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 Pamirs have been a contested space in different periods of time. Access to fertile pastures characterized the local economic competition between nomads and mountain farmers. International attention reached its peak when the Pamirs became a pawn in the “Great Game”; during the second half of the 19th century, Great Britain and Russia disputed control over the mountainous area. Local and regional interests took on a subordinate role. The imperial contest resulted in dividing the Pamirs among four interested parties that are nowadays independent countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China. Since the division, separate developments have emerged in all parts that are abodes of farmers and pastoralists who share a common heritage but have experienced quite different political and social developments. Thus the Pamirs represent a focal region of similar ecological properties in which political and socioeconomic developments that originated in the 19th century have changed development paths through the Cold War period until the early 21st century. From Tsarist Russia to post-independence Tajikistan, from the Afghan monarchy to the post-Taliban republic, from British India to Pakistan, and from the Middle Kingdom to contemporary China, political interventions such as nationality policies and regional autonomy, sociotechnical experiments such as collectivization and subsequent deregulation, and varying administrative systems provide insight into external domination that has shaped separate developments in the Pamirs. In the early 21st century, the Pamirs experienced a revaluation as a transit corridor for transcontinental traffic arteries.
After the military conquest of the Kazakh Steppe in 1920, Russian and Kazakh Bolsheviks implemented policies of hard decolonization (1921–1922): tens of thousands of Slavic settlers were expropriated and land was distributed to nomads. During the period of 1923–1927, soft decolonization prevailed: Kazakhstan was created as an ethnonational administrative region and agricultural immigration was prohibited. Kazakhs were given priority in access to land and water and they were included in the state and party administrations. No sedentarization plans were drafted. With the Soviet economic policy turn of 1928, Kazakhstan became the object of plans for expansion of grain cultivation (to this end, peasant colonization from Russia was made legal again) and of industrialization. Moscow lunched an offensive in order both to subjugate and to incorporate Kazakh society: Kazakh pastoral elites and former Tsarist administrators were expropriated and deported; and young Kazakh men were drafted into the Red Army for the first time. In 1929, plans for the total sedentarization of Kazakh nomadic pastoralists were suddenly proclaimed, then rapidly became of secondary concern as they were merged with the total collectivization drive. Policies toward nomadic pastoralists were dependent and auxiliary to grain production policies from 1928 to early 1930. Then, from late 1930 to 1932, Kazakh livestock was requisitioned in order to feed Moscow, Leningrad, and the army, as the Soviet peasants had slaughtered their animals during collectivization. Procurements turned an ongoing starvation crisis into a calamitous famine that killed one-third of the Kazakhs. When no livestock were left, procurements were discontinued in Kazakhstan. Private ownership of animals and pastoral nomadic ways were explicitly allowed again. Kazakh mobile pastoralism had been transformed: pastoral routes were shortened; pastoralists were a smaller share of the population; and their work was organized within state and collective farms. The famine turned the Kazakhs into a minority in Kazakhstan and forced them into Soviet state institutions.