BC, Wudi launched the first of seven years of campaigns. He attacked the Xiongnu settlements (tent cities) centered around the trade routes to the north of China, driving the Xiongnu north into Mongolia. He then launched one campaign into the Gansu corridor and the Tarim Basin (which ultimately became the present Uighur Autonomous Area). Harl maintains the outcome fell short of true military occupation. Although the caravan cities submitted to the presence of a few Chinese garrisons and paid tribute, there was no real Chinese presence in the region for many centuries.

Wudi also made two expeditions to Ferghana (modern day Tajikistan) on the other side of the Tarim Basin, as well as exploiting a civil war between two Xiongnu brothers. This resulted in a formal Chinese alliance with the southern Xiongu tribes.

These final campaigns bankrupted the Han Empire, resulting in its collapse in 9 AD.

Wudi’s successor, an interloper named Wang Mang (9 – 25 AD), lost control of the Tarim Basin and Gansu Corridor. Han descendant Gurangwu overthrew him in 25 AD restoring the Han dynasty until 220 AD. The latter launched military campaigns into Korea, Vietnam; resumed military control of the Gansu Corridor and Tarim Basin and decimated the northern Xiongnu confederacy.

In 250 AD, Han military adventurism would cause a final collapse of the dynasty into three warring states: Wei, Shu and Wu. Wei, a strong military state owing to their regular confrontation with Xiongu nomads, would eventually reunite China. Shu was the main, seat of silk, Confucianism and power.


*Unable to conquer them militarily, previous Han emperors had prevented Xiongu raids by sending them tribute and royal brides. See How Steppes Nomads Influenced Early Chinese Civilization

**A caravan city is a city located on and deriving its prosperity from its location on a major trans-desert trade route.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5694984/5694992

How Scythian Nomads Influenced Early Greek and Persian Civilization

Episode 4 Scythians, Greeks and Persians

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture concerns the Iranian speaking nomads of the western and central Eurasian steppes. The Scythians controlled the latter from Early Iron Age (800 BC) to 300BC. The fifth century BC Greek historian Herotodus, who encountered them in the Greek colony Olbia*, was the first to write about them.

He described the Scythian federation as consisting of Inner (Royal) Scythians and Outer Dependent Tribes. According to Harl, this method of governance dates back to the Bronze Age Yamnaya Proto-Indo-European (steppe) culture (2000-1800 BC). The Royal Scythians summoned the Dependent Tribes when they went to war and also controlled the trade flowing down their rivers.

Some of the Dependent Tribes grew grain along the shore of the Black Sea, which the Royal Scythians sold it to the Greeks. Slaves and flax, timber and amber (all pilfered from from Baltic forest peoples) also featured in nomad trade with the Greeks. Greek elites were also really fond of with intricately worked Scythian jewelry and leather and woodwork. Scythian warriors also served as mercenaries to early Greek kings and successors to Alexander the Great.

These trade routes, later taken over by Turkic speaking Khazars and eventually the Mongolian Golden Horde, persisted until Russia conquered this region in the 16th century.

Herodotus describes in detail (later confirmed by archeological findings) the horse sacrifices that accompanied royal Scythian burials. Fifty horses (and riders) would be sacrificed and stuffed to accompany royal personages to the afterlife. He also describes warrior princesses (the source of the Amazon myth) who interacted freely with male warriors and princes.

The Scythians also interacted with Asia Minor and Mesopotamia from the Bronze Age on. After the Persian** king Cyrus conquered the entire Middle East in the the 6th century (see Prehistory: The Persian Empire Conquers Mesopotamia, Egypt, Libya, Kushan, the Indus Valley, and the Early Greek City States), he mounted a disastrous military expedition against them.

Alexander the Great also engaged in military skirmishes with them following his conquest of Persia. He eventually gave up trying to conquer them and set up Greek-style cities along his northern frontier to regulate their trade and collect taxes.

The Scythian federation collapsed in the third century BC, overrun by the Sarmatians. They had been pushed west by the Xiongu as they were driven west by Han Chinese armies.***


*Olbia was on the northern shore of the Russian Black Sea.

**According to Harl, the Persians were descended from Iranian-speaking nomads who moved south with their horses and their composite bows to assimilated into the settled Mesopotamian population.

***See How Steppes Nomads Influenced Eartly Chinese Civilization

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5694984/5694994

How Steppes Nomads Influenced Early Chinese Civilization

Episode 3 Early Nomads and China

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

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.

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5694984/5694990