by Steve Hardy
The Hsiung-nu (Xiongnu)
were nomadic horse tribes inhabiting the steppes north of China during the Han
Dynasty period. They formed a confederation and proto-state in reaction to
their interactions with the Han, and it is from Chinese records that most of the
details of the Hsiung-nu survive.
Chanyu (the ‘great leader’ Modu) the Hsiung-nu Empire conquered most of modern
day Mongolia, Siberia, Manchuria, and northern China throughout the 3rd
century BC. Within a hundred years the Hsiung-nu were the dominant nomadic
tribal group on the steppes of East Asia, and began to seriously threaten the
power of the Han Dynasty in China.
decades of raiding and border fighting, and as a cheaper alternative to war, the
Han paid extensive tribute to Modu’s Hsiung-nu. They intended to ‘civilise’ the
horse nomads with trade goods and cultural contacts. Despite this the raids and
attacks continued, suggesting that the great leader did not exert complete
control over the various tribes within his confederation.
death the confederation struggled to maintain itself and in 129BC full scale war
broke out when the Han invades the Hsiung-nu lands. Years of bitter war ensued
and although the Han suffered serious reverses, the Hsiung-nu confederation
By 60BC the
Hsiung-nu tribes had descended into squabbling tribal wars and within a decade
these tribes were reduced to tributaries of the Han. They continued as
diminished subject tribes until the final Hsiung-nu were destroyed by the early
Mongolian Rouran Khaganate in 460AD.
As with most
steppe nomads the Hsiung-nu tribes were predominantly horse archers with their
lighter cavalry acting as skirmishers and their heavy cavalry pressing home with
lance and sword. Their armour appears to have been leather in the main,
although the influence of the Ordos people also gave them
access to heavily armoured cataphract.