top of page

Xuŋa (Xiongnu)

The history of the Xuŋa (Chinese: 匈奴), a Turkic tribal confederation that inhabited the eastern Eurasian Steppe from at least the fourth century B.C.E. onwards. They transitioned into an empire in the year 209 B.C.E. when Bağatur Darğa reorganized the former confederacy.


Sima Qian (司馬遷) is the first to mention the Xuŋa, or Xiongnu, in his monumental work, the Taishigong Shu (太史公書) or "Grand Scribe's Records" (also known as the Shiji (史記) or "Records of the Scribe"). There, he claims that the Xuŋa progenitor, Chun-wei (淳維), hailed from the line of the Xia (夏) Dynasty. This is, of course, a dubious claim likely made with the intention of placing the Xuŋa within the purview of the Central States. The sinicization of foreign groups within territories deemed to be Chinese is an enduring practice within Chinese regimes. Returning to the Xuŋa, Sima Qian states that the North was occupied by three groups known as the Xun-yu (葷粥), the Xian-yun (獫狁), and the Mountain Rong (山戎).

The Xunyu

Supposedly the son of Jie of Xia (夏桀), a ruthless tyrant blamed for the collapse of his empire, the aforementioned Chun-wei was said to have consequently fled North. From there, he either joined or founded a tribe known as the Xun-yu (葷粥), a name considered by some commentaries to be another transcription of Chun-wei’s name. This tribe became enemies of the ancient Shang (商朝) or Yin (殷代) dynasty.

The Xianyun

The Xian-yun (獫狁), a tribe or confederation that was active during the Western Zhou (西周) (11th century to 771 B.C.E.), were possibly related to the people west of the Central States known as the Western Rong (西戎) and to the Xun-yu before them. They likely contributed to the ethnogenesis of the Xuŋa, if they were not one and the same already. However, unlike their supposed horse-riding descendants, the Xian-yun fought on horse-drawn chariots like their enemies in the Central States.

Mountain Rong

Unlike the Xian-yun, the Mountain Rong were likely a collection of mountain-dwelling tribes to the North of the Central States. They probably included a variety of Altaic speaking tribes such as the ancestors of the Turkic Bai-yang (白羊) tribe (one of the core tribes of the Xuŋa) and the Mongolic Särbi (鮮卑). They were enemies of the Eastern Zhou (東周) (770 to 256 B.C.E.).


The Xuŋa



In A Honfoglaló Magyarság Kialakulása, Németh Gyula (1930) compares Hun with Turkic kün "people," Mongolic küm(un) "human being," and Ugric xum s.m., among other cognates, concluding that the word must have meant “man, human being.” In “Huna,” Sir Harold Walter Bailey (1985) connected the word Xiōngnú (匈奴) to Avestan Hyaona, the name of a supposedly ancient people who were enemies of the Iranians. This name, he traced to an unattested *hjauna, supposedly a cognate to a Vedic *sjoná “possessor” and therefore, by his opinion, “lord.” Furthermore, he proposed that these Hyaona must have migrated from the Oxus to Qumul which he notes was once a Xuŋa city. However, according to the Taishigongshu, the Xuŋa tribes originated in and/or to the north of the modern Ordos, not Qumul, which would have been in Agɲe territory. Moreover, both Németh and Bailey’s reconstructions are no longer plausible as Old Chinese has been better reconstructed, showing that Xiōngnú had back, not front vowels and that there was no initial palatal consonant in the Old Chinese pronunciation for it. Accordingly, in “Phonological Notes on Hàn Period Transcriptions of Foreign Names and Words,” Sinologist Axel Schuessler (2014) reconstructs Xiōngnú as Old Chinese *hoŋ-nâ, but offers no etymology. In “Early Contacts of Turks and Problems of Proto-Turkic Reconstruction,” Anna Vladimirovna Dybo (2014) reconstructs what she labels as a Turkic *hunga, but also offers no specific etymological breakdown.

In “the Qai, the Khongai, and the Names of the Xiōngnú,” Christopher P. Atwood (2015) reconstructs *Xoŋa(i) as a dynastonym, derived from the name of the Ongi River in modern Mongolia. The name’s designation as a dynastonym and its connection to the Ongi river is supported here. However, I reconstruct *X[u]ŋɑ < *q[u]n + gɑ. Finally, as Atwood points out a Mongolic etymology is unlikely for any of the Xuŋa words containing the consonantal sound /ŋ/. That is, “the inadmissible sequence of /ŋ/ followed by a vowel [is] broken up by an epenthetic /q/” in Mongolic languages. This constraint does not exist in the Turkic languages. So, while it does not necessitate that the etymology of such words be Turkic, it does rule out the possibility that they are Mongolic.

In The Scythian Empire: Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China, Christopher I. Beckwith (2023) makes the peculiar claim that Xiōngnú, which he reconstructs as *Suŋlâː, derives from a variant of the Scythian ethnonym, Suğda. To arrive at this form, he traces the Chinese transcription to an intermediate *Suɣla, a theoretic necessity which he admits is unattested. However, his reconstruction is ultimately untenable as it radically deviates from the academically accepted reconstructions for the Hanji in question. As Schuessler (2009) explains in Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese: A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa, “[Han] transcriptions tend to have the last sound of a syllable anticipate the initial of the next one.”

Known transcriptions of the Hunnic dynastonym:


→ OC Xiōngnú (匈奴) *hoŋ-nâ

→ OC Xiōngnú Shuǐ (匈奴水) *hoŋ-nâ “river”

→ OC Xiōngnú Hé (匈奴河) *hoŋ-nâ “river”

→ SA (हूण) *ɦuː.ɳɐ

→ LH Wēnnà (溫那) *ʔuən-nɑ

→ Arya (υονα) *oːnaː

→ Brahmi (𑀳𑀽𑀗𑀸) *huːŋaː

Via Turkic Sound Change /ɑ/ → /u/ → /ɨ/

→ OT (𐰆𐰣𐰍𐰃) *oŋɨ

Loan from Turkic language

→ Mongolic *oŋ[g]i

→ LH Hūní (忽倪) *huət-ŋe

→ MC Húnyì (渾義) *ɣwən-ŋje

Loan from Han language

→ Latin Hunni

→ Latin Chuni

Via Truncation

→ Sogdian (xwn) *xun

Via Arya o-suffixation

→ Arya (χοννο) *xoŋo

→ Arya (χονο) *xono

Loan from Arya language

→ AG (Οὔννους) *ːnnuːs

→ AG (Οὔννοις) *ːnnoi̯s

Early History

The true history of the Xuŋa began around 318 B.C.E., when they are said to have joined the states of Han (韓), Zhao (趙), Wei (魏), Yan (燕), and Qi (齊) in a failed assault on the Qin (秦). Shortly after, they are referred to, interchangeably, as the Hu (胡). These were thought to be the same Hu that were mentioned earlier, having terrorized the Mongolic state of Dai. Originally, transcribing an ethnic term, the character for Hu would quickly become a general label for horse-riding nomads.

The Hu are next mentioned during the reign of King Zhao of Qin (秦昭王) (306 – 251 B.C.E.), following the defeat of the Yi-qu (義渠) tribes. This results in the Qin construction of a wall meant to keep out the Hu. They are mentioned again sometime during 307 B.C.E., during the reign of King Wu-ling of Zhao (趙武靈王) (325 – 299 B.C.E.). The Zhao king, tired of military defeat and intent on conquering the North, decides to refashion his military in the style of the Hu. As a result, his entire kingdom adopts Hu attire and learns to shoot arrows on horseback. The policies pay off, and in 306 B.C.E., the king makes an incursion into Zhong-shan (中山) and Hu territory. He marches as far as Ning-jia (寧葭), then heading West as far as Hu controlled Yu-zhong (楡中). The chieftain of the Forest Hu (林胡), another Xuŋa tribe, surrenders, gifting the Zhao king horses. The Zhao army returns, having enlisted several Hu tribes into their army. The use of nomadic forces in the Zhao army marked the beginning of a practice that would remain in use by succeeding dynasties.

The following year, Zhao returned to Zhong-shan, capturing Dan-qiu (丹丘), Hua-yang (華陽), and Chi-zi Pass (鴟之塞). In return for peace, Zhong-shan offered four cities to the Zhao, who accepted and pulled their armies. However, in 301 B.C.E., the Zhao returned to attack Zhong-shan causing their king to flee to Qi. In 299 B.C.E., King Wu-ling of Zhao abdicated his throne to his son, taking on the title of Zhu-fu (主父) or the “Lord’s father.” In 296 B.C.E., while touring his newly conquered lands, the Zhu-fu encountered the king of the Lou-fan (樓煩), a Xuŋa tribe, who presented his army to the abdicated king. After a long struggle to survive, in 295 B.C.E., Zhong-shan was completely destroyed and its king banished to Fu-shi (膚施).

The next mention of the Xuŋa occurs around 243 B.C.E., when the King of Zhao installed Li Mu (李牧) as the general of his army. Li Mu proceeded to attack Yan, taking Wu-sui (武遂) and the city of Fang (方). It can be reasoned that some time before this, however, Li Mu was stationed at Zhao’s northern border at Dai and Yan-men. Here, he defended the border from marauding Xuŋa forces. Using the income gained from frontier markets, he was able to fund the defense of the wall. Moreover, he is recorded as having put his troops through rigorous training, instructing them to keep a vigilant eye on beacon signals and use spies to keep up on the activities of his enemies. His order was for all soldiers and civilians to enter the forts at the sign of a Xuŋa attack, or face execution. It is stated that the Xuŋa were not able to profit from their raids due to this. So, they taunted Li Mu, who resisted their attempts to draw him out. As a result, Li Mu's own men began to think of him as a coward, forcing the king of Zhao to recall Li Mu and replace him with another general.

The new general reversed Li Mu’s policies, attempting to take a more confrontational approach with the nomads. Within a year, the Zhao suffered many defeats, lost many lives, were enslaved, and prevented from cultivating lands and herding cattle. The king was forced to reinstate Li Mu, who now feigned poor health. Nonetheless, forced to return to the border, Li Mu had the king agree to use his former tactics. Only then did Li Mu return. Xuŋa raids began to yield little gain. As Li Mu continued his defensive tactics, he secretly prepared his troops. He had 1300 charioteers, 13,000 cavalrymen, 50,000 infantry, and 100,000 archers prepared for an assault. He then allowed herders to lead their livestock out to graze the fields. Once more, the Xuŋa began raiding in smaller groups. Li Mu ordered that the herders feign retreat while allowing some herders to remain behind to be captured. A Xuŋa Darğa (單于) heard word of the captured livestock and decided to lead a force against Li Mu.

Li Mu is said to have employed an unorthodox tactic, splitting his cavalry forces into two left and right divisions, forcing the Xuŋa to fight on multiple fronts. The defeated Xuŋa numbered 100,000. The Dong-hu suffered heavy casualties, the Lin-hu were subjugated, and the Chan-lan (襜襤) eliminated. It is likely that the Dong-hu served as the vanguard, suffering the most casualties. This is typical of subjugated tribes within Turkic armies. The Darğa is said to have escaped north.

At some point later, or earlier if we go by the Taishigongshu's chronology, the Yan general Qin Kai (秦開) was sent as a hostage to the Hu. After some time, he had apparently earned their trust enough to return home. Having taken the time to familiarize himself with the North, he returned to Yan, leading a successful campaign against the Dong-hu. Yan took this opportunity to build a long wall from Zao-yang (造陽) to Xiang-ping (襄平), thus establishing the Shang-gu (上谷郡), Yu-yang (漁陽郡), You-bei-ping (右北平郡), Liao-xi (遼西郡), and Liao-dong (遼東郡) commandries in order to repel the Hu. At this time, of the seven warring states, three shared a border with the Xuŋa.

After the Qin destroyed the remaining warring states, Shi Huang-di (始皇) sent General Meng Tian (蒙恬) to lead 100,000 soldiers North to attack the Hu and recover the territory of Henan (河南). Taking advantage of the He River’s (河) strategic importance, he constructed forty-four county walls that overlooked the river. He then garrisoned criminals in order to fill the land. Afterwards, he connected a straight road from Jiu-yuan (九原) to Yun-yang (雲陽). By staying close to the mountainsides, creating natural barriers from rivers and valleys, and by repairing what could be repaired, he was able to start from Lin-tao (臨洮) and extend over 10,000 li to Liao-dong (遼東). He also crossed the Yellow River, occupying Yang Mountain (陽) and central Bei-jia (北假).

All the while, the Särbi (Dong-hu) (東胡) and Agɲe (Yue-zhi) (月氏) had become on par with the Xuŋa in strength. At this time the Darǧa of the Xuŋa was named Tümän (頭曼). Tümän could not overcome the Qin. So, he moved the Xuŋa North. After more than ten years, Meng Tian died, and many nobles turned against the Qin. The Central States were in disorder. As a result, all those who the Qin had left as garrison troops at the border left. Only then were the Xuŋa able to relax. Once more, they slowly crossed the Yellow River, heading south and occupying their old territories.


The Quŋa (Xiongnu) tamga I was able to reconstruct from pottery fragments and Hunnish seals.
The Xuŋa (Xiongnu) tamğa I was able to reconstruct from pottery fragments and Hunnish seals.


Imperial Age


The Rise of Bağatur Darğa


bottom of page