Origin of the Hsiung-nu


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An economic structure of the
Hsiung-nu society

The discovery of fortresses and settlements of the Hsiung-nu show more than expected compound economical structure of Hsiung-nu society. The Ivolga fortress, Dureny settlement, the other fortresses and settlements of the Hsiung-nu are sprouts of the ancient town, or "proto-town". The inhabitants of the "proto-towns" were engaged for the first time in agriculture and metallurgy.

Chinese written sources also refer to the Hsiung-nu towns. Ssu-ma Th"ian refers to them in passing ("Hsiung-nu constructed a town for the keeping of grain"). Bat Ban Gu described more in detail. In "Han-shu", Chp. 70 there is the description of the capital of Tzi-tzi chanyou (chief). This description sounds like the construction of the Ivolga fortress.

One can see two contradictions:

  1. between the facts of archaeology and the written sources (an example is the contradiction between existence of the Ivolga fortress and the sentence, " the Hsiung-nu had no towns") and
  2. between the written sources themselves (the same phrase from "Historical Records" : "the Hsiung-nu had no towns" and the description of the capital of Tzi-tzi chanyou; Han-shu, 70).

The facts of archaeology obviously demand that we analyze the written sources anew. The 110-th chapter of "Historical records" by Ssu-ma Ch’ien (The Biography of the Hsiung-nu, "The Hsiung-nu Lieh-chuan") is a main source of Hsiung-nu history. This chapter can be conditionally divided into two parts. The first part is the history of nomads in Central Asia from the ancient time until the end of the 3-d Century B.C. These nomads were the predecessors (not ancestors!) of Hsiung-nu in the Central Asia steppes. It was these early nomads who "had no the towns".

The second part of chapter 110 is the history of the Hsiung-nu tribes themselves. It is in this part that Ssu-ma Ch"ien comments: "Hsiung-nu constructed a town for the keeping of grain".

So, the period when the Hsiung-nu empire existed in Central Asia, was first step of the urbanization started in the regions of typical and permanent nomadism. The process of urbanization Hsiung-nu tribes was not unique, because after Hsiung-nu the other nomads (Uigurs, Mongols) went the same route (the Uigur fortresses in Tuva or the ancient towns in Mongolia are example).

There were complex causes for the rise of towns in Hsiung-nu: military strategy, commerce, handicraft, but a principal cause was economic necessity. The great nomadic empires occupied a vast territory and cattle-breeding alone, typical for nomads, could not provide the empires with the necessary products. The empires needed balance of several kinds of productions.

It is possible, that model of urbanization of the Hsiung-nu was repeated by other nomadic societies.

Corrected by Barbara Hazard