The Xiongnu Empire

Author: Ihsan

Xiongnu riders crossing a river

Origins of the Xiongnu
The Xiongnu (Hongnu in Old Chinese, Xwn in Soghdian, probably Old Turkic Qun), also known as the Asiatic Huns, were one of the nomadic peoples of Ancient Central Asia. They're thought to have descended from various Turkic peoples known as Xianyun, Xunyu and Hongyu, yet all the knowledge we have come from Chinese sources written centuries later. However, as time passed, the name Xiongnu was applied to the Xiongnu’s subjects too, including Turkics, Mongolics, Tokharians, Iranics, etc.

 The exact foundation of the Xiongnu Empire is unknown, but the earliest Chinese records about them date back to 4th-3rd centuries BC.

Since China at that time was divided between many warring states like Qin, Zhao, Yan, Qi, Lu, Wei, Han and Chu, the Xiongnu easily raided Northern China throughout 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Their raids reached it's zenith during the 3rd century BC, when the Qin ruler Qin Shi Huangdi finally decided to build a Great Wall to stop those raids (the Great Wall was already in existence as small independent fortifications dating back to the Warring States Period; but Qin Shi Huangdi united these to form a single body).

Rise of the Xiongnu Empire: Reigns of Touman and Modu:

The earliest known Xiongnu ruler was Touman, who reigned between 220 BC and 209 BC. During his reign, he united the nomadic tribes living in Mongolia and he invaded Northern China. With those newly-acquired pastures, the Xiongnu economy prospered, partly due to the fact that the nomadic economy was greatly dependent on grassy plains.

Modu (Maodun in Modern Chinese), son of Touman, was his father's heir, but he was sent to exile to the Yuezhi, a nomadic Tokharian people in Gansu. Touman finally marched on the Yuezhi (this was a fake invasion, because Touman's new wife had wanted to kill Modu) but Modu was able to escape. Touman allowed Modu to return, and gave him a unit of 10,000 cavalries under his command. Modu trained his men very strictly, and during a hunt, he "accidently" shot his father with an arrow in 209 BC. After crowning as the new Xiongnu ruler, he earned the title Chanyu (mistakenly transcripted as Yabghu or Tanyu), meaning something similar to "The Magnificiant" or "The Great".

After re-organizing his army, he marched on the Donghu, the Xiongnu’s eastern neighbours, and brought them under his rule in 208 BC. After his Donghu campaign (the Donghu split into Xianbei and Wuhuan; from the Xianbei descended the Mongols), he defeated the Turkic peoples living in Northern Mongolia like the Dingling and finally he defeated the Yuezhi in 203 BC. With these victories, he was able to gain the control of the important trade roads, which later supplied the Xiongnu with great incomes. He later fought a three-year lasting war with the Han Dynasty of China, and defeated (more accurately, trapped) the Han ruler Gaodi, forcing him to pay yearly tributes to the Xiongnu. Modu never tried to invade China completely, because he knew that a foreign dynasty couldn't have ruled such a vast country for a long time. After his Chinese Campaign, Modu forced the Yuezhi and the Wusun to enter Xiongnu vassalage.

During his reign, many peoples were brought under Xiongnu rule. When Modu died, his empire was stretching from Korea to the East, Lake Balkash to the West, Lake Baikal to the North and Tibet to the South. Apart from his nomadic subjects, Modu also vassalised the oasis city-states of the Tarim Basin. His organizations in both military and administration were later used by many other Central Asian peoples and states.

The Xiongnu Empire in 135 BC (from
Decline and Collapse of the Xiongnu Empire:

After Modu’s death, he was succeded by Jiyu (also known Laoshang Jiyu Chanyu), who ruled between 174 BC and 160 BC. During his reign, the Xiongnu kept their strentgh, Jiyu managed to penetrate deep into Central China near Chang'an (the Han capital) in 166 but he married with a Han princess and opened the Xiongnu territories to Han spies disguised as officers and diplomats. These spies provoked the subject peoples to revolt against their masters, which later resulted in the break up of the vast Xiongnu Empire. One of them, Zhang Qian, was famous from his expedition to the Yuezhi, although he was captured by the Xiongnu and was forced to stay as a captive for ten years. When he reached Chang'an in 126, he brought important information about the peoples and towns of the areas he had visited. These datas later helped the Chinese to expand into Central Asia easier.

After Jiyu's death, the successor rulers couldn't stop the decline of the Xiongnu Empire. The Xiongnu raids into China were stopped by the Han ruler Han Jingdi; Han Wudi reformed his army in Xiongnu style and between 127 and 117 BC, the Xiongnu lost Tarim to Han Wudi; during the reign of Judihou Chanyu, Tian Shan, Jungaria and Turfan were conquered by the Han and eventually, the Xiongnu lost the control of the Silk Road in 60 BC. In 85 BC, the Wuhuan and the Dingling rebelled, defeating the weakened Xiongnu. After this rebellion, the victorious Dingling split into Western and Northern Dingling. Huhanye, a half-Chinese Xiongnu prince, entered Han protectorate in 58 BC but his brother Luanti Hutuwusi revolted against him and he declared his independence in the same year wih the title Zhizhi Chanyu. This event caused the Xiongnu Empire to split into two separate empires in 55 BC; the Eastern and Western Xiongnu, each one ruled by a member of the Xiongnu Imperial family.

In 54 BC, the Eastern Xiongnu withdrew to Ordos while the Western Xiongnu migrated to Soghdiana in Transoxiana, where they set up a new empire near the River Talas. Under Zhizhi Chanyu's rule, starting from 51 BC, the Western Xiongnu conquered Wusun, Western Dingling, Jiankun (Qïrghïz) and vassalised the Kingdom of Kangguo (Samarkand). In 41 BC, Zhizhi Chanyu built a fortified capital in the valley of Talas. However, the Han attacked Zhizhi Chanyu in 36 BC, destroyed his capital and killed him. Thus, the Western Xiongnu Empire came to an end. It's been claimed that there were Roman mercenaries in Zhizhi Chanyu's army during the siege of his capital.

After Huhanye's death in 31 BC, the Eastern Xiongnu re-gained their power and eventually they overthrew the Han protectorate in 18 BC under the rule of Yu Chanyu. Yu Chanyu managed to conquer a vast area from Manchuria up to Kashghar; however, this new empire was soon attacked from two sides: Xianbei from the North and Han Chinese from the South. Famines, plagues and revolts soon resulted in the break up of the Eastern Xiongnu into Northern and Southern Xiongnu in 48 AD, when Bi declared his independence from Yu's son's Punu Chanyu. While the Southern Xiongnu accepted the Han protectorate after a short time, the Northern Xiongnu had to deal with the non-stop attacks of the Xianbei. The Han attacked from the South, and some 50 important trading towns like Kashghar and Yarkand fell to the invading Han armies. As a result, the Northern Xiongnu was finally destroyed by the Xianbei in 156 AD. The remnants of the Northern Xiongnu then migrated towards the Aral Sea; while the Southern Xiongnu were finally subjugated by the Han in 216 AD.

The remnants of both Xiongnu empires lived as scattered throughout Western Turkestan for a long time, until they began migrating westwards around 350 AD. Under the leadership of their leader, Balamïr, they entered the territories of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Ukraine in 375, and they founded the European Hunnic Empire (there are some scholars who doubt that the European Huns descended from the Xiongnu). Even though the majority of Xiongnu went to Western Turkestan, some Xiongnu stayed in Northern China where they set up small kingdoms after the fall of the Han Dynasty (Second Zhao, Xia, Northern Liang and Loulan were the Xiongnu kingdoms in Northern China).

Rulers of the Xiongnu 

00. Touman - not a Chanyu
01. Modu, 201-174 BC
02. Laoshang, 174-160 BC
03. Junchen, 160-127 BC
04. Yizhixie, 127-114 BC
05. Wuwei, 114-104 BC
06. Zhanshilu, 104-102 BC
07. Goulihu, 102-101 BC
08. Judihou, 101-96 BC
09. Hulugu, 96-85 BC
10. Huyendi, 85-70 BC
11. Xulüquanqu, 70-60 BC
12. Woyenqudi, 60-58 BC
13. Huhanye, 58-31 BC
14. Zhizhi, 56-36 BC
15. Fuzhulei Ruodi, 30-20 BC
16. Souxie Ruodi, 20-11 BC
17. Cheya Ruodi, 11-7 BC
18. Wuzhuliu Ruodi, 7 BC-AD 14
19. Wulei Ruodi, AD 14-19
20. Huduershidaogao Ruodi, AD 19-47

Rulers of the Northern Xiongnu:
21. Punu, AD 47-84
22. Sanmulouzhi, AD 84-89
23. Yuchujian, AD 89-93
24. Aojianrizhuwangfenghou, AD 93-123

Rulers of the Southern Xiongnu:

01. Huhanye, AD 48-56
02. Chufuyudi, AD 56-58
03. Yifayuliudi, AD 58-59
04. Xiandongshizhuhoudi, AD 59-63
05. Qiuchuzhulindi, AD 63-64
06. Houyeshizhuhoudi, AD 64-85
07. Yituyuliudi, AD 85-88
08. Xiulanshizhuhoudi, AD 88-93
09. Anguo, AD 93-94
10. Tingdushizhuhoudi, AD 94-98
11. Wanshishizhuhoudi, AD 98-124
12. Wujihoushizhudi, AD 124-128
13. Chuderuoshizhuzi, AD 128-140
14. Cheniu, AD 140-143
15. Hulanruoshizhuzi, AD 143-147
16. Yilingshizhujiu, AD 147-172
17. Tuderuoshizhujiu, AD 172-178
18. Huzhen, AD 178-179
19. Qiangqiu, AD 179-188
20. Techishizhuhou, AD 188-195
21. Hushuchuan, AD 195-216
22. Liubao, AD 216-279
23. Liuyuan, AD 279-304*

*rule continues as Gao Xu, first king of Northern Han Dynasty.


214 BC: Construction of the Great Wall
210 BC: Touman's Yuezhi Campaign
209 BC: Touman murdered by Modu; Modu declared Chanyu
208 BC: Modu's Donghu Campaign
203 BC: Yuezhi brought under Xiongnu rule; Modu gained control of the trade roads
201 BC: Han Gaodi forced to pay tribute
174 BC: Death of Modu Chanyu
166 BC: Laoshang Chanyu sack Imperial Palace near Chang'an
160 BC: Death of Laoshang; the Xiongnu Empire began to decline
127-117 BC: Tarim Basin lost to Han
85 BC: Rebellion of the Dingling and Wuhuan
60 BC: Control of the Silk Road lost to Han
58 BC: Huhanye entered Han protectorate; Zhizhi Chanyu declared his independence; break up of the Xiongnu Empire
51 BC: Wusun, Dingling, Qïrghïz brought under Western Xiongnu rule, Kangguo become vassal of Zhizhi Chanyu
36 BC: Zhizhi Chanyu defeated and killed by Han
18 BC: Eastern Xiongnu re-gained it's independence
48 AD: Eastern Xiongnu broke up into Northern and Southern Xiongnu
156 AD: Northern Xiongnu destroyed by Xianbei
216 AD: Southern Xiongnu subjugated by the Han
350 AD: Remnants of the Xiongnu migrate towards West

Article Written by: Ihsan