The Xiongnu (Chinese: 匈奴; Wade–Giles: Hsiung-nu) were a confederation of nomadic peoples who, according to ancient Chinese sources, inhabited the eastern Asian Steppe from the 3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD. Chinese sources report that Modu Chanyu, the supreme leader after 209 BC, founded the Xiongnu Empire.
After their previous overlords, the Yuezhi, migrated into Central Asia during the 2nd century BC, the Xiongnu became a dominant power on the steppes of north-east Central Asia, centred on an area known later as Mongolia. The Xiongnu were also active in areas now part of Siberia, Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang. Their relations with adjacent Chinese dynasties to the south east were complex, with repeated periods of conflict and intrigue, alternating with exchanges of tribute, trade, and marriage treaties.
Attempts to identify the Xiongnu with later groups of the western Eurasian Steppe remain controversial. Scythians and Sarmatians were concurrently to the west. 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. The name Xiongnu may be cognate with that of the Huns or the Huna, although this is disputed. Other linguistic links – all of them also controversial – proposed by scholars include Iranian, Mongolic, Turkic, Uralic, Yeniseian, or multi-ethnic.
An early reference to the Xiongnu was by the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian who wrote about the Xiongnu in the Records of the Grand Historian (c. 100 BC), 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. Pre-Han sources often classify the Xiongnu as a Hu people, which was a blanket term for nomadic people in general; it only became an ethnonym for the Xiongnu during the Han.
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.
Sinologist Edwin Pulleyblank argued that the Xiongnu were part of a Xirong group called Yiqu, who had lived in Shaanbei and had been influenced by China for centuries, before they were driven out by the Qin dynasty. Qin's campaign against the Xiongnu expanded Qin's territory at the expense of the Xiongnu. In 215 BC, Qin Shi Huang 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 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.
In 209 BC, three years before the founding of Han China, the Xiongnu were brought together in a powerful confederation under a new chanyu, Modu Chanyu. This new political unity transformed them into a more formidable state by enabling formation of larger armies and the ability to exercise better strategic coordination. The Xiongnu adopted many of the Chinese agriculture techniques such as slave labor for heavy labor, wore silk like the Chinese, and lived in Chinese-style homes. The reason for creating the confederation remains unclear. Suggestions include the need for a stronger state to deal with the Qin unification of China that resulted in a loss of the Ordos region at the hands of Meng Tian or the political crisis that overtook the Xiongnu in 215 BC when Qin armies evicted them from their pastures on the Yellow River.
After forging internal unity, Modu expanded the empire on all sides. To the north he conquered a number of nomadic peoples, including the Dingling of southern Siberia. He crushed the power of the Donghu people of eastern Mongolia and Manchuria as well as the Yuezhi in the Hexi Corridor of Gansu, where his son, Jizhu, made a skull cup out of the Yuezhi king. Modu also reoccupied all the lands previously taken by the Qin general Meng Tian.
Under Modu's leadership, the Xiongnu threatened the Han dynasty, almost causing Emperor Gaozu, the first Han emperor, to lose his throne in 200 BC. By the time of Modu's death in 174 BC, the Xiongnu had driven the Yuezhi from the Hexi Corridor, killing the Yuezhi king in the process and asserting their presence in the Western Regions.
The Xiongnu were recognized as the most prominent of the nomads bordering the Chinese Han empire and during early relations between the Xiongnu and the Han, the former held the balance of power. According to the Book of Han, later quoted in Duan Chengshi's ninth century Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang:
Also, according to the Han shu, Wang Wu (王烏) and others were sent as envoys to pay a visit to the Xiongnu. According to the customs of the Xiongnu, if the Han envoys did not remove their tallies of authority, and if they did not allow their faces to be tattooed, they could not gain entrance into the yurts. Wang Wu and his company removed their tallies, submitted to tattoo, and thus gained entry. The Shanyu looked upon them very highly.
After Modu, later leaders formed a dualistic system of political organisation with the left and right branches of the Xiongnu divided on a regional basis. The chanyu or shanyu, a ruler equivalent to the Emperor of China, exercised direct authority over the central territory. Longcheng (蘢城), near the Orkhon inscriptions in modern Mongolia, became the annual meeting place and served as the Xiongnu capital.
The ruler of the Xiongnu was called the Chanyu. Under him were the Tuqi Kings. The Tuqi King of the Left was normally the heir presumptive. Next lower in the hierarchy came more officials in pairs of left and right: the guli, the army commanders, the great governors, the dunghu and the gudu. Beneath them came the commanders of detachments of one thousand, of one hundred, and of ten men. This nation of nomads, a people on the march, was organized like an army.
Yap, apparently describing the early period, places the Chanyu's main camp north of Shanxi with the Tuqi King of the Left holding the area north of Beijing and the Tuqi King of the Right holding the Ordos Loop area as far as Gansu. Grousset, probably describing the situation after the Xiongnu had been driven north, places the Chanyu on the upper Orkhon River near where Genghis Khan would later establish his capital of Karakorum. The Tuqi King of the Left lived in the east, probably on the high Kherlen River. The Tuqi King of the Right lived in the west, perhaps near present-day Uliastai in the Khangai Mountains.
In the winter of 200 BC, following a siege of Taiyuan, Emperor Gaozu of Han personally led a military campaign against Modun. At the Battle of Baideng, he was ambushed reputedly by 300,000 elite Xiongnu cavalry. The emperor was cut off from supplies and reinforcements for seven days, only narrowly escaping capture.
The Han Chinese sent princesses to marry Xiongnu leaders in their efforts to stop the border raids. Along with arranged marriages, the Han sent gifts to bribe the Xiongnu to stop attacking. After the defeat at Pingcheng, the Han emperor abandoned a military solution to the Xiongnu threat. Instead, in 198 BC, the courtier Liu Jing was dispatched for negotiations. The peace settlement eventually reached between the parties included a Han princess given in marriage to the chanyu (called heqin Chinese: 和親; literally: "harmonious kinship"); periodic gifts to the Xiongnu of silk, distilled beverages and rice; equal status between the states; and the Great Wall as mutual border.
This first treaty set the pattern for relations between the Han and the Xiongnu for sixty years. Up to 135 BC, the treaty was renewed nine times, each time with an increase in the "gifts". In 192 BC, Modun even asked for the hand of Emperor Gao's widow Empress Lü Zhi. His son and successor, the energetic Jiyu, known as the Laoshang Chanyu, continued his father's expansionist policies. Laoshang succeeded in negotiating with Emperor Wen terms for the maintenance of a large scale government sponsored market system.
While the Xiongnu benefited handsomely, from the Chinese perspective marriage treaties were costly, humiliating, and ineffective. Laoshang showed that he did not take the peace treaty seriously. On one occasion his scouts penetrated to a point near Chang'an. In 166 BC he personally led 140,000 cavalry to invade Anding, reaching as far as the imperial retreat at Yong. In 158 BC, his successor sent 30,000 cavalry to attack Shangdang and another 30,000 to Yunzhong.
The Xiongnu also practiced marriage alliances with Han dynasty officers and officials who defected to their side. The older sister of the Chanyu (the Xiongnu ruler) was married to the Xiongnu General Zhao Xin, the Marquis of Xi who was serving the Han dynasty. The daughter of the Chanyu was married to the Han Chinese General Li Ling after he surrendered and defected. The Yenisei Kirghiz Khagans claimed descent from Li Ling. Another Han Chinese General who defected to the Xiongnu was Li Guangli who also married a daughter of the Chanyu.
When the Eastern Jin dynasty ended the Xianbei Northern Wei received the Han Chinese Jin prince Sima Chuzhi 司馬楚之 as a refugee. A Northern Wei Xianbei Princess married Sima Chuzhi, giving birth to Sima Jinlong 司馬金龍. Northern Liang Xiongnu King Juqu Mujian's daughter married Sima Jinlong.
The Han dynasty made preparations for war when the Han Emperor Wu dispatched the explorer Zhang Qian to explore the mysterious kingdoms to the west and to form an alliance with the Yuezhi people in order to combat the Xiongnu. During this time Zhang married a Xiongnu wife, who bore him a son, and gained the trust of the Xiongnu leader. While Zhang Qian did not succeed in this mission, his reports of the west provided even greater incentive to counter the Xiongnu hold on westward routes out of China, and the Chinese prepared to mount a large scale attack using the Northern Silk Road to move men and material.
While Han China was making preparations for a military confrontation from the reign of Emperor Wen, the break did not come until 133 BC, following an abortive trap to ambush the chanyu at Mayi. By that point the empire was consolidated politically, militarily and economically, and was led by an adventurous pro-war faction at court. In that year, Emperor Wu reversed the decision he had made the year before to renew the peace treaty.
Full-scale war broke out in autumn 129 BC, when 40,000 Chinese cavalry made a surprise attack on the Xiongnu at the border markets. In 127 BC, the Han general Wei Qing retook the Ordos. In 121 BC, the Xiongnu suffered another setback when Huo Qubing led a force of light cavalry westward out of Longxi and within six days fought his way through five Xiongnu kingdoms. The Xiongnu Hunye king was forced to surrender with 40,000 men. In 119 BC both Huo and Wei, each leading 50,000 cavalrymen and 100,000 footsoldiers (in order to keep up with the mobility of the Xiongnu, many of the non-cavalry Han soldiers were mobile infantrymen who traveled on horseback but fought on foot), and advancing along different routes, forced the chanyu and his court to flee north of the Gobi Desert.[page needed] Major logistical difficulties limited the duration and long-term continuation of these campaigns. According to the analysis of Yan You (嚴尤), the difficulties were twofold. Firstly there was the problem of supplying food across long distances. Secondly, the weather in the northern Xiongnu lands was difficult for Han soldiers, who could never carry enough fuel.[a] According to official reports, the Xiongnu lost 80,000 to 90,000 men, and out of the 140,000 horses the Han forces had brought into the desert, fewer than 30,000 returned to China.
As a result of these battles, the Chinese controlled the strategic region from the Ordos and Gansu corridor to Lop Nor. They succeeded in separating the Xiongnu from the Qiang peoples to the south, and also gained direct access to the Western Regions. Because of strong Chinese control over the Xiongnu, the Xiongnu became unstable and were no longer a threat to the Han Chinese.
Ban Chao, Protector General (都護; Duhu) of the Han dynasty, embarked with an army of 70,000 men in a campaign against the Xiongnu insurgents who were harassing the trade route now known as the Silk Road. His successful military campaign saw the subjugation of one Xiongnu tribe after another. Ban Chao also sent an envoy named Gan Ying to Daqin (Rome). Ban Chao was created the Marquess of Dingyuan (定遠侯, i.e., "the Marquess who stabilized faraway places") for his services to the Han Empire and returned to the capital Luoyang at the age of 70 years and died there in the year 102. Following his death, the power of the Xiongnu in the Western Regions increased again, and the emperors of subsequent dynasties were never again able to reach so far to the west.
When a Chanyu died, power could pass to his younger brother if his son was not of age. This system, which can be compared to Gaelic tanistry, normally kept an adult male on the throne, but could cause trouble in later generations when there were several lineages that might claim the throne. When the 12th Chanyu died in 60 BC, power was taken by Woyanqudi, a grandson of the 12th Chanyu's cousin. Being something of a usurper, he tried to put his own men in power, which only increased the number of his enemies. The 12th Chanyu's son fled east and, in 58 BC, revolted. Few would support Woyanqudi and he was driven to suicide, leaving the rebel son, Huhanye, as the 14th Chanyu. The Woyanqudi faction then set up his brother, Tuqi, as Chanyu (58 BC). In 57 BC three more men declared themselves Chanyu. Two dropped their claims in favor of the third who was defeated by Tuqi in that year and surrendered to Huhanye the following year. In 56 BC Tuqi was defeated by Huhanye and committed suicide, but two more claimants appeared: Runzhen and Huhanye's elder brother Zhizhi Chanyu. Runzhen was killed by Zhizhi in 54 BC, leaving only Zhizhi and Huhanye. Zhizhi grew in power, and, in 53 BC, Huhanye moved south and submitted to the Chinese. Huhanye used Chinese support to weaken Zhizhi, who gradually moved west. In 49 BC, a brother to Tuqi set himself up as Chanyu and was killed by Zhizhi. In 36 BC, Zhizhi was killed by a Chinese army while trying to establish a new kingdom in the far west near Lake Balkhash.
In 53 BC Huhanye (呼韓邪) decided to enter into tributary relations with Han China. The original terms insisted on by the Han court were that, first, the chanyu or his representatives should come to the capital to pay homage; secondly, the chanyu should send a hostage prince; and thirdly, the chanyu should present tribute to the Han emperor. The political status of the Xiongnu in the Chinese world order was reduced from that of a "brotherly state" to that of an "outer vassal" (外臣). During this period, however, the Xiongnu maintained political sovereignty and full territorial integrity. The Great Wall of China continued to serve as the line of demarcation between Han and Xiongnu.
Huhanye sent his son, the "wise king of the right" Shuloujutang, to the Han court as hostage. In 51 BC he personally visited Chang'an to pay homage to the emperor on the Lunar New Year. In the same year, another envoy Qijushan (稽居狦) was received at the Sweet Spring Palace in the north west of modern Shanxi. On the financial side, Huhanye was amply rewarded in large quantities of gold, cash, clothes, silk, horses and grain for his participation. Huhanye made two further homage trips, in 49 BC and 33 BC; with each one the imperial gifts were increased. On the last trip, Huhanye took the opportunity to ask to be allowed to become an imperial son-in-law. As a sign of the decline in the political status of the Xiongnu, Emperor Yuan refused, giving him instead five ladies-in-waiting. One of them was Wang Zhaojun, famed in Chinese folklore as one of the Four Beauties.
When Zhizhi learned of his brother's submission, he also sent a son to the Han court as hostage in 53 BC. Then twice, in 51 BC and 50 BC, he sent envoys to the Han court with tribute. But having failed to pay homage personally, he was never admitted to the tributary system. In 36 BC, a junior officer named Chen Tang, with the help of Gan Yanshou, protector-general of the Western Regions, assembled an expeditionary force that defeated him at the Battle of Zhizhi and sent his head as a trophy to Chang'an.
Tributary relations were discontinued during the reign of Huduershi (18 AD–48), corresponding to the political upheavals of the Xin Dynasty in China. The Xiongnu took the opportunity to regain control of the western regions, as well as neighbouring peoples such as the Wuhuan. In 24 AD, Hudershi even talked about reversing the tributary system.
The Xiongnu's new power was met with a policy of appeasement by Emperor Guangwu. At the height of his power, Huduershi even compared himself to his illustrious ancestor, Modu. Due to growing regionalism among the Xiongnu, however, Huduershi was never able to establish unquestioned authority. When he designated his son as heir apparent (in contravention of the principle of fraternal succession established by Huhanye), Bi, the Rizhu king of the right, refused to attend the annual meeting at the chanyu's court.
As the eldest son of the preceding chanyu, Bi (Pi) had a legitimate claim to the succession. In AD 48, two years after Huduershi's son Punu ascended the throne, eight Xiongnu tribes in Bi's powerbase in the south, with a military force totalling 40,000 to 50,000 men, acclaimed Bi as their own chanyu.
Throughout the Eastern Han period, these two groups were called the kingdom of southern Xiongnu (confederates in Inner Mongolia) and the kingdom of northern Xiongnu (the ancient Hunnic kingdom of the Orkhon in Outer Mongolia), respectively. In A.D. 49, Tsi Yung, allied with the Wuhuan and Xianbei, attacked the northern kingdom.
Hard pressed by the northern Xiongnu and plagued by natural calamities, Bi brought the southern Xiongnu into tributary relations with Han China in 50. The tributary system was considerably tightened to keep the southern Xiongnu under Han supervision. The chanyu was ordered to establish his court in the Meiji district of Xihe commandery. The southern Xiongnu were resettled in eight frontier commanderies. At the same time, large numbers of Chinese were forced to migrate to these commanderies, where mixed settlements began to appear. The northern Xiongnu were dispersed by the Xianbei in 85 and again in 89 by the Chinese during the Battle of Ikh Bayan, in which the last Northern Chanyu was defeated and fled over to the north west with his subjects.
Economically, the southern Xiongnu relied almost totally on Han assistance. Tensions were evident between the settled Chinese and practitioners of the nomadic way of life. Thus, in 94, Anguo Chanyu joined forces with newly subjugated Xiongnu from the north and started a large scale rebellion against the Han.
Towards the end of the Eastern Han, the southern Xiongnu were drawn into the rebellions then plaguing the Han court. In 188, the chanyu was murdered by some of his own subjects for agreeing to send troops to help the Han suppress a rebellion in Hebei – many of the Xiongnu feared that it would set a precedent for unending military service to the Han court. The murdered chanyu's son Yufuluo, entitled Chizhisizhu (持至尸逐侯), succeeded him, but was then overthrown by the same rebellious faction in 189. He travelled to Luoyang (the Han capital) to seek aid from the Han court, but at this time the Han court was in disorder from the clash between Grand General He Jin and the eunuchs, and the intervention of the warlord Dong Zhuo. The chanyu had no choice but to settle down with his followers in Pingyang, a city in Shanxi. In 195, he died and was succeeded by his brother Hucuquan.
In 216, the warlord-statesman Cao Cao detained Hucuquan in the city of Ye, and divided his followers in Shanxi into five divisions: left, right, south, north, and centre. This was aimed at preventing the exiled Xiongnu in Shanxi from engaging in rebellion, and also allowed Cao Cao to use the Xiongnu as auxiliaries in his cavalry. Eventually, the Xiongnu aristocracy in Shanxi changed their surname from Luanti to Liu for prestige reasons, claiming that they were related to the Han imperial clan through the old intermarriage policy.
After Hucuquan, in A.D. 215-216, the southern Xiongnu were partitioned into five local tribes. Each local chief was under the "surveillance of a chinese resident", while the shanyu was in "semicaptivity at the imperial court."
Huchuquan Chanyu assumed the patronymic Liu, reflecting his imperial ancestry. In 304, Liu Yuan became Chanyu of the Five Hordes. In 308, declared himself emperor and founded the Han Zhao Dynasty. In 311, his son and successor Liu Cong captured Luoyang, and with it the Emperor Huai of Jin China. In 316, the Emperor Min of Jin China was captured in Chang'an. Both emperors were humiliated as cupbearers in Linfen before being executed in 313 and 318. North China came under Xiongnu rule while the remnants of the Jin dynasty survived in the south at Jiankang.
In 318, after suppressing a coup by a powerful minister in the Xiongnu-Han court (in which the Xiongnu-Han emperor and a large proportion of the aristocracy were massacred), the Xiongnu prince Liu Yao moved the Xiongnu-Han capital from Pingyang to Chang'an and renamed the dynasty as Zhao (Liu Yuan had declared the empire's name Han to create a linkage with Han Dynasty—to which he claimed he was a descendant, through a princess, but Liu Yao felt that it was time to end the linkage with Han and explicitly restore the linkage to the great Xiongnu chanyu Maodun, and therefore decided to change the name of the state. However, this was not a break from Liu Yuan, as he continued to honor Liu Yuan and Liu Cong posthumously.) (it is hence known to historians collectively as Han Zhao).
However, the eastern part of north China came under the control of a rebel Xiongnu-Han general of Jie ancestry named Shi Le. Liu Yao and Shi Le fought a long war until 329, when Liu Yao was captured in battle and executed. Chang'an fell to Shi Le soon after, and the Xiongnu dynasty was wiped out. North China was ruled by Shi Le's Later Zhao dynasty for the next 20 years.
However, the "Liu" Xiongnu remained active in the north for at least another century.
The northern Tiefu branch of the Xiongnu gained control of the Inner Mongolian region in the 10 years between the conquest of the Tuoba Xianbei state of Dai by the Former Qin empire in 376, and its restoration in 386 as the Northern Wei. After 386, the Tiefu were gradually destroyed by or surrendered to the Tuoba, with the submitting Tiefu becoming known as the Dugu. Liu Bobo, a surviving prince of the Tiefu fled to the Ordos Loop, where he founded a state called the Xia (thus named because of the Xiongnu's supposed ancestry from the Xia dynasty) and changed his surname to Helian (赫連). The Helian-Xia state was conquered by the Northern Wei in 428–31, and the Xiongnu thenceforth effectively ceased to play a major role in Chinese history, assimilating into the Xianbei and Han ethnicities.
The ruined city was discovered in 1996 and the State Council designated it as a cultural relic under top state protection. The repair of the Yong'an Platform, where Helian Bobo, emperor of the Da Xia regime, reviewed parading troops, has been finished and restoration on the 31-meter-tall turret follows.[page needed]
The Juqu were a branch of the Xiongnu. Their leader Juqu Mengxun took over the Northern Liang by overthrowing the former puppet ruler Duan Ye. By 439, the Juqu power was destroyed by the Northern Wei. Their remnants were then settled in the city of Gaochang before being destroyed by the Rouran.
Barfield attempted to interpret Xiongnu history as well as narrate it. He made the following points: The Xiongnu confederation was unusually long-lived for a steppe empire. The purpose of raiding China was not simply for goods, but to force the Chinese to pay regular tribute. The power of the Xiongnu ruler was based on his control of Chinese tribute which he used to reward his supporters. The Han and Xiongnu empires rose at the same time because the Xiongnu state depended on Chinese tribute. A major Xiongnu weakness was the custom of lateral succession. If a dead ruler's son was not old enough to take command, power passed to the late ruler's brother. This worked in the first generation but could lead to civil war in the second generation. The first time this happened, in 60 BC, the weaker party adopted what Barfield calls the 'inner frontier strategy.' They moved south and submitted to China and then used Chinese resources to defeat the Northern Xiongnu and re-establish the empire. The second time this happened, about 47 AD, the strategy failed. The southern ruler was unable to defeat the northern ruler and the Xiongnu remained divided.
|Pronunciation of 匈
|Preclassic Old Chinese:||sŋoŋ|
|Classic Old Chinese:||[ŋ̊oŋ]|
|Postclassic Old Chinese:||hoŋ|
The sound of the first Chinese character (匈) has been reconstructed as /qʰoŋ/ in Old Chinese. The Chinese name for the Xiongnu was a pejorative term in itself, as the characters have the meaning of "fierce slave". The Chinese characters are pronounced as Xiōngnú [ɕjʊ́ŋnǔ] in modern Mandarin Chinese.
The supposed Old Chinese sound of the first character (匈) has a possible similarity with the name "Hun" in European languages. The second character (奴) appears to have no parallel in Western terminology. Whether the similarity is evidence of kinship or mere coincidence is hard to tell. It could lend credence to the theory that the Huns were in fact descendants of the Northern Xiongnu who migrated westward, or that the Huns were using a name borrowed from the Northern Xiongnu, or that these Xiongnu made up part of the Hun confederation.
The Xiongnu-Hun hypothesis originated with the 18th-century French historian Joseph de Guignes, who noticed that ancient Chinese scholars had referred to members of tribes associated with the Xiongnu by names similar to "Hun", albeit with varying Chinese characters. Étienne de la Vaissière has shown that, in the Sogdian script used in the so-called "Sogdian Ancient Letters", both the Xiongnu and Huns were referred to as γwn (xwn), indicating that the two were synonymous. Although the theory that the Xiongnu were precursors of the Huns known later in Europe is now accepted by many scholars, it has yet to become a consensus view. The identification with the Huns may be either incorrect or an oversimplification (as would appear to be the case with a proto-Mongol people, the Rouran, who have sometimes been linked to the Avars of Central Europe).
Harold Walter Bailey proposed an Iranian origin of the Xiongnu, recognizing all the earliest Xiongnu names of the 2nd century BC as being of the Iranian type. This theory is supported by turkologist Henryk Jankowski. Central Asian scholar Christopher I. Beckwith notes that the Xiongnu name could be a cognate of Scythian, Saka and Sogdia, corresponding to a name for Northern Iranians. According to Beckwith the Xiongnu could have contained a leading Iranian component when they started out, but more likely they had earlier been subjects of an Iranian people and learned from them the Iranian nomadic model.
In the UNESCO-published History of Civilizations of Central Asia, its editor János Harmatta concludes that the royal tribes and kings of the Xiongnu bore Iranian names, that all Xiongnu words noted by the Chinese can be explained from a Scythian language, and that it is therefore clear that the majority of Hsiung-nu tribes spoke an Eastern Iranian language.
Mongolian and other scholars have suggested that the Xiongnu spoke a language related to the Mongolic languages. Mongolian archaeologists proposed that the Slab Grave Culture people were the ancestors of the Xiongnu, and some scholars have suggested that the Xiongnu may have been the ancestors of the Mongols. According to the "Book of Song", (section Joujan), Joujan's (Rouran Khaganate) alternative name was "Tatar" or "Tartar" and they were a Xiongnu tribe". Nikita Bichurin considered Xiongnu and Xianbei to be two subgroups (or dynasties) but the same ethnicity.
Genghis Khan refers to the time of Modu Chanyu as "the remote times of our Chanyu" in his letter to Daoist Qiu Chuji. Sun and moon symbol of Xiongnu that discovered by archaeologists is similar to Mongolian Soyombo symbol.
Proponents of a Turkic language theory include E.H. Parker, Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat, Julius Klaproth, Kurakichi Shiratori, Gustaf John Ramstedt, Annemarie von Gabain, and Omeljan Pritsak. Some sources say the ruling class was proto-Turkic, while others suggest it was proto-Hun. Craig Benjamin sees the Xiongnu as either proto-Turks or proto-Mongols who possibly spoke a language related to the Dingling.
Lajos Ligeti was the first to suggest that the Xiongnu spoke a Yeniseian language. In the early 1960s Edwin Pulleyblank was the first to expand upon this idea with credible evidence. In 2000, Alexander Vovin reanalyzed Pulleyblank's argument and found further support for it by utilizing the most recent reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology by Starostin and Baxter and a single Chinese transcription of a sentence in the language of the Jie people, a member tribe of the Xiongnu Confederacy. Previous Turkic interpretations of the aforementioned sentence do not match the Chinese translation as precisely as using Yeniseian grammar. Pulleybank and D. N. Keightley asserted that the Xiongnu titles "were originally Siberian words but were later borrowed by the Turkic and Mongolic peoples". The Xiongnu language gave to the later Turkic and Mongolian empires a number of important culture words including Turkish tängri, Mongolian tenggeri, was originally the Xiongnu word for “heaven”, chengli (tháːŋ-wrə́j). Titles such as tarqan and tegin and kaghan were also inherited from the Xiongnu language.
Since the early 19th century, a number of Western scholars have proposed a connection between various language families or subfamilies and the language or languages of the Xiongnu. Albert Terrien de Lacouperie considered them to be multi-component groups. Many scholars believe the Xiongnu confederation was a mixture of different ethno-linguistic groups, and that their main language (as represented in the Chinese sources) and its relationships have not yet been satisfactorily determined. Kim rejects "old racial theories or even ethnic affiliations" in favour of the "historical reality of these extensive, multiethnic, polyglot steppe empires".
Chinese sources link the Tiele people and Ashina to the Xiongnu, not all Turkic peoples. According to the Book of Zhou and the History of the Northern Dynasties, the Ashina clan was a component of the Xiongnu confederation, but this connection is disputed, and according to the Book of Sui and the Tongdian, they were "mixed nomads" (雜胡 / 杂胡, Pinyin: zá hú, Wade–Giles: tsa hu) from Pingliang. The Ashina and Tiele may have been separate ethnic groups who mixed with the Xiongnu. Indeed, Chinese sources link many nomadic peoples (hu; see Wu Hu) on their northern borders to the Xiongnu, just as Greco-Roman historiographers called Avars and Huns "Scythians". The Greek cognate of Tourkia (Greek: Τουρκία) was used by the Byzantine emperor and scholar Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in his book De Administrando Imperio, though in his use, "Turks" always referred to Magyars. Such archaizing was a common literary topos, and implied similar geographic origins and nomadic lifestyle but not direct filiation. Some Uyghurs claimed descent from the Xiongnu (according to Chinese history Weishu, the founder of the Uyghur Khaganate was descended from a Xiongnu ruler), but many contemporary scholars do not consider the modern Uyghurs to be of direct linear descent from the old Uyghur Khaganate because modern Uyghur language and Old Uyghur languages are different. Rather, they consider them to be descendants of a number of people, one of them the ancient Uyghurs.
The Turkologist Gerhard Doerfer has denied any possibility of a relationship between the Xiongnu language and any other known language and rejected in the strongest terms any connection with Turkic or Mongolian.
The original geographic location of the Xiongnu is disputed among steppe archaeologists. Since the 1960s, the geographic origin of the Xiongnu has attempted to be traced through an analysis of Early Iron Age burial constructions. No region has been proven to have mortuary practices that clearly match that of the Xiongnu.
In the 1920s, Pyotr Kozlov's excavations of the royal tombs at the Noin-Ula burial site in northern Mongolia that date to around the first century CE provided a glimpse into the lost world of the Xiongnu. Other archaeological sites have been unearthed in Inner Mongolia and elsewhere; they represent the Neolithic and historical periods of the Xiongnu's history. Those included the Ordos culture, many of them had been identified as the Xiongnu cultures. The region was occupied predominantly by peoples showing Mongoloid features, known from their skeletal remains and artifacts. Portraits found in the Noin-Ula excavations demonstrate other cultural evidences and influences, showing that Chinese and Xiongnu art have influenced each other mutually. Some of these embroidered portraits in the Noin-Ula kurgans also depict the Xiongnu with long braided hair with wide ribbons, which is seen to be identical with the Ashina clan hair-style. Well-preserved bodies in Xiongnu and pre-Xiongnu tombs in the Mongolian Republic and southern Siberia show both Mongoloid and Caucasian features. Analysis of skeletal remains from sites attributed to the Xiongnu provides an identification of dolichocephalic Mongoloid, ethnically distinct from neighboring populations in present-day Mongolia. Russian and Chinese anthropological and craniofacial studies show that the Xiongnu were physically very heterogenous, with six different population clusters showing different degrees of Mongoloid and Caucasoid physical traits. These clusters point to significant cross-regional migrations (both east to west and west to east) that likely started in the Neolithic period and continued to the medieval Mongolian period.
Presently, there exist four fully excavated and well documented cemeteries: Ivolga, Dyrestui, Burkhan Tolgoi, and Daodunzi. Additionally thousands of tombs have been recorded in Transbaikalia and Mongolia. In addition to these, the Tamir 1 excavation site from a 2005 Silkroad Arkanghai Excavation Project is the only Xiongnu cemetery in Mongolia to be fully mapped in scale. Tamir 1 was located on Tamiryn Ulaan Khoshuu, a prominent granitic outcrop near other cemeteries of the Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Mongol periods. Important finds at the site included a lacquer bowl, glass beads, and three TLV mirrors. Archaeologists from this project believe that these artifacts paired with the general richness and size of the graves suggests that this cemetery was for more important or wealthy Xiongnu individuals. The TLV mirrors are of particular interest. Three mirrors were acquired from three different graves at the site. The mirror found at feature 160 is believed to be a low-quality, local imitation of a Han mirror, while the whole mirror found at feature 100 and fragments of a mirror found at feature 109 are believed to belong to the classical TLV mirrors and date back to the Xin Dynasty or the early to middle Eastern Han period. The archaeologists have chosen to, for the most part, refrain from positing anything about Han-Xiongnu relations based on these particular mirrors. However, they were willing to mention the following: "There is no clear indication of the ethnicity of this tomb occupant, but in a similar brick-chambered tomb of late Eastern Han period at the same cemetery, archaeologists discovered a bronze seal with the official title that the Han government bestowed upon the leader of the Xiongnu. The excavators suggested that these brick chamber tombs all belong to the Xiongnu (Qinghai 1993)."
Classifications of these burial sites make distinction between two prevailing type of burials: "(1). monumental ramped terrace tombs which are often flanked by smaller "satellite" burials and (2) 'circular' or 'ring' burials." Some scholars consider this a division between "elite" graves and "commoner" graves. Other scholars, find this division too simplistic and not evocative of a true distinction because it shows "ignorance of the nature of the mortuary investments and typically luxuriant burial assemblages [and does not account for] the discovery of other lesser interments that do not qualify as either of these types."
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A study based on mitochondrial DNA analysis of human remains interred in the Eg River valley of Mongolia concluded that the Turkic peoples originated from the same area and therefore are possibly related.
A majority (89%) of the Xiongnu mtDNA sequences can be classified as belonging to Asian haplogroups, and nearly 11% belong to European haplogroups. This finding indicates that contact between European and Asian populations preceded the start of Xiongnu culture, and confirms results reported for two samples from an early 3rd century BC Scytho-Siberian population (Clisson et al. 2002).
Another study from 2004 screened ancient samples from the Egyin Gol necropolis for the Y-DNA haplogroup N-Tat. The Egyin Gol necropolis, located in northern Mongolia, is ~2300 years old and belongs to the Xiongnu culture. This Tat-polymorphism is a biallelic marker – that defines the N1c (N3-Tat) Y-DNA haplogroup – what has so far been observed only in populations from Asia and northern Europe. It reaches its highest frequency in Yakuts and northern Uralic peoples, with significant parts also in Buryats and northeastern Siberian populations. Opinions differ about whether the geographic origin of the T-C mutation lies in Asia or northern Eurasia. Zerjal et al. suggested that this mutation first arose in the populations of Central Asia; they proposed Mongolia as a candidate location for the origin of the T-C polymorphism. In contrast, for Lahermo et al. the wide distribution of the mutation in north Eurasian populations suggests that it arose in northern Eurasia. According to them, the estimated time of the C mutation is ~2400–4440 years ago. (According to some more recent researches of the Y-DNA Hg N the presence of N1c and N1b in modern Siberian and other Eurasian populations is considered to reflect an ancient substratum, probably speaking Uralic languages.) Concerning the Xiongnu people, two of them from the oldest section harboured the mutation, confirming that the Tat polymorphism already existed in Mongolia 2300 years ago. The next archaeogenetical occurrence of this N-Tat ancient DNA was found in Hungary among the so-called Homeconqueror Hungarians. Also three Yakuts' aDNA from the 15th century, and of two from the late 18th century were this haplogroup. Additionally two mtDNA sequence matches revealed in this work suggest that the Xiongnu tribe under study may have been composed of some of the ancestors of the present-day Yakut population.
Another study of 2006, using genetic and archeological data from a Siberian grave of Pokrovsk recently discovered near the Lena River and dated from 2,400 to 2,200 years B.P., as well as modern Buryats, Khanty, Mansi, Evenk, and Yakuts, provided evidence for the existence of early contact between autochthonous hunters of the Siberian taiga and nomadic horse breeders from the Altai-Baikal area (Mongolia and Buryatia). The similarity of the mitochondrial haplotype of the Pokrovsk subject with a woman of the Eg River necropolis of the second or third century ( mtDNA D haplogroup) shows that this contact would have occurred by the end of the Xiongnu period, and possibly prior to the 3rd century BC. This contact could have been through either the expansion of the Xiongnu and other steppe peoples westwards to new areas of Siberia, or northwards along riverways. The Yenisei River in particular contributed to extensive east-west gene flow. The combined evidence demonstrates the close relationship between the Xiongnu and the Siberian populations.
Another 2006 study observed genetic similarity among Mongolian samples from different periods and geographic areas including 2,300-year-old Xiongnu population of the Egyin Gol Valley. This results supports the hypothesis that the succession over time of different Turkic and Mongolian tribes in the current territory of Mongolia resulted in cultural rather than genetic changes. Furthermore, it appears that the Yakuts probably did not find their origin among the Xiongnu tribes as previously hypothesised.
A research study of 2006 focused on Y-DNAs of the Egyin Gol site, and besides the confirmation of the above-mentioned two N3-Tats, it also identified a Q-M242 haplogroup from the middle period and a C-M130 haplogroup from the later (2nd century AD). The Q-M242 is one of the haplogroups of the indigenous peoples of the Americas (though this is not this subclade), and minor across Eurasia. Only two groups in the Old World are high majority Q-M242 groups. These are the Selkups (however, only one study was made) and the Ket people. They live in western and middle Siberia, together with the Khanty people. The Kets originally lived in southern Siberia. According to Uralistic literature the swift migration and disjunction of the Samoyedic peoples might be connected to a heavy warring in the region, probably due to the dissolution of the Xiongnu Empire in the period of the Battle of the Altai Mountains.
The mutation defining haplogroup C-M130, is restrained in North and East Asia and in America (Bergen et al. 1998. 1999.) (Lell et al. 2002.). The highest frequencies of Haplogroup C3 are found among the populations of Mongolia and the Russian Far East, where it is generally the modal haplogroup. Haplogroup C3 is the only variety of Haplogroup C-M130 to be found among Native Americans, among whom it reaches its highest frequency in Na-Dené populations.
A research project of 2007 (Yi Chuan, 2007) looked at the genetic affinities between Tuoba Xianbei and Xiongnu populations. Some mtDNA sequences from Tuoba Xianbei remains in Dong Han period were analyzed. Comparing with the published data of Xiongnu, the results indicated that the Tuoba Xianbei presented some close affinities to the Xiongnu, which implied that there was a gene flow between Tuoba Xianbei and Xiongnu during the two southward migrations.
A recent examination of three skeletons  in a Xiongnu elite cemetery in Duurlig Nars revealed a Western Eurasian male with maternal U2e1 and paternal R1a1 haplogroups and two other DNAs: a female with mtDNA haplogroup D4 and a male with Y-haplogroup C3 and mtDNA haplogroup D4 which are Eastern Eurasian origin.
A study of 2010  analysed six human remains of a nomadic group, excavated from Pengyang County. From the mtDNA, six haplotypes were identified as three haplogroups: C, D4 and M10. The analyses revealed that these individuals were closely associated with the ancient Xiongnu and modern northern Asians. The analysis of Y chromosomes from four male samples that were typed as haplogroup Q-M242(all Q1a1-M120) indicated that these people had originated in Siberia.
Over the past decade, Chinese archaeologists have published several reviews regarding the results of excavations in Xinjiang. They imply the Xiongnu's supreme ruling class. Particularly interesting are the tombs in the cemetery at Heigouliang, Xinjiang (the Black Gouliang cemetery, also known as the summer palace of the Xiongnu king), east of the Barkol basin, near the city of Hami. By typing results of DNA samples during the excavation of one of the tombs, it was determined that of the 12 men there were: Q1a*(xQ-M120, xQ-M25, xQ-M3) - 6, Q1b (M378) - 4 (two separate tombs), Q*(xQ1a, xQ1b)-2 (unable to determine subclade).
All Y-haplogroup Q1b-M378 represent hosts of the tombs, while half of Y-DNA Q1a* represents hosts and half sacrificial victims. They date from the time of the early (Western) Han (2nd-1st Century BC). In another study, three human remains were identified as Q-M3. Summarising the data from available evidences, it is concluded that the tombs belong to representatives of the Xiongnu/Hunnu nobility/conquerors.
This section relies largely or entirely on a single source. (December 2012)
Within the Xiongnu culture more variety is visible from site to site than from "era" to "era," in terms of the Chinese chronology, yet all form a whole that is distinct from that of the Han and other peoples of the non-Chinese north. In some instances iconography can not be used as the main cultural identifier because art depicting animal predation is common among the steppe peoples. An example of animal predation associated with Xiongnu culture is a tiger carrying dead prey. We see a similar image in work from Maoqinggou, a site which is presumed to have been under Xiongnu political control but is still clearly non-Xiongnu. From Maoqinggou, we see the prey replaced by an extension of the tiger's foot. The work also depicts a lower level of execution; Maoqinggou work was executed in a rounder, less detailed style. In its broadest sense, Xiongnu iconography of animal predation include examples such as the gold headdress from Aluchaideng and gold earrings with a turquoise and jade inlay discovered in Xigouban, Inner Mongolia. The gold headdress can be viewed, along with some other examples of Xiongnu art, from the external links at the bottom of this article.
Xiongnu art is harder to distinguish from Saka or Scythian art. There was a similarity present in stylistic execution, but Xiongnu art and Saka art did often differ in terms of iconography. Saka art does not appear to have included predation scenes, especially with dead prey, or same-animal combat. Additionally, Saka art included elements not common to Xiongnu iconography, such as a winged, horned horse. The two cultures also used two different bird heads. Xiongnu depictions of birds have a tendency to have a moderate eye and beak and have ears, while Saka birds have a pronounced eye and beak and no ears.:102–103 Some scholars[who?] claim these differences are indicative of cultural differences. Scholar Sophia-Karin Psarras claims that Xiongnu images of animal predation, specifically tiger plus prey, is spiritual, representative of death and rebirth, and same-animal combat is representative of the acquisition of or maintenance of power.:102–103
Excavations conducted between 1924 and 1925 in the Noin-Ula kurgans produced objects with over twenty carved characters, which were either identical or very similar to that of to the runic letters of the Old Turkic alphabet discovered in the Orkhon Valley. From this a some scholars hold that the Xiongnu had a script similar to Eurasian runiform and this alphabet itself served as the basis for the ancient Turkic writing.
Xiongnu were a nomadic people. From their lifestyle of herding flocks and their horse-trade with China, we can conclude that their diet consist mainly of mutton, horse meat and wild geese that were shot down.
In various kinds of ancient inscriptions on monuments of Munmu of Silla, it is recorded that King Silla came from Xiongnu. Also, there are some Korean researchers point out s grave goods of Silla and Xiongnu are alike and also some researchers insist Silla King is descended from Xiongnu. About this, the Korean public broadcaster KBS has reported a documentary.
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