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date: 18 June 2021

Abstract and Keywords

The Chinese had to deal with nomadic neighbors on their northwestern frontier from an early date, and many of the patterns of that relationship were established, or at least explored, under the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). The Xiongnu was the Chinese name of the peoples, more or less politically united at different times, who were the dominant nomadic power on the frontier during Han rule. In addition to Chinese agricultural goods and metallurgy, the Xiongnu had developed a taste for Chinese silk, which became the principal luxury item used by nomadic leaders to build their political coalitions on the steppes: the more silk a leader could give away, the larger a following he could create.

As with all government business under the Han and subsequent Chinese dynasties, voluminous records were kept of (1) court deliberations over policy with regard to the frontier and (2) of diplomatic correspondence with the Xiongnu, whose leader had the title Shen-yu. Official court historians used these records extensively when writing their histories. The following selections are from the Hanshu, a Chinese history concerning the history of the Chinese empire from 206 BCE to 25 CE. It gives much detail about Chinese attitudes toward the “barbarians” who caused them so much trouble, as well as opening a few windows into the attitudes of the nomads themselves. Although colored by Chinese assumptions, the descriptions are generally accurate, receiving confirmation from other written sources and from archaeology. The selections describe an early period in Han relations with the Xiongnu, before 140 BCE, that can be described as conciliatory, being characterized by the payment of tribute by the Chinese to the Xiongnu (though the Chinese sources tend to call the goods “gifts”), use of diplomatic marriages, and other techniques designed to acculturate the “barbarians” to Chinese ways.

Excerpted from the Hanshu, trans. A. Wylie, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 3 (1874): 401–50.

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