Xiongnu Empire


The Xiongnu (Turkish: Doğu Hun) were a confederation of nomadic tribes from Central Asia with a ruling class of unknown origin and other subjugated tribes. There is still a debate over the accurate order of command among the tribes, some sources say the ruling class was proto-Turkic, some others stand it was proto-Hunnic (see below), but the theories are far from universal acceptance in the academic world (like in the case of their language). What is known that the confederation may consisted of proto-Huns, proto-Turkic clans and other nomadic tribes such as the proto-Mongols, and more others (some sources claim the existence of 24 clans), who lived on the steppes north of China. They appear in Chinese sources from the 3rd century BC as controlling an empire (the "Asian Hun Empire" (Turkish: Asya Hun İmparatorluğu) under Modu Shanyu) stretching beyond the borders of modern day Mongolia. They were active in the areas of southern Siberia, western Manchuria and the modern Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and Xinjiang. These nomadic people were considered so dangerous and disruptive that the Qin Dynasty ordered the construction of the Great Wall to protect China from Xiongnu attacks.

The bulk of information on the Xiongnu comes from Chinese sources. What little is known of their titles and names comes from transliterations of Chinese character phoneticizations of their language. Only about 20 Xiongnu words belonging to the Altaic languages are known, and only a single Xiongnu sentence survives from the Chinese documents. Relations between early Chinese dynasties and the Xiongnu were complicated and included military conflict, exchanges of tribute and trade, and marriage treaties.

Origins and languages

The language of the Xiongnu reflects without any scholarly consensus, based on the analysis between early 19th century to 20th century different opinions were proposed; proponents of the Turkic languages included Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat, Julius Klaproth, Shiratori Kurakichi, Gustaf John Ramstedt, Annemarie von Gabain, and Omeljan Pritsak. Others, like Paul Pelliot, insisted on a Mongolic origin. Albert Terrien de Lacouperie considered them to be multi-component groups.

Lajos Ligeti was the first to suggest that the Xiongnu spoke a Yeniseian language. In the early 1960s Edwin Pulleyblank was the first to expand upon this idea with credible evidence. In 2000, Alexander Vovin reanalyzed Pulleyblank's argument and found further support for it by utilizing the most recent reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology by Starostin and Baxter and a single Chinese transcription of a sentence in the language of the Jie (a member tribe of the Xiongnu confederacy). Previous Turkic interpretations of the aforementioned sentence do not match the Chinese translation as precisely as using Yeniseian grammar.

The original geographic location of Xiongnu is generally placed at the Ordos. Recent genetics research dated 2003 confirms the studies indicating that the Turkic peoples, originated from the same area and therefore are possibly related. A majority (89%) of the Xiongnu sequences can be classified as belonging to an Asian haplogroups, and nearly 11% belong to European haplogroups. This finding indicates that the contacts between European and Asian populations were anterior to the Xiongnu culture, and it confirms results reported for two samples from an early 3rd century B.C. Scytho-Siberian population (Clisson et al. 2002). Another 2006 study observed genetic similarity among Mongolian samples from different periods and geographic areas including 2,300-year-old Xiongnu population of the Egiyn Gol Valley. This results supports the hypothesis that the succession over time of different Turkic and Mongolian tribes in the current territory of Mongolia resulted in cultural rather than genetic exchanges. Furthermore, it appears that the Yakuts probably did not find their origin among the Xiongnu tribes.

The rock art of the Yinshan and Helanshan is dated from the 9th millennium BC to 19th century. It consists mainly of engraved signs (petroglyphs) and only minimally of painted images. Ma Liqing compared the petroglyphs (which he presumed to be the sole extant example of possible Xiongnu writings), and the Orkhon script (the earliest known Turkic alphabet) recently, and argued a new connection between both of them.

Excavations conducted between 1924–1925, in Noin-Ula kurgans located in Selenga River in the northern Mongolian hills north of Ulan Bator, produced objects with over twenty carved characters, which were either identical or very similar to that of to the runic letters of the Turkic Orkhon script discovered in the Orkhon Valley.


In the 1920s, Pyotr Kozlov's excavations of the royal tombs dated to about 1st century CE at Noin-Ula in northern Mongolia provided a glimpse into the lost world of the Xiongnu. Other archaeological sites have been unearthed in Inner Mongolia and elsewhere; they represent the Neolithic and historical periods of the Xiongnu's history. Those included the Ordos culture, many of them had been identified as the Xiongnu cultures. The region was occupied predominantly by peoples showing Mongoloid features, known from their skeletal remains and artifacts. Portraits found in the Noin-Ula excavations demonstrate other cultural evidences and influences, showing that Chinese and Xiongnu art have influenced each other mutually. Some of these embroidered portraits in the Noin-Ula kurgans also depict the Xiongnu with long braided hair with wide ribbons, which are seen to be identical with the Turkic Ashina clan hair-style.

Early history

According to Sima Qian, the Xiongnu were descendants of Chunwei (淳維), possibly a son of Jie, the final ruler of the Xia Dynasty. However, while there is no direct evidence contradicting this account, there is no direct evidence supporting it either.

The Xiongnu was initially a collection of small and insignificant tribes residing in the barren area of Mongolian highlands. During the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, the campaigns by Zhou's vassal states to purge other hostile "barbarians" allowed Xiongnu the opportunity to strengthen and fill up the niche. These newly arisen nomads became a great headache for the Chinese, as their horseback lifestyle proved very efficient for rapid invasion and raiding villages and townships. During the Warring States period, three out of the seven warring states shared borders with Xiongnu, and a series of interconnected defensive fortresses were constructed, which joined later into the Great Wall.

During the Qin Dynasty, the Chinese army, under the command of General Meng Tian, drove the Xiongnu tribes away and recaptured the Henan region. The presence of the powerful Donghu in the east and Yuezhi in the west also served as restraints for the Xiongnu, forcing them to migrate further north for the next decade. With the collapse of the Qin Dynasty and the subsequent civil war, the Xiongnu, under Shanyu Toumen, was able to migrate south to border with China again.

Confederation under Modu

In 209 BC, just three years before the founding of the Han Dynasty, the Xiongnu were brought together in a powerful confederacy under a new shanyu named Modu Shanyu (known as Modu to Chinese and Mete in Turkish). The Xiongnu's political unity transformed them into a much more formidable foe by enabling them to concentrate larger forces and exercise better strategic coordination. The cause of the confederation, however, remains unclear. It has been suggested that the unification of China prompted the nomads to rally around a political centre in order to strengthen their position. Another theory is that the reorganisation was their response to the political crisis that overtook them 215 BC, when Qin armies evicted them from pastures on the Yellow River.

After forging internal unity, Modun expanded the empire on all sides. To the north he conquered a number of nomadic peoples, including the Dingling of southern Siberia. He crushed the power of the Donghu of eastern Mongolia and Manchuria, as well as the Yuezhi in the Gansu corridor (where his son Jizhu made a cup out of the skull of the Yuezhi king). He was able, moreover, to reoccupy all the lands taken by the Qin general Meng Tian. Before the death of Modun in 174 BC, the Xiongnu had driven the Yuezhi from the Gansu corridor completely, killed the Yuezhi king in the process and drank from his skull as a cup, and asserted their presence in the Western Regions in modern Xinjiang.

Nature of the Xiongnu state

Under Modun, a dualistic system of political organisation was formed. The left and right branches of the Xiongnu were divided on a regional basis. The shanyu or shan-yü — supreme ruler equivalent to the Chinese "Son of Heaven" — exercised direct authority over the central territory. The Longcheng (蘢城), near Koshu-Tsaidam in Mongolia, was established as the annual meeting place and de facto capital.

Xiongnu Hierarchy

Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) were led by a chief called shan-yü, whose full title transcribed into Chinese is Ch'eng-li Ku-t'u Shan-yü, words which the Chinese translate as "Majesty Son of Heaven". In these words may be detected Turko-Mongol roots: ch'eng-li in particular is the transcription of the Turkic and Mongol word Tängri, Heaven or God.

Under the shan-yü served "two great dignitaries, the kings t'u-ch'i": that is to say, the wise kings of the right and left, the Chinese transcription t'u-ch'i being related to the Turkish word doghri, straight, faithful. Insofar as one can speak of fixed dwellings for essentially nomadic people, the shan-yü resided on the upper Orkhon, in the mountainous region where later Karakorum, the capital of the Jengiz-Khanite Mongols, was to be established. The worthy king of the left -in principle, the heir presumptive- lived in the east, probably on the high Kerulen. The worthy king of the right lived in the west, perhaps near present day Uliassutai in the Khangai Mountains. Next, moving down the scale of the Hunnic hierarchy, came the ku-li "kings" of left and right, the army commanders of left and right, the great governors, the tung-hu, the ku-tu-all of left and right; then the chiefs of a thousand men, of a hundred, and of ten men. This nation of nomads, a people on the march, was organized like an army. The general orientation was southward, as was customary among Turko-Mongol peoples; the same phenomenon is to be seen among the descendants of the Hsiung-nu, the Turks of the sixth century A.D., as well as in the case of the Mongols of Jenghiz Khan.

The marriage treaty system

In the winter of 200 BC, following a siege of Taiyuan, Emperor Gao personally led a military campaign against Modun. At the battle of Baideng, he was ambushed reputedly by 300,000 elite Xiongnu cavalry. The emperor was cut off from supplies and reinforcements for seven days, only narrowly escaping capture.

After the defeat at Pingcheng, the Han emperor abandoned a military solution to the Xiongnu threat. Instead, in 198 BC, the courtier Liu Jing (劉敬) was dispatched for negotiations. The peace settlement eventually reached between the parties included a Han princess given in marriage to the shanyu (called heqin 和親 or "harmonious kinship"); periodic gifts of silk, liquor and rice to the Xiongnu; equal status between the states; and the Great Wall as mutual border.

This first treaty set the pattern for relations between the Han and the Xiongnu for some sixty years. Up to 135 BC, the treaty was renewed no less than nine times, with an increase of "gifts" with each subsequent agreement. In 192 BC, Modun even asked for the hand of the widowed Empress Lü. His son and successor, the energetic Jiyu (稽粥), known as the Laoshang Shanyu (老上單于), continued his father's expansionist policies. Laoshang succeeded in negotiating with Emperor Wen, terms for the maintenance of a large-scale government-sponsored market system.

While much was gained by the Xiongnu, from the Chinese perspective marriage treaties were costly, humiliating and ineffective. Laoshang showed that he did not take the peace treaty seriously. On one occasion his scouts penetrated to a point near Chang'an. In 166 BC he personally led 140,000 cavalry to invade Anding, reaching as far as the imperial retreat at Yong. In 158 BC, his successor sent 30,000 cavalry to attack the Shang commandery and another 30,000 to Yunzhong.

War with Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty made preparations for war when the Han Emperor Wu dispatched the explorer Zhang Qian to explore the mysterious kingdoms to the west and to form an alliance with the Yuezhi people in order to combat the Xiongnu. While Zhang Qian did not succeed in this mission, his reports of the west provided even greater incentive to counter the Xiongnu hold on westward routes out of China, and the Chinese prepared to mount a large scale attack using the Northern Silk Road to move men and materiel.

While Han China was making preparations for a military confrontation from the reign of Emperor Wen, the break did not come until 133 BC, following an abortive trap to ambush the shanyu at Mayi. By that point the empire was consolidated politically, militarily and economically, and was led by an adventurous pro-war faction at court. In that year, Emperor Wu reversed the decision he had made the year before to renew the peace treaty.

Full scale war broke out in autumn 129 BC, when 40,000 Chinese cavalry made a surprise attack on the Xiongnu at the border markets. In 127 BC, the Han general Wei Qing retook the Ordos. In 121 BC, the Xiongnu suffered another setback when Huo Qubing led a force of light cavalry westward out of Longxi and within six days fought his way through five Xiongnu kingdoms. The Xiongnu Hunye king was forced to surrender with 40,000 men. In 119 BC both Huo and Wei, each leading 50,000 cavalrymen and 100,000 footsoldiers, and advancing along different routes, forced the shanyu and his court to flee north of the Gobi Desert. Major logistical difficulties limited the duration and long-term continuation of these campaigns. According the analysis of Yan You (嚴尤), the difficulties were twofold. Firstly there was the problem of supplying food across long distances. Secondly, the weather in the northern Xiongnu lands was difficult for Han soldiers, who could never carry enough fuel. According to official reports, Xiongnu's side lost 80,000 to 90,000 men. And out of the 140,000 horses the Han forces had brought into the desert, fewer than 30,000 returned to China.

As a result of these battles, the Chinese controlled the strategic region from the Ordos and Gansu corridor to Lop Nor. They succeeded in separating the Xiongnu from the Qiang peoples to the south, and also gained direct access to the Western Regions.

Ban Chao, Protector General (都護; Duhu) of the Han Dynasty embarked with an army of 70,000 men in a campaign against the Xiongnu insurgents who were harassing the trade route we now know as the Silk Road. His successful military campaign saw the subjugation of one Xiongnu tribe after another, and those fleeing Xiongnu insurgents were pursued by Ban Chao's army of entirely mounted-infantry and light cavalry over an extremely vast distance westward into the territory of the Parthians and beyond the Caspian Sea, reaching the region of what is present-day Ukraine. Upon return, he established a base on the shores of the Caspian Sea, after which he reportedly also sent an envoy named Gan Ying to Daqin (Rome). Ban Chao was created the Marquess of Dingyuan (定遠侯, i.e., "the Marquess who stabilized faraway places") for his services to the Han Empire and returned to the capital Loyang at the age of 70 years old and died there in the year 102. Following his death, the power of the Xiongnu in the Western Regions increased again, and the emperors of subsequent dynasties were never again able to reach so far to the west.

Leadership struggle among the Xiongnu

As the Xiongnu empire expanded, it became clear that the original leadership structures lacked flexibility and could not maintain effective cohesion. The traditional succession of the eldest son became increasingly ineffective in meeting wartime emergencies in the 1st century BC. To combat the problems of succession, the Huhanye Shanyu (58 BC-31 BC) later laid down the rule that his heir apparent must pass the throne on to a younger brother. This pattern of fraternal succession did indeed become the norm.

The growth of regionalism became clear around this period, when local kings refused to attend the annual meetings at the shanyu's court. During this period, shanyu were forced to develop power bases in their own regions to secure the throne.

In the period 114 BC to 60 BC, the Xiongnu produced altogether seven shanyu. Two of them, Chanshilu and Huyanti, assumed the office while still children. In 60 BC, Tuqitang, the "Worthy Prince of the Right", became Wuyanjuti Shanyu. No sooner had he come to the throne, than he began to purge from power those whose base lay in the left group. Thus antagonised, in 58 BC the nobility of the left put forward Huhanye as their own shanyu. The year 57 BC saw a struggle for power among five regional groupings, each with its own shanyu. In 54 BC Huhanye abandoned his capital in the north after being defeated by his brother, the Zhizhi Shanyu.

Tributary relations with the Han

In 53 BC Huhanye (呼韓邪) decided to enter into tributary relations with Han China. The original terms insisted on by the Han court were that, first, the shanyu or his representatives should come to the capital to pay homage; secondly, the shanyu should send a hostage prince; and thirdly, the shanyu should present tribute to the Han emperor. The political status of the Xiongnu in the Chinese world order was reduced from that of a "brotherly state" to that of an "outer vassal" (外臣). During this period, however, the Xiongnu maintained political sovereignty and full territorial integrity. The Great Wall of China continued to serve as the line of demarcation between Han and Xiongnu.

Huhanye sent his son, the "wise king of the right" Shuloujutang, to the Han court as hostage. In 51 BC he personally visited Chang'an to pay homage to the emperor on the Chinese New Year. On the financial side, Huhanye was amply rewarded in large quantities of gold, cash, clothes, silk, horses and grain for his participation. Huhanye made two more homage trips, in 49 BC and 33 BC; with each one the imperial gifts were increased. On the last trip, Huhanye took the opportunity to ask to be allowed to become an imperial son-in-law. As a sign of the decline in the political status of the Xiongnu, Emperor Yuan refused, giving him instead five ladies-in-waiting. One of them was Wang Zhaojun, famed in Chinese folklore as one of the Four Beauties.

When Zhizhi learned of his brother's submission, he also sent a son to the Han court as hostage in 53 BC. Then twice, in 51 BC and 50 BC, he sent envoys to the Han court with tribute. But having failed to pay homage personally, he was never admitted to the tributary system. In 36 BC, a junior officer named Chen Tang, with the help of Gan Yanshou, protector-general of the Western Regions, assembled an expeditionary force that defeated Zhizhi and sent his head as a trophy to Chang'an.

Tributary relations were discontinued during the reign of Huduershi (AD 18-48), corresponding to the political upheavals of the Xin Dynasty in China. The Xiongnu took the opportunity to regain control of the western regions, as well as neighbouring peoples such as the Wuhuan. In AD 24, Hudershi even talked about reversing the tributary system.

Late history

Northern Xiongnu

The Xiongnu's new power was met with a policy of appeasement by Emperor Guangwu. At the height of his power, Huduershi even compared himself to his illustrious ancestor, Modu. Due to growing regionalism among the Xiongnu, however, Huduershi was never able to establish unquestioned authority. When he designated his son as heir apparent (in contravention of the principle of fraternal succession established by Huhanye), Bi, the Rizhu king of the right, refused to attend the annual meeting at the shanyu's court.

As the eldest son of the preceding shanyu, Bi had a legitimate claim to the succession. In 48, two years after Huduershi's son Punu ascended the throne, eight Xiongnu tribes in Bi's powerbase in the south, with a military force totalling 40,000 to 50,000 men, acclaimed Bi as their own shanyu. Throughout the Eastern Han period, these two groups were called the southern Xiongnu and the northern Xiongnu, respectively.

Hard pressed by the northern Xiongnu and plagued by natural calamities, Bi brought the southern Xiongnu into tributary relations with Han China in 50. The tributary system was considerably tightened to keep the southern Xiongnu under Han supervision. The shanyu was ordered to establish his court in the Meiji district of Xihe commandery. The southern Xiongnu were resettled in eight frontier commanderies. At the same time, large numbers of Chinese were forced to migrate to these commanderies, where mixed settlements began to appear. The northern Xiongnu were dispersed by the Xianbei in 85 and again in 89 by the Chinese during the Battle of Ikh Bayan, of which the last Northern Shanyu was defeated and fled over to the north west with his subjects.

Southern Xiongnu

Economically, the southern Xiongnu relied almost totally on Han assistance. Tensions were evident between the settled Chinese and practitioners of the nomadic way of life. Thus, in 94 Anguo Shanyu joined forces with newly subjugated Xiongnu from the north and started a large scale rebellion against the Han.

Towards the end of the Eastern Han, the southern Xiongnu were drawn into the rebellions then plaguing the Han court. In 188, the shanyu was murdered by some of his own subjects for agreeing to send troops to help the Han suppress a rebellion in Hebei - many of the Xiongnu feared that it would set a precedent for unending military service to the Han court. The murdered shanyu's son Yufuluo, entitled Chizhisizhu (持至尸逐侯), succeeded him, but was then overthrown by the same rebellious faction in 189. He travelled to Luoyang (the Han capital) to seek aid from the Han court, but at this time the Han court was in disorder from the clash between Grand General He Jin and the eunuchs, and the intervention of the warlord Dong Zhuo. The shanyu had no choice but to settle down with his followers in Pingyang, a city in Shanxi. In 195, he died and was succeeded by his brother Hucuquan.

In 216, the warlord-statesman Cao Cao detained Hucuquan in the city of Ye, and divided his followers in Shanxi into five divisions: left, right, south, north, and centre. This was aimed at preventing the exiled Xiongnu in Shanxi from engaging in rebellion, and also allowed Cao Cao to use the Xiongnu as auxiliaries in his cavalry. Eventually, the Xiongnu aristocracy in Shanxi changed their surname from Luanti to Liu for prestige reasons, claiming that they were related to the Han imperial clan through the old intermarriage policy.

After the Han Dynasty

After Hucuquan, the Xiongnu were partitioned into five local tribes. The complicated ethnic situation of the mixed frontier settlements instituted during the Eastern Han had grave consequences, not fully apprehended by the Chinese government until the end of the 3rd century. By 260, Liu Qubei had organized the Tiefu confederacy in the north east, and by 290, Liu Yuan was leading a splinter group in the south west. At that time, non-Chinese unrest reached alarming proportions along the whole of the Western Jin frontier.
Liu Yuan's Northern Han (304-318)
In 304 the sinicised Liu Yuan, a grandson of Yufuluo Chizhisizhu stirred up descendants of the southern Xiongnu in rebellion in Shanxi, taking advantage of the War of the Eight Princes then raging around the Western Jin capital Luoyang. Under Liu Yuan's leadership, they were joined by a large number of frontier Chinese and became known as Bei Han. Liu Yuan used 'Han' as the name of his state, hoping to tap into the lingering nostalgia for the glory of the Han dynasty, and established his capital in Pingyang. The Xiongnu use of large numbers of heavy cavalry with iron armour for both rider and horse gave them a decisive advantage over Jin armies already weakened and demoralised by three years of civil war. In 311, they captured Luoyang, and with it the Jin emperor Sima Chi (Emperor Huai). In 316, the next Jin emperor was captured in Chang'an, and the whole of north China came under Xiongnu rule while remnants of the Jin dynasty survived in the south (known to historians as the Eastern Jin).
Liu Yao's Former Zhao (318-329)
In 318, after suppressing a coup by a powerful minister in the Xiongnu-Han court (in which the Xiongnu-Han emperor and a large proportion of the aristocracy were massacred), the Xiongnu prince Liu Yao moved the Xiongnu-Han capital from Pingyang to Chang'an and renamed the dynasty as Zhao (Liu Yuan had declared the empire's name Han to create a linkage with Han Dynasty -- to which he claimed he was a descendant, through a princess, but Liu Yao felt that it was time to end the linkage with Han and explicitly restore the linkage to the great Xiongnu chanyu Maodun, and therefore decided to change the name of the state. However, this was not a break from Liu Yuan, as he continued to honor Liu Yuan and Liu Cong posthumously.) (it is hence known to historians collectively as Han Zhao). However, the eastern part of north China came under the control of a rebel Xiongnu-Han general of Jie (probably Yeniseian) ancestry named Shi Le. Liu Yao and Shi Le fought a long war until 329, when Liu Yao was captured in battle and executed. Chang'an fell to Shi Le soon after, and the Xiongnu dynasty was wiped out. North China was ruled by Shi Le's Later Zhao dynasty for the next 20 years.

However, the "Liu" Xiongnu remained active in the north for at least another century.

Tiefu & Xia (260-431)
The northern Tiefu branch of the Xiongnu gained control of the Inner Mongolian region in the 10 years between the conquest of the Tuoba Xianbei state of Dai by the Former Qin empire in 376, and its restoration in 386 as the Northern Wei. After 386, the Tiefu were gradually destroyed by or surrendered to the Tuoba, with the submitting Tiefu becoming known as the Dugu. Liu Bobo, a surviving prince of the Tiefu fled to the Ordos Loop, where he founded a state called the Xia (thus named because of the Xiongnu's supposed ancestry from the Xia dynasty) and changed his surname to Helian (赫連). The Helian-Xia state was conquered by the Northern Wei in 428-431, and the Xiongnu thenceforth effectively ceased to play a major role in Chinese history, assimilating into the Xianbei and Han ethnicities.
Juqu & Northern Liang (401-460)
The Juqu were a branch of the Xiongnu. Their leader Juqu Mengxun took over the Northern Liang by overthrowing the former puppet ruler Duan Ye. By 439, the Juqu power was destroyed by the Northern Wei. Their remnants were then settled in the city of Gaochang before being destroyed by the Rouran.

Northern Xiongnu becoming the Huns

Etymology of 匈
Preclassic Old Chinese: sŋoŋ
Classic Old Chinese: ŋ̥oŋ
Postclassic Old Chinese: hoŋ
Middle Chinese: xöuŋ
Modern Cantonese: hūng
Modern Mandarin: xiōng
Modern Sino-Korean: hyung
Modern Sino-Japanese: kyou

As in the case of the Rouran with the Avars, oversimplifications have led to the Xiongnu often being identified with the Huns, who populated the frontiers of Europe. The connection started with the writings of the eighteenth century French historian de Guignes, who noticed that a few of the barbarian tribes north of China associated with the Xiongnu had been named "Hun" with varying Chinese characters. This theory remains at the level of speculation, although it is accepted by some scholars, including Chinese ones. DNA testing of Hun remains has not proven conclusive in determining the origin of the Huns.

Linguistically, it is important to understand that "xiōngnú" is only the modern standard Mandarin pronunciation (based on the Beijing dialect) of "匈奴". At the time of Hunnish contact with the western world (the 4th–6th centuries AD), the sound of the character "匈" has been reconstructed as /hoŋ/.

The supposed sound of the first character has a clear similarity with the name "Hun" in European languages. Whether this is evidence of kinship or mere coincidence is hard to tell. It could lend credence to the theory that the Huns were in fact descendants of the Northern Xiongnu who migrated westward, or that the Huns were using a name borrowed from the Northern Xiongnu, or that these Xiongnu made up part of the Hun confederation.

The traditional etymology of "匈" is that it is as pictogram of the facial features of one of these people, wearing a helmet, with the "x" under the helmet representing the scars they inflicted on their faces to frighten their enemies. However, there is no actual evidence for this interpretation.

In modern Chinese, the character "匈" is used in four ways: to mean "chest" (written 胸 in this sense as the set of Chinese characters evolves), in the name 匈奴 Xiōngnú "Xiongnu", in the word 匈人 Xiōngrén "Hun [person]", and in the name 匈牙利 Xiōngyálì "Hungary". The last of these is a modern coinage which may derive from the belief that the Huns were related to the Xiongnu.

The second character, "奴", appears to have no parallel in Western terminology. Its contemporary pronunciation was /nhō/, and it means "slave" — usually a pejorative term, although it is possible that it has only a phonetic role in the name 匈奴. There is almost certainly no connection between the "chest" meaning of 匈 and its ethnic meaning. There might conceivably be some sort of connection with the identically pronounced word "凶", which means "fierce", "ferocious", "inauspicious", "bad", or "violent act". Most probably, the word derives from the tribe's own name for itself as a semi-phonetic transliteration into Chinese, and the character was chosen somewhat arbitrarily — a practice that continues today in Chinese renderings of foreign names.

Although the phonetic side of the question is not conclusive, new results from Central Asia might shift the balance in favor of a political and cultural link between the Xiongnu and the Huns. The Central Asian sources of the 4th century translated in both direction Xiongnu by Huns (in the Sogdian Ancient Letters, the Xiongnu in Northern China are named xwn, while in the Buddhist translations by Dharmarakhsa Huna of the Indian text is translated Xiongnu). Moreover, from an archaeological point of view, it is certain that the Hunnic cauldrons are similar to the Ordos Xiongnu ones. Moreover, they were used in the same rituals, as in Hungary and in the Ordos they were found buried in river banks.

Another clue in the link between the Xiongnu and the Huns is indicated by an old Byzantine codex dating back to 14th century. Inside the codex was a copy of a list from the early Middle Ages (7-8th century) in an old Slav language. This was redecoded and translated by Omeljan Pritsak professor of history and language (at Lvov, Hamburg and Harvard University) in 1955 and named: "The Old-Bulgarian King List (Nominalia of the Bulgarian Khans). This contains the names and descendants of the Hun kings` dynasty (Clan Dulo) (from which descends the first ruler house of the European Bulgaria (see there)). On the start of it is the great Mao-Tun (Modu shanyu), who established the Xiongnu Empire. Among the other descendants` names is the name of Ernakh, the youngest son of Attila the Hun, who founded the Volga-Bulgarian Empire (Volga-Bulgaria, Proto-Bulgars) at the Volga (Etele) river in 453. It indicates that the Xiongnu and the Huns lived under the same ruler dynasty. So the possibility of Xiongnu eventually becoming the Huns is suggested by this codex.

Current Research

In the current years, the role of the Hunnic research increased in the scene of international science. In May 14-17. 2005 was the scientific I. International Hun Conference, in Suhbator, Mongolia with Chinese, Russian, Mongol, Hungarian and other scientists. Since the conference the international scientific profession began to accept a number of older theories of the Hunnic research. The new standpoint is that the Hiungnus and the Huns are the same nation, and it is more and more likely that the Huns were not fully disappeared after Attila, but their descendants are the Hungarians, at least a part of that people (This is mainly the Chinese opinion as yet: "As a nationality, the Huns have disappeared, but many Huns have survived. A number of scholars consider the Hungarians are descendants of the Huns," said Wang Shiping, a researcher of the Shaanxi Historical Museum. The opinion was echoed by some Hungarian researchers. They say their homeland is closely related with the Huns since in present-day Hungary was the center of Hun Empire.). Still there is a debate over the antropology of the Xiongnu, but from the new archaeological findings, it is likely that the Xiongnus were not Mongol nor Turkish, but mainly Europid people, with Mongoloid features in the east region.

Another important current research is in progess:

In the nineties of XX. century, there was the discovery of Tongwancheng (meaning "Unite All Nations"), in China, the southern Xiongnu capital of the Maotun descendant Chinese emperor Helian Bobo (Emperor Wulie) of Xia, what the Chinese want to restorate (already began) and nominate to UNESCO World Heritage. Before the discovery of the ancient Xiongnu capital, it was forgotten for about a thousand years. "It is the first ruined city of the Xiongnu (Huns) ever found", said Dai Yingxin, a well-known Chinese archaeologist, "The Xiongnu was a nomadic ethnic group, who for 10 centuries were tremendously influential in northern China." The 1600 years old ruined site lies in the north-east part of China, in the province of Shaanxi, adjacent to the Inner-Mongolia Autonomious Region. "Construction of the Tongwancheng Town is another great feat made by human beings, reflecting people's strong desire for survival and development on desert," said Hou Yongjian, professor of Shaanxi University. "The unique architectural feature and integrity of the Tongwancheng Town shown by aviation remote sensing and archaeological excavation have been generally recognized by experts both at home and abroad, that's why the Shaanxi provincial government selects the Tongwancheng capital site as a candidate for the world cultural and natural heritage list," said Liu Fulai, a research member at the Shaanxi Archaeological Research Institute specializing in history of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-581). Its discovery provides vital information for the study of the Xiongnu tribesmen, who have, to date, remained a mystery to both Chinese and foreign archaeologists because of a lack of adequate historical material and evidence relating to their culture. "The ruined town will give important clues to the study of the Huns who disappeared nearly 1,000 years ago," said Zhang Tinghao, director of the Shaanxi Cultural Relics Bureau. "It is the most substantial, magnificent and well-preserved city to be built by any ethnic group in the history of China," said Zhu Shiguang, president of the China Ancient City Society. "The Huns played an important role in the world history, especially in the shaping of the European nationalities and the development of European history," said Lin Gan, a professor specializing in the study of Huns at the Inner Mongolian University. The excavations and the restorations have began, and new artifacts have been found. As the town site is under the threat of desertification, the State Council designated Tongwancheng town as a cultural relic under top state protection in 1996. Systematic restoration on Tongwancheng town has been launched. Repair of the Yong'an Platform, where Helian Bobo, emperor of the Da Xia regime, reviewed parading troops, has been finished and restoration on the 31-meter-tall turret will begin soon, said Gao Zhan who is in charge of routine management of this cultural relics. The new artifacts' analysis has started also already, and for them a new museum has been opened in 2007: the Inner-Mongolian Hun Museum. Since the discovery there was a few expeditions from Europe also, and a number are in planned phase now. One of them was with the leading of Hungarian historian and orientologist Dr. Borbála Obrusánszky, associate of the Hungarian Science Academy, and two other specialists. They started in Mongolia, then headed to China. They surveyed the current works in Tongwancheng, and met a number of Mongol and Chinese scholars and researchers, including the historians of the Inner-Mongol Science University, like Ucsiraltu, linguist professor of the Inner-Mongol University, the specialists of the Xi'an University (Shaanxi Normal University), like professor Hou Yongjian, historical geographist of the Xi'an University, and exchanged their knowledge and published the results in the scientific journal of the universities. (The above informations are from there and from the report on the subject in the National Geographic and from a report on another expedition in the Amsterdam Studies .)

With the above and others, the international cooperation of Hunnic research is started, so new results are expected on the subject of the Xiongnus' history, but even like it is only on the very beginning.



Primary sources

  • Ban Gu (班固), Han shu (漢書). Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1962.
  • Fan Ye (范曄) et al., comp. Hou Han shu (後漢書). Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1965.
  • Sima Qian (司馬遷) et al., Shi ji (史記). Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1959.

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