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Donghu - Xianbei and Wuhuan

Mongolia History Map - Xianbei 2nd Century ADIn very ancient times (1000 BC) Manchuria was first occupied by the Tung-hu, the Eastern Barbarians. The nomadic horse-riders of the northern steppes are first mentioned in fourth century BCE historical records, and were given the name Hu, a word that is derived from the Chinese character for "meat" (rou). Those that lived furthest to the east were called the Eastern Hu by these Late Zhou dynasty scribes. By third century BCE the Hu had developed a sophisticated bronze-age culture. Bone artifacts etched with drawings demonstrate that the Hu used chariots, bow and arrow, and hunted with dogs.

The Eastern Hu play more prominent roles in Chinese early dynastic records than other Hu groups, but rather than a single, unified culture, it is more accurate to think of the Eastern Hu as a loosely associated confederation of nomadic peoples. The Xianbei [Syanbi, Hsien-pei, etc.] and the Wuhuan used mounted archers in warfare, and they had only temporary war leaders instead of hereditary chiefs. Yet this less cohesive political organization did not decrease the military threat the Eastern Hu peoples posed to the Zhou emperors to the south.

Although the Xiongnu finally had been driven back into their homeland by the Chinese in AD 48, within ten years the Xianbei (or Hsien-pei in Wade-Giles) had moved (apparently from the north or northwest) into the region vacated by the Xiongnu. The Xianbei were the northern branch of the Donghu (or Tung Hu, the Eastern Hu), a proto-Tungus group mentioned in Chinese histories as existing as early as the fourth century BC. The language of the Donghu, like that of the Xiongnu, is unknown to modern scholars. The Donghu were among the first peoples conquered by the Xiongnu. Once the Xiongnu state weakened, however, the Donghu rebelled.

By the first century, two major subdivisions of the Donghu had developed: the Xianbei in the north and the Wuhuan in the south. The Xianbei, who by the second century AD were attacking Chinese farms south of the Great Wall, established an empire, which, although short-lived, gave rise to numerous tribal states along the Chinese frontier. Among these states was that of the Toba (T'o-pa in Wade-Giles), a subgroup of the Xianbei, in modern China's Shanxi Province. The Wuhuan also were prominent in the second century, but they disappeared thereafter; possibly they were absorbed in the Xianbei western expansion.

Chinese control of parts of Inner Asia did not last beyond the opening years of the second century, and, as the Eastern Han Dynasty ended early in the third century AD, suzerainty was limited primarily to the Gansu corridor. The Xianbei were able to make forays into a China beset with internal unrest and political disintegration. By AD 317 all of China north of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) had been overrun by nomadic peoples: the Xianbei from the north; some remnants of the Xiongnu from the northwest; and the Chiang people of Gansu and Tibet (present-day China's Xizang Autonomous Region) from the west and the southwest. Chaos prevailed as these groups warred with each other and repulsed the vain efforts of the fragmented Chinese kingdoms south of the Chang Jiang to reconquer the region.

Agriculture, rather than full-scale nomadism, was the basis of the Xianbei and Wuhuan economy. In the sixth century AD, the Wuhuan were driven out of Inner Asia into the Russian steppe.

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Page last modified: 01-07-2012 18:54:09 ZULU