Chinese texts describe the Xiongnu, a nomadic people, as ferocious warriors and raiders. Powerful Xiongnu men practiced unlimited polygamy, and when a leader died, his successor married all his father’s or grandfather’s wives except his mother. Likewise a surviving brother took over his deceased brother’s widows.
Differences in customs, languages, and lifestyles made relations difficult between the Chinese and Xiongnu. The Xiongnu language is believed to belong to the Altaic group, whereas Chinese was a Sinitic language. Moreover, the Xiongnu were nomadic, and the Chinese led a sedentary lifestyle. The Chinese were literate, whereas the Xiongnu had no written script.
North and northwest of the Yellow river valley, the increasingly arid climate allowed for mixed farming and herding lifestyle in an intermediate zone, then only herding by nomads was possible. By the fourth century b.c.e. during China’s Warring States era, most of the seminomadic people had been absorbed into the northern Chinese states.
As a result, Chinese and nomadic cultures came into direct contact. One of these nomadic groups was the Xiongnu. As they had no written language, the only textual accounts about them are in Chinese, starting in the fourth century b.c.e.
Around 324 b.c.e. three northern Chinese states called Qin (Ch’in), Zhao (Chao), and Yan (Yen), which bordered on the Xiongnu, began building defensive walls along their frontiers. In 307 b.c.e. the king of Zhao, whose state was most threatened by the Xiongnu, ordered his troops to practice archery, changed their uniform to the Xiongnu style, and began to acquire a large cavalry—with good results, winning both battles and lands. China was unified under the Qin in 221 b.c.e.
The first emperor of the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty, either pursuing expansion or to give work to his huge army or, as he stated, to prevent Xiongnu aggression, ordered his most capable general, Meng Tian (Meng T’ien) to clear all land south of the northern bend of the Yellow River of nomads.
General Meng defeated the Xiongnu shanyu (king) named Touman with an army of more than 100,000 men (some records say 300,000) and annexed land across present-day Manchuria, through Inner Mongolia to Gansu (Kansu) Province in the west.
He linked existing walls and extended them to form the Great Wall of China with heavily fortified outposts, settled the frontier lands with convicts and colonists, and built roads that linked the borderland with the metropolitan area.
Touman and his followers fled northward. However, Qin victories were quickly undone. The first emperor died in 210 b.c.e., followed by the forced suicide of General Meng in a power struggle; widespread revolts toppled the dynasty in 206 b.c.e.
Defeats by the Chinese forced the loosely knit confederation of Xiongnu tribes to reorganize. In 209 b.c.e. Touman’s son Maotun (Mao-t’un) murdered him. As the new shanyu, Maotun solidified his forces into a disciplined and loyal fighting unit. He defeated other nomadic tribes called the Yuezhi (Yueh-chih) and the Dong Hu (Tung Hu), forcing them to flee. The Dong Hu fled to Manchuria, and the Yuezhi were broken up.
One group moved south of the Great Wall, while the main group, called the Great Yuezhi, moved west, eventually settling in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also confronted the ruler of the new Han dynasty in China. In a battle in 200 b.c.e., 300,000 of Maotun’s cavalry defeated Liu Bang’s mostly infantry forces.
The two sides concluded a treaty in 198 b.c.e. that stipulated peaceful relations between the two equal states, trade, fixed gifts between the two states (Han gave Xiongnu large quantities of silks, silver, liquor, and other valuables, for token return gifts by Xiongnu), and a Han princess as wife for Maotun.
This was called the Heqin (Ho-ch’in) Treaty, the word meaning "peace and amity". A total of 10 Heqin treaties were signed between 198 and 135 b.c.e., when a new ruler succeeded to either throne. Several more Han princesses were given as wives to Xiongnu rulers, and each revision entailed additional gifts from the Han.
China agreed to the terms because the newly established dynasty was too unstable and the people were too exhausted from previous wars to pursue an aggressive policy. Although the treaties brought a measure of peace, Xiongnu raids continued. It is estimated that approximately 10,000 Chinese died annually from these continuing raids, in addition to seized people (for slaves) and property.
In 134 b.c.e. the Han, fully recovered and under a young, vigorous ruler, Han Wudi (Han Wu-ti), ended the appeasing Heqin treaties. The ﬁrst indecisive campaign in 129 b.c.e. had four Han armies, each 100,000 strong in simultaneous attacks. In 127 b.c.e. the Han scored a major victory, chasing the Xiongnu north across the Gobi Desert to the shores of Lake Baikal in present-day Russia.
It was a prolonged struggle, which finally broke the Xiongnu but also cost the Han huge losses in lives and treasures. Wudi sent an emissary, Zhang Qian (Chang Ch’ien) to find the Yuezhi and offer them an alliance against their common enemy, but when the envoy finally found them in Afghanistan, the Yuezhi were settled and no longer interested. He did find other allies, willing to become Han vassal states, from as far away as Ferghana and Sogdiana in Central Asia.
Xiongnu power was finally broken in 60 b.c.e. The reasons were superior Han resources and leadership, the declining ability of later Xiongnu shanyu, the inability of the Xiongnu tribal structure of government to handle expanded power, and better treatment of vassal states by the Han.
Civil wars ensued among the Xiongnu, which broke them into two groups in 54 b.c.e. The Southern Xiongnu surrendered to the Han dynasty and became vassals; their leaders came to pay homage at the Han capital and received subsidies, while many of the tribesmen were settled along the border regions.
Campaigns against the Northern Xiongnu continued sporadically until the end of the first century c.e. when they were finally defeated in present-day Outer Mongolia and Central Asia. Some were forced to move west; those remaining became intermingled with other nomadic groups.
After the fall of the Han in 220 c.e. groups among the Southern Xiongnu formed brief regional dynasties in northwestern China, and some claimed to be descendants of the Han imperial family through Han princesses who had become wives of their rulers. By the sixth century the Xiongnu had been absorbed into Chinese culture.