Two Frenemy Neighbors
—the analysis of the relationship between Sinic culture and Hsiung-nu
There has long existed a misunderstanding for many people that the relationship between Sinic culture and Hsiung-nu was constantly hostile. However, the prosperity of the Silk Road, the management of the Great Wall and other historical records seem to reject such stereotype, on the contrary, indicating a greater complexity than people normally assumed. The following article will try to analyze the hostility and interdependence around Han Dynasty, based on book By Steppe, Desert ‡ The Birth of Eurasia, and Ocean and article Han Dynasty History.
To begin with, instead of being reckless as normally assumed, Hsiung-nu’s hostility towards Sinic Culture was deliberate. The first chapter of Han Dynasty History, “Beginnings of Relations with the Hsiung-nu,” recorded a conflict between Central Plain and Xiongnu: when Han Dynasty have just come into power, Xiongnu attacked the capital of a prince of Han Dynasty and marched south to attack Taeyuen, confronting the emperor of Han Dynasty and his army. During the war with Han Dynasty’s emperor, Maou-tun made an appearance of being defeated and fled, alluring the emperor of Han Dynasty leading 320,000 infantries to chase his troop. However, Maou-tun hided about 300,000 best cavalries while the latter eagerly following and surrounded the detachment including the emperor of Han Dynasty for seven days, cutting the communication and food supply between the Chinese army inside and outside the circle. The conflict eventually ended by Han Dynasty’s emperor signing of treaty of peace and friendship and sending a princess of the imperial house to Maou-tun. According to this conflict, it reveals the long-lasting hostility between Han Dynasty and Xiongnu. The outbreak of the war was at the very early stage of Han Dynasty, when the emperor of Han Dynasty did not fully control the army as well as become sophisticated in managing the nation, which indicates Xiongnu’s sustained attention on the political situation and the familiarity of social system of the Central Plain, otherwise there existed no possibility for them to assault Han Dynasty at such delicate time. On the other Han, the leaders of Xiongnu, Maou-tun, represented extraordinary battle wisdom of Xiongnu through the command of his troop, reflecting their sophistication on the employment of stratagems in the battles with Han Dynasty.
According to the experience of Zhang Qian, the hostility of Hsiung-nu was not only deliberate, but also fierce. As the historical figure mentioned both by the book and the article, Zhang Qian was sent to western central Eurasia, seeking for the alliances with Yuezhi (Yuechi) to fight against the Xiongnu. However, the failure of his mission can be reflected by the Yuezhi’s (Yuechi) rejection of the engagement of the conflicts between Han Dynasty and Xiongnu. The strength of Xiongnu’s army can be reflected by Yuezhi’s (Yuechi) attitude toward Han Dynasty’s invitation. According to the historical records in Han Dynasty History, “Hsiung-nu had overcome the king of the Yue-chi and made a drinking-vessel out of his skull,” which was a great humiliation for Yuezhi (Yuechi). However, Yuezhi (Yuechi) chose to remain neutral in the conflicts with Hsiung-nu instead of allying with Han Dynasty and revenge for their former king, indicating that they were not confident enough even fighting against Xiongnu with Han Dynasty which reflects the strength of Xiongnu’s nomadic army. Additionally, the capture of Zhang Qian by Xiongnu consolidate this statement. According to international traditions, Zhang Qian, as an envoy from China, should be considered as the representation of Chinese emperor. Even in this case, however, Xiongnu detained Zhang Qian and gratuitously imprisoned him for ten years. Xiongnu clearly knew that their behavior might result in the battles between two civilizations while they still capture the envoy without hesitation. The only explanation to detention of Zhang Qian is that Xiongnu was not worried about the wars with Han Dynasty and they were quite confident win victory, which attributes to their mighty army.
From the discussions above, the conflicts between two cultures seem to be drastic and irreconcilable due the difference between their social and political structure. Nevertheless, for the same reasons, Sinics and Xiongnu became highly interdependent on each other.
Because of pastoralist economy, it was almost impossible for Xiongnu to conduct massive production of light industrial products, which made them rely on Central Plain for many aspects. As mentioned by By Steppe, Desert ‡ The Birth of Eurasia, and Ocean, “When the Chinese authorities, concerned about the flow of iron weapons from China to the nomads, began to exercise a trade embargo, the social infrastructure supporting the Xiongnu elite came under threat,” Han Dynasty was the major, or the only, source of ironware for Xiongnu society. These sentences indicate that the iron manufacture of Xiongnu was so untenable that they were not even able to fulfill the demand of their citizens, not to mention the weapon production of their nomadic army, which made them extremely rely on Han Dynasty’s iron production. In this case, as a result of trade embargo, the cross-border raiding increased, forcing Han Dynasty to negotiate a treaty, which not only included the reopen for trade, but also underlined the annual tribute of silk, cloth, grain, and foodstuffs. Xiongnu’s request of those common objects reflects the backwardness of their agriculture and manufacture, which seems to be the inevitable result of their nomadic lifestyle. Nevertheless, since Xiongnu need vegetable to supplement their diets and silk as currency to trade along the Silk road, the most accessible option for them is to rely on Han Dynasty, which, as an agricultural civilization, could act as the persistent resource for their requirement. This conclusion is consolidated by the interaction between Han Dynasty and Xiongnu in the later period. When Han dynasty cut off the supply of those material and Xiongnu had to survive on their own source around 133BC, the hitherto centralized confederacy of the Xiongnu immediately collapsed.
For the same reason that Xiongnu relied on Han Dynasty, Han Dynasty relied on Xiongnu for some aspects as well. As an agricultural civilization, Han Dynasty was unable to provide the fresh grass for their horses, resulting the horses of Han were shorter, weaker, and slower than those of Xiongnu. However, since horse was one of the most critical factors for the battles during that historical period, it would be necessary for Han Dynasty to improve the quality of their horses. By Steppe, Desert ‡ The Birth of Eurasia, and Ocean states Wu’s attitude towards Xiongnu after the Zhang’s second journey to the west, “the emperor Wu s policy, to take military control of the Western Regions, … …, but he was not slow to recognize the enormous commercial potential of the region. Access to the Ferghana horses was a prime attraction. In 102BC the emperor himself led a military campaign of some sixty thousand men and thirty thousand horses to Ferghana, besieging the capital and gaining a huge haul for the famous blood-sweating horses. Thereafter Ferghana continued to supply the Han court with stallions and mares.” It was rare for ancient Chinese emperors to personally lead his soldiers in a military operation, otherwise they were fascinated by something. western horse was the fascinating stuff in this case. The higher body, stronger muscle, and faster speed made this species much more fatal in the battles than the indigenous horses as well as more attractive for emperor Wu. As a result, Wu hazarded his life and army to the battle with Ferghana, trying to ensure the stable supply of western horses so that the fighting force of Han’s cavalry could be guaranteed.
In conclusion, although the conflicts between the Sinic culture and Xiongnu spiral throughout the history, the unexpected interdependence occurred between two civilization as well, which became the factors that maintained the peace between two civilizations. It would be appreciated that this analysis can provide some reference for heads of states in the modern era, so that they will seek common points while reserving difference when confronting international conflicts and solve the problems without employing violence. In this case, the experience of our ancestors acts as catalyst, promoting the world to develop in a more peaceful way.