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.
Hyun Jin Kim
Throughout more than two millennia, the extensive droughty areas in East Asia were occupied by pastoral nomads. A long history exists of hybridity between steppe and agricultural areas. The ancient nomads had a specific pastoral economy, a mobile lifestyle, a unique mentality that assumed unpretentiousness and stamina, cults of war, warrior horsemen, and heroized ancestors that were reflected, in turn, in both their verbal oeuvre (heroic epos) and their arts (animal style). They established vast empires that united many peoples. In the descriptions of settled civilizations, the peoples of the steppe are presented as aggressive barbarians. However, the pastoral nomads developed efficient mechanisms of adaptation to nature and circumjacent states. They had a complex internal structure and created different forms of social complexity—from heterarchical confederations to large nomadic empires. The different forms of identity in pastoral societies (gender, age, profession, rank) are presented in this article. Special attention is given to how ethnic identity is formed from small groups. The ethnic history of the ancient nomads of East Asia is described, particularly for such pastoral societies as the Xiongnu, the Wuhuan, the Xianbei, and the Rouran.
The Inner Eurasian nomadic confederation known in ancient Chinese sources as the Yuezhi were probably descended from Indo-European-speaking pastoral nomads who migrated eastward away from the original homeland of all Indo-European-speakers sometime during the Bronze Ages. The ancestors of the Yuezhi may have been members of the Afanasevo culture who eventually settled in the modern Chinese provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu, and spoke the Indo-European language branch of Tocharian. The ruling dynasty (the core Yuezhi) established a wealthy semi-sedentary pastoralist confederation, based on the export of jade and horses to Zhou dynasty China, and became powerful enough to treat their militarized nomadic neighbors the Wusun and Xiongnu with “contempt.” This remained the situation until the 2nd century bce, when, according to Han dynasty annals, the resurgent Xiongnu were able to defeat the Yuezhi and force them to migrate away from their homeland. Following a thirty-year migration, the Yuezhi resettled in northern Bactria and by a century or so later they had reinvented themselves as the embryonic Kushan empire. These events were bound up with broader cultural and political developments in ancient Inner Eurasia that demonstrate the particular interconnectedness of historical processes in that region. The Yuezhi were well known to a range of contiguous peoples (generally by variants of the appellation “Tocharian”) and the events in which they found themselves involved, particularly during the 2nd century bce, were to have a profound effect on the subsequent political, military, and cultural development of much of Inner Eurasia. In particular, the “domino-effect” of their migration led to significant changes in the broader Eurasian polity, affecting the Han Chinese, Xiongnu, Wusun, Saka, Sogdians, and Bactrian Greeks. Because of these consequences, and their role in establishing the Kushan Empire, the great facilitators of Silk Roads trade and exchange, the Yuezhi must be regarded as one of the most significant of all Inner Eurasian pastoral nomadic confederations.
The Silk Road refers to all the overland routes connecting the major oasis kingdoms of Central Asia including Dunhuang, Turfan, Khotan, and Samarkand to their neighbors: the Chinese landmass, the Mongolian grasslands, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian subcontinent. The best-known routes ran east-west, but the north-south routes to the nomadic states of the Asian grasslands were also important. In the popular view of the Silk Road, extensive camel caravans carried goods over long distances, but this was rarely the case. Usually peddlers carried mostly local goods short distances. Government shipments to provision armies profoundly affected the region’s economy, because they involved much larger quantities than in the peddler trade. Rulers regularly exchanged envoys who carried gifts, exchanges that continued even when private trade fell off. Whatever the reason for an individual’s trip, almost everyone—whether envoy, missionary, artist, craftsman, or refugee—bought and sold goods to pay for travel along the Silk Road. Silk was not the primary commodity traded on these routes. Goods traveling east included ammonium chloride, paper, silver, gold, glassware, and aromatics such as spices, incense, and fragrant woods. Goods traveling west out of China included bronze mirrors, other metal goods, and paper, in addition to silk. Between 300 and 1000 ce, the most important function of silk was as a currency, not as a trade good, although it remained an important export throughout the period. A vibrant series of cultural exchanges occurred alongside these commercial exchanges. Technologies, medicine, plants, music, and fashion all moved in both directions across Central Asia. Multiple religions also entered China during this time. The term Silk Road may not be the most accurate term for these commercial and cultural exchanges, but, despite its flaws, the term has secured a firm place in both scholarly works and the popular mind.
Much has been said and written about the “Silk Road” since Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen coined the phrase in 1877. Fostered by spectacular discoveries by so-called explorers such as Sir Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Sven Hedin, and others, the Silk Road soon became the subject of countless articles, books, museum exhibitions, and even legends. In times when almost any location—virtual or real—is but one mouse click away, the catchphrase Silk Road has not lost any of its original appeal. On the contrary, the term is almost constantly present in all kinds of media. Yet, it is never quite clear what exactly the Silk Road concept really entails. When was it established? Was it even formally established? What was its purpose? Was there but one function? And, more importantly, how useful is it as an analytical concept in the first place? These are the main questions this article seeks to answer. Its arguments are based on an analysis of the earliest available sources: archaeological finds from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, indigenous documents written in Kharosthi script, and early Chinese historiography. The article will argue that the history of the early Silk Road (and its so-called prehistory) was considerably more complex than generally claimed. For instance, we can certainly not pinpoint a fixed date on which the Silk Road was established; neither were the intercontinental land routes primarily traveled (and populated) by traders. China’s initial forays into Central Asia in the 2nd century bce were politically motivated and had little to do with silk trade. The exchange of the famed fabric was at best a corollary of political interactions between the Western and Eastern Han Empires and powerful steppe nomads such as the Xiongnu. The latter extorted copious amounts of luxury goods from the former and redistributed them throughout Central Asia and Eurasia. Thus, this article claims that the Silk Road as an analytical concept does not do justice to the intricacies of prehistorical and historical realities. It therefore introduces the concept of movement as a heuristic tool to analyze cross-cultural interactions.
Nomadic warfare in the Eurasian steppes centered on a mobile horse-archer whose composite bow was surpassed by firearms only in the 17th and 18th centuries. Until the rise of effective firearms, pastoral nomadic horse-archers were the most dominant element on the battlefield. Even after the advent of firearms, nomads remained effective. The horse-archer’s bow possessed comparable accuracy, range, and a more favorable rate of fire than slow-loading harquebuses. As early firearms tended to be slow and inaccurate, they were not decisive against nomads until cannons became sufficiently mobile to disrupt formations of swift moving horse-archers. Even then, it was still necessary for states to have well-developed logistical systems in order to support sedentary-firearms-based armies in the steppes. These armies still found it necessary to have suitable numbers of nomads to serve as scouts and to protect their flanks. While massed firearm-wielding infantry, accompanied by cannons, could defeat nomadic armies, they remained vulnerable in transit. The success of nomadic warfare prior to firearms was dependent not only on technological factors such as the composite bow and lamellar armor, but also factors such as tactics that became a standard part of steppe warfare, including the feigned retreat and encirclements. The strategic and tactical level of steppe warfare reached its zenith during the period of the Mongol Empire, which also ushered in a revolution in steppe warfare. Other factors also played a part, including the training for warfare through hunting and herding. Combined with a vigorous and often harsh lifestyle on the steppes, sedentary observers often viewed the pastoral nomadic warrior as if bred for war.
At the turn of Bronze and Early Iron Ages, the nomads of the Eurasian steppe brought about a new and progressive phenomenon in world military history: cavalry warfare. Spanning the vast distance from the Danube in the West to the Hwang Ho in the Far East, among nomadic peoples including the Cimmerians, Scythians, Sakas, Sarmatians, Xiongnu, and Xianbei, a universal mode of warfare, more or less similar in tactics, battle, arms and armor, and horse harness, dominated. The chronological frames of the Early Iron Age are differently determined in various historiographical traditions, but for the history of steppe Eurasia the frame is customarily considered to begin in the 10th century bce and end in the 5th century ce. The main sources used in studying the military art of Early Iron Age nomads are of two categories: the literary sources (Greek, Roman, Chinese), and archaeological finds of weapons, armor, and horse harnesses belonging to the various archaeological cultures of steppe nomads. The literary sources noted the Cimmerians (10th–8th c. bce); people of the Scythian ethnic group (7th–3rd c. bce), the proper Scythians and the Sakas, Massagetians, Issedonians, and Sauromatians; the Sarmatians (2nd c. bce–4th c. ce); the Xiongnu (2nd c. bce–1st c. ce); their contemporaries the Wusun and Yuezhi, and some other peoples. The light-armed cavalry was a basic military force of the nomads. Each nomadic man was an armed and skillful warrior. Judging from archaeological material and narrative sources, the nomadic light cavalryman was armed by bow and arrows, light javelin and/or lance, and probably lasso. The light cavalry consisted of the common nomads. Since the 7th c. bce noble nomad formed the heavy armored cavalry where the horsemen, and sometimes their horses, wore body armor and helmets. The tactical principles and fighting methods of nomads were conditioned by the composition of their army, with light cavalry prevailing. One of the main methods was raids, which varied in duration, range, and composition of personnel involved. The battle tactics of nomadic troops developed due to a need to overcome a resistance of deep infantry formation. Since the long spears of infantry inhibited close combat, nomadic horsemen first covered the adversary with a massive and dense, although undirected, torrent of arrows. After that, light horsemen approached and threw spears and javelins from shorter distances, thus causing confusion in the ranks of the infantry. Then heavy cavalry rushed into the breach for fighting with close-combat weapons, spears, and battleaxes.