World History 1 72 - 5.2.2 Tribes, Confederations, and Settled Neighbors

The earliest written records about many non-Chinese people living along the steppes come from Chinese sources, which referred to these people collectively as the Hu (or Donghu) and divided them into five large groups. These were the Xiongnu, the Di, the Qiang, the Xianbei, and the Jie. Later inhabitants of the steppes in the ancient world included the Khitan and many smaller groups.

Among the more powerful confederations noted by Chinese scribes were the Xiongnu, who controlled the lands near Mongolia from the third to the first century BCE. The Xiongnu became the dominant military confederation after forcing their rivals the Yuezhi to migrate west. In many periods, the relationship between the Xiongnu and Chinese dynasties such as the Han was complicated. Sometimes the Xiongnu and the Chinese were natural trading partners, exchanging horses for grain and silk. Access to Chinese civilization normally demanded that the Xiongnu submit tribute, accepting inferior status in return for trade rights and other rewards such as Chinese brides to establish stronger ties between the two cultures. At other times, the Xiongnu preferred to assert military and cultural dominance by raiding China and inciting war as well as constructing defenses such as the many northern fortification walls built by successive dynasties. At several points in their history, the Xiongnu were strong enough militarily to force the Chinese to adopt a policy of appeasement, exacting huge sums of silk, rice, and cash for peace. As a result, the tribute flowing between Xiongnu and Han Chinese often became a bribe meant to appease the nomadic tribes.

Simultaneously, tribal chieftains could often be employed as vassals of the Chinese, acting as a buffer to protect their border with the steppes or to sow division and conflict between various other bands of the Xiongnu. Chinese officials and soldiers also often found it convenient to defect to the Xiongnu, marrying into powerful families who sought their skills and expertise as administrators. For all these reasons, the border between the steppes and China was fluid and constantly changing, even as Han historians began to refer to groups such as the Xiongnu as “barbarians” and the antithesis of what it meant to be Chinese. Conversely, the nomads and tribes of the steppes often looked on Chinese farmers as lowly, weak, and servile peoples, in contrast to their own identity and values.

Critical to the struggle between the two were the Silk Roads. The balance of power, which initially favored the Xiongnu, shifted as two Han military expeditions went in search of allies in central Asia. These campaigns succeeded in subjugating the Xiongnu and gaining control over the eastern terminus of the Silk Roads. The Xiongnu were later weakened by years of civil war over their system of succession during the middle of the first century BCE. Less powerful groups in these wars tended to move toward the frontier of the Chinese empire and try to secure Chinese support against their rivals.

Thus the Southern Xiongnu, with their homeland threatened by natural disasters and resource scarcity, became vassals of the Han fighting against the Northern Xiongnu. Acceptance of tributary status required sending an aristocratic prince as hostage to live in the Han capital and be given a classical Chinese education, part of the continued cultural exchange between the Inner Asian Steppe and China. Channels between the two cultures widened as the later Han moved settlers west and tried to create military colonies along the frontiers for defense, staffed by non-Chinese auxiliary forces. Hundreds of thousands of Xiongnu lived inside the borders of China’s empire, often becoming more settled and assimilated in their lifestyles and cultural practices.

Following the collapse of the Han dynasty, various branches of the Xiongnu tribes founded dynastic states across northern China during a period known as the Six Dynasties (220–589 CE). With innovations such as the stirrup and new forms of armor covering the whole of the mounted warrior and his horse, heavy cavalry units made these nomadic groups the supreme fighting force in Asia for the next two centuries. During this time, much of northern China and the Inner Asian Steppe was dominated by large, multiethnic conquest states ruled by chiefs claiming mixed ancestry from both Chinese and nomadic groups. Dynasties such as the Later Zhao and the Han Zhao were founded by powerful Xiongnu chiefs such as Shi Le and Liu Yuan, respectively. However, these dynasties often invoked claims to legitimacy staked in their ancestral and cultural ties to the Han dynasty. The ethnic markers and identity of the Xiongnu as distinct from Chinese and other groups on the steppes slowly melted away in these centuries. At the same time, an economy rooted in ranching and herding spread from the Inner Asian Steppe to northern China in a period that saw long-distance trade and grain agriculture decline.

Meanwhile, another ethnic nomadic group known as the Xianbei also emerged as a powerful force in the world of East Asia in this period. Originally hailing from southern Manchuria, the Xianbei were once subordinate to larger nomadic groups on the steppes such as the Xiongnu. After the fall of the Han, the Xianbei grabbed territory inside China proper by conducting raids for horses, war captives, and herds of cattle and sheep. Their military might forced a massive reshuffling of populations in northern China, while many Chinese sought employment with the Xianbei as advisers and administrators.

Drawing on the wealth of Chinese farmers, a branch of the Xianbei known as the Tuoba clan founded the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534 CE). Adopting the imperial title of emperor, Xianbei rulers such as Xiaowen in the late fifth century tried to remake their society into a true Chinese dynasty along the blueprint of the Han (Figure 5.10). During Xiaowen’s reign, for example, elite Xianbei families arranged marriages between their daughters and wealthy, well-educated Chinese from the Southern dynasties. Such reforms proved dangerous. The opulence and culture of the courtly center of the Northern Wei alienated Xianbei soldiers of the garrisons along its frontier, who rebelled in 524 CE. The result was years of civil war and the sack of the capital in Luoyang. Still, the Xianbei proved a considerable force in the affairs of East Asia well into the later Sui and Tang dynasties.

A map is shown, labelled “Asia, 500 CE Updated: 12-23-2007.” Water is highlighted blue and shown in the southeast of the map as well as along the south of the map. Blue lines on the land show as well as areas of water in the west. Green, yellow, and brown land fills most of the image. In the northwest, the Saami, Finnish Tribes, Ugrian Peoples, Sabirs, and Magyars are labelled. Smaller names include: Yakuts, Estoni, Venedae (Slavs), Onugurs, Bashkirs, Heruls, Antes, Kutrigur Huns, Gepid Kingdom, Huns, Sklaveni, Alans, Utrigur Huns, Abasgia, Lasica, Alans, Armenia and Albania. In the west a large area is labelled “Eastern Roman Empire.” To the southwest these areas are labelled on a land mass: Nobatia, Blemmyes, Makuria, Alodia, Axum, Somalis, Luo Peoples, and Bantu Tribes. An area with a question mark is also shown just south of the Somalis. Two other names are cut off the map. Just northeast is a peninsula of land with these areas labelled: Ghassanid Kingdom, Lakhmids, Kindah, Hejaz, Himyar (Yemen), and Azdi (Oman). In the northeast, a large area is labelled “Sassanid Persian Empire.” Heading east a large area is labelled “Hepthalite Khanate (possibly aka the Avers).” Straight north of that is an area labelled “Yuehban (Xiongnu Kingdom).” Southeast of the Hepthalite Khanate is an area labelled “Gupta Empire (collapsing)” with a small area above it with the number “29” in it. South of the Gupta Empire are areas labelled: Lata, Kalinga, Kadamba Empire, Pallavas, Gangas, Kalabhras, and Moriyas. East of Yuehban is a large area labelled “Khanate of the Juan-Juan (possibly aka the Avars), with a small area at the northwest labelled: Gaoche (Proto-Turks.) Heading straight south are the following areas labelled: Xiyu City-States, Tuyuhun, Zhang-Zhung?, Tibetan Tribes and Kingdoms, Kamarupa, Pyu City-States, Arakan, Thai Tribes, Chenla, Dvaravati, Langkasuka, Pan, Funan, Champa Kingdoms, Srivijaya, Kantoli, Tarumanagara Kingdom, and Malays. Heading east are the following areas labelled: Northern Wei dynasty, Southern Qi dynasty, Kyrghyz Tribes, Tungusic Tribes, Mukriz Tribes, Mobe Tribes, Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla, Tapanga, Emishi and Yamato (Japan). In the southeast corner of the map an island is labelled Papuans. In the northeast corner of the map are the Siberian Peoples and the Arctic Marine Mammal Hunters. A legend lists “Numbered Countries: 1. Oriel, 2. Ulaid, 3. Gwynedd, 4. Ceredigion, 5. Dyfed, 6. Giwysing, 7. Buelit, 8. Powys, 9. Gwent, 10. Dumnonia, 11. Durotrigia, 12. Wessex, 13. Sussex, 14. Atrebatia, (#15-20 are cut off on the map), 21. Gododdin, 22. Strathclyde, 23. Calwyddel, 24. Fib, 25. Fidach, 26. Crimean Goths, 27. Iberia (Roman), 28. Iberia (Persian), 29. Licchavis (Nepal), 30, Gaya Confederacy.”
Figure 5.10 Xiaowen’s reign over the Northern Wei dynasty marked a dynamic period of cultural exchange and assimilation between Xianbei and Han Chinese royals and nobility, but it also led to rebellion and violence by nomadic warriors charged with guarding the kingdom. (credit: modification of work “Map of the Eastern Hemisphere 500 CE” by Thomas Lessman/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

While the Xianbei and Xiongnu faded, after the fourth century another group known as the Khitan began a slow steady ascent toward power on the steppes and beyond. Organized for centuries as small clans of hunters, fishers, herders, and warriors in an area stretching from Mongolia to Siberia, the Khitan later founded the Liao dynasty (907–1125). Even more impressive were later empires that conquered the entirety of the Inner Asian Steppe and all of China, founded by the Mongols and Jurchen.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax