This historiography is an account of steppe culture that focuses on the Xiongnu; it was constructed to analyze their impact on China through cultural and warfare practices. The Xiongnu first appeared in the fourth century B.C. Their arrival prompted the Chinese states to build defensive walls and develop a cavalry. The development of a cavalry force was instrumental for Chinese states in defending against the Xiongnu who were skilled equestrians. The Qin dynasty defeated the Xiongnu and connected the fragmented walls to form the Great Wall of China. After the fall of the Qin, China’s northern defenses escalated into chaos allowing the Xiongnu to reform. During the Han Dynasty, between 198 and 135 B.C., treaties were enacted between the Xiongnu and Han that permitted Chinese princesses to marry Xiongnu chiefs. Despite the treaties, the Xiongnu continued to raid along China’s boarder. Eventually, the Xiongnu declined in power when their political structure became destabilized. This topic is significant to the historiography because some of the important cultural aspect from China occurred during this period. For example, tactics on war, political structure and physical structures were erected in response to attacks and these structures are still standing today. Based primarily on archaeological evidence, I will center on the complexity of the Xiongnu polity; arguing it was this entity that had the most impact on Chinese cultural practices and warfare, specifically the Han.
The following questions will be addressed:
- What was the political structure or order of the military?
- How important was the horse to the Xiongnu?
- What was the relationship between the Han and Xiongnu?
- What Xiongnu cultural practices influenced the Han?
Political Structure and Military Order
After the Qin dynasty defeated the Xiongnu and connected the fragmented defensive walls to form the Great Wall of China, the Han used these defensive walls to support long range, military campaigns, beyond Chinese territory. Their objective—offensive expansionist; relying on preventive or preemptive use of the military force, expecting nothing short of total military victory and annexing territory. The Han and other empires had difficulty controlling the nomadic Xiongnu, because of their speed and equestrian skills. At first, the Han and Xiongnu agreed to stay on friendly terms. However, as the Han’s influence and power increased their capability to expand into distant territory became threatening to the Xiongnu.
The Han developed an army consisting of a combination of infantry, chariots, crossbows, and cavalry. This combination allowed the Chinese to deploy both large and small organized units in the field. The highest rank was reserved for the nobility. However, the junior officers ranking evolved into a merit based system—based on the individual’s ability. Officers were assigned campaigns as needed. To avoid coups several generals were assigned to each excursion. Once the military had been mobilized, it was organized into the following: the divisions were led by a general, regiments by colonels, and companies by captains. The size of the Chinese army was difficult to calculate. Expeditions sent out to engage rebellions and punish nomads numbered from 50,000 to 300,000.
Over the last twenty-plus years archaeologist have intensely studied a polity known as the Xiongnu confederation—third century BC. References first appear in Chinese historical documents by the end of the first millennium BC; these records indicate conflicts with a powerful militarily group north of Chinese territory known as the Xiongnu. Based on these Chinese documents the Xiongnu polity consisted of horse-riding pastoral nomads. This was the group, according to Di Cosmo, that inspired the Qin and later Han dynasty to construct major parts of the Great Wall. The Chinese depict them as a warlike people causing destruction on the frontier. The information regarding Xiongnu culture, politics, and society comes from Chinese sources, while questions regarding the emergence of these people and their reginal organization are left to the archaeologist. Most of the research on nomadic societies show them to be mobile herders. They tend to form complex polities because of their lack of surplus, independence, and their amplitude to resist. Many historians and archaeologists believe the rise of nomadic polities was a response to warfare and the need for structured relations with agrarian states. Using anthropological theory with historical information scholars attempt to explain the Xiongnu’s political structure. According to this theory the Xiongnu State developed from destabilization due to war and conquest, the military success of one group incorporating another, amplifying the status of successful leaders and transforming military hierarchy into political structure and organization.
The information on the structure of the Xiongnu state comes from textual sources. The Shiji text, by Sim Qian 140-86 BC was recorded when the Xiongnu state was in its prime and nomadic people were engaged in warfare with the Han dynasty. William Honeychurch is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Yale University. His research is on the archeology of ancient nomadic political organization in eastern Eurasia. Honeychurch extracts information from the archeological material remains left by horse-riding nomads over the past 3000 years on the steppes of Mongolia to determine how and why relatively small groups of pastoral nomads assembled such monumental and complex polities. According to Honeychurch, Sim Qian’s information most likely comes from his travels, his father’s notes, and earlier textual sources. The following hierarchy was extracted from Qian’s text by Honeychurch: Sim Qian portrays the group as being led by a hereditary elite consisting of a single ruling house, three consort clans that provided marriage partners to the members of the ruling house. Only members of these ruling groups were eligible for political office. The source also provides an account of the formation of military power under the Xiongnu leader. For example, the number of horseman a leader was responsible for mobilizing.
There are some problems with linking textual statements to the Xiongnu’s material culture. Honeychurch admits, it is not clear what the Han dynasty understood the name “Xiongnu” to specifically represent. However, what is known is that “Xiongnu” describes a large northern complex political entity that threatened the Han for over three centuries. To analyze the political complexity, Honeychurch suggests the Mongolian record is the logical solution obtained from the archaeological records. Honeychurch depends on archaeological sites found in Mongolia for developing the Xiongnu record due to limits on historical texts in explaining the nomadic politics and structure. According to Honeychurch, the Xiongnu emerged in north-central Mongolia and Siberian Transbaikal. The Xiongnu polity developed from groups that experienced 800 plus years of centralized leadership and sophisticated political experimentation. Thus, the Xiongnu could rely on nomadic political knowledge and cultural practices in existence long before them. Emphasis is placed on the evidence produced by archaeologists from Xiongnu sites regarding social-political differentiation, integration, and centralization required for complex political societies. This approach—filling in the gaps from fragmented historical text with archaeological research produces strong evidence for the narrative that Xiongnu’s political structure consisted of complex political methods within the Xiongnu’s culture.
So, what were these complex political methods practiced by the Xiongnu? Sim Qian disclosed them in his textual documents in the Shiji as previously stated. The archaeology record relies on cemeteries and burial sites to analyze Xiongnu culture. There are two primary types of elite burial features: one constructed with a raised ring of stone and soil around the chamber, the other has a large platform mound several layers deep. The burial chamber contained the remains of herd animals, gold artifacts, bone and iron tools, and imported items as far away as the Mediterranean. These archaeological findings also support the theory of a complex society. Daniel Rogers is curator in the anthropology department at Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History. Rogers has numerous publications and specializes in North America and Central Asian Archaeology. He contends that the pastoral economies would have been just as adequate as agrarian economies for supporting the development of complex societies. They may have been a nomadic people, but the textual and archaeological records suggest they developed a complex polity combining pastural practices with agricultural traits. The concern with the archaeological record as Honeychurch notes—the Mongolia area where archaeology activity is widespread regarding the Xiongnu, is still in a developmental stage.
Bryan K. Miller received a M.A. in Archaeology from UCLA and a Ph.D. in East Asian Civilizations from the University of Pennsylvania. Miller critiques the archaeological endeavors for devoting too much attention on the elite high culture of the Xiongnu. He agrees that the archaeological record provides evidence for an advanced culture and long-distance interaction. Still, according to Miller, there is not enough evidence to suggest “the local elites or constituents of the steppe empire supported imperial rulers supposedly interred in the monumental tombs”. Miller focuses on common components of Xiongnu society obtained from recent archaeological investigations on Xiongnu social hierarchies. He argues that a focus on the historical middle to lower social stratification could assist in understanding the political order and social complexity within the Xiongnu empire. The textual accounts of Xiongnu’s political order come from the Chinese who most likely idealized versions of the Xiongnu’s political network. Still, an overview of the essential political and social institutions can be obtained from these sources. Miller cautiously relies on these sources particularly the Shiji for information on basic political structure noting conflicting information the Shiji sometimes provides. For example, the Shiji claims the Xiongnu were without family names. Evidence contradicts this claim—formal divisions of power and lineage-based restrictions were in place to distinguish between kings and local rulers; suggest that in addition to family names of the royal clans, there were lineage names used outside the Xiongnu nobility. According to Miller, DNA studies from excavated Xiongnu burial sites in Mongolia substantiate the Xiongnu political lineage order. The Xiongnu supreme ruler was established by “Heaven,” addressed by the name Chengli Gutu Chanyu, meaning “Heaven’s Son,” or “the Magnificent One”. The lineage was limited to the surname Luanti. After the Chanyu was established, a leader was chosen from the immediate male relatives of the previous Chanyu. The highest ranks of political order were made up of the Luanti lineage as well as secondary lineages from the Huyan and Xubu, together these lineages were distinguished as the nobility. Miller notes the titles of Xiongnu leaders given to them by the Chinese; what the Chinese referred to as “king” the Xiongnu call a “great man”. This calls into question the Chinese’s understanding of the political order of the Xiongnu. However, it does not diminish the DNA evidence that help verify the Xiongnu’s political lineage. Miller provides a chart containing Xiongnu kings, given names, designations and territories; the link can be accessed in the bibliography section.
The Chanyu was the primary leader of a vast community of regional nomadic aristocrats. However, the Chanyu’s authority was not absolute, resulting in criticism from the Chinese for the lack of control he had on reginal groups who raided the frontier. This supports Miller’s claim that local elites of the steppe empire may not have supported imperial rulers. Miller makes a good point—to understand the dynamics of Xiongnu society a study of middle to lower social strata needs investigating. The problem could be accessing this information there is little to none in the historical textual records and the archaeological records on burial sites mostly contain elite nobility. Miller’s focus on the historical middle to lower social stratification could assist in understanding the political order and social complexity within the Xiongnu empire. However, this approach has its limits, i.e. lack of data from this specific social order.
As previously noted, archaeology regarding the Xiongnu is still in its developmental stage in Mongolia, making accessing information on social dynamics via middle to lower social stratification challenging; although, not impossible. In 2012, a Russian-Mongolian archaeological expedition in Mongolia led to the discovery of skeleton remains belonging to a young girl. At first the researchers though it was a typical Xiongnu burial site until they notice an uncharacteristic formation leading them to the girls remains found at the bottom of the pit. Specific features of the burial ritual indicate the girl’s low social status. The girl is estimated to be between 16 and 18 years of age. According to the researchers at the site, the burial signifies the importance of women in Xiongnu culture. Other artifacts found include: twelve small bronze horses, cast used as fur coat decorations and ceramics. Genetic analysis of the girl’s remains will be used to find out more about her. The artifacts were an important find. Specifically, the small bronze horses signifying the importance of the horse to Xiongnu culture.
 Bronze horse retrieved from the burial pit. Approximately 3cm.
The Horse and the Xiongnu
The horse was an important part of Xiongnu culture. Social systems began to emerge within Inner Asia after the domestication of the horse and development of horseback riding. The domestication and riding of horses was revolutionary regarding transportation because it enabled the spread of cultures, languages and technology along various trade routes. The horse allowed individuals to travel across vast landscapes and share communications. Perhaps most importantly, it became the foundation for advanced warfare with the advent of the cavalry and mobility was a central component of political and social practices for Steppe culture.
There are some interesting aspects in Xiongnu culture involving horses and the Chinese. One is the mysterious “blood sweating horse” The Shiji acknowledged these horses. Although, it does not specify what is meant by “blood sweating”. Traditionally, the blood sweating was associated with celestial qualities of the horse. However, the explanation for the horses sweating blood is found in the waters of the Gorgan and Ferghana rivers. These rives are home to a parasite known as parafilaria multipapillosa, they still exist today in the Ferghana Valley; during the life cycle of the parasite it would break through the host’s skin; thus, giving the appearance of sweating blood. These horses were indigenous to the Ferghana Valley in central Asian. They were known for their speed and strength in addition to sweating blood. The horses and their traits became identifiable with Xiongnu culture.
Another mystery focuses on an event or cautionary tale involving a hobbled horse left at the wall of a Han out-post by the Xiongnu. There are many interpretations of what the event signifies, ranging from an underline meaning symbolic of the constrained horse, a simple gift, or a jest made in a state of drunkenness and fun. Apparently, the Chinese where puzzled and spent time and resources trying to discern the meaning of the hobbled horse. Insights into misconceptions of different cultures and the importance of the horse to the Xiongnu are seen in this event. According to Wallacker and Meserve, the emperor documented the event: A group of Xiongnu appeared at the wall of the Han out-post. After hobbling a horse—binding the front leg to back leg, they left the wall galloping off, shouting “Chinese! We give you a horse!” The event perplexed the Chinese and they were determined to find the meaning to the hobbled horse. Whatever the intent, the symbolic event would remain a mystery. These two mysteries, the cautionary tale and the mysterious phenomenon of blood sweating horses disclose the importance of the horse in Xiongnu culture.
The Han and the Xiongnu
Wandering from place to place pasturing their animals. The animals they raised consisted mainly of horses, cows and sheep… They move about in search of water and pasture and have no walled cities or fixed dwellings, nor do they engage in any kind of agriculture… It is their custom to herd their flocks in times of peace and make their living by hunting, but in periods of crisis they take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions. This seems their inborn nature.
According to Wright, Honeychurch, and Amartuvshin, authors of The Xiongnu Settlements of Egiin Gol, Mongolia, an article from 2009 in the journal In Antiquity, this passage can be found in the Shiji, written by the historian Sim Qian. He was describing the ancestors of the Xiongnu. Historical recordings from the Han dynasty provides details on the structure of Xiongnu’s political system. While the Xiongnu are viewed as a nomadic culture described in the historical texts, many scholars point out the historical sources also mention agricultural production, storage, and large-scale settlements.
Catrina Kost is a faculty member at Shenzhen University in Guangdong, China. According to Kost, using the historical records of Sim Qian, she contends that the Xiongnu used the chaotic times following death the of the first emperor to establish territory they had previously lost in the north. In 201 B.C., the Han lost a battle to the Xiongnu at Pingcheng. This led to the first treaty between the two; it consisted of annual payments to the Xiongnu and marriage arrangements of a Han princess to a Xiongnu leader. These measures were agreed upon by the Han because they hoped it would prevent future conflicts. For a few years diplomatic relations seemed to pay off. However, from 198 to 139 B.C., the treaty was continually violated, reworked and broken again. This encouraged the Han to change their strategy when dealing with the Xiongnu. Once internal problems were resolved in the Han dynasty they adapted a more aggressive policy toward the Xiongnu. The battle of Mayi in 133 B.C marked the end of diplomatic relations between the two groups. Battles ensued and both sides experienced heavy casualties. Internal struggles and conflicts with other nomadic groups strained the Xiongnu empire. Eventually, the Xiongnu divided into five divisions and one of the divisions—the Chanyu Huhanye surrendered to the Han. They signed a treaty with the Han and were required to pay tribute annually; in return they received goods and military protection from the Han. This event, according to Kost, was a prelude to the end of the steppe empire. Huhanye’s surrender caused a change in Xiongnu political structure. In 11 B.C., they split into two groups, one in the north and the other relocated to the southern region. The Chinese defeated the Northern group and the Southern Xiongnu was the group forced to split into five groups.
The Xiongnu did not leave any written documents and the Chinese records, as previously shown, sometimes conflicts with the archaeological evidence. Another conflicting example of textual documents written by the Chinese depicts how they viewed their northern neighbors—regarding them as inferior, comparing them to wild animals. Archaeological evidence suggests otherwise; most of the findings were extracted from Xiongnu burial sites and the pottery found at the Xiongnu sites proved to be locally produced. The political order described by Miller using DNA to trace hereditarian nobility that made up Xiongnu’s political structure, and the burial chamber Honeychurch described that contained the remains of herd animals, gold artifacts, bone and iron tools, and imported items as far away as the Mediterranean, provide strong support for the existence of an advanced Xiongnu polity capable of production and organized trade. Still, limits and gaps persist in the archaeological record, emphasizing the need for additional studies.
Patrick S. Bresnan is a retired professor of history and philosophy at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. Bresnan’s extensive travel and study in Asia resulted in many publications. In his book Awakening, Bresnan focuses on the development of Confucianism in the time of the Han. The Confucian system of government became the orthodox system of the empire. Bresnan contends that Confucianism influenced Chinese culture, especially the educated upper class. Bresnan stresses the importance and impact of the Han dynasty by comparing it to the Roman empire. The Roman empire and the Han empire existed roughly at the same time in history. According to Bresnan, “The Han empire was to eastern Eurasia what the Roman empire was to western Eurasia”. The Han came into development first and the Roman empire would outlive it. There are many similarities between the two. Both survived approximately four centuries, both empires were ruled by an authoritarian central power which connected diverse parts of their cultures through military conquest and both brought an end to civil strife through law and military power.
Emperor Wu Di (140-87 B.C.), was a strong ruler who used Confucianism to consolidate the power of central authority. This system would be an influence in Chinese politics until modern times. Wu Di’s true thoughts on Confucianism would remain unknown. Some considered his choice of the philosophy as a utilitarian position. The emperor may have chosen it for the philosophy’s respect of ranking and authority; viewing it as a device that could help unify the state while providing a cloak for his authoritarian rule. The Confucian scholar—Dong Zhong was entrusted by the emperor to help establish the philosophy. Zhong set up the imperial university in the emperor’s court. As successful as the philosophy was, it had competition. Daoism was a strong competitor throughout the Chinese society. Although they competed for followers the two philosophies remained on friendly terms. The Buddhist influence began to grow in the time of the late Han. The Han Dynasty came to an end in 220 A.D., and the Chinese society would not be unified again until the Sui dynasty in 581 A.D. During this long period of unrest Buddhism began to flourish. Fortunately, for Confucianism that had long been tied to the Han dynasty, the Sui dynasty did not last long. The Tang and Song dynasties brought stability back to the region along with the revival of Confucianism.
It’s difficult to understand the cultural practices of the Xiongnu. The Han were bias and did not admit to any cultural influences the Xiongnu may have had on them. However, archaeology can assist in finding cultural aspects, revealed in artifacts, found in Han burial sites that contained Xiongnu items produced locally by the Han for their consumers. Sophia-Karin Psarras has many publications on the Xiongnu and their impact on the Han. She uses both data from the Han dynasty histories along with archaeology to understand the Xiongnu’s culture. Psarras takes an extensively methodical approach in examining the archaeological evidence. Many of the nomadic burial sites during this period resembled Xiongnu. However, Psarras argues that Xiongnu sites cannot be based solely on material culture. The Xiongnu sites contain political and social evidence that are attributes which are only present in the Xiongnu empire, i.e. Xiongnu art. She analyzes distinctive characteristics exclusive only to the Xiongnu which allows her to identify Xiongnu art. There is also evidence of Han interest in Xiongnu art because numerous pieces of Xiongnu art have appeared in Han tombs. For example, in the pit of the Western Han, king of Qi, ornaments have been found belonging to the Xiongnu. Other Han tombs have been known to produce bronze ornaments and bronze plaques depicting animals engraved on them. These Xiongnu artifacts, according to Psarras, found in the Han burial sites, are believed to have been used for consumption and not reproductions. This suggest the Han were influenced by Xiongnu culture, not only for practical means as discussed earlier when Xiongnu items were reproduced by the Han for local consumption; but for aesthetic purposes. These archaeological findings conflict the bias Chinese textual records. Psarras findings are not disputed or found to contain any biased conclusions pertaining to archaeology records. However, there are some concerns on dates and identification of artifacts in burial sites. This does not diminish the evidence that the Han were influenced by Xiongnu culture because the dates in question do not encompass all sites nor is the discrepancy large enough to suggest the two cultures along with the burial sites were mutually exclusive regarding the time frame. The identification concerns are not doubting that Han sites contained artifacts of steppe culture; the concern is how many are undisputed Xiongnu. Nevertheless, there exists enough undisputed Xiongnu artifacts in Han tombs to prove the Han were indeed influenced by Xiongnu culture.
Bias and Gaps
The Chinese textual records are clearly bias when it comes to many aspects of the Xiongnu. Sim Qian’s quote provided in this paper regarding the Xiongnu is a primary source disclosing Chinese views toward the Xiongnu. Some scholars question the reliability of Sim Qian’s sources. Other textual Chinese records reveal the inferior attitudes the Chinese held describing the Xiongnu as wild animals. However, the historical sources also mention agricultural production, storage, and large-scale settlements characteristic of a complex polity. Gaps in the archaeological records indicate the need for further study and scholars will point out archaeology is still in its developmental stage in Mongolia pertaining to the Xiongnu. There is still debate over the artifacts and cultural traits distinguishing between the Xiongnu and other non-Chinese peoples. Psarras believes she has the bests method for distinguishing the two, firsts the site must be identified as nomadic, then as Xiongnu. It’s unlikely the Xiongnu depended on agrarian China for their existence; archaeological evidence suggests otherwise. However, one aspect in which both the historical text and the archaeological records agree upon—the Xiongnu possessed no textual records. This leads to perhaps the most important question that may lie with the Xiongnu: Despite their complex political state, can a society which has not developed a means to record their words and deeds be considered civilized?
The Xiongnu were known for their many battles and raids on the Chinese boarder. Xiongnu’s mobility provided by their horses was superior to the Chinese infantry and chariots. In 201 B.C., the Han suffered a decisive defeat to the Xiongnu at Pingcheng. This led to the first treaty between the two groups. For a while the treaty between the Chinese and the Xiongnu supplied vast quantities of tribute to the Xiongnu empire. By 120 BC, the Han government was ruling with the new-found strength that resulted from the elimination of internal threats and the walled defenses they had inherited from the Qin. This new strength allowed them to mount a large-scale offensive that penetrated far beyond Chinese territory. The Chinese textual records expose the Han’s superior attitudes they had regarding the Xiongnu. Nevertheless, items recovered in the royal tombs of the Han reference steppe culture; prove to have been produced locally for local consumption, a strong indication for the influence Xiongnu culture had on the Han. Other artifacts show a material connection to the nomadic groups of the steppe. After the Xiongnu split, both groups remained well organized. However, when the Southern polity surrendered to the Han, their autonomy was also lost. Famine and internal struggles further weakened the empire. Although, some scholars date the end of the Xiongnu empire as early as 93A.D., by 155 A.D., it was no longer in existence.
The Han inherited most of its instability from the Qin dynasty. The political and social unrest of the Warring States Period resulted in the Qin being severely damaged by internal strife. Liu Bang defeated the Qin and established the Han dynasty. However, the decision to keep the legalist system—a totalitarian system of government enacted by the Qin, proved to be a mistake that further weakened the already fragile Han empire. Only when Wu Di succeeded the throne to the Han dynasty did stability return to the Chinese. Wu Di eradicated the legalist system and adapted Confucian principles with the assistance of the Chinese philosopher Dong Zhongshu; together they enacted a series of reforms that dominate Asia for the next three centuries.
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 William Honeychurch, “The Nomads as State Builders: Historical Theory and Material Evidence from Mongolia,” Journal of World Prehistory. 26, no. 4 (Spring, 2016) :284, accessed October 17, 2017, JSTOR http://dx.doi.
 Ibid., 284.
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 Ibid., 287.
 Ibid., 288, 295.
 Ibid., 295.
 Ibid., 297-299.
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 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 8, 12.
 Ibid., 22.
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 Ibid., 355.
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