- Hyun Jin KimHyun Jin KimUniversity of Melbourne
The Xiongnu were an Inner Asian people who formed an empire, a state entity encompassing a multiethnic, multicultural, and polyglot population. The ruling elite of this empire were, for the most part, pastoralists. However, the empire also possessed a substantial agrarian base. In the late 3rd and early 2nd centuries bce, the Xiongnu created the first empire to unify much of Inner Asia. The Xiongnu Empire stretched from Manchuria in the east to the Aral Sea in the west, from the Baikal region in the north to the Ordos and Gansu regions of China in the south.
In the 2nd century bce, the Xiongnu also subjected the Han Empire of China to tribute payments. However, late in that century, the Han broke the heqin policy of engagement with the Xiongnu and began a long struggle for supremacy with its northern foe. Political instability arising from protracted struggles over the imperial succession gradually undermined the Xiongnu Empire. In the middle of the first century ce, the state splintered into two halves: the Northern Xiongnu and the Southern Xiongnu. The Southern Xiongnu later conquered Northern China in the early 4th century ce, while the remnants of the Northern Xiongnu became the political and cultural forebears of the later Huns of western Eurasia.