Lessons from History: The Han-Xiongnu War and Modern China

Lessons from History: The Han-Xiongnu War and Modern China

Chinese Foreign Policy Toward The Steppe and Beyond

J. David Stoffey


As one of the oldest civilizations in human history, China maintains a level of subconscious devotion to its history and culture. This paper explores one of these devotions—the steppe. China has dealt with threats to their survival for millennia. The vast majority of these dangers hailed from the steppe. The first formal conflict between a Chinese dynasty and the nomadic steppe people was the Han-Xiongnu War. The lessons learned from the war, the value of the Ordos Valley Loop, the focus of Northern China as the defensive bulwark for fertile Southern China, the value of the Silk Road, and more, have been passed knowingly and unknowingly throughout Chinese history. Presently, China faces a host of threats, opportunities, and challenges. Although there is no longer a nomadic threat from the steppe and oceanic power is more important than ever before, China still focuses on dealing with modern occupants of the steppe, Russia and the Central Asian states. This can be seen through the foci of the People’s Liberation Army. This paper takes several of the lessons learned from the Han-Xiongnu War and applies them to contemporary China, underscoring the importance of understanding Chinese history to understand modern China.

Much of Chinese history holds instruction and explanation for the actions of modern China. As one of the oldest and longest-lived civilizations, China’s culture and history drive the sense of what it means to be China. Events that took place in previous dynasties in the Middle Kingdom bear lessons for today’s policymakers. Throughout China’s military history, one of the civilization’s greatest threats hailed from the steppe. The nomadic tribes beyond northwest China constantly invaded China until their final subjugation during the Qing dynasty. Although the steppe people typically remained a nuisance, there were times during China’s history where the nomadic tribes managed to conquer all of China, such as during the Yuan dynasty with Kublai Khan’s successful conquest. Throughout the different dynasties, rulers would pursue different means of defeating or handling the steppe threat. However, given the nomadic nature of the steppe people, China did not have the means to defeat the threat entirely. For thousands of years China was plagued with the constant threat and paranoia of the next invasion.

The Han-Xiongnu War (133 BC – 89 AD) was a conflict between the Han dynasty and the nomadic people from the steppe. It defined China’s views toward the steppe—views that are still presently pertinent. Lasting over 200 years, it drove Chinese perception of the world as well as the Middle Kingdom’s domestic politics. The lessons learned from this conflict and the events leading up to it still help form aspects of modern China’s foreign policy. Understanding the preliminary and major events of the conflict assist in explaining the push for the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, the extensive nature and posture of the People’s Liberation Army, and China’s distinct lack of naval capability. Although external threats and politics have shifted over thousands of years, past conflicts still haunt Beijing.

The Steppe and the Han-Xiongnu War

Understanding the history of the Han-Xiongnu War suffers from the passage of time. There are few primary documents that historians and scholars can pull from to glean pertinent information about the conflict; the little documentation that exists is solely from the Han perspective. The Xiongnu were an illiterate, nomadic people. As such they maintained no historical record and uncovering artifacts to help determine their culture and history is difficult. To make matters worse, the Xiongnu are an extinct ethnicity which further increases the challenges of piecing together their perspective. The Xiongnu caused border disputes for multiple centuries throughout the Zhou, Qin, and Han dynasties. China could not destroy the Xiongnu tribal confederation during offensive actions into the steppe due to the Xiongnu’s nomadic nature. Without resource-rich land upon which to settle, the Xiongnu wandered in search of water and pasture throughout their existence. Survival was the focus of the Xiongnu. When necessary, they would strike through the wasteland of the steppe to engage with and plunder China. Honor and courage were not staples of Xiongnu culture; survival was of highest value. Retreating was the cultural norm for the Xiongnu if a battle could not be won by force of arms. Given the cultural and survival ties shared by the various tribes on the steppe, the Xiongnu became a confederated empire when Modu Shanyu became supreme leader in 209 BC.[i]

Peace and agreements between the Han dynasty and the Xiongnu were always verbal. While these agreements guaranteed times of peace, it never ensured amity between the Han dynasty and the Xiongnu Empire. For a period, peace was predicated on a formal system of offers and tribute from the Han to the Xiongnu. This changed with the fifth emperor of the Han dynasty, Emperor Wen. He pursued a diplomatic and defensive nature against the Xiongnu after several destructive raids from the steppe. Wen brokered a cessation of hostilities with Shanyu[ii] whereby the Xiongnu were permitted to trade within northern China and the Han court would pay tribute to the Xiongnu in food supplies and luxury goods. After the death of Wen, his son, Emperor Wu ascended to lead the Han dynasty. Wu decided an offensive strategy would better serve the Middle Kingdom and crafted a trap to destroy a massive Xiongnu army. Shanyu discovered Wu’s plan however. Surprised and angered, Shanyu began forming plans for a formal invasion of China.

The invasion conflagrated into a 200-year war between the Han dynasty and the Xiongnu confederation. There were times of intense fighting and prolonged military campaigns. There were other times of relative peace. Throughout the conflict the Han court adamantly defended the Ordos Loop, which holds significant geographical advantage against the steppe. As the Yellow River flows northwestward, it pushes into present day Inner Mongolia where the steppe begins. In this region, the climate becomes considerably more arid and agriculturally harsh. The river is the only sustainable area of human settlement in the region. Beyond this Ordos River Loop is hundreds of miles of steppe land until one can find sufficient resources to qualify for prolonged settlement. The Ordos River Loop is therefore a vital region for any invasion force of China. To supply the resources necessary for a large, prolonged military campaign from the steppe, the Xiongnu needed a base of operations close to the theatre of war. Inhibiting this base of operations was the primary focus of many dynastic military strategies throughout China’s history. For example, the Qin dynasty had built primitive walls a hundred years prior to Han-Xiongnu War. The Han court saw restoration of these aged defenses as paramount to survival against the Xiongnu.[iii]

The Ordos River Loop as the classic bulwark against the northern barbarians throughout many centuries of Chinese military strategy. Several dynasties, including the Han, saw defense as only one part of the equation in war against the steppe people. In the Han court of Emperor Wu, an offensive was highly valued as a potential solution to the conflict against the Xiongnu. The early stages of the conflict ultimately focused around Han campaigns into the Gobi Desert and Hexi Corridor.[iv][v] The campaigns proved successful, with Han settlers relocating to the Hexi Corridor to boost security and settlement along the Silk Road.

The first several decades of the war proved extremely taxing to the Xiongnu. With every Han victory, maintaining the coherency of the confederacy proved challenging. In 80 BC, the Xiongnu attacked the Wusun, an ethnic group who maintained allegiance to the confederacy but were refusing to support the war effort. The Wusun requested Han support against the Xiongnu. The Han court sent supplies and men. This event begins the decline of the Xiongnu confederation as tribes split away over the next 150 years.[vi]

Although the offensive and defensive strategies various dynasties have taken against the steppe threat are heavily debated, it cannot be argued that Chinese grand strategy has been preoccupied with the steppe. The Qin dynasty built rudimentary ramparts to prevent invasion from the steppe. The Song dynasty lost the northern half of China due to inadequate defense of the steppe. The Sui and Tang dynasties carried out many campaigns against the steppe. Kublai Khan invaded China from the steppe and conquered the entire civilization. The Ming dynasty constructed the Great Wall of China, one of the greatest feats of human engineering, to repel invaders from the steppe. Outside of the modern rea, the only instance of Chinese grand strategy expending significant resources beyond the steppe was to pursue interests in Tibet, the East and South China Seas, and small, rare invasions of territory in present day Southeast Asia. The Han-Xiongnu War was a unique and pivotal event in Chinese history because it was the first formal conflict between a Chinese court and the steppe nomads. There were many more wars between China and the occupants of the steppe throughout history, and there were many conflicts between China and other peripheral or distant neighbors. The unique aspect of the China-steppe relationship is the constant threat the steppe people exhibited on the Middle Kingdom regardless of dynastic rule or external politics. Therefore, Chinese grand strategy through the ages focused on the threat from the steppe.

Lessons of the conflict were many, but several stand out. Control of Northern China meant access to the Silk Road an undisturbed Southern China. The Yangtze River Valley is the breadbasket of China. The southern region supplied food, resources, and people to every Chinese dynasties’ aims, whether they were domestic or foreign. To defend this resource rich region, China learned to defend the north, which meant control of the Ordos Valley Loop was vital. The Ordos Valley Loop not only served as a staging ground for invasions if they successful occupied it, but it served as one of the best defensive positions when engaging the steppe. Additionally, the steppe granted access to the Silk Road, China’s path towards luxuries and wealth. Even during the Han-Xiongnu War, trade traveled from northern China into Central Asia and the Middle East. Riches were brought to the Han court by way of the Silk Road. Letting the nomadic people control a vital trade link shut China of from the rest of the world and its potential prosperity. The steppe was vital. China has always known that.

The Steppe’s Modern Application

The Chinese Communist Party has the luxury of pivoting away from the steppe presently. This is due to the overwhelming strength and influence China has guaranteed due to its gigantic population and ability to access a wealth of resources domestically and internationally. Although modern China’s threats focus on powers beyond immediate, terrestrial adjacency, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to pursue agendas formed towards the steppe. This is due partially to economic interests, but is largely due to the engrained, cultural nature of Chinese foreign policy.

In 2013, Premier Li Keqiang announced the beginning of a massive, ambitious economic development project encompassing all of Eurasia. The One Belt, One Road initiative focused on the development of two economic lanes. One was a maritime route sailing through the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean region. The other was a land route meant to follow the ancient Silk Road. Since the beginning of development, more resources have been spent on the land route connecting China to the Middle East and Europe.[vii] During the Han-Xiongnu War, one of the salient reasons for defending the Ordos River Loop as well as attacking into present day Gansu and Xinjiang was to maintain trade routes to Central Asia. The OBOR route follows the same historic path. Although most major trade is conducted via maritime travel to Europe, Beijing has put major emphasis on rail transportation to reach distant trading partners on the opposite side of Eurasia.[viii] Additionally, China’s investments are easily seen as an economic statecraft play to hedge Russian influence out of Central Asia. In 2013, Chinese trade with the five Central Asia states reached $50 billion, while the same states only conducted an $30 billion trade aggregate with Russia. Although Russia and China aren’t hostile geopolitical foes presently, Russia controls some of the steppe that once caused China great frustration. Anything to prevent peripheral states from moving further into Beijing’s perceived orbit is preferred

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is another focus of Chinese foreign policy in handling the steppe and beyond. The organization evolved from the Shanghai Five, a Eurasian economic, political, and military organization founded in 2001. The SCO now encompasses China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan.[ix] The organization presently focuses on Central Asian security against terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Coupled with OBOR, the SCO is an extension of Chinese power into regions that historically threatened Chinese imperial control of Asia. While there are certain, peaceful benefits derived multilaterally between all member states, there is room for suspicion as nations jockey for power within the SCO. Particularly, Russia strongly encouraged India to join the SCO, but experts believe that may have been part of a long-term, Russian power-play to balance against Chinese influence in the organization and region.[x] Although China was receptive to the encouragement, China has previously declined membership status to nations that could upset the pro-Chinese status quo of the SCO.[xi]

Beyond the focus of resources on the terrestrial OBOR route, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) offers key clues in China’s geopolitical foci. Recent estimates put the PLA’s active size around 2.25 million members, with over 60 percent dedicated solely to the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF).[xii] The other 40 percent is split between the navy, air force, rocket force, and strategic support force. China focuses a considerably greater amount of resources on maintaining and expanding their ground forces when compared to the United States active personnel statistics that states the U.S. Army is only 36 percent of active military personnel.[xiii] This is a disconnect from their more transparent goals. Recently, China has focused on control of the East and South China Seas through non-conventional confrontation over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the island building campaigns in the Spratly Islands and others. Also, Beijing is pursuing multiple naval expansion project primarily in the Indian Ocean region, showing aggressive interests in maritime South Asia. Nonetheless, contemporary Chinese military organization shows distinct disconnect from a primary focus on maritime, peripheral control. The PLA serves several major purposes that hearkens back to the steppe focus of past dynasties.

Primarily, the PLA serves to defend China from exterior and interior threats. As an extension of the CCP and not the state of China, the PLA ensures the party remains in power and quells any dissent. Beyond the roles of internal security, the PLA remains vigilant against threats to Chinese sovereignty and anticipated hegemony in East Asia. Since the creation of the CCP, China has fought a United Nations coalition, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, India, and most recently, Russia. Most of these threats are adjacent to China’s territory directly. Although projects such as OBOR and organizations like SCO are meant to bridge divides and unite China with its peripheral neighbors, recent history still plays a major role in the region, especially between Russia and China where “false contentedness” is the state of relations between the two Eurasian behemoths.[xiv] China understands that exerting power beyond the Asian continent will require either a very strong, peaceful relationship with Russia, or complete dominance over Moscow. Its economic actions in Central Asia, quickly developing military, and continued political exertion on the Korean peninsula shows that China is pursuing the latter option. Russia is the contemporary Xiongnu. Direct confrontation with Russia would lead to nuclear war. This is not an option for Beijing, so victory will come through total economic and political dominance in Eurasia. The CCP cannot defeat the Russians like the Han court defeated the Xiongnu confederation, but they can still win an abstracted, geopolitical conflict. China’s greatest challenge to complete regional hegemony will be eroding U.S. influence in the region, but Russia is currently the larger threat. While China exudes friendship toward Russia, it is a long-term ploy to gain total dominance over Moscow.

Nuclear weapons are only one variable in successful deterrent equation. Beijing’s growing nuclear arsenal doesn’t ensure safety from a future aggressive power play from the Kremlin. This is another salient reason why the PLAGF remains the largest and dominant branch of the military apparatus. Given the realist ideology of Beijing’s foreign policy, peace through strength is an understandable grand strategy.

The Han-Xiongnu War focused Chinese grand strategy on the steppe, and by doing so, began a tradition that remains—the lack of focus on maritime control. China never focused on oceanic capabilities as a form of power projection because spending resources on naval capabilities meant less resources were sent to armies at the steppe. Although China utilized its coastline for trade throughout the different dynasties, beyond the brief expeditionary fleets of Zheng He, Chinese dynasties never maintained large, militaristic armadas. The PLA is changing that in some forms. There were assumptions that China planned to construct six carriers between 2007 and 2017.[xv] These assumptions were proven incorrect. Although China has acquired four decommissioned carriers for study, they have only successfully constructed one, the Liaoning. Modern naval doctrine emphasizes the necessity of a carrier fleet to adequately exert blue water influence. China’s naval aspirations have fallen short of the anticipated capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

In comparison to the PLAGF, the PLAN is consequentially less sizeable and potent. In 2012, East Asian security experts believed that in an event where the PLAN engaged the Japanese navy, Japan would win handily.[xvi] A naval engagement with the United States would be considerably costlier and a greater loss for the PLAN. Additionally, the PLAN is inhibited by the long chain of disgruntled and hostile neighbors from Japan in the north, south through Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. None of the aforementioned states are keen on seeing an upstart blue water Chinese fleet sailing freely sailing in the Pacific. Currently, China is geopolitically contained from the Pacific, and none of its neighbors are interested in seeing a shift in Beijing’s favor. Due to this geographical containment, China has not developed the naval potency that many scholars claimed.[xvii] Resources have been funneled back to the PLAGF because of naval restrictions, Eurasian geopolitical challenge, and the cultural nature of defending the steppe from enemies near and far.


The Han dynasty is looked upon fondly for many reasons. One of the reasons is the decisive victory attained during the Han-Xiongnu War and the court’s offensive tactics to dealing with a foreign threat. This differed wildly from other Chinese dynastic military thought that relied on Sinification and defense strategies. Because the historically constant threat from the steppe and the original conflict between the Han dynasty and the Xiongnu empire, China has always focused a majority of military effort towards the defense of northern China and other Eurasian threats. China has been threatened from other directions, such as Japan from the east, Western European powers form the south, and the Indian threat from the subcontinent, yet China has always focused much of its energies on the steppe. Due to the blessings of geography, indifference, and luck, China has not had to defend the fertile regions of the Yangtze River for much of its existence. Northern China held the path to the Silk Road from which riches and luxuries flowed. Losing Northern China meant losing much of what made China such a successful civilization. The millennia of conflict have intertwined themselves with Chinese culture so much so that the steppe still manages to captivate Chinese leadership, whether they realize it or not.

Work Cited

Casey Michel, “Between Russia and China, the Black Dragon River,” The Diplomat, last modified December 29, 2016, accessed April 15, 2017, http://thediplomat.com/2016/12/between-russia-and-china-the-black-dragon....

Joseph V. Micallef, “Beijing’s ‘One Belt-One Road’ Strategy: Why Geography Still Matters,” Military.com, accessed April 15, 2017, http://www.military.com/daily-news/2017/02/16/beijings-one-belt-one-road....

Marvin C. Whiting, Imperial Chinese Military History: 8000BC-1912AD, (iUniverse, 2002), 304-320.

Mathieu Duchatel and Francois Godement, “China and Russia: Gaming the West”, China Analysis, European Council on Foreign Relations (November 2016): 1-24, accessed April 13, 2017, http://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/china_and_russia_gaming_the_west....

Michael Yamashita and William Lindesay, The Great Wall: From Beginning to End, (Sterling, 2007), 40-42.

Nicola Di Cosmo, Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History, (New York: Cambridge, 2002), 151-204.

Richard D. Fisher, China’s Military Modernization, (Stanford Security Studies, 2010), 33; 184-194.

Spencer C. Tucker, A Global Chronology of Conflict: From the Ancient World to the Modern Middle East, (ABC-CLIO, 2009), 1421-1647.

“Which Branch of the Military Has the Most Active Personnel?” last modified 2017, accessed April 16, 2017, http://us-military-branches.insidegov.com/app-question/442/Which-branch-of-the-military-has-the-most-active-personnel.

William Lowther, “Japanese Navy is a Match for People’s Liberation Army Navy,” Taipei Times, last modified August 23, 2012, accessed April 15, 2017, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2012/08/23/2003540982.

William T. Wilson, “China’s Huge ‘One-Belt, One Road Initiative is Sweeping Central Asia,” National Interest, July 27, 2016, accessed April 15, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/chinas-huge-one-belt-one-road-initia....

Y.A. Zadneprovskiy, “The Nomads of Northern Central Asia After the Invasion of Alexander”, edited by J. Harmatta, B.N Puri, and F.F. Etemadi, History of Civilizations of Central Asia, (Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 227-246; 457-472.

End Notes

[i] Di Cosmo, Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History, 151-204.

[ii] Xiongnu leaders donned the name Shanyu upon receiving leadership of the empire out of respect to Modu Shanyu.

[iii] Whiting, Imperial Chinese Military History: 8000BC-1912AD, 304-320.

[iv] Yamashita and Lindesay, The Great Wall: From Beginning to End, 40-42.

[v] Tucker, A Global Chronology of Conflict: From the Ancient World to the Modern Middle East, 1421-1647.

[vi] Zadneprovskiy, “The Nomads of Northern Central Asia After the Invasion of Alexander”, History of Civilizations of Central Asia, 227-246.

[vii] Micallef, “Beijing’s ‘One Belt-One Road’ Strategy: Why Geography Still Matters.”

[viii] Wilson, “China’s Huge ‘One-Belt, One Road Initiative is Sweeping Central Asia.”

[ix] India and Pakistan are not yet full members, but joined the SCO in 2016 and are awaiting final recognition.

[x] Duchatel and Godement, “China and Russia: Gaming the West”, 1-24. http://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/china_and_russia_gaming_the_west...

[xi] China strongly encouraged rejection of the U.S. and four other nations’ proposals to become an observer of the SCO.

[xii] Fisher, China’s Military Modernization, 33.

[xiii] As of 2015, the active personnel statistics of the U.S. military branches are as follows: Army- 490,326; Marine Corps- 183,787; Navy- 326,253; Air Force- 310,795; Coast Guard- 40,075.

[xiv] Michel, “Between Russia and China, the Black Dragon River,” The Diplomat.

[xv] Fisher, China’s Military Modernization, 184-194.

[xvi] Lowther, “Japanese Navy is a Match for People’s Liberation Army Navy,” Taipei Times.

[xvii] Fisher, China’s Military Modernization.


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