Maodun Creates a Large Confederation in Central Asia

Maodun, leader of the Xiongnu, created a powerful nomadic empire on the Eurasian steppe that engaged in numerous battles with the Chinese.

Summary of Event

Maodun was the leader of an empire of pastoral nomads called the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), who originated in the Ordos region of the Eurasian steppes. One of many Mongolian tribes, they lived in tents and wagons and were very militant. Called Asiatic Huns by the Turks, the Xiongnu were a mixture of many tribes, both Turkic and Mongol. Although their origins are shrouded in mystery, the Chinese first encountered them in 318 b.c.e., when they defeated an army of the Zhou emperor at the Battle of Northern Xiansi (Hsien-ssi). They frequently raided China in the fourth and third centuries b.c.e., during the Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.), until Qin emperor Shi Huangdi completed the construction of the first Great Wall to protect his people from those raiders. The Xiongnu also threatened other regions of Asia, including Dzungaria and the Altai Siberians. Touman
Chi- Chih
Shi Huangdi
Liu Bang

Touman, Maodun’s father, was probably responsible for completing the task of organizing the Xiongnu into a coherent state about 210 b.c.e. Assuming the title of shanyu, meaning high chieftain, he took lands away from the Chinese, enabling his tribespeople to use the grassy plains for their herds. The territorial base was Mongolia and the Xiongnu state lasted until the middle of the first century c.e. Touman’s primary attention was westward, but standing in his way was another powerful nomadic people called the Yuezhi (Yüeh-chih). To appease those people, he sent them his own son, Maodun, as a hostage. Touman marched on the Yuezhi, but it is possible that this action was only a feint because his new wife had given birth to another son and was hostile to Maodun.

At any rate, Maodun was able to escape, and on his return, he was given an army of ten thousand horsemen. Then, during a training hunt, Maodun “accidentally” killed his father with an arrow in 209 b.c.e. The traditional story is that while training his soldiers, he compelled them to shoot at whatever object he pointed toward, whether it be one of his own consorts or the favored horse of the shanyu. Therefore, when he pointed at his father, his soldiers instinctively obeyed his command. Whether the result of an accident or vengeance, Maodun attained the title of shanyu of the Xiongnu, later earning the sobriquet Tanhu (T’an-hu), meaning “the magnificent.”

Soon after his elevation as leader, Maodun launched a successful war on neighboring nomads called the Tonghu (T’ung-hu) in 208 b.c.e. Fearing that his forces would be outnumbered by the Tonghu, he allowed his foe to impose tribute on his people in an effort to relax their defenses. His feigned weakness was successful, because the Tonghu succumbed to a surprise attack. After his Tonghu campaign, he defeated other tribes living in northern Mongolia, called the Ting-Lings. Having unified the lands of the Ordos, he turned to the southwest to defeat his former jailors, the Yuezhi, in 203 b.c.e. This latter triumph enabled Maodun to gain control of the wealth from the Silk Road. From these farming communities in the oases of the Tarim basin, he received grain, fruit, and animal feed, and from the defeated nomads, he gained herds of cattle, sheep, and horses. Within a few years, he was able to accomplish all this and even recaptured territories seized by the Chinese.

Where his father established a state, Maodun created a steppe empire. The Xiongnu posed a difficulty for the Chinese armies because they had no walled cities and were constantly moving in search of water and pastures, engaging only slightly in farming. At Pancheng (P’an-ch’eng) in 201 b.c.e., Maodun employed the tactic of feigned retreat, divided his foe, and surrounded the army of Gaodi (Liu Bang), the Chinese emperor, who was compelled to negotiate a treaty. This culminated a three-year war with the Han Dynasty of China, as Gaodi was forced to pay yearly tributes to the Xiongnu, including a large amount of silk and foodstuffs, and had to cede to his foe a large territory in northern China. The Xiongnu leader never tried to invade all of China because he believed that a foreign dynasty could not rule such a vast country for a long time. Besides, for two centuries, the Xiongnu compelled the Chinese to pay them tribute. Such tribute was necessary because for a long time China refused to allow trade with the Xiongnu.

Mongolia was their home, but the Xiongnu also moved westward into Gansu (K’an-su), Xinjiang (Hsing-chiang, also commonly known as Sinkiang), and eastern Central Asia. Like his father, Maodun fought several wars with the Chinese but then turned westward to complete the conquest of western Gansu from the Yuezhi, driving the remnants of the Yuezhi into the Gobi Desert. About 177 b.c.e., Maodun drove the Yuezhi from that region to the Ili Valley, and twelve years later, they were forced south by the Wu-sun, ancestors of the Sarmatian Alanis and vassals of the Xiongnu. Part of the Yuezhi formed a confederacy and moved south to the Tibetan mountains. Most, however, occupied territories between the Amu Dar’ya and Syr Dar’ya rivers (Sogdia), driving Śaka tribes south into Khurasan and Bactria. The Yuezhi established their new capital at Kienshih (Maracanda, later Samarqand).

Maodun died in 174 b.c.e. and was succeeded by his son, Chi-Chih. The new leader completed the consolidation of the Xiongnu Empire and reunited all the tribes of Mongolia.


The Xiongnu Empire was the first of the great nomad empires on the Eurasian steppe, and a prototype of others including the Mongols. During the reign of Maodun, many Turkic, Mongol, Tongusic, and Tatar tribes were brought under the Xiongnu rule. When Maodun died, his empire extended from Korea in the east, to the Aral Sea in the west, from Lake Baikal in the north, to Tibet and the Karakorum Mountains in the south. His organization of the armies according to the decimal principle and his administration techniques were later adopted by many Central Asian tribes and kaghanates.

After Maodun’s death, Chi-Chih ruled for fourteen years, during which time, the Xiongnu maintained their authority. Chi-Chih married a Han princess, a feat that Maodun had earlier attempted without success. That marriage later opened Xiongnu territories to Han officials, who allegedly incited various tribes to revolt against their rulers, leading to the eventual breakup of the vast Xiongnu Empire. The Xiongnu lost control of the Silk Road to the Han in c. 60 b.c.e., and in 54 b.c.e., they split into two separate empires in the east and west. The former then split into northern and southern factions, and the Chinese, in combination with the southern branch, destroyed the power of the north in 156 c.e. The remnants of the northern Xiongnu then migrated toward the Aral Sea, while the southern Xiongnu were finally subjugated by the Han in 216 c.e. The remnants of both Xiongnu empires lived on as scattered tribes throughout Western Turkestan for a long time, until they began migrating westward around 350 c.e. Under the leadership of their leader, Balamir, they entered the territories of the Ostrogoth Kingdom in Ukraine in 375 to found the European Hunnic Empire. Another branch of those Xiongnu remnants migrated to Afghanistan, where they established the White Hun (Hephtalite) Empire in the fifth century.

That the empire of Maodun lasted longer than any of the other steppe empires (300 years) is testimony not only to his military prowess but also to his organizational abilities. The Xiongnu military aristocracy consisted of twenty-four chiefs, each commanding an army of ten thousand horsemen. Ten successors were to follow Maodun as shanyu without civil strife.

Further Reading

  • Barfield, Thomas J. The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. Provides a full account of Maodun’s leadership and organizational skills. Bibliography and index.
  • Christian, David. Inner Asia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Vol. 1 in A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. A fine review of current writings. Bibliography and index.
  • Davis-Kimball, Jeannine, Vladimir A. Bashilov, and Leonid T. Yablonsky. Nomads of The Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age. Berkeley, Calif.: Zinat Press, 1995. Offers analysis of Soviet archaeological works since 1960. Bibliography and index.
  • Edwards, I. E. S., et al., eds. Cambridge Ancient History. Vol 1. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970. A traditional, indispensable work for information about the region. Bibliography and index.
  • Torday, Laszlo. Mounted Archers: The Beginning of Central Asian History. Durham, England: Durham Academic Press, 1997. An excellent discussion of the various peoples of the region with fine maps. Bibliography and index.
  • Yong, Ma, and Sun Yutan. “The Western Regions Under the Xiongnu and the Han.” In The Development of Sedentary and Nomadic Civilizations: 700 b.c. to a.d. 250, edited by B. Harmatta, N. Puri, and G. F. Etermandi. Vol. 2 in History of Civilizations of Central Asia. Paris: UNESCO, 1994. A comparative approach to the governance of east Turkestan. Bibliography and index.

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