from the Gansu museum

The Xiongnu were aggressive horsemen from border region of China and Mongolia and likely forbears of the Huns. They hailed from the Siberian steppes and raided Chinese towns in the second century B.C., prompting construction of the Great Wall. Later they advanced to the west and displaced the Yueh-chih kingdoms in Western China, who in turn advanced and displaced the Saka, with them doing the same to the Sogdians in Central Asia.

The Xiongnu were a large confederation of Eurasian nomads who dominated the Asian Steppe from the late 3rd century B.C. to the A.D. 1st century AD. Chinese sources from the 3rd century B.C. report them as having created an empire under Modu Chanyu, the supreme leader after 209 B.C. This empire (209 B.C. — A.D. 93 AD) stretched beyond the borders of modern-day Mongolia. After defeating the previously dominant Yuezhi in the 2nd century B.C,, the Xiongnu became a dominant power on the steppes of central and eastern Asia. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Xiongnu were of uncertain origins. Their language is not known to modern scholars, but the people were probably similar in appearance and characteristics to the later Mongols. Various attempts to identify them with groups known from further west across the Eurasian Steppe under different names remain highly controversial. The identity of the ethnic core of Xiongnu has been a subject of varied hypotheses, because only a few words, mainly titles and personal names, were preserved in the Chinese sources. Proposals by scholars include Iranian, Turkic, Mongolic, Tocharian, Uralic, Yeniseian, or multi-ethnic. The name Xiongnu may be cognate with that of Huns (Hunni) and Huna, but the evidence for this is controversial. +

Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe: “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 archive.org/details/horsewheelandlanguage ; The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation silkroadfoundation.org ; Scythians iranicaonline.org ; Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns britannica.com ; Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; The Mongol Empire web.archive.org/web ; The Mongols in World History afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols ; William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols washington.edu/silkroad/texts ; Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) web.archive.org/web ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Mongol Archives historyonthenet.com

Origin of the Xiongnu

The identity of the Xiongnu is still debated today. Some scholars maintain that they were proto-Mongols, while others say it is more likely they were a a multi-ethnic group of Mongolic and Turkic tribes. It has been suggested that the language of the Huns was related to the Xiongnu.

An early reference to the Xiongnu was by Sima Qian who wrote about the Xiongnu in the Records of the Grand Historian (c.100 B.C.), drawing a distinct line between the settled Huaxia people (Chinese) to the pastoral nomads (Xiongnu), characterizing it as two polar groups in the sense of a civilization versus an uncivilized society: the Hua–Yi distinction. Sources from the pre-Han eras often classified the Xiongnu as the Hu people, even though this was more a blanket term for nomadic people in general; it only became an ethnonym for the Xiongnu during the Han. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Xiongnu hedehog filials, 400 BC to AD 100

Ancient China often came in contact with the Xianyun and the Xirong nomadic peoples. In later Chinese historiography, some groups of these peoples were believed to be the possible progenitors of the Xiongnu people. These nomadic people often had repeated military confrontations with the Shang and especially the Zhou, who often conquered and enslaved the nomads in an expansion drift. During the Warring States period, the armies from the Qin, Zhao, and Yan states were encroaching and conquering various nomadic territories that were inhabited by the Xiongnu and other Hu peoples.

Ying-Shih Yü wrote in the “Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia”: “The Chinese written tradition traces the beginnings of the Hsiung-nu back to times immemorial. It is reported that the Hsiung-nu had been known in remote antiquity under a number of different names such as Hun-chu, Hsien-yün, Jung, Ti, etc. In modern times even the name Kuei-fang of the Shang period is added to the list. From a strictly historical point of view, however, all these identifications must remain conjectural in status.The present state of our historical knowledge does not permit us to give any reliable account of the Hsiung-nu much beyond the 3rd century B.C.; and the only other name with which the Hsiung-nu can be safely identified in early Chinese sources is Hu. In other words, the Hsiung-nu made their earliest formal appearance on the stage of Inner Asian history when Chinese history was just about to turn a new page – at the end of the Warring States period. [Source: The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990]

Yuezhi and the Xiongnu

The Yuezhi, was related linguistically to the ancient nomadic Scythian peoples--who inhabited the steppes north and northeast of the Black Sea and the region east of the Aral Sea--and was therefore Indo-European. The other grouping was the Xiongnu, a nomadic people of uncertain origins. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Bust of a man from Yuezhi-era Khalchayan,

Although in the course of history other peoples displaced, or became intermingled with, the Yuezhi and the Xiongnu, their activities, conflicts, and internal and external relations established a pattern, with four principal themes, that continued almost unchanged — except for the conquest of Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries — until the eighteenth century. First, among these four themes, there were constant fierce struggles involving neighboring tribes, engaged in frequently shifting alliances that did not always follow ethnic, racial, or linguistic lines. Second, during periods when China was united and strong, trade with Inner Asian peoples was allowed, and nomadic states either became vassals of the Chinese emperor, or they retreated beyond his reach into the northern steppes; conversely, when China appeared weak, raids were made into rich Chinese lands, sometimes resulting in retaliatory expeditions into Mongolia. Third, occasional, transitory consolidation — of all or of large portions of the region under the control of a conqueror or a coalition of similar tribes — took place; such temporary consolidations could result in a life-or- death struggle between major tribal groupings until one or the other was exterminated or was expelled from the region, or until they joined forces. Fourth, on several occasions, raids into northern China were so vast and successful that the victorious nomads settled in the conquered land, established dynasties, and eventually became absorbed — sinicized — by the more numerous Chinese. *

Within this pattern, the Xiongnu eventually expelled the Yuezhi, who were driven to the southwest to become the Kushans of Iranian, Afghan, and Indian history. In turn, the Xiongnu themselves later were driven west. Their descendants, or possibly another group, continued this westward migration, establishing the Hun Empire, in Central and Eastern Europe, that reached its zenith under Attila. *

The pattern was interrupted abruptly and dramatically late in the twelfth century and throughout the thirteenth century by Chinggis and his descendants. During the consolidation of Mongolia and some of the invasions of northern China, Chinggis created sophisticated military and political organizations, exceeding in skill, efficiency, and vigor the institutions of the most civilized nations of the time. Under him and his immediate successors, the Mongols conquered most of Eurasia. *

Xiongnu and Chinese

The first significant recorded appearance of nomadic horsemen-warriors in East Asia came late in the third century B.C., when the Chinese repelled an invasion of the Xiongnu across the Huang He (Yellow River) from the Gobi. A Chinese army, which had adopted Xiongnu military technology — wearing trousers and using mounted archers with stirrups — pursued the Xiongnu across the Gobi in a ruthless punitive expedition. Fortification walls built by various Chinese warring states were connected to make a 2,300-kilometer Great Wall along the northern border, as a barrier to further nomadic inroads. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 ]

The Xiongnu were active in regions of what is now southern Siberia, Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang. Relations between early adjacent Chinese dynasties to the south east and the Xiongnu were complex, with repeated periods of military conflict and intrigue, alternating with exchanges of tribute, trade, and marriage treaties. Ying-Shih Yü wrote in the “Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia”: “Interestingly enough, from early Chinese sources we know how China defended herself against the Hsiung-nu before we actually encounter the Hsiung-nu's armed incursions into China. In the late Warring States period three major states, Ch'in, Chao, and Yen, were all southern neighbors of the Hsiung-nu, and each as a defense against the nomads built a wall along its northern border. Of the three, Ch'in was the first to do so, probably no later than in 324 B.C.; but its entire walled defense system - in Lung-hsi (Kansu), Pei-ti (parts of Kansu and Ninghsia), and the Shang Commandery (parts of Shensi and Suiyuan) – was not completed until around 270 B.C. Next came the northern border wall of Chao, stretching from Yün-chung (in Suiyuan) through Yen-men to Tai (both in Shansi), which was built around 300.” [Source: The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990]

In 215 B.C., Emperor Qin Shi Huang — the man credited with founding China — sent General Meng Tian to conquer the Xiongnu and drive them from the Ordos Loop, which he did later that year. After the catastrophic defeat at the hands of General Meng Tian, the Xiongnu leader Touman was forced to flee far into the Mongolian Plateau. The Qin empire became a threat to the Xiongnu, which ultimately led to the reorganization of the many tribes into a confederacy. +

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In the time of the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.) there had already come into unpleasant prominence north of the Chinese frontier the tribal union, then relatively small, of the Xiongnu. Since then, the Xiongnu empire had destroyed the federation of the Yue-chih tribes (some of which seem to have been of Indo-European language stock) and incorporated their people into their own federation; they had conquered also the less well organized eastern pastoral tribes, the Tung-hu and thus had become a formidable power. Everything goes to show that it had close relations with the territories of northern China. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Many Chinese seem to have migrated to the Xiongnu empire, where they were welcomed as artisans and probably also as farmers; but above all they were needed for the staffing of a new state administration. The scriveners in the newly introduced state secretariat were Chinese and wrote Chinese, for at that time the Xiongnu apparently had no written language. There were Chinese serving as administrators and court officials, and even as instructors in the army administration, teaching the art of warfare against non-nomads. But what was the purpose of all this? Mao Tun, the second ruler of the Xiongnu, and his first successors undoubtedly intended ultimately to conquer China, exactly as many other northern peoples after them planned to do, and a few of them did. The main purpose of this was always to bring large numbers of peasants under the rule of the nomad rulers and so to solve, once for all, the problem of the provision of additional winter food. Everything that was needed, and everything that seemed to be worth trying to get as they grew more civilized, would thus be obtained better and more regularly than by raids or by tedious commercial negotiations. But if China was to be conquered and ruled there must exist a state organization of equal authority to hers; the Xiongnu ruler must himself come forward as Son of Heaven and develop a court ceremonial similar to that of a Chinese emperor. Thus the basis of the organization of the Xiongnu state lay in its rivalry with the neighboring China; but the details naturally corresponded to the special nature of the Xiongnu social system. The young Xiongnu feudal state differed from the ancient Chinese feudal state not only in depending on a nomad economy with only supplementary agriculture, but also in possessing, in addition to a whole class of nobility and another of commoners, a stratum of slavery to be analysed further below. Similar to the Zhou state, the Xiongnu state contained, especially around the ruler, an element of court bureaucracy which, however, never developed far enough to replace the basically feudal character of administration.

Xiongnu Battles with the Chinese

Meanwhile, the Xiongnu again raided northern China about 200 B.C., finding that the inadequately defended Great Wall was not a serious obstacle. By the middle of the second century B.C., they controlled all of northern and western China north of the Huang He. This renewed threat led the Chinese to improve their defenses in the north, while building up and improving the army, particularly the cavalry, and while preparing long-range plans for an invasion of Mongolia. [Source: Library of Congress]

Between 130 and 121 B.C., Chinese armies drove the Xiongnu back across the Great Wall, weakened their hold on Gansu Province as well as on what is now Nei Monggol Autonomous Region (Inner Mongolia-, and finally pushed them north of the Gobi into central Mongolia. Following these victories, the Chinese expanded into the areas later known as Manchuria , the Korean Peninsula, and Inner Asia. The Xiongnu, once more turning their attention to the west and the southwest, raided deep into the Oxus Valley between 73 and 44 B.C. The descendants of the Yuezhi and their Chinese rulers, however, formed a common front against the Xiongnu and repelled them.*

During the next century, as Chinese strength waned, border warfare between the Chinese and the Xiongnu was almost incessant. Gradually the nomads forced their way back into Gansu and the northern part of what is now China's Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region. In about the middle of the first century A.D., a revitalized Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220) slowly recovered these territories, driving the Xiongnu back into the Altai Mountains and the steppes north of the Gobi. During the late first century A.D., having reestablished the administrative control over southern China and northern Vietnam that had been lost briefly at beginning of this same century, the Eastern Han made a concerted effort to reassert dominance over Inner Asia. A Chinese army crossed the Pamir Mountains, conquered territories as far west as the Caspian Sea, defeated the Yuezhi Kushan Empire, and even sent an emissary in search of the eastern provinces of Rome.

Han Chinese and Xiongnu

Gaozu, the first Emperor of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) . The Xioungnu leader Mao Tun was was one of his most dangerous of enemies. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Gaozu's policy had to be directed to preventing any interference of the Xiongnu in North Chinese affairs, and above all to preventing alliances between Xiongnu and Chinese. Xiongnu alone, with their technique of horsemen's warfare, would scarcely have been equal to the permanent conquest of the fortified towns of the north and the Great Wall, although they controlled a population which may have been in excess of 2,000,000 people. But they might have succeeded with Chinese aid. Actually a Chinese opponent of Gaozu had already come to terms with Mao Tun, and in 200 B.C. Gaozu was very near suffering disaster in northern Shanxi, as a result of which China would have come under the rule of the Xiongnu. But it did not come to that, and Mao Tun made no further attempt, although the opportunity came several times. Apparently the policy adopted by his court was not imperialistic but national, in the uncorrupted sense of the word. It was realized that a country so thickly populated as China could only be administered from a centre within China. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

The Xiongnu would thus have had to abandon their home territory and rule in China itself. That would have meant abandoning the flocks, abandoning nomad life, and turning into Chinese. The main supporters of the national policy, the first principle of which was loyalty to the old ways of life, seem to have been the tribal chieftains. Mao Tun fell in with their view, and the Xiongnu maintained their state as long as they adhered to that principle—for some seven hundred years. Other nomad peoples, Toba, Mongols, and Manchus, followed the opposite policy, and before long they were caught in the mechanism of the much more highly developed Chinese economy and culture, and each of them disappeared from the political scene in the course of a century or so.

“The national line of policy of the Xiongnu did not at all mean an end of hostilities and raids on Chinese territory, so that Gaozu declared himself ready to give the Xiongnu the foodstuffs and clothing materials they needed if they would make an end of their raids. A treaty to this effect was concluded, and sealed by the marriage of a Chinese princess with Mao Tun. This was the first international treaty in the Far East between two independent powers mutually recognized as equals, and the forms of international diplomacy developed in this time remained the standard forms for the next thousand years. The agreement was renewed at the accession of each new ruler, but was never adhered to entirely by either side. The needs of the Xiongnu increased with the expansion of their empire and the growing luxury of their court; the Chinese, on the other hand, wanted to give as little as possible, and no doubt they did all they could to cheat the Xiongnu. Thus, in spite of the treaties the Xiongnu raids went on. With China's progressive consolidation, the voluntary immigration of Chinese into the Xiongnu empire came to an end, and the Xiongnu actually began to kidnap Chinese subjects. These were the main features of the relations between Chinese and Xiongnu almost until 100 B.C.

Turkestan Policy and the End of the Xiongnu Empire

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In the two decades between 160 and 140 B.C. there had been further trouble with the Xiongnu, though there was no large-scale fighting. There was a fundamental change of policy under the next emperor, Wu (or Wu Di, 141-86 B.C.). The Chinese entered for the first time upon an active policy against the Xiongnu. There seem to have been several reasons for this policy, and several objectives. The raids of the Xiongnu from the Ordos region and from northern Shanxi had shown themselves to be a direct menace to the capital and to its extremely important hinterland. Northern Shanxi is mountainous, with deep ravines. A considerable army on horseback could penetrate some distance to the south before attracting attention. Northern Shaanxi and the Ordos region are steppe country, in which there were very few Chinese settlements and through which an army of horsemen could advance very quickly. It was therefore determined to push back the Xiongnu far enough to remove this threat. It was also of importance to break the power of the Xiongnu in the province of Gansu, and to separate them as far as possible from the Tibetans living in that region, to prevent any union between those two dangerous adversaries. A third point of importance was the safeguarding of caravan routes. The state, and especially the capital, had grown rich through Wen-di's policy. Goods streamed into the capital from all quarters. Commerce with central Asia had particularly increased, bringing the products of the Middle East to China. The caravan routes passed through western Shaanxi and Gansu to eastern Turkestan, but at that time the Xiongnu dominated the approaches to Turkestan and were in a position to divert the trade to themselves or cut it off. The commerce brought profit not only to the caravan traders, most of whom were probably foreigners, but to the officials in the provinces and prefectures through which the routes passed. Thus the officials in western China were interested in the trade routes being brought under direct control, so that the caravans could arrive regularly and be immune from robbery. Finally, the Chinese government may well have regarded it as little to its honour to be still paying dues to the Xiongnu and sending princesses to their rulers, now that China was incomparably wealthier and stronger than at the time when that policy of appeasement had begun. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The first active step taken was to try, in 133 B.C., to capture the head of the Xiongnu state, who was called a shan-yu but the shan-yu saw through the plan and escaped. There followed a period of continuous fighting until 119 B.C. The Chinese made countless attacks, without lasting success. But the Xiongnu were weakened, one sign of this being that there were dissensions after the death of the shan-yu Chun-ch'en, and in 127 B.C. his son went over to the Chinese. Finally the Chinese altered their tactics, advancing in 119 B.C. with a strong army of cavalry, which suffered enormous losses but inflicted serious loss on the Xiongnu. After that the Xiongnu withdrew farther to the north, and the Chinese settled peasants in the important region of Gansu.

“Meanwhile, in 125 B.C., the famous Chang Ch'ien had returned. He had been sent in 138 to conclude an alliance with the Yue-chih against the Xiongnu. The Yue-chih had formerly been neighbors of the Xiongnu as far as the Ala Shan region, but owing to defeat by the Xiongnu their remnants had migrated to western Turkestan. Chang Ch'ien had followed them. Politically he had no success, but he brought back accurate information about the countries in the far west, concerning which nothing had been known beyond the vague reports of merchants. Now it was learnt whence the foreign goods came and whither the Chinese goods went. Chang Ch'ien's reports (which are one of the principal sources for the history of central Asia at that remote time) strengthened the desire to enter into direct and assured commercial relations with those distant countries. The government evidently thought of getting this commerce into its own hands. The way to do this was to impose "tribute" on the countries concerned. The idea was that the missions bringing the annual "tribute" would be a sort of state bartering commissions. The state laid under tribute must supply specified goods at its own cost, and received in return Chinese produce, the value of which was to be roughly equal to the "tribute". Thus Chang Ch'ien's reports had the result that, after the first successes against the Xiongnu, there was increased interest in a central Asian policy. The greatest military success were the campaigns of General Li Kuang-li to Ferghana in 104 and 102 B.C. The result of the campaigns was to bring under tribute all the small states in the Tarim basin and some of the states of western Turkestan. From now on not only foreign consumer goods came freely into China, but with them a great number of other things, notably plants such as grape, peach, pomegranate.

“In 108 B.C. the western part of Korea was also conquered. Korea was already an important transit region for the trade with Japan. Thus this trade also came under the direct influence of the Chinese government. Although this conquest represented a peril to the eastern flank of the Xiongnu, it did not by any means mean that they were conquered. The Xiongnu while weakened evaded the Chinese pressure, but in 104 B.C. and again in 91 they inflicted defeats on the Chinese. The Xiongnu were indirectly threatened by Chinese foreign policy, for the Chinese concluded an alliance with old enemies of the Xiongnu, the Wu-sun, in the north of the Tarim basin. This made the Tarim basin secure for the Chinese, and threatened the Xiongnu with a new danger in their rear. Finally the Chinese did all they could through intrigue, espionage, and sabotage to promote disunity and disorder within the Xiongnu, though it cannot be seen from the Chinese accounts how far the Chinese were responsible for the actual conflicts and the continual changes of shan-yu. Hostilities against the Xiongnu continued incessantly, after the death of Wu Di, under his successor, so that the Xiongnu were further weakened. In consequence of this it was possible to rouse against them other tribes who until then had been dependent on them—the Ting-ling in the north and the Wu-huan in the east. The internal difficulties of the Xiongnu increased further.

“Wu Di's active policy had not been directed only against the Xiongnu. After heavy fighting he brought southern China, with the region round Canton, and the south-eastern coast, firmly under Chinese dominion—in this case again on account of trade interests. No doubt there were already considerable colonies of foreign merchants in Canton and other coastal towns, trading in Indian and Middle East goods. The traders seem often to have been Sogdians. The southern wars gave Wu Di the control of the revenues from this commerce. He tried several times to advance through Yunnan in order to secure a better land route to India, but these attempts failed. Nevertheless, Chinese influence became stronger in the south-west.

“In spite of his long rule, Wu Di did not leave an adult heir, as the crown prince was executed, with many other persons, shortly before Wu Di's death. The crown prince had been implicated in an alleged attempt by a large group of people to remove the emperor by various sorts of magic. It is difficult to determine today what lay behind this affair; probably it was a struggle between two cliques of the gentry. Thus a regency council had to be set up for the young heir to the throne; it included a member of a Xiongnu tribe. The actual government was in the hands of a general and his clique until the death of the heir to the throne, and at the beginning of his successor's reign.

“At this time came the end of the Xiongnu empire—a foreign event of the utmost importance. As a result of the continual disastrous wars against the Chinese, in which not only many men but, especially, large quantities of cattle fell into Chinese hands, the livelihood of the Xiongnu was seriously threatened; their troubles were increased by plagues and by unusually severe winters. To these troubles were added political difficulties, including unsettled questions in regard to the succession to the throne. The result of all this was that the Xiongnu could no longer offer effective military resistance to the Chinese. There were a number of shan-yu ruling contemporaneously as rivals, and one of them had to yield to the Chinese in 58 B.C.; in 51 he came as a vassal to the Chinese court. The collapse of the Xiongnu empire was complete. After 58 B.C. the Chinese were freed from all danger from that quarter and were able, for a time, to impose their authority in Central Asia.

Wang Zhaojun: One of the Four Great Beauties of China

Wang Zhaojun, also known as Wang Qiang, was born in Baoping Village, Zigui County (in current Hubei Province) in 52 B.C. in the the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.– A.D. 8). One of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient Chinese, she is said to have been a gorgeous lady and talented at painting, Chinese calligraphy, playing chess and music. She lived at a time when the Han Empire was having conflicts with Xiongnu, a nomadic people from Central Asia based in present-day Mongolia. Before her life took a dramatic turn, she was a neglected palace concubine, never visited by the emperor.

In 33 B.C., Hu Hanye, leader of the Xiongnu paid a respectful visit to the Han emperor, asking permission to marry a Han princess, as proof of the Xiongnu people's sincerity to live in peace with the Han people. Instead of giving him a princess, which was the custom, the emperor offered him five women from his harem, including Wang Zhaojun. No princess or maids wanted to marry a Xiongnu leader and live a distant place so Wang Zhaojun stood out when she agreed to go to Xiongnu.

story of Jin Midi

The historical classic, "Hou Han Shu", reveals that Wang Zhaojun volunteered to marry Hu Hanye. When the Han emperor finally met her, he was astonished by her beauty, but it was too late for regrets. She married Hu Hangye and had children by him. Her life became the foundation and unfailing story of "Zhaojun Chu Sai", or "Zhaojun Departs for the Frontier". Peace ensued for over 60 years thanks to her marriage. [Source: Peng Ran, CRIENGLISH.com, July 17, 2007]

In the most prevalent version of the "Four Beauties" legend, it is said that Wang Zhaojun left her hometown on horseback on a bright autumn morning and began a journey northward. Along the way, the horse neighed, making Zhaojun extremely sad and unable to control her emotions. As she sat on the saddle, she began to play sorrowful melodies on a stringed instrument. A flock of geese flying southward heard the music, saw the beautiful young woman riding the horse, immediately forgot to flap their wings, and fell to the ground. From then on, Zhaojun acquired the nickname "fells geese" or "drops birds." Statistics show that there are about 700 poems and songs and 40 kinds of stories and folktales about Wang Zhaojun from more than 500 famous writers, both ancient (Shi Chong, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Li Shangyin, Zhang Zhongsu, Cai Yong, Wang Anshi, Yelü Chucai) and modern (Guo Moruo, Cao Yu, Tian Han, Jian Bozan, Fei Xiaotong, Lao She, Chen Zhisui). [Source: Wikipedia +]

The mausoleum of Wang Zhaojun is called Qing Zhong, or the Green Tomb. It resembles the natural green slope of a hill. She is still commemorated in Inner Mongolia people as a peace envoy, who contributed greatly to the friendship between the Han and Mongolian ethnic groups. A Zhaojun Museum has been set up near her tomb, in which her beautiful likeness is displayed in a white-marble sculpture and her wedding scene has become a bronze statue. In these artistic representations Wang Zhaojun always looks happy and resolved, in accordance with the widely accepted image of her as a brave woman who sacrificed for her country. Her sorrows as a tragic heroine deprived of true love may be buried along with her deep in the green tomb.

For more on Wang Zhaojun see: FOUR BEAUTIES OF ANCIENT CHINA factsanddetails.com

Fighting Between the Chinese and Xiongnu Over Western China

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The Xiongnu, in spite of internal difficulties, had regained considerable influence in Turkestan (Xinjiang, present-day western China) during the reign of Wang Mang. But the king of the city state of Yarkand had increased his power by shrewdly playing off Chinese and Xiongnu against each other, so that before long he was able to attack the Xiongnu. The small states in Turkestan, however, regarded the overlordship of the distant China as preferable to that of Yarkand or the Xiongnu both of whom, being nearer, were able to bring their power more effectively into play. Accordingly many of the small states appealed for Chinese aid. Kuang-Wu Di met this appeal with a blank refusal, implying that order had only just been restored in China and that he now simply had not the resources for a campaign in Turkestan. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Thus, the king of Yarkand was able to extend his power over the remainder of the small states of Turkestan, since the Xiongnu had been obliged to withdraw. Kuang-Wu Di had several frontier wars with the Xiongnu without any decisive result. But in the years around A.D. 45 the Xiongnu had suffered several severe droughts and also great plagues of locusts, so that they had lost a large part of their cattle. They were no longer able to assert themselves in Turkestan and at the same time to fight the Chinese in the south and the Hsien-pi and the Wu-huan in the east. These two peoples, apparently largely of Mongol origin, had been subject in the past to Xiongnu overlordship. They had spread steadily in the territories bordering Manchuria and Mongolia, beyond the eastern frontier of the Xiongnu empire. Living there in relative peace and at the same time in possession of very fertile pasturage, these two peoples had grown in strength. And since the great political collapse of 58 B.C. the Xiongnu had not only lost their best pasturage in the north of the provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi, but had largely grown used to living in co-operation with the Chinese. They had become much more accustomed to trade with China, exchanging animals for textiles and grain, than to warfare, so that in the end they were defeated by the Hsien-pi and Wu-huan, who had held to the older form of purely warlike nomad life. Weakened by famine and by the wars against Wu-huan and Hsien-pi, the Xiongnu split into two, one section withdrawing to the north.

“The southern Xiongnu were compelled to submit to the Chinese in order to gain security from their other enemies. Thus the Chinese were able to gain a great success without moving a finger: the Xiongnu, who for centuries had shown themselves again and again to be the most dangerous enemies of China, were reduced to political insignificance. About a hundred years earlier the Xiongnu empire had suffered defeat; now half of what remained of it became part of the Chinese state. Its place was taken by the Hsien-pi and Wu-huan, but at first they were of much less importance.

“In spite of the partition, the northern Xiongnu attempted in the years between A.D. 60 and 70 to regain a sphere of influence in Turkestan; this seemed the easier for them since the king of Yarkand had been captured and murdered, and Turkestan was more or less in a state of confusion. The Chinese did their utmost to play off the northern against the southern Xiongnu and to maintain a political balance of power in the west and north. So long as there were a number of small states in Turkestan, of which at least some were friendly to China, Chinese trade caravans suffered relatively little disturbance on their journeys. Independent states in Turkestan had proved more profitable for trade than when a large army of occupation had to be maintained there. When, however, there appeared to be the danger of a new union of the two parts of the Xiongnu as a restoration of a large empire also comprising all Turkestan, the Chinese trading monopoly was endangered.

Any great power would secure the best goods for itself, and there would be no good business remaining for China. For these reasons a great Chinese campaign was undertaken against Turkestan in A.D. 73 under Tou Ku. Mainly owing to the ability of the Chinese deputy commander Pan Ch'ao, the whole of Turkestan was quickly conquered. Meanwhile the emperor Ming Ti (A.D. 58-75) had died, and under the new emperor Chang Ti (76-88) the "isolationist" party gained the upper hand against the clique of Tou Ku and Pan Ch'ao: the danger of the restoration of a Xiongnu empire, the isolationists contended, no longer existed; Turkestan should be left to itself; the small states would favour trade with China of their own accord. Meanwhile, a considerable part of Turkestan had fallen away from China, for Chang Ti sent neither money nor troops to hold the conquered territories. Pan Ch'ao nevertheless remained in Turkestan (at Kashgar and Khotan) where he held on amid countless difficulties. Although he reported (A.D. 78) that the troops could feed themselves in Turkestan and needed neither supplies nor money from home, no reinforcements of any importance were sent; only a few hundred or perhaps a thousand men, mostly released criminals, reached him. Not until A.D. 89 did the Pan Ch'ao clique return to power when the mother of the young emperor Ho Ti (89-105) took over the government during his minority: she was a member of the family of Tou Ku. She was interested in bringing to a successful conclusion the enterprise which had been started by members of her family and its followers. In addition, it can be shown that a number of other members of the "war party" had direct interests in the west, mainly in form of landed estates. Accordingly, a campaign was started in 89 under her brother against the northern Xiongnu, and it decided the fate of Turkestan in China's favour. Turkestan remained firmly in Chinese possession until the death of Pan Ch'ao in 102. Shortly afterwards heavy fighting broke out again: the Tanguts advanced from the south in an attempt to cut off Chinese access to Turkestan. The Chinese drove back the Tanguts and maintained their hold on Turkestan, though no longer absolutely.

Huns and Xiongnu

Many believe the Huns descended from tribes referred to by the Chinese as the Xiongnu. Irma Marx of the Silk Road Foundation wrote: “The Xiongnu stemmed basically from the Siberian branch of the Mongolian race. During the third and second centuries B.C. they rose to great power and became a tribal confederation. During Emperor Mo-tun reign (208-175 B.C.), 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 B.C. 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. [Source: Irma Marx, Silk Road Foundation]

Attila the Hun

“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 B.C. 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.

Hunnu: Ancient Chinese Account of Xiongnu

Hunnu clothes

Chinese description of the Hunnu or Hu are believed to be primarily accounts of the Xiongnu. According to Mongolia Today: “The Hunnu kingdom stretched from Baikal Lake in the north to Great Chinese Wall in south, from Yellow Sea to the oases of Central Asia. The state, ruled by a king or Shanyu elected by assembly of all tribe chieftains- khurultai, was built on the principle of military democracy under which all the nomadic herders were warriors and subjects at the same time. Chinese historical records noted that each autumn all men and cattle were counted to decide the amount of taxes and army subscripts. Hunnu army was based on decimal system and was well armed. Rock paintings from that period depict armored knights and horses protected with aprons embroidered with metal plates. [Source: Mongolia Today, June 18, 2007 ==]

“Hunnu domesticated various animals including camels and grew crops. Inside graveyards corn grindstone and parts of plough prove that their grew crops. Hunnu knew metal works as the amazing number variety of their arms suggest. Each and very Hunnu warrior had various arms for close and distance combat. Plenty of bronze and potter kitchenware proves that Hunnu had well developed craftsmen. ==

“The decline of Hunnu empire began in the first century B.C. starting from the rivalry of two princes, Huhan’e and Zhizhi. After several major battles the younger brother fled, leading his men to West, towards the Caspian Sea. Five hundred years later, their descendants migrated further reaching Dunai River and setting up own kingdom headed by . The remaining and weakened Hunnu fell under the repeated assaults of a neighboring nomadic tribe, Xianbi, which appeared on the eastern flanks of the Hunnu empire. ==

“Recent research suggests that Hunnu did not differ much from modern Mongols in their appearance and may represent their ancestors. Anthropological studies show that the Mongoloid race or Central Asian type was already well shaped by the time of Hunnu. This a final conclusion made by Prof. G.Tumen, Chair of the Anthropology and Archeology of the Mongolian National University, after more than 30 years of comparative study of skulls from Stone Age to modern times. DNA analysis also proved the consistency of genetic lines between Hunnu and modern Mongols. This scientific conclusion implies that Atilla the Hun was indeed an ancestor of the Mogols.” ==


Yuezhi copy of a 2nd century BC Greco-Bactrian coin

The Yuezhi (Wade-Giles Yüeh-chih, also called Indo-Scyth) were ancient people who ruled in Bactria and India from about 128 B.C. to about B.C. 450 as the Kushin Empire. The Yuezhi are first mentioned in Chinese sources at the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. as nomads living in the western part of Gansu province, northwestern China. When Lao Shang (reigned c. 174–161 B.C.), ruler of the Xiongnu (a powerful people of North China), defeated them and killed their king, the main body of the Yuezhi moved westward into Sogdiana and Bactria, putting an end to Greek rule in both regions. [Source: britannica.com]

The Yuezhi are described in some detail in Chinese historical accounts, in particular the 2nd–1st century B.C. “Records of the Great Historian,” or Shiji, by Sima Qian. One passage goes: The Yuezhi originally lived in the area between the Qilian or Heavenly Mountains and Dunhuang, but after they were defeated by the Xiongnu they moved far away to the west, beyond Dayuan, where they attacked and conquered the people of Daxia and set up the court of their king on the northern bank of the Gui River. A small number of their people who were unable to make the journey west sought refuge among the Qiang barbarians in the Southern Mountains, where they are known as the Lesser Yuezhi. [Source: Account of Dayuan", Shiji, 123]

The area between the Qilian Mountains and Dunhuang lies in the modern Chinese province of Gansu. However some scholars have argued that the mountains referred to are the Tian Shan, placing the original homeland of the Yuezhi 1,000 kilometers further west in the northern part of modern Xinjiang. The archaeologist Lin Meicun further argues that Dunhuang refers to a mountain in the Tian Shan named Dunhong, which is listed in the Classic of Mountains and Seas. [Source: Wikipedia]


Xiongnu and the Yuezhi Exodus

The Xiongnu temporarily abandoned their interest in China and turned their attention westward to the region of the Altai Mountains and Lake Balkash, inhabited by the Yuezhi), an Indo-European-speaking nomadic people who had relocated from China's present-day Gansu Province as a result of their earlier defeat by the Xiongnu. Endemic warfare between these two nomadic peoples reached a climax in the latter part of the third century and the early decades of the second century B.C.; the Xiongnu were triumphant. The Yuezhi then migrated to the southwest where, early in the second century, they began to appear in the Oxus (the modern Amu Darya) Valley, to change the course of history in Bactria, Iran, and eventually India.*

Yuezhi migrations

Shortly before 174 B.C., led by one of Modu's tribal chiefs, the Xiongnu invaded Yuezhi territory in the Gansu region and achieved a crushing victory. Modu boasted in a letter (174 B.C.) to the Han emperor that due to "the excellence of his fighting men, and the strength of his horses, he has succeeded in wiping out the Yuezhi, slaughtering or forcing to submission every number of the tribe." The son of Modu, Laoshang Chanyu, subsequently killed the king of the Yuezhi and, in accordance with nomadic traditions, "made a drinking cup out of his skull." (Shiji 123. Watson 1961:231). [Source: Wikipedia +]

Following Chinese sources, a large part of the Yuezhi people therefore fell under the domination of the Xiongnu, and these may have been the ancestors of the Tocharian speakers attested in the 6th century CE. A very small group of Yuezhi fled south to the territory of the Proto-Tibetan Qiang and came to be known to the Chinese as the "Small Yuezhi". According to the Hanshu, they only numbered around 150 families. +

Finally, a large group of the Yuezhi fled from the Tarim Basin towards the Northwest, first settling in the Ili valley, immediately north of the Tian Shan mountains, where they confronted and defeated the Sai (Sakas or Scythians): "The Yuezhi attacked the king of the Sai who moved a considerable distance to the south and the Yuezhi then occupied his lands" (Han Shu 61 4B). The Sai undertook their own migration, which was to lead them as far as Kashmir, after travelling through a "Suspended Crossing" (probably the Khunjerab Pass between present-day Xinjiang and northern Pakistan). The Sakas ultimately established an Indo-Scythian kingdom in northern India. +

After 155 B.C., the Wusun, in alliance with the Xiongnu and out of revenge from an earlier conflict, managed to dislodge the Yuezhi, forcing them to move south. The Yuezhi crossed the neighbouring urban civilization of the Dayuan in Ferghana and settled on the northern bank of the Oxus, in the region of Transoxiana, in modern-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, just north of the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The Greek city of Alexandria on the Oxus was apparently burnt to the ground by the Yuezhi around 145 B.C. +

Yuezhi Conquer Bactia

The Yuezhi were visited in Transoxiana by a Chinese mission, led by Zhang Qian in 126 B.C., that was seeking an offensive alliance with the Yuezhi to counter the Xiongnu threat to the north. The Yuezhi turned down the request, preferring to stay peacefully where they were rather than to seek revenge. Zhang Qian spent a year with the Yuezhi and in Bactria. He wrote in "the Great Yuezhi live 2,000 or 3,000 li (832–1,247 kilometers) west of Dayuan (Ferghana), north of the Gui (Oxus) river. They are bordered on the south by Daxia (Bactria), on the west by Anxi (Parthia), and on the north by Kangju (beyond the middle Jaxartes). They are a nation of nomads, moving from place to place with their herds, and their customs are like those of the Xiongnu. They have some 100,000 or 200,000 archer warriors." [Source: Shiji 123]

Yuezhi copy of the 2nd century BC coin with the Greco-Bactrian king Heliocles I

The Yuezhi were organized into five major tribes, each led by a yabgu, or tribal chief. Although they remained north of the Oxus for a while, they apparently obtained the submission of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom to the south of the Oxus. Describing the Greco-Bactrian kingdom after the conquest by Yuezhi, Zhang Qian wrote: "Daxia (Greco-Bactria) is located over 2,000 li southwest of Dayuan, south of the Gui (Oxus) river. Its people cultivate the land and have cities and houses. Their customs are like those of Ta-Yuan. It has no great ruler but only a number of petty chiefs ruling the various cities. The people are poor in the use of arms and afraid of battle, but they are clever at commerce. After the Great Yuezhi moved west and attacked the lands, the entire country came under their sway. The population of the country is large, numbering some 1,000,000 or more persons. The capital is called the city of Lanshi (Bactra) (modern Balkh) and has a market where all sorts of goods are bought and sold."

On physical types and cultures of Central Asia in 126 B.C., Zhang Qian reported that "although the states from Dayuan west to Anxi (Parthia), speak rather different languages, their customs are generally similar and their languages mutually intelligible. The men have deep-set eyes and profuse beards and whiskers. They are skilful at commerce and will haggle over a fraction of a cent. Women are held in great respect, and the men make decisions on the advice of their women."

In 124 B.C., the Yuezhi were apparently involved in a war against the Parthians. Some time after that the Yuezhi moved south to Bactria, which was conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. and settled by his Greek-Persian successors, the Seleucids. The Greek historian Strabo recorded this event, mistaking the Yuezhi for a Scythian tribe. "Most of the Scythians, beginning from the Caspian Sea, are called Dahae Scythae, and those situated more towards the east Massagetae and Sacae; the rest have the common appellation of Scythians, but each separate tribe has its peculiar name. All, or the greatest part of them, are nomads. The best known tribes are those who deprived the Greeks of Bactriana, the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari, and Sacarauli, who came from the country on the other side of the Jaxartes, opposite the Sacae and Sogdiani." [Source: Strabo, 11-8-1]

The last Greco-Bactrian king, Heliocles I, retreated and moved his capital to the Kabul Valley. The eastern part of Bactria was occupied by Pashtun people. As they settled in Bactria from around 125 B.C., the Yuezhi became Hellenized to some degree, as suggested by their adoption of the Greek alphabet and by some remaining coins, minted in the style of the Greco-Bactrian kings, with the text in Greek. The area of Bactria they settled came to be known as Tokharistan, since the Yuezhi were called Tókharoi by the Greeks. [Source: Wikipedia]

Xiongnu, Kushans and Chinese

Kushan-style Buddha from the AD 2nd century

In time the Yuezhi made peace with the Xiongnu, Saka and Sogdians. Their descendants, the Kushans, converted to Buddhism in the 1st century B.C. and established a kingdom that embraced parts of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Central Asia. When Kushan was its peak in first three centuries after Christ, it ranked with Rome, China and Parthia as one of the great powers of the world.

Commercial relations with China also flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century B.C.: "The largest of these embassies to foreign states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members ... In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out." The Hou Hanshu also records the visit of Yuezhi envoys to the Chinese capital in 2 B.C., who gave oral teachings on Buddhist sutras to a student, suggesting that some Yuezhi already followed the Buddhist faith during the 1st century B.C. [Sources” Shiji, trans. Burton Watson; Baldev Kumar 1973]

A later Chinese annotation in Shiji made by Zhang Shoujie during the early 8th century, quoting Wan Zhen's “Strange Things from the Southern Region”, a now-lost third-century text of from the Wu kingdom, describes the Kushans as living in the same general area north of India, in cities of Greco-Roman style, and with sophisticated handicraft. "The Great Yuezhi [Kushans] is located about seven thousand li (about 3000 km) north of India. Their land is at a high altitude; the climate is dry; the region is remote. The king of the state calls himself "son of heaven". There are so many riding horses in that country that the number often reaches several hundred thousand. City layouts and palaces are quite similar to those of Daqin (the Roman empire). The skin of the people there is reddish white. People are skilful at horse archery. Local products, rarities, treasures, clothing, and upholstery are very good, and even India cannot compare with it." The quotes are dubious, as Wan Zhen probably never visited the Yuezhi kingdom through the Silk Road, though he might have gathered his information from the trading ports in the coastal south. [Source: Wikipedia]

Xianbei, Donghu, Toba, and Ruruan

Although the Xiongnu finally had been driven back into their homeland by the Chinese in A.D. 48, within ten years the Xianbei (or Hsien-pei in Wade-Giles) had moved (apparently from the north or northwest) into the region vacated by the Xiongnu. The Xianbei were the northern branch of the Donghu (or Tung Hu, the Eastern Hu), a proto-Tunguz group mentioned in Chinese histories as existing as early as the fourth century B.C. The language of the Donghu, like that of the Xiongnu, is unknown to modern scholars. The Donghu were among the first peoples conquered by the Xiongnu. Once the Xiongnu state weakened, however, the Donghu rebelled. By the first century, two major subdivisions of the Donghu had developed: the Xianbei in the north and the Wuhuan in the south. The Xianbei, who by the second century A.D. were attacking Chinese farms south of the Great Wall, established an empire, which, although short-lived, gave rise to numerous tribal states along the Chinese frontier. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

female Xianbei warrior

Among these states was that of the Toba (T'o-pa in Wade-Giles), a subgroup of the Xianbei, in modern China's Shanxi Province. The Wuhuan also were prominent in the second century, but they disappeared thereafter; possibly they were absorbed in the Xianbei western expansion. The Xianbei and the Wuhuan used mounted archers in warfare, and they had only temporary war leaders instead of hereditary chiefs. Agriculture, rather than full-scale nomadism, was the basis of their economy. In the sixth century A.D., the Wuhuan were driven out of Inner Asia into the Russian steppe.*

Chinese control of parts of Inner Asia did not last beyond the opening years of the second century, and, as the Eastern Han Dynasty ended early in the third century A.D., suzerainty was limited primarily to the Gansu corridor. The Xianbei were able to make forays into a China beset with internal unrest and political disintegration. By 317 all of China north of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) had been overrun by nomadic peoples: the Xianbei from the north; some remnants of the Xiongnu from the northwest; and the Chiang people of Gansu and Tibet (present-day China's Xizang Autonomous Region) from the west and the southwest. Chaos prevailed as these groups warred with each other and repulsed the vain efforts of the fragmented Chinese kingdoms south of the Chang Jiang to reconquer the region.*

By the end of the fourth century, the region between the Chang Jiang and the Gobi, including much of modern Xinjiang, was dominated by the Toba. Emerging as the partially sinicized state of Dai between A.D. 338 and 376 in the Shanxi area, the Toba established control over the region as the Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386-533). Northern Wei armies drove back the Ruruan (referred to as Ruanruan or Juan-Juan by Chinese chroniclers), a newly arising nomadic Mongol people in the steppes north of the Altai Mountains, and reconstructed the Great Wall. During the fourth century also, the Huns left the steppes north of the Aral Sea to invade Europe. By the middle of the fifth century, Northern Wei had penetrated into the Tarim Basin in Inner Asia, as had the Chinese in the second century. As the empire grew, however, Toba tribal customs were supplanted by those of the Chinese, an evolution not accepted by all Toba.*

The Ruruan, only temporarily repelled by Northern Wei, had driven the Xiongnu toward the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea and were making raids into China. In the late fifth century, the Ruruan established a powerful nomadic empire spreading generally north of Northern Wei. It was probably the Ruruan who first used the title khan. *

Influence of Tang China of Ancient Horse People

Tang horse

From 629 to 648, a reunited China — under the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906) — destroyed the power of the Eastern Türk north of the Gobi; established suzerainty over the Kitan, a semi-nomadic Mongol people who lived in areas that became the modern Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin; and formed an alliance with the Uighurs , who inhabited the region between the Altai Mountains and Lake Balkash. Between 641 and 648, the Tang conquered the Western Türk, reestablishing Chinese sovereignty over Xinjiang and exacting tribute from west of the Pamir Mountains. The Türk empire finally ended in 744. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

For more than a century, the Tang retained control of central and eastern Mongolia and parts of Inner Asia. During this century, the Tang expanded Chinese control into the Oxus Valley. At the same time, their allies and nominal vassals, the Uighurs, conquered much of western and northern Mongolia until, by the middle of the eighth century, the Uighur seminomadic empire extended from Lake Balkash to Lake Baykal.*

It was at about this time that the Arab-led tide of Islam reached Inner Asia. After a bitter struggle, the Chinese were ejected from the Oxus Valley, but with Uighur assistance they defeated Muslim efforts to penetrate into Xinjiang. The earliest Mongol links with Tibetan Buddhism, or Lamaism , also may have been established in this period. During this time, the Kitan of western Manchuria took advantage of the situation to throw off Chinese control, and they began to raid northern China.*

Despite these crippling losses, the Tang recovered and, with considerable Uighur assistance, held their frontiers. Tang dependence upon their northern allies was apparently a source of embarrassment to the Chinese, who surreptitiously encouraged the Kirghiz and the Karluks to attack the Uighurs, driving them south into the Tarim Basin. As a result of the Kirghiz action, the Uighur empire collapsed in 846. Some of the Uighurs emigrated to Chinese Turkestan (the Turpan region), where they established a flourishing kingdom that freely submitted to Genghis Khan several centuries later. Ironically, this weakening of the Uighurs undoubtedly hastened the decline and fall of the Tang Dynasty over the next fifty years. *

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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