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China and the Xiongnu 36 BC - 48 AD

Updated on December 9, 2014

Battle of Zhizhi part 1

In the winter of 36 BC the Chinese military governor in the Western Regions, Gan Yanshou, and a young junior officer named Chen Tang brought the first Xiongnu civil war to an end. But they did so without official permission for their expedition. At Chen's instigation they had marched west into Sogdiana, the territory of the kingdom of Kangju, to attack Zhizhi Chanyu's new walled capital on the Talas River (which he had named after himself). They did so in the belief that Zhizhi posed a threat to Han interests.

When the Han probed the defenses they found the Xiongnu manning the walls in full armor and several hundred heavy cavalry and infantry drilling in front of the gate. After taunting their opponents the Xiongnu cavalry charged the barricades but were driven off by the appearance of ready crossbows. Seizing the advantage the Chinese brought their crossbowmen up and started firing. The Xiongnu cavalry and infantry withdrew inside the walls.

In 58 BC the Xiongnu imperial confederation broke down in civil war following a cycle of increasingly disruptive successions. Qihoushan, the Huhanye Chanyu, emerged as eventual victor when he submitted to Han China's tributary system in 53. In return for ceremonial flattery the Chinese effectively financed Xiongnu reconstruction with gifts. This ensured peace on the frontier for the next sixty years.

The civil war ended in 36 with the death of Huhanye's rival, the Zhizhi Chanyu, in Sogdiana at the hands of an unofficial Han expedition [see sidebars for more information]. Huhanye died five years later having made the Xiongnu once again the supreme masters of the steppe with a steady supply of silk, gold, and other goods flowing in from the Han to keep it running. For the Chinese fear of a renewed war against the nomads enforced the arrangement. Unfortunately, the homage visits of successive chanyus to the imperial court over the years further strained the treasury. This situation endured until the time of Wang Mang later in the century.

A bronze coin minted under Wang Mang's Xin Dynasty, dated around 13 AD.
A bronze coin minted under Wang Mang's Xin Dynasty, dated around 13 AD. | Source

Battle of Zhizhi part 2

With the situation now ripe Gan Yanshou and Chen Tang ordered a tight siege of Chanyu. The walls were surrounded on all sides and teams of siege engineers, shield-bearers, and paired crossbowmen and spearmen sent into action. The defenders were soon driven from the walls under withering crossbow fire but the besiegers in turn suffered heavy casualties from Xiongnu resistance at the wooden outer walls of the city. In response the Chinese burned the outer walls down. When the Xiongnu tried to send for reinforcements that night the besiegers wiped them out.

Around midnight the Xiongnu began withdrawing to the inner walls of Chanyu and started raising loud battle cries in defiance. Meanwhile the king of Kangju arrived and surrounded the Han army with 10,000 Sogdian cavalry. Over the course of the night the Sogdians charged the barricades several times, retreating the next morning when they realized they could not break the siege lines.

At dawn the Han army began scaling the inner walls accompanied to drums and horns in order to scare off any Sogdian stragglers. As the Chinese poured in Zhizhi Chanyu retreated into his palace with his bodyguard and remaining entourage. The besiegers pressed on, setting the palace on fire. Zhizhi perished in the fighting, the only Xiongnu ruler to die in battle against China.

Wang Mang vs the Xiongnu

Wang, the paramount minister at the end of the Former Han Dynasty before setting up his own in 9 AD, did not accept the status quo. In his mind the relationship had to reflect Chinese superiority first before the nomads could gain any benefit. To this end he employed a two-pronged strategy of carrot-and-stick: In return for agreeing to renegotiate the terms of the tributary system Wang gave them lavish gifts. When they, inevitably, proved insincere he would raise troops and try to break the confederation apart. But the Xiongnu proved far craftier then Wang expected.

In 5 AD Nangzhiyasi, the Wuzhuliu Chanyu, accepted some refugees from the Chinese Western Regions. Wang Mang immediately demanded their extradition. But the chanyu cited Huhanye's treaty with the Han, making the Xiongnu rulers of all beyond the Great Wall. Then, Wuzhuliu decided to return them anyway. Wang Mang executed them and demanded the treaty’s revision to exclude the Western Regions, the Wuhuan, and the Wusun. He also demanded the chanyu take a Chinese surname. Wuzhuliu agreed to every demand on paper, and carried on as normal. In 9 the Han was abolished by Wang Mang in favor of his new Xin dynasty and new insignia was sent to the Xiongnu. When they discovered it implied the chanyu was a low-ranking imperial official the Xiongnu demanded a change. Wang refused and Wuzhuliu began launching low-level unofficial raids on the frontier.

Not long after those events the chanyu took in a second group of refugees from the Western Regions. They followed this with new raids against the Xin western outposts. The Chinese responded by announcing the investiture of fifteen new chanyus in opposition to Wuzhuliu. To this end they began bribing Xiongnu royals and in 11 found three takers in the form of the chanyu's half-brother Xian and his sons Deng and Chu. The Xiongnu court reacted furiously and stepped up their raiding on the frontier. Xian changed sides again, leaving his remaining son Deng (Chu having died by now) in China. He was executed shortly afterwards by Wang Mang as a scapegoat. Xian meanwhile was removed from the succession as punishment for his ambition. The Chinese then raised an army 300,000 strong to attack the Xiongnu, but nothing ever came of it.

Hostilities continued until 13 when Xian was chosen to succeed his brother anyway as the Wulei Chanyu. The Xiongnu wanted a return to the tributary system on its original terms and reasoned Xian represented the best option to accomplish that. To that end he extradited the second group of refugees that Wuzhuliu took in to the Xin but relations broke down again when Wulei learned of his son's execution. He died in 18 was succeeded by his half-brother Yu, who became the Huduershi Chanyu. The new chanyu also attempted to restore the status quo, but Wang Mang set up a new puppet chanyu to contest him. Huduershi reacted by openly attacking the border, which was maintained until the fall of Wang Mang and his Xin dynasty in 23.

The Hexi Corridor, China's western frontier zone

Emperor Guangwu (Liu Xiu), the victor of the post-Wang Mang civil war.
Emperor Guangwu (Liu Xiu), the victor of the post-Wang Mang civil war. | Source

Huduershi and the Chinese civil war

With China in chaos the Xiongnu remained hostile to all sides, refusing to involve themselves further. Meantime the chanyu exploited the opportunity to reassert Xiongnu control over the Western Regions and the old Donghu confederations (the Xianbei and Wuhuan). However Chinese factions along the border zone did seek to involve the Xiongnu anyway. Two men, Peng Chong (also Jing) and Lu Fang both looked for nomad support. Peng wed a daughter to the chanyu and Lu Fang (who claimed descent from the Han emperors) submitted to Xiongnu overlordship. While Huduershi did make a show of treating Lu Fang in similar terms to how the Han had treated Huhanye, Xiongnu support was minimal. Peng was defeated in 29 after two years and Lu eventually switched sides to the revived Han dynasty, then rose in revolt and when defeated fled to the Xiongnu in 42.

Huduershi's goal was to revive the former heqin treaty system that had governed Han-Xiongnu relations before the outbreak of Emperor Wu's war in 133 BC. Xiongnu raids and Chinese civil strife had left the former border in ruins and Liu Xiu, the founder of the Later Han dynasty (as Emperor Guangwu), was forced to recreate it further south after his victory. The chanyu took advantage of this to press hard on the Chinese, forcing Guangwu to adopt a policy of appeasement towards the nomads. When he died in 46 Huduershi had compared himself to the great founding chanyu Maodun in his strength and the reach of his power.

The Xiongnu confederation breaks down

The Xiongnu fell into another civil war within two years of Huduershi’s death. Huhanye, in the last years of his life, had forged a compromise on the issue of his succession whereby the throne would pass laterally through the sons of his two chief wives (who were full sisters) in order of age. To make it work each chanyu would appoint the next brother as his heir. The system worked until the expected heir of Wuzhuliu died before him. Rather than pick the next brother, he opted for a son. This effectively set a new precedent, even though the chanyu’s choice was ignored. Later, Huduershi assassinated his last lateral rival before succeeding and appointed his own eldest son as his heir. Tensions between rival groups of cousins boiled beneath the surface but were held in check by Huduershi's long reign.

The reign of Huduershi's eldest son lasted months. His next son, Punu, then became chanyu but was immediately disputed by his cousin Bi. As a son of Wuzhuliu Chanyu he long believed himself to be the rightful successor. In 48 eight Xiongnu tribes in the southern territories, Bi's power base, declared him chanyu. Before long he took his tribes and 50,000 cavalry south of the Great Wall and submitted to China in emulation of his grandfather (taking the title Huhanye II in the process). The second civil war had begun.

A Xiongnu gold artifact found in a tomb in modern Mongolia
A Xiongnu gold artifact found in a tomb in modern Mongolia | Source

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