The important early Chinese historian Sima Qian (145-90 BCE) gives us one of our earliest glimpses into the lives and culture of the people known to the Han as the Xiongnu. In his Shiji (Record of the Historian), he describes them as a pastoral nomadic people wandering in search of grazing lands for their herds of horses, cows and sheep. He also relates that the Xiongnu had no walled cities and did not engage in agriculture, and that the men were formidable warriors, trained from an early age to hunt on horseback with bow and arrow. Historical records also describe the Xiongnu as skilled charioteers, a characterization supported by the discovery of bronze chariot post filials in archeological excavations.
Originating in the northeastern Ordos region, the Xiongnu Empire was the first of its kind on the Eurasian steppe, and serves as a prototype of sorts for the many empires to follow, including that of the Mongols. The Ordos was an important gathering point for the various pastoral peoples of Inner Mongolia, and it is more accurate to describe the Xiongnu as a confederacy of these various groups rather than a single, unified culture. The founder of the Xiongnu confederation was Maodun, the son of a powerful and influential shanyu (high chieftain) among the nomads of the Ordos. After Maodun rose to the ranks of military commander he assassinated his father, and succeeded in unifying the various nomad groups under his leadership.
From 209 to 128 BCE the Xiongnu were at their most powerful. Under Maodun the confederacy established a firm power base in the Ordos, from where it began to expand in all directions. They retook the lands to the south lost to encroachment by the Qin dynasty, and absorbed the various smaller nomadic groups that roamed Inner Mongolia to the north. In the east they overwhelmed the Eastern Hu. In the west they defeated the Yuezhi (a rival coalition of nomadic peoples), driving them into Central Asia as far as northern Afghanistan. During this western campaign, the Xiongnu also took control over a number of oasis communities that had developed in the Tarim basin. The sub-commander in charge of overseeing these conquered city-states was given the title "general-in-charge-of-slaves"1, which tells us something about the Xiongnu's attitude towards those they conquered. From these agricultural communities they received grain, fruit, and animal feed, and from the nomads they enriched their herds of cattle, sheep, and most importantly, horses.
In 201 BCE, the first Han emperor Gaozu personally led his troops to the northern border in order to chastise a provincial governor who had declared independence. The governor had allied himself with the Xiongnu, and this first military encounter with the confederation of the steppes ended in humiliation for the Han. Unfamiliar with the attack-and-retreat strategy of the Xiongnu, Gaozu allowed himself to be separated from his main army, and was surrounded by the Xiongnu cavalry. Gaozu had no choice but to negotiate, and offered a settlement to win his own release.
Though the Han continued to hold the Xiongnu and their nomadic way of life in disdain ("xiongnu" is a Chinese word that translates roughly into "illegitimate offspring of slaves"), they could not ignore the very real military threat they posed to the Han Empire. To avert continued hostilities, the Han court was forced to maintain marital ties with the shanyu and offer annual tribute of silk, wines, rice and other foodstuffs.
Another Xiongnu demand that the Han were most loathe to recognize was the right to trade with Chinese communities at the frontier, for this would undermine the Han desire to keep a healthy buffer zone between the two empires. The Xiongnu countered this reluctance in the tried and true method: through raids, looting those goods that the Han court denied them purchase. Eventually the right to trade was granted, though the sale of arms and goods that could be used for military purposes was outlawed. This policy forced the Xiongnu to look to Central Asia for such as materials as iron, for which they traded many of the goods they had acquired from the Chinese. In this manner, Han trade policies with the Xiongnu were indirectly responsible for the increase in trade between East and Central Asia along the silk routes.
The Xiongnu was not only the first of the East Asian steppe empires; it was also the longest, lasting almost three hundred years. By 104 BCE the Han had reclaimed much of the northern territory they had lost a century earlier, and had driven the Xiongnu out of the west. They established military outposts as far west as Dunhuang to protect the city-states of the Tarim Basin from Xiongnu incursion, a position that also allowed them to enjoy the revenues generated by increased traffic along the trade routes. In 47 CE the Xiongnu split into northern and southern factions as a result of internal disputes. To protect themselves, the weaker Southerners asked for the protection of the Han Empire. Meanwhile, the northern Xiongnu suddenly found themselves threatened by the nomadic groups to the north, which they had previously dominated.
In 78 the Xianbei (ancestors of the Toba Wei, who would found the Wei dynasty three centuries later) attacked the northern Xiongnu. Seizing this opportunity, the Han court sent a force to join the southern Xiongnu faction to attack the Northerners. By 91 the northern Xiongnu were driven from the Ordos and fled west, their leadership dissipated.
(1) Ma Yong and Sun Yutan, "The Western Regions Under the Hsiung-nu and the Han," from History of Civilizations of Central Asia, vol. II (Paris: UNESCO Publishing), p. 228.