Scribe's Records (史記) 110 (English)

The greatest of the Han’s records, the Shiji (史記), traditionally known as the “Grand Scribe’s Records” (太史公書), is a massive work accredited to the Han court scribe, Sima Qian (司馬遷, ca 145 – 86 B.C.E.). It not only documents the history of the Han, but also of the surrounding world; thus, we could consider it one of the earliest attempts at creating a world history. Succeeding Chinese dynasties would come to model their own histories after it, eventually inspiring neighboring states to do the same. The text itself was separated into five segments:


  • The Basic Annals (本紀): the descriptions and histories of the dynasties and their emperors.

  • Tables (表): the genealogical and chronological tables of dynastic reigns, families, and noteworthy events.

  • Treatises (書): notes on the histories and developments of Chinese culture and sciences.

  • The Hereditary Houses (世家): histories of the royal houses and historical states of China.

  • The Biographies (列傳): descriptions and histories of notable individuals and groups.


The last of these segments, the Biographies, is where we find the bulk of the information pertaining to the Quŋa (Xiongnu) and their nomadic neighbors.

Volume 110
Biographies 50: the Quŋa (Xiongnu)
(In regard to) the Quŋa, (it is said that) their ancestors hailed from the line of the rulers of Xia. (Their progenitor's) name was Chun-wei (淳維). During the times of Tang, Yu, and those before, the North was occupied by the Mountain Rong (山戎), the Xian-yun (獫狁), and the Hun-zhou (葷粥). (It was their custom to) follow their livestock and migrate (from place to place). Much of their livestock consisted of horses, cattle, and sheep. The rest consisted of camels (橐駝), donkeys (驢), mules (驘), hinnies (駃騠), wild horses (騊駼), and jennies (騨騱). (They would) migrate (in search) of water and grass. Their cities did not have walls, nor did they cultivate farmland; nonetheless, each (tribe) had their own allotted land. They did not have written documents, (for their promises) were bound by their spoken words. Their children were capable of riding sheep (while) drawing their bow to shoot birds and mice. As they grew older, they (began) to shoot foxes and rabbits for food. (Finally) as men, their strength was enough to fully draw a bow, (thus) becoming armored cavalry. It was their custom to follow livestock when in possession of vast (land). Accordingly, hunting birds and animals became their livelihood. (However,) If their situation became critical, they would ready themselves for an offensive and send their soldiers to invade. This was their innate disposition. Their long-range weapons were the bow and arrow, and their short-range weapons were the knife and short spear. They attacked when it was advantageous, and retreated when it was not. They did not find it shameful to flee. Wherever there was opportunity, they did not know propriety or righteousness. Both the king and those below him all ate the meat of their livestock, using its leather for garments and the fur and felt for coverings. Their strongest ate the fattest, richest food, leaving the rest to their elderly. They valued the strong and healthy, looking down on the old and weak. When the father died, (the son would marry) the step-mother. (And) If an elder brother died, his wives would be distributed among his younger brothers. They had personal names without regard for taboos. They had no family or courtesy names.
When the way of the Xia declined, and the honorable Liu lost the office of millet (or agriculture), he changed among the Western Rong (and founded) the town of Bin (豳). After more than three-hundred years, the Rong and the Di attacked the great king Dan-fu, who (then) fled to Mount Qi (岐). The people of Bin (subsequently) followed Dan-fu, (founding) a city there (that would later) become Zhou. After more than a hundred years, Chang of Zhou, the Lord of the West, attacked the clan of the Quan-yi. After more than ten years, King Wu attacked Zhou, setting up a camp at the town of Luo (雒). Once more, (he) took residence at Feng (酆) and Hao (鄗). He banished the Rong and Yi to the north of the rivers Jing (涇) and Luo (洛). According to the seasons (they) brought tribute (into a land) that was called the uncultivated realm. After more than two-hundred years, the way of the Zhou declined. King Mu attacked the Quan Rong, obtaining four white wolves and four white deer (prior to) returning. Since that time, (the people of the) uncultivated realm did not arrive (with tribute). The Zhou forthwith established the law of Fu’s Punishment. After more than two-hundred years following King Mu, King You of Zhou’s favorite concubine, Si of Bao, became the reason for a rift between the king and the Marquise of Shen. The Marquise of Shen was angry, and allied himself with the Quan Rong, attacking and killing King You of Zhou beneath Mount Li (驪). They forthwith took possession of Jiao-huo Lake (焦穫), taking residence between the Jing (涇) and Wei (渭) rivers. (From there) they would invade and abuse the Central States. Duke Xiang of Qin liberated Zhou, thereupon King Ping of Zhou left Feng (酆) and Hao (鄗), moving his residence to the town of Luo (雒) in the east. Meanwhile, Duke Xiang of Qin attacked the Rong at Mount Qi (岐), for the first time achieving the rank of a feudal lord. After sixty-five years, the Mountain Rong crossed through Yan and attacked Qi. Duke Xi of Qi confronted them in the outskirts of Qi. After forty years, the Mountain Rong attacked Yan. Yan requested assistance from Qi, (who then sent) Duke Huan of Qi north to attack the Mountain Rong. The Mountain Rong retreated.
After more than twenty years, the Rong Di arrived at the town of Luo (雒), attacking King Xiang of Zhou. King Xiang of Zhou fled to the town of Fan (氾) in the state of Zheng. Initially, King Xiang of Zhou had desired to attack Zheng, therefore he had taken a daughter from the Rong Di as his queen. (Thus) he attacked Zheng with the aid of the Rong Di’s army. Afterwards, (he) dismissed the Di Queen, earning her contempt. King Xiang’s stepmother, known as the Hui Queen, had a son named Zi Dai, that she wished to enthrone. Thus, the Hui Queen and the Di Queen became internal agents, opening (the gates) for the Rong Di. For this reason, the Rong Di were able to enter, defeating and expelling King Xiang of Zhou. Zi Dai was then enthroned as the Son of Heaven. Thus the Rong Di were able to settle in Lu-hun (陸渾), reaching as far east as the state of Wei. They invaded, plundered, terrorized, and oppressed the people of the Central States. The Central States suffered due to this; hence the poets sang:
“The Rong Di will receive our answer. Pushed back the Xian-yun to Da-yuan (did we). From side to side, chariots (can be seen) fortifying that northern region.”
(Only) after living outside his residence for four years, did King Xiang of Zhou send envoys to the Jin. Duke Weng of Jin was newly established and wanted to establish his hegemony. Thus he (raised) an army to attack and expel the Rong Di. He executed Zi Dai and welcomed home King Xiang of Zhou, who took residence at the town of Luo (雒).
During this time, the states of Qin and Jin became strong. Duke Weng of Jin repelled the Rong Di (戎翟), (forcing them) to settle west of the Hexi Corridor, between the rivers Yin (圁) and Luo (洛). They became known as the Red Di (赤翟) and White Di (白翟). When Duke Mu of Qin obtained (the assistance) of You Yu (由余), (they were able to get) eight states of the Western Rong (西戎) to submit to the Qin. Therefore, from Mount Long (隴) westwards, there were (the following) Rong: the Mian-zhu (綿諸), the Gun Rong (緄戎), the Di (翟), and the Yuan (獂). North of the Mountains Qi (岐) and Liang (梁) and the rivers Jing (涇) and Qi (漆), there were (the following) Rong: the Yi-qu (義渠), the Da-li (大荔), the Wu-shi (烏氏), and the Qu-yan (朐衍). North of the Jin were (the following) Rong: The Forest Hu (林胡) and the Lou-fan (樓煩). North of the Yan were (the following) Rong: the Dong-hu (東胡) and the Mountain Rong (山戎). They are scattered (from one another), living (near) rivers and valleys. Each of them has their own ruler. (Those who) often unite, number in the hundreds of Rong; however, none are capable of unifying them all.
After more than a hundred years, Duke Dao of Jin sent Wei Jiang to make peace with the Rong Di, (leading the) Rong Di to pay their respects to the Jin. After more than a hundred years, Zhao Xiang-zi crossed over Mount Ju-zhu (句注). He broke and attacked Dai (代) so that (he could) overlook the Hu Mo (胡貉). Afterwards, (working with) the Han and Wei, (they) together, eliminated Zhi-bo. They divided Jin’s land, taking possession of it. Zhao (took the land) north of Dai (代) and Mount Ju-zhu (句注), and Wei took the Hexi Corridor and the Shang Commandery (上郡). Thus (they both) shared a border with the Rong. Later, the Rong of Yiqu (義渠) built inner and outer walls in order to protect themselves. The Qin slowly ate away (at their fortifications) until King Hui finally seized twenty-five of the Yiqu’s (義渠) cities. King Hui (then) attacked Wei. (As a result,) Wei relinquished Xihe (西河) and the Shang Commandery (上郡) to the Qin. During the time of King Zhao of Qin’s time, the king of the Yiqu (義渠) Rong had an affair with the Empress Dowager Xuan, resulting in two children. Empress Dowager Xuan (then) deceived and killed the king of the Yiqu (義渠) at Ganquan (甘泉). (She) forthwith raised an army to destroy the Yiqu (義渠). With this, the Qin held Long-xi (隴西), Bei-de (北地), and the Shang Commandery (上郡). They built a long wall to keep the Hu out. As for King Wu-ling of Zhao, he changed the custom to wear the clothing of the Hu, practiced shooting arrows on horseback, and went north in order to defeat the Forest Hu (林胡) and the Lou-fan (樓煩). He built a long wall from Dai 代, below Mount Yin (陰山), to Gao-que (高闕), (thus) establishing the Yun-zhong (雲中)(郡), Yan-men (鴈門)(郡), and Dai (代郡) commandries. Afterwards, Yan had the worthy general Qin Kai, who became a hostage to the Hu. The Hu put great trust in him. (Thus he was able to) return, defeating and expelling the Dong-hu (東胡), who retreated over a thousand li. Jing Ke (attempted to) assassinate the King of Qin with Qin Wu-yang, who was the grandson of (Qin) Kai. Yan also built 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 with caps and girdles, three shared a border with the Quŋa (匈奴). Afterwards, during the time of General Li Mu of Zhao, the Quŋa did not dare cross the border. After the Qin destroyed the six kingdoms, Shi Huang-di sent General Meng Tian (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 He River (河). 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 He River (河), (occupying) Mount Yang (陽) and central Bei-jia (北假).
Meanwhile, the Dong-hu 東胡 were strong and the Yue-zhi (月氏) were mighty. (At this time) the Darğa of the Xiongnu was named Tümän (頭曼). Tümän could not overcome the Qin. (So, he) moved (the Quŋa) North. After more than ten years, Meng Tian died, and many nobles turned against the Qin. The Central States were in disorder. All those who the Qin had left as garrison troops at the border once more left. With this, the Quŋa (were able to) relax. Once more, they slowly crossed the He River (河), heading south (and occupying) the old border with the Central States.
The Darǧa had a crown prince named Bağatur (冒頓). Later, there was a beloved Yan-zhi (閼氏), who gave birth to a child. The Darǧa desired to strip Bağatur (of his title) and enthrone the new-born. Therefore, he sent Bağatur as a hostage to the Yue-zhi. When Bağatur became a hostage to the Yue-zhi, Tümän violently attacked the Yue-zhi. (Thus) the Yue-zhi wanted to kill Bağatur; (however,) Bağatur (was able to) steal one of their fine horses and escape on horseback. Tümän considered him strong, and made him the general of 10,000 horsemen (i.e. a tümän). Thereupon, Bağatur made whistling arrows, training and instructing his cavalry as such: “Whoever does not shoot at the place the whistling arrow (lands) will lose his head.” When they went hunting for birds and wild animals, there were (those) who did not shoot at the whistling arrow’s (target). They were beheaded. Afterwards, Bağatur shot his whistling arrow at (one of) his fine horses. For those who did not dare shoot at his horse, Bağatur immediately beheaded. After some time, Bağatur shot his whistling arrow at (one of) his beloved wives. Once more, of those who did not dare shoot at his wife, Bağatur immediately beheaded. After some time, Bağatur went hunting. (Thereupon, when) he shot his whistling arrow at the Darǧa’s fine horse, all of his men shot (at the horse). With this, Bağatur knew his men had become able and ready. Thus, he (joined) his father, Tümän Darǧa, on a hunt. (When) he shot his whistling arrow at Tümän, his men followed the whistling arrow and also shot and killed Tümän Darǧa. Bağatur forthwith had his stepmother, younger brother, and the great ministers who did not obey executed. Bağatur (then) enthroned himself as the Darǧa.
By the time Bağatur was enthroned, the Dong-hu had already become strong and prosperous. When they heard that Bağatur had killed his father and enthroned himself, they dispatched envoys requesting Tümän’s 1000-lǐ horse (千里馬) from Bağatur. Bağatur asked his advisors (what he should do). All of his advisors said: “The 1000-lǐ horse is a Quŋa treasure, you cannot give it away!” Bağatur replied: “How is it that you cherish a single horse more than your neighboring country?” (His advisors were satisfied with the answer and) sent away the 1000-lǐ horse. Under the impression that Bağatur feared them, the Dong-hu now desired one of the Darǧa’s Yan-zhi. Bağatur asked those to his left and right again, and they were all angry, saying: "The Dong-hu have no principles. This is why they (dare) request a Yan-zhi! Please assault them." Bağatur replied: “How is it that you cherish a single woman more than your neighboring country?” (His advisors were satisfied with the answer and) fetched the Yan-zhi from her courters and gave her to the Dong-hu. (At this,) the King of the Dong-hu became more arrogant, (daring) to invade the west. Between (the Dong-hu and the) Quŋa, there was an abandoned territory. No one inhabited it. More than a 1000 li (apart), each (side) resided on its border. They called (this area) Ordu (甌脫). The Dong-hu (then) sent an envoy to Bağatur, stating: “the Quŋa and our borders are outside the Ordu. (Moreover,) the Quŋa are not capable of (holding it). (So,) I desire to take it.” Bağatur asked his advisors (what he should do). Some of his advisors said: “(We believe) giving this abandoned territory away is as permissible as not giving it away.” Thereupon, Bağatur became enraged. He said: “Territory is the foundation of a state. How can you approve of giving it away?!” All of those who said the territory could be given away were beheaded.
Bağatur mounted his horse and decreed that anyone who remained behind in the country would be beheaded. Thereupon, he went East, launching a surprise attack on the Dong-hu. (Since) the Dong-hu had initially underestimated Bağatur, they were unprepared (for an attack). When Bağatur arrived with his troops, (they) attacked and annihilated the Dong-hu King, enslaving his people and taking his livestock. After he returned, (Bağatur) went West to attack and drive away the Yue-zhi. He (then) went South to annex the Lou-fan and the He-nan King of Bai-yang (白羊). He recovered the entirety of the territory that the Qin had sent Meng Tian to rob. As for the Han, he (re-established) the old border (running from) south of the He until Chao-na (朝那) and Fu-shi (膚施). Satisfied (with what he had done), he invaded Yan and Dai. At the time, the Han army and Xiang-yu (項羽) were (engaged) far away and the Central States had exhausted their (supply) of armor and weaponry for their troops. As a result, Bağatur was able to become stronger, (acquiring) more than 30 tümäns (i.e. 300,000 units) of bow-wielding warriors.
From Chun-wei to Tümän, spanning more than a thousand years, (the Quŋa) were at times great and at times weak. They had (even) split and scattered, but still their ancestral records (世傳) remained unattainable and could not be sorted. However, under Bağatur, the Quŋa had become all powerful and mighty, subjugating the barbarians in the North and becoming a rival to the Central States in the South. (Only then) were the ancestral records of their nation and officials made obtainable and recorded:
They had established (the titles of) the “Worthy” Kings (賢王) of the Left and Right, The Gu-li Kings (谷蠡王) of the Left and Right, the Grand Generals (大將) of the Left and Right, the Grand Commandants (大都尉) of the Left and Right, the Grand Dang-hu (大當戶) of the Left and Right, and the Gu-dou Marquise (骨都侯) of the Left and Right. The Xiongnu word for “worthy” is tägin (屠耆). Therefore, the crown prince is given the title of Tägin of the Left.
From the Worthy Kings of the Left and Right, down to the Dang-hu, their greatest (command) ten-thousand and their lesser (command) a thousand. All twenty-four lords are titled “(Leader of) Ten Thousand (or Tümän).” All great officials hold hereditary titles. The tribes of the Hu-yan (呼衍), Lan (蘭), and afterwards, the Xu-bo (須卜) were those cognomina that belonged to their noble lineages. Their kings and generals of the Left resided in the East, their people, directly (facing) Shang-gu (上谷), extended (as) east as (to share a border with) the Wei-mo (穢貉) and Joseon (朝鮮). Their kings and generals of the Right resided in the West, their people, directly (facing) the Shang Commandry (上郡) from the west, extended (as) west as (to share a border with) the Yue-zhi, the Di (氐), and the Qiang (羌). The Darǧa’s court in the center directly (faces) the Dai (代) and Yun-zhong (雲中) (Commandries). Each has their own territory, moving in search of water and pasture. The Worthy Kings and Gu-li Kings of the Left and Right possess the greatest states, while the Gu-dou Marquises (骨都侯) of the Left and Right assist in the administering of government affairs. All of the twenty-four lords each appoint their own officials: Head of a Thousand (千長), Head of a Hundred (百長), Head of Ten (什長), Assisting Lesser King (裨小王), Commandant (都尉), Xiang-feng (相封), Saqa (且渠), and Dang-hu (當戶).
During the first month of every year, they have a small gathering at the Darǧa’s court, where they perform sacrifices. During the fifth month (of the year), a great gathering is held at Yılan Balıq (蘢城), where they offer sacrifices to their ancestors, to heaven and earth, and to their spirits and gods. During Autumn, when the horses are well-fed, a great gathering is held at Zhi Forest (蹛林), where the people are assessed and examined and the livestock tallied. It is their law that anyone who pulls their blade so much as a chi is executed. Those tried with robbery have their homes confiscated; those with petty crimes have their bones crushed by a wheel; and those with great crimes are put to death. The length of a trial does not exceed ten days, and the prisoners of a given state do not exceed a few people. When the Darǧa leaves his camp in the morning, he worships the sun's rise. In the evening, he worships the moon's (rise). His senior official sits to his left and faces north.¹³ Their favored days are the Wu and Ji. When they prepare their dead, they make use of inner and outer coffins, silver, gold, garments, and fur coats. But they do not raise mounds, plant trees, or (wear) mourning garments. (Those among the) intimate and favored advisors and concubines who follow the dead are as many as a thousand or a hundred. When they go about a task, they (look towards) the stars and moon. During full moons, they make war. During weak moons, they pull back their troops. During war, (a man who) decapitates the enemy’s leader is rewarded with a goblet of wine and as a result, given the spoils of war. Those people they capture become slaves. Therefore, in war, they seek profit. They are proficient in enticing their troops into attacking the enemy. As a result, when they see an enemy, they seek spoils like a flock of birds. If it seems they are surrounded and (on the verge of) defeat, they disperse and scatter like clouds. Those in war who help carry off the dead receive their family possessions.
Afterwards, (Bağatur) went North, subduing the nations of the Hun-yu (渾庾), the Qu-she (屈射), the Täŋäräk (丁零), the Qırgır (鬲昆), and the Sir (薪犁). Thereupon, the entirety of the Xiongnu’s nobility and great generals submitted to Bağatur, whom they now considered worthy.
At this time, the Han had just stabilized the Central States, moving King Xin of Han to Dai and his capital to Ma-yi. The Xiongnu laid siege to Ma-yi, (resulting in) King Xin of Han’s surrender to the Xiongnu. The Quŋa (then) recruited Xin, thus leading (his) troops South through Mount Ju-zhu. They attacked Tai-yuan (太原), arriving beneath (the city of) Jin-yang (晉陽). (Emperor) Gao-di (高帝) commended the army himself, leading an attack (against) them. He arrived during winter, (under) a great freeze and pouring sleet. (His) soldiers suffered with two or three out of ten losing their fingers. Thereupon, Bağatur feigned retreat and fled, enticing the Han into attacking. Han soldiers chased Bağatur. Bağatur concealed his elite troops, showing (only) the lean and weak. Thus, the entirety of the Han troops, (made up) mostly of infantry troops and thirty-two (divisions) of ten thousand (320,000), went North to chase him. (Emperor) Gao-di arrived at Ping-cheng (平城) first, (but his) infantry troops had not yet completely arrived. (Thereupon,) Bağatur released his forty tümäns (400,000) of elite cavalry, encircling (Emperor) Gao-di at Bai-deng (白登). For seven days, the Han troops that were both in and outside the siege could not provide relief to one another. The Quŋa cavalry (is divided as such): their western cardinal direction is white (白) (with white) horses; their eastern cardinal direction is turquoise (青) with black variegated 駹horses; their northern cardinal direction is black (烏) with fine black horses (驪); and their southern cardinal direction is red (騂) (with red) horses. Thereupon, (Emperor) Gao-di secretly sent envoys to bestow great (treasures) upon the Yan-zhi, who accordingly told Bağatur: “(you) two lords should not entrap (one another). (We may occupy) Han territory today, but if (you, the) Darǧa (were to) die, we would not be able to occupy it. Moreover, the Han king also has a god, (one that you, the) Darǧa should be wary of.” Bağatur had agreed with King Xin of Han’s generals, King Huang (王黃), and Zhao Lì (趙利) to rendezvous. But neither Huang or Li’s troops had arrived. (Thus, he) suspected that they schemed with the Han. Also considering what the Yan-zhi had told him, (Bağatur) thereupon dispelled the siege in one corner. Accordingly, (Emperor) Gao-di commanded his officers to maintain composure, instructing them (to hold their) arrows. Facing outwards, and guarding (the emperor,) they exited directly from the (loosened) corner. (When) they finally joined the main army, Bağatur led his army away. The Han also withdrew and dismissed their army, sending Liu Jing (劉敬) to form a He-qin (和親) (marriage) arrangement.