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Analysis of Sima Qian’s “Account of Xiongnu” Essay

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Updated: Sep 11th, 2021


The early history of China in the period of 200-100 BC was filled with strife, war and intrigue. China at that time was divided into man regions and controlled by different dynasties; rulers, chieftains and the northern barbarians constantly pillaged the northern region. The fertile lands, the vast treasures and the lavish lifestyle of the ancient kings lead to frequent fights and battles. The ancient history of China can be reconstructed from the accounts of famous ancient historians and also from reports by European travellers and merchantmen that travelled to China on the silk route for trade. On such historian was Sima Quin and he wrote a history of the events that had unfolded in those times and the history of the preceding 2000 years. This paper provides an analysis of the study of ancient Chinese history as related by Sima Qian.

Differences and similarities between the Xiongnu and the Chinese

Barfield (1992, p. 126) has extensively discussed the difference between the Xiongnu and the Han. The Xiuongnu or the Shanyu or the Asiatic Huns as they were later called were groups of nomadic tribesmen, utterly cruel and for whom killing was reduced to a practical joke. The author has suggested that these tribesmen started as herdsmen and later grew to power in the 4th and the 3rd BC when they started raising China in greater numbers. In the early days, the Chinese regions were divided among many rulers who were constantly fighting and these included the regions such as Zhao, Qin, Yan, Lu, Qi, Wei, Chu, Han, etc. It is suggested that these raiders were the ancestors of Attila the Hun and besides being expert horsemen, were also adept at using bow and arrows. These warriors though they were smaller in numbers when compared to the Han dynasty, in a few decisive battles, the Xiuongnu utterly routed the superior forces of the Hans. As Barfield has stated

Whenever the Xiuongnu begin some undertaking, they observe the stars and the moon. They attack when the moon is full and withdraw their troops when it wanes. After a battle, those who have cut off the heads of the enemy or taken prisoners are presented with a up of wine and allowed to keep the spoils they have captured. Any prisoners that are taken are made slaves. Therefore when they fight, each man strives for his own gain. They are very skilful at using decoy troops to lure their opponents to destruction. When they catch sight of the enemy, they swoop down like a flock of birds, eager for booty but when they find themselves hard pressed and beaten, they scatter and vanish like mists” (Thomas Barfield, 1992, p. 137).

According to Thomas Barfield (1992, p. 23), the Han Chinese were more suited to living in cities and had vast, well equipped armies.

Can the Chinese benefit from conquering the Xiongnu?

The Chinese cannot benefit from the land that would be conquered from the Xiongnu. The reason for this is that the lands that the Xiongnu own are all wastelands and swamps and they could not be inhabited and cultivated. The Chinese would not have gained something useful if they had conquered the lands (p. 141).

Can the Xiongnu conquer China?

Even if the Xiongnu conquer the lands, they would never be able to occupy the lands and if the Chinese conquered the lands of the Xiongnu, since the lands were wastelands, they would be of no use. Thomas Barfield (1992, p. 136-138) has written extensively about the strategy that the Xiuongnu use in battle and in peace. The author has argued that the tribesmen had strict code of conduct in their tribes and during peace, if anyone drew the sword for more than a foot from the scabbard, he was executed. The author speaks of the great campaign that Maosun, the Xiuongnu had waged in the far north. Maosun had launched a series of campaigns in the north and had defeated the tribes of Hunyu, Qushe, Dingling, Gekun and Xini and in addition he had won over all the nobles and high ministers. At the same time, the Han emperor Gaozu had gained control of the empire and had transferred Xin, the former king of Han to be the ruler of Dai with the capital at Mayi. The Xiuongnu laid siege to the city and forced the king to surrender and made him join them along with his army. With this huge force, Maodun attacked Taiyuan and the city of Jinyang. This enraged Gaozu who led an army to attack the invaders but it was bitter winter and the army of Maosun was at a disadvantage. He feigned a retreat to lure the Han soldiers to attack who took the bait and rushed forward to attack. When they came in pursuit, Masosun hid all his best troops and left only the weakest to be observed. The entire army of Han of more than 320,000 forces rushed to the battle to the freezing northern wastes. Before the infantry had a chance to arrive, Maodun swooped down with 400,000 strong cavalry and surrounded Gaozu on White peak and held him for seven days. The Han forces that were surrounded could not receive any aid or provisions from their army since the Xiongnu surrounded them from all sides. The defeated Gaozu sued for peace and an agreement was reached. These and many other battles show the superiority that the Xiuongnu had in terms of strategy if not strength.

Can China permanent expand at the Xiongnus’ expense?

The Chinese cannot expand at the permanent expense of the Xiuongnu as war and intrigue is a common practice among the Chinese. According to Thomas Barfield (1992, p. 154-156), the Xiuongnu very cleverly managed to dupe the Han that they were agreed to holding talks and even under provocative statements of the envoys sent by Han, refused to rush into battle. To expand their empire, the Han had to force the Xiuongnu into an open fight and in such a fight, with superior numbers and equipment the Han would win such a battle. But since the Xiongnu would not agree to an open battle, they refused the Chinese could not expand forever.

What marks the frontier, how much can it be moved?

The frontier was as decided by the emperor (p. 146). The land that was across the north of the Great Wall was to be ruled by the Xiuongnu and the land that was to the south of the wall was to be ruled by the Han Chinese.

What are some of the arguments advocates of peace use in the early Han Wudi?

The advocates of peace had suggested that the Han could not use the lands of the Xiongnu as they were all swamps and wasteland, hence there was no profit since the lands could not be cultivated. When Emperor Wen came to the throne, he renewed the peace treaty with the Xiongnu. In the fifth month of the third year of his reign. However, the Xiongnu Wise King of the Right invaded the region south of the Yellow river, plundering the loyal barbarians of the Shang Province who had been appointed by the Han to guard the frontier and murdering and carrying off a number of the inhabitants. Emperor Wen ordered the Chancellor Cuan Ying to lead a force of 85, 000 carriages and cavalry to Gaonu where the attacked the wise King of the Right. The latter fled beyond the frontier. The emperor in person visited Taiyuan at which time the King of Jibei revolted. When the emperor returned to the capital, he disbanded the army, which Guan had used in the attack on the barbarians (p. 142).

Who are the advocates of war?

The Han and the emperor Son of Heaven advocate war. They argue that with the Xiongnu retaining power and their lands, it was not possible to get peace in the region as the Xiongnu were constantly at war and kept raiding deep into the border areas.

What motivates the Xiongnu to go to war?

The Xiongnu are motivated to go to war because of the ruthless habits that the Han practiced and also due to the fact that the Great Wall of China was being built by torturing the peasants. According to Arthur Waldron (2003, p. 32), the Great Wall of China was not a symbol of unity but rather an emblem of the ruthless savagery that the emperor practiced on the hapless population. The peasantry and the local populace had to participate in the work on fear of a painful execution if they refused or did sloppy work. Coercion, beatings and execution were the common modes used to ensure that the wall was built as per the required standard. Speaking of the savagery, the author suggests that

If the workmen left the least chasm discoverable between the stones, ti was at the forfiet of their lives. European tell the tales of workmen being executed for leaving gaps between bricks and the workmen who baked the bricks for the wall, The supervisor in charge of the works Ch;ih-kan-A-li used to test the bricks with an awl and would bore a hole as much as an inch deep, he would have the workers responsible and buried inside the wall” (Waldron, 2003, p. 35).

The author has suggested that the common notion that Qin Shi Huang, the Emperor of China took up building the wall in the years from 220 BC. Even today scholars do not agree about what exactly the C’h’in dynasty did despite the expenditure of much painstaking effort in analysing the sources. What we make of the Ch’in however is of such great importance to out interpretation of everything that follows, that we must pay more than passing attention to exploring it. The conventional story is that after conquering his rivals among the Chinese, Ch’in Shih-huang (246-210 BC) turned to face the challenge from nomads to the north. To subdue them, he sent his trusted general Meng Tien with 300, 000 men who after successful conclusion of a campaign that drove the nomads out of the north and beyond the Yellow river loop, put his men to work constructing frontier fortifications to guard newly won territory. The work was not completely from scratch. Most authorities agree that Meng Tein did not build an entirely new wall but rather worked with pre-existing warring states walls, which he repaired and connected. But nevertheless, the consensus is that this was an awesome feat. Scholars speculate that the Ch’in work went on for perhaps 10 years and was in many respects far more complex than even building the pyramid, dam or other stationary monumental structures for one had to reckon with the long stretches of mountains and semi desert it traversed, the sparse population of those areas and the frigid winter climate. It involved according to some, moving more than 1.3 billion cubic meters of stone and earthwork and perhaps mobilising 400, 000 men.

What motivates China to go to war?

China wants to go to war because of the increasing insecurity that they faced in their northern regions. The ministers, generals and self serving people wanted to go to war because they had no proper understanding of peace and what was right or wrong.

Emperor Yao in ancient times, as wise as he was not completely successful as a ruler, the nine provinces of China had to wait until the reign of Emperor Yu before they knew real peace. If one could establish a truly worthy dynasty as those of old, therefore nothing is more important than selecting the right generals and ministers.” (p. 162).

The hidden commentary on the policies of the current emperor, Han Wudi

According to Sima (p. 162), Sima Qian has been forced to make use of a ‘guarded language’ when he speaks of the policies of the current emperor Han Wudi. Siam feared for his life and was probably afraid that the Emperor would have him executed if he made a frank assessment of the current state of affairs. Siam comments that ordinary men of these days who discuss Xiongnu affairs is that they seek only for some temporary advantage, resorting to any kind of flattery in order to have their own views accepted without considering what the effect may be on all parties concerned. At the same time, the generals and military leaders, relying on the vastness and might of China, grow increasingly bold and the ruler follows their advice in making his decisions. Thus no profound achievement is ever reached.

Arthur Waldron (2003, p. 189) who has translated the work of Sima Qian has offered strong proof of the manner in which court intrigues were practiced in ancient China. According to the author, so deep was the distrust and intrigue that when court officials departed to the court for their duty, they would bid farewell to their near and dear ones, as they felt that at any instant in the court, a favoured courtier would whisper something against an official and the official would be either executed on the spot or imprisoned which was much worse. Betrayal and treachery was of the order of the day and no one, right from the common soldier to the top general was spared from the intrigues and Court intrigues and deceptions were very common in those days. The author has related the sad plight of the renowned general Meng Tein who served the emperor Shih Hunag. The general was sent on a mission to northern China and he managed to subdue the warring tribes with his vast army of 300,000 soldiers. In addition, the general in his 10 year mission also managed to complete substantial sections of the great wall and when he returned to his emperor, he expected to be honoured and rewarded. But the emperor feared the generals might and popularity for himself and his heirs and ordered the general Meng Tien to kill himself so that a poweful and threatening rival could be removed. The author writes that

‘Meng Tiem heaved a great sigh and said what crime have I before heaven? I die without fault. After a long time he added: Indeed I have a crime for which to die. Beginning at Lin-t’ao and extending to Liso-tung, I have made ramparts and ditches over more than ten thousand li and in this distance it is impossible that I have not cut through the veins of the earth. This is my crime. He then swallowed poison and so committed suicide” (Waldron, 2003, p. 195).

Focus on Sima Qian

According to Thomas Barfield (1992, p. 23), Sima Qian lived in the period of 145 to 90 BC and was Prefect of the Han dynasty and belonged to the group of the Grand Scribes.In those times, knowledge of writing and Calligraphy was restricted to only a few people and these people were called the scribes. It was the duty of the scribes to note the court proceedings, ensure that proper revenue records were kept and also write about historical and current events. The work of Sima has been used as a foundation for the succeeding generation of Chinese historians. Thomas has written about the great historian Sima Qian and the author suggests that Sima was born in the present day region of Hancheng in Shaanxi. He came from a family of renewed histographers and his father had worked as the Prefect of the Grand Scribes under the emperor Wu. Sima was supposed to maintain the royal library and the imperial calendar. By the age of 10, young Sima had mastered the art of writing and was knowledgeable about history. Along with his father, he decided to write the text Shiji that was to document all the known Chinese history. He set off on a mission across China and gathered artefacts, records, old writings and manuscripts that spoke of ancient kings who ruled 2000 years back. He also visited the graves of old kings and learnt about the architecture, the war strategy they used and the way in which people lived. Barfield has argued that in the course of a military expedition to the north to put down some barbarian tribes, the Chinese army under the general Li Lang was defeated and everyone blamed the general for the defeat. Rather foolishly, Sima sided with the disgraced general and worst wrote true facts about the debacle and this incensed the emperor who sentenced the scribe to death. There were only two ways to escape death, either by paying a hefty fine or by undergoing castration and Siam chose the latter. He endured untold ignominy for 3 years in prison and was released later to work as an eunuch to guard the women’s palace. His dream was to finish the grand master piece; Shiji that his father wanted to complete and he did complete the manuscript that serves as a fount for historians even today.


The paper has discussed how Siam Qian underwent severe torture and privations to record the history of the ancient Chinese emperors. The work has served as the basis for countless historians. The paper has also discussed how treachery and intrigue was an everyday occurrence in the court of the ancient Chinese kings and even Generals were not spared from being victims. The paper has also discussed the subject that the Xiuongnu were superior in war strategy when compared to the Han and how the Great Wall of China was built by torturing the people. The paper also suggests that the wall was built by joining pre-existing walls and the major portions are not entirely new.


Barfield Thomas. (1992). The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China. Publisher: Blackwell Publishers.

Watson Burton. (1993). Sima Qian: Account of the Xiongnu, Records of the Grand Historian. Han Dynasty, Volume. 2. Translated. New York: Columbia University Press.

Waldron Arthur. (2002). The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. Publisher: Cambridge University Press.

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