Hsiung-nu (Xoing-nu)

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.

Under Modu 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. 

Following 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.

Following Modu’s 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 gradually fractured.

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.