Xiongnu vs. Han, 200 BC–AD 4



If there was any group that had a particular predilection for guerrilla warfare, it was not the great states of Asia but rather the stateless nomads that preyed on them—just as they preyed on the Roman Empire and its predecessors and successors in the West. In 135–134 BC, a major debate broke out in the Han imperial court over how to deal with one particularly dangerous group of nomads: the Xiongnu.

The godlike emperors of the Han dynasty, styled as the Sons of Heaven, ruled over some 50 million people with the help of 120,000 mandarins who were educated in an elite academy and tested for competence. The imperial capital was Ch’ang-an in present-day Shaanxi Province. With a population of over 500,000, it was one of the biggest cities in the world, rivaled only by Rome, and had a variety of impressive structures, ranging from the emperor’s palace to a vast marketplace said to be bigger than any mall in the United States today. The wealthy drove through its streets in fine carriages, wearing beautiful silk robes. To keep them entertained, there were orchestras, jugglers, and acrobats, and elaborate banquets featuring exquisitely prepared delicacies served in lacquer dishes.

Very different were the Xiongnu—herdsmen and hunters who were known as “Mountain Barbarians” to the Han Chinese. They came from Inner Asia, a term that usually takes in, at a minimum, Mongolia, the modern Chinese province of Xinxiang, and Central Asia, but, like the Huns to whom they may have been related, they remain figures of mystery. One theory has it that they were of Mongolian stock, but no one knows for sure. What little we know of them comes from Chinese sources, and it was not flattering. One Confucian scholar likened them to “all manner of insects, reptiles, snakes and lizards,” while the Han court historian Sima Qian regarded them “as beasts to be pastured, not as members of the human race.” He was shocked that “these people know nothing of the elegance of hats and girdles, nor of the rituals of the court!”

What the Xiongnu did know was war, and in this field their superiority to the more settled Chinese was unquestioned. They had mastered a style of archery on horseback that was alien to a Han army composed primarily of infantrymen supplemented by charioteers. Thus time after time they were able to inflict humiliating defeats on the Chinese, even though their entire population of 1 million to 3.5 million people would hardly have amounted to one province of the Celestial Empire. A mandarin named Zhao Zuo wrote ruefully, “On dangerous roads and sloping narrow passages they can both ride and shoot arrows; Chinese mounted soldiers cannot match that. They can withstand the wind and rain, fatigue, hunger and thirst; Chinese soldiers are not as good.”

When Chinese forces got close, the Xiongnu simply retreated, sometimes clear across the Gobi Desert, and the Chinese armies, with their cumbersome supply requirements, lacked the ability to keep up. Sounding very much like his Western counterparts, Sima Qian complained, “If the battle is going well for them they will advance, but if not, they will retreat, for they do not consider it a disgrace to run away. Their only concern is self-advantage, and they know nothing of propriety and righteousness.” (This passage provides further evidence that the Chinese, like the Greeks and Romans, elevated face-to-face infantry battle to the pinnacle of warfare and frowned upon tactical retreat.)

The first emperor of the Han dynasty, Gaozu, discovered for himself just how formidable the Mountain Barbarians were. He mounted a major expedition against them in 200 BC which turned into a fiasco. First his forces, said to be more than 300,000-strong, ran into cold weather that caused a third of his men to lose fingers to frostbite. Then they stumbled onto what they thought was a weak Xiongnu detachment. The Chinese vanguard mounted pursuit, only to run into an ambush; they were not familiar with the tried-and-true nomadic tactic of “feigned retreat.” The entire Han army was surrounded and allowed to withdraw only after offering “generous gifts,” essentially bribes, to Modun, the powerful Chanyu, or chieftain, of the Xiongnu confederation.

Making the best of a bad situation, Gaozu entered into a supposedly equal arrangement of “brothers” with Modun that was in fact anything but equal. In return for peace, in 198 BC China agreed to send to the Xiongnu a Chinese princess in marriage along with annual shipments of grain, silk, and wine—all goods that the nomads coveted but could not make for themselves. The subsidies, which increased over time, included 200,000 liters of wine a year and 92,400 meters of silk. The wise men of the Han court hoped to use these luxury goods to sap the ferocity of their rivals as part of what became known as the “five baits” policy and what would today be called foreign aid: “elaborate clothes and carriages to corrupt their eyes; fine food to corrupt their mouths; music to corrupt their ears; lofty buildings, granaries, and slaves to corrupt their stomachs; gifts and favors for Xiongnu who surrendered.”

The Xiongnu, like the modern North Koreans, proved hard to corrupt. The initial shipments only whetted their appetite for more, and they knew that by raiding they could either carry away what they wanted or force the Chinese to increase the size of their tribute. Even if the Chanyu wanted to honor the terms of his treaty with the emperor, moreover, he had only limited power to control individual tribes in his confederation. (Much the same problem would later confront early American leaders trying to cut deals with Indian chiefs.) As a result, the frontier remained turbulent and unsettled. The Xiongnu, “greedy as ever” in the eyes of the Chinese, continued to carry out “innumerable plundering raids.”

Hence the debate that took place in 135–134 BC in the court of the young emperor Wu. How, his mandarins wondered, should they deal with the Xiongnu? Continue the he-qin (peace and kinship) policy? Or take up arms for the first time in more than half a century?

Dovish officials argued that it was hopeless to fight the Xiongnu. One of them cited the arguments that a predecessor had made to Emperor Gaozu, Wu’s great-grandfather, against launching his own ill-fated expedition:

They move from place to place like flocks of birds and are just as difficult to catch and control. . . . Even if we were to seize control of the Xiongnu lands, they would bring us no profit, and even if we were to win over their people, we could never administer and keep control of them. . . . Therefore we would only be wearing out the strength of China in an attempt to have our way with the Xiongnu. Surely this is not a wise policy!”

But more hawkish advisers argued that it was useless to make any agreements with the Xiongnu, because they had shown themselves to be untrustworthy. One official likened them to “an abscess which must be burst open with strong crossbows and arrows, and absolutely should not be left to fester.”79 Others argued that the Han Chinese had an obligation to establish a “universal empire” that would bring “the poor, backward, and uncultured barbarians . . . into civilization.”

The emperor was just twenty-one years old and had been on the throne for five years. He was the tenth son of the preceding emperor, and his mother had been merely a middle-ranking concubine when he was born. But she had been successful enough at palace intrigue to displace the elder empress and win the throne for her son. Wu remained dominated in his early years by his mother, the empress dowager. He was also a bisexual with two prominent male lovers, one of whom was killed by his mother over his protests; the other he killed himself in a fit of jealous rage. Having grown up in an atmosphere of insecurity and intrigue, Wu became brutal and aggressive. He killed five of his seven chancellors and several of his children and wives on suspicion of plotting against him. Anxious to establish greater security for his realm as well as for his person and to “avenge the difficulties” suffered by his great-grandfather Gaozu, he was readily won over to calls to attack the Xiongnu.

Wu knew that a prerequisite for any offensive was to assemble enough horses to track down the elusive raiders. Horse-breeding stations were established along the frontier, and costly military expeditions were dispatched all the way to the vicinity of modern Uzbekistan to capture more mounts. Horses in hand, the Han expanded their cavalry ranks, even going so far as to dress some of their soldiers in the “barbarian” manner, meaning in trousers and short jackets as opposed to the traditional Chinese long coats. Wu also expanded his links with the Xiongnu’s nomadic neighbors, enlisting many of their horsemen in his own ranks as part of the time-honored policy, also beloved of the Romans, of “using barbarians to control the barbarians.”

This was part of a broader transformation of the Chinese army, which came to number 700,000 men. The need to send troops to distant frontiers for extended periods necessitated an end of reliance on peasant conscripts serving one- or two-year tours—not enough time to master horsemanship or the crossbow. Instead the army came to be composed, in the words of the historian Mark Edward Lewis, of “professionals, nomads, and criminals.” Much the same transformation was occurring in the Roman army at the same time and for the same reason—the demands of imperial pacification made it impractical to rely on citizen-soldiers called away temporarily from their farms. Thus professional armies may be said to have arisen in both Europe and Asia in response to the threat posed by guerrillas.

When Wu, soon to be known as the “martial emperor,” finally sent his armies marching into the lands of the Xiongnu in 129 BC, they scored some successes and killed large numbers of nomads. But, like most armies through the ages undertaking large-scale maneuvers against guerrillas, they had trouble finishing off the resilient and elusive Xiongnu. In his attempts to annihilate them, Wu wound up exhausting his own resources, causing “extreme hardship to the empire.” One campaign alone consumed more than half of his annual revenues. Within a few years, wrote Sima Qian, “there was not enough money left to support the troops,” and “the common people were exhausted and began to look for some clever way to evade the [tax] laws.” Coinage became so debased that the emperor had to kill his own white deer and use their hides, cut into one-foot squares, as “hide currency.”

Following two defeats at the hands of the Xiongnu and with Wu’s strength fading (he would die three years later), the Han court finally gave up the offensive in 90 BC and reverted to defensive measures such as erecting walls to keep out the barbarians. Over the preceding forty years, more than two million soldiers and ten million support personnel had been mobilized to mount twenty-one separate offensives against the Xiongnu and their allies. They had greatly expanded the emperor’s domains, but they had not delivered real security. The improvements were mostly cosmetic. The Xiongnu had agreed to become “tributaries” of the Celestial Empire. But in return for token tribute, the emperor annually gave the Chanyu “gifts” that were worth far more. This was a continuation of the previous policy of appeasement dressed up in rhetoric more pleasing to Chinese ears.

The Xiongnu confederation eventually collapsed, but this was due more to civil wars that broke out in 57 BC and AD 48 than to external pressure. Many of the nomads moved south to be absorbed into the Chinese Empire. Others fled west where, according to one theory, they later materialized as the Huns who helped bring down the Roman Empire.

The Xiongnu had not brought down the Chinese Empire, but that was never their purpose; they were interested in raiding, not in occupying land or overthrowing the ruling dynasty. Perhaps because their ambitions were modest, they were able to survive longer than any other nomadic empire, including those of the Mongols and Huns, which are far better known in the West. For 250 years the Xiongnu dominated the steppe, and for 500 years they were a major irritant to their southern neighbors. The failure of the mighty Chinese Empire to decisively defeat the relatively small number of “Mountain Barbarians” demonstrates once again the difficulties that guerrilla-style tactics caused for armies in both East and West.

The Middle Kingdom’s problems with nomads did not end with the extinction of the Xiongnu threat. New waves of horse-borne invaders materialized to harass China’s northern frontier. The nomadic threat did not disappear until AD 1750, when the Manchu dynasty exterminated the Zunghars, or Western Mongols, the last of the great nomadic confederations, in a genocidal campaign made possible by the development of firearms and vastly improved logistics. Dealing with external attacks was all the harder for many emperors because of the frequency of peasant uprisings orchestrated by secret societies such as the Red Eyebrows, the Yellow Turbans, and later the Taipings and Boxers. These rebels, too, often employed guerrilla tactics and, even if unsuccessful, sapped the energy of the imperial government.

Dynasties were more likely to launch punitive expeditions early in their tenure when they were more vigorous. As they became more decrepit, they usually resorted to buying off the nomads and erecting fortifications to block their advance. This strategy culminated in the construction of the Great Wall of China, one of the great engineering feats in world history, under the Ming dynasty in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries AD.

None of these measures worked all that well. China saw a succession of “conquest” dynasties rule its northern territory, while domestic dynasties continued to survive in the south. The Mongols in the thirteenth century and the Manchus in the seventeenth managed to conquer the entire empire. It may be doubted, however, whether they were truly guerrillas. Far from being a loose-flowing horde of tribesmen, the Mongol army was a disciplined military force that was trained to operate in units of 10, 100, 1,000, and 10,000. At their peak the Mongols may have had a million men under arms. The size and discipline of their armies put them on a different plane from other nomads and elevated them out of the realm of purely guerrilla warfare.

However one classifies the invaders, their impact was clear: In the last 1,003 years of Chinese imperial history, ending in 1911, alien regimes established by steppe nomads or seminomads ruled over all or part of Chinese territory for 730 years. The Chinese over the long run showed a remarkable ability to absorb their conquerors rather than be absorbed by them, thereby preserving their ancient heritage. Much the same thing happened in Europe, where local populations gradually assimilated waves of invaders from the east, north, and south; the Normans, for instance, first appeared in France in the eighth century AD as feared Viking raiders and ended up adopting the French language and Christian religion. But the eventual triumph of their native culture was scant comfort to countless generations of Chinese peasants terrorized by the horse archers from the steppe, just as it would have been scant comfort to French peasants of the Dark Ages terrorized by seaborne marauders from Scandinavia.

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