The Hu Peoples

The nomadic horse-riders of the northern steppes are first mentioned in fourth century BCE historical records, and were given the name Hu, a word that is derived from the Chinese character for "meat" (rou). Those that lived furthest to the east were called the Eastern Hu by these Late Zhou dynasty scribes. By third century BCE the Hu had developed a sophisticated bronze-age culture. Bone artifacts etched with drawings demonstrate that the Hu used chariots, bow and arrow, and hunted with dogs. Their interest in trading with (as well as raiding) the southern Chinese kingdoms influenced their own tastes; they were particularly interested in Zhou bronze vessels, and made imitations of their own. Furthermore, Hu objects (such as a dagger decorated with a ram's head) have been discovered in archaeological digs in Xia and Shang cultural sites, indicating trade (or at least exchange of material culture) flowed in both directions. The Hu were the ancestors of such peoples as the Xianbei, the Khitan and the Mongols, and for this reason they played an important role in the early exchanges of goods and technology in Northern and Western China.

The Eastern Hu play more prominent roles in Chinese early dynastic records than other Hu groups, but rather than a single, unified culture, it is more accurate to think of the Eastern Hu as a loosely associated confederation of nomadic peoples. Yet this less cohesive political organization did not decrease the military threat the Eastern Hu peoples posed to the Zhou emperors to the south. On the contrary, their battle prowess made them a powerful force for the Zhou emperors to reckon with. As Adam Kessler remarks, the various rulers of China during the Warring States period often undertook unusual measures to manage this threat. "For example," writes Kessler, "during the Warring States era, when the Yen state that occupied northern Hebei was constantly suffering the raids of the northerners, the Yen general Qin Kai became a political hostage of the Eastern Hu, who held him in high esteem. After learning as much as he could about his captors, Qin Kai escaped back to Yen and led a massive campaign against the Eastern Hu, which forced them far north into Inner Mongolia. To ward off future incursions, the Yen subsequently built a section of the Great Wall that began north of modern Zhangjiakou in Hebei and extended east across portions of Inner Mongolia and Leaning and Jillian provinces."1

It is a common misconception that the Great Wall was originally created in defense against raiders from the north and east, such as the Eastern Hu. In fact, the Great Wall was not conceived to serve this function until the Qin dynasty, when sections were added to existing walls as described by Kessler. Thomas Barfield explains that states prior to the Qin had long practiced the construction of walls to delineate political boundaries shared with other states. The expansion of the Qin Empire rendered the lesser walls superfluous, but the Hu incursions gave the Qin a reason to fortify the northern-most barrier. It is from this time that the Great Wall was interpreted as fulfilling a military function rather than strictly a political one 2, though the efforts to keep raiders out through the building of fortifications were unsuccessful. The Eastern Hu continued to carry out raids and demand tribute, until they were ultimately undone by another coalition of nomads, the Xiongnu.

Similar cultural patterns between the Hu and other nomadic peoples in Eastern and Central Asia, such as the Sakas, have led some scholars to theorize a common origin for all nomads of the Eurasian steppes. Textual evidence is also extant, such as Herodotus' mention of an Asian homeland for the Scythians, as the Sakas were known to the Greeks. Linguistic differences aside, at the very least similar social organization and leadership systems, similar artistic styles (particularly the preference for animal motifs, especially rams), and similar horse trappings and weapons point to a long history of cultural and material exchange between Central and East Asian nomadic peoples prior to the fourth century BCE.

(1) Adam T. Kessler, Empires Beyond the Great Wall: The Heritage of Genghis Khan. Los Angeles: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (1993), p. 44.

(2) Thomas J. Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell Inc. (1989), p. 32.