The Xiongnu Culture - Third Century BCE

By Irma Marx

The Hun tribes, or as the Chinese called them the Xiongnu or Xiongnu stemmed basically from the Siberian branch of the Mongolian race. During the third and second centuries BCE they rose to great power and became a tribal confederation. During Emperor Mo-tun reign (208-175 BCE), the Xiongnu were at the zenith of their might and occupied a huge territory from Lake Baikal on the north to the Ordos plateau on the south and the Liao River on the east. By 55-34 BCE their political influence reached as far as the lower Volga and the Ureal foothills. This expansion westwards significantly increased the trade with the western world. The trade route was leading now from the west through the northern oasis of east Turkestan to the Xiongnus' headquarters in north Mongolia and southward to north China.

The basis of the Xiongnus' economy was herding, mostly pastoral nomads who lived in felt-cobbled tents, using bow and arrow from horseback. By the first century BCE there were also large settled populations with well-developed agriculture of millet, barley and wheat. The production of crafts flourished as wll, iron and bronze was smelted in their workshops and fine tools, weaponry, household utensils, jewelry and ceramics were produced.

Chinese sources inform us that the Xiongnu worshiped the sun, moon, heaven, earth, and to their ancestors. They had shamans or medicine men who had great influence over the tribesmen. The horse played a leading role in the herder's migration, hunting and war. In special ceremonies they sacrificed white horses and drank the blood. When a man died his widows were married either to a younger brother or a son. When a great chief died, concubines and retainers were often killed and buried with him. The Xiongnu apparently had no writing. It is believed that they spoke one of the Turkic languages (Guniley, 1960, pp. 48-49; Meanchen-Helfen, 1973, pp. 376-443). However, the question of language is far from being resolved.

During the newly established Chinese Han dynasty (AD 206-220), China expanded its borders and the Xiongnu empire lost ground. Weakened by the loss of men and animals because of their constant battles, and the split by internal dissension, the tribes of the confederation began one by one to accept a position of vassalage under China. The northern Xiongnu moved from Outer Mongolia into what was than Dzaungaria, where they conquered a new but short lived empire. With the beheading of their leader by a Chinese army the group disappeared from history.

The southern Xiongnu, who replaced their northern kindred in Outer Mongolia, remained at peace with China for some years. With the turn of the Christian Era these Xiongnu extended their power west into Dzungaria and reasserted their independence from China, although some tribes along the borderlands remained vassals of the Chinese and served as buffers against their independent kinsmen. In the first of this millenium the Hsien Pei, a Tungusic or Mongol people, appeared north of China and conquered Mongolia, forcing the independent Xiongnu into Dzungaria. A century later the Hsien Pei also gained control of Dzungaria. The Xiongnu who had remained on the borders of China lingered on in history until the fifth century. Those who were forced out of Dzungaria by the Hsien Pei disappeared from notice in A.D. 170.

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