With the creation of the Qin and Han empires came the rise of the Xiongnu nomads. These people were considered barbarians by the Chinese because they did not farm or dwell in cities. Instead they lived off of their livestock—mainly horses, cows, and sheep—which they herded from pasture to pasture depending on the season. They were highly mobile, living in tents, and were expert horsemen and warriors. Their ability to strike hard and then disappear made them fearsome enemies, though the real threat came when various Xiongnu groups united in 209 under the leadership of Maodun (Mau-dwun; r. 209–174). This new confederation came in response to the First Emperor sending a general north with one hundred thousand men and successfully pushing the Xiongnu out of border regions. The Qin then established commanderies in these new regions and sent in settlers who built roads, garrisons, and walls. Realizing that the Xiongnu needed to reorganize in order to deal with this unprecedented threat to their way of life, Maodun assassinated his father, took over his position as Shanyu (Shawn-you, “leader”), and established a stronger, more cohesive federation of Xiongnu clans.
For seven years Maodun prepared his forces, and then in 200 Liu Bang led troops north to try to regain control over a region whose king had just revolted and to expand his territory. This time the Chinese were three hundred thousand strong, but the Xiongnu had even more men, and they defeated the Han army handily (this was the time when Liu Bang was nearly captured). Realizing that his empire had expanded to its practical limits, Liu withdrew and signed a peace treaty with the Xiongnu, establishing a clear border and sending gifts of rice, silk, wine, and a Chinese princess. Maodun thought he was getting the daughter of Liu Bang and Empress Lü as his bride, but the empress protested, and at the last minute another young woman was substituted (see also Document 13 for a later example of a princess being given as a bride to a nomad chieftain).
This “peace and friendship” policy proved effective, and relations between the Han and the Xiongnu were fairly stable for the next half century. In fact, after the death of Liu Bang, Maodun wrote to Empress Lü and proposed marriage: “I am a lonely widowed ruler, born amidst the marshes and brought up on the wild steppes in the land of cattle and horses. I have often come to the border of China wishing to travel in China. Your Majesty is also a widowed ruler living in a life of solitude. Both of us are without pleasures and lack any way to amuse ourselves. It is my hope that we can exchange that which we have for that which we are lacking.”4 The empress felt insulted and wanted to launch an attack in response, but her advisers reminded her that the Han was not in a position to take on the Xiongnu again.
Despite occasional Xiongnu attacks, this same relatively passive approach to foreign relations characterized the quiet reigns of Emperors Jing and Wen—perhaps due in part to the influence of Dowager Empress Dou and her Daoist sympathies. However, in 133, three years after the death of Empress Dou and in the eighth year of his reign, Emperor Wu ordered the first of seven major campaigns against the Xiongnu, several of which mobilized more that one hundred thousand soldiers. The Xiongnu lacked strong leadership at the time, and when a key Xiongnu leader switched sides, the Chinese were able to expand their empire significantly into the west. In fact, in an effort to control the trade route known today as the Silk Road, Chinese armies were sent past the Pamir Mountains to the edges of the Greco-Roman world, some two thousand miles west of the capital.
China’s interest in Central Asia was spurred by the remarkable journey of Zhang Qian (Johng Chyen), an official who volunteered around 139 to undertake a diplomatic mission to the Yuezhi (You-eh jer) people living to the west of the Xiongnu to enlist them as military allies. Zhang was captured by the Xiongnu and held as a prisoner for ten years. Eventually, however, he escaped and continued on his mission, traveling all the way to Bactria (in northwest Afghanistan). The Yuezhi were not willing to come to China’s aid, so Zhang turned east to head home. He was captured again by the Xiongnu and again somehow escaped, finally making his way back to the court around 126. He brought information about the western regions, including the fact that Chinese trade goods were already in demand there.
In 120 Chinese forces began pushing southwest into Yunnan (near present-day Burma), and over the next two decades, massive invasions were launched in the northeast (Korean peninsula), the south (Vietnam), and the west (Central Asia). Enormous armies set out nearly every other year to conquer new territories. They established new commanderies where they could, and they made treaties with tributary states when their hold was weaker. Through a combination of diplomacy, gift giving, trade, hostage exchanges, and, of course, military force, the imperial government was successful in dealing with the many non-Chinese peoples on its borders (Emperor Wu’s name, given as a posthumous title, means “the Military Emperor”). But as the Daoists well knew, aggressive action in one area might throw off the harmony of the whole, and indeed the balance of power was threatened by two related developments.
The first was that these military campaigns were enormously expensive. Soldiers were not farming when they were fighting or training, and they needed adequate supplies of food, clothing, and equipment in order to perform well. In order to meet these needs, the government had to develop new sources of income. New taxes were introduced, the minting of coins was nationalized, and offices and titles were sold. The government also took over the production of salt and iron—two of the most important and profitable businesses of the day—and tried to stabilize prices by buying grain at harvest time when it was cheap and selling it later when the price had increased (this assistance to farmers netted the authorities a handsome profit). These monopolies were highly controversial, raising serious debate after Emperor Wu’s death about the wisdom of having the government interfere so directly in the economy. In any case, it was difficult to sustain such a high level of military expenditures.
The second problem was more personal. Armies must have leaders, and the more successful the general, the more popular he becomes with his troops. It sometimes happens that soldiers become more loyal to their commanders than they are to the government, and Han officials were very wary of this. As a result, talented generals were both valued and feared at court. Perhaps this is one reason that the position of supreme commander—the head of the military branch of the government—often went unfilled after 177. Instead, generals were appointed by the civil authorities for specific campaigns.
One example of such a leader was Li Guang (Lee Gwong). Li became a famous general through his unconventional tactics, his cool demeanor under fire, and his amazing ability with a bow. On several occasions his men were vastly outnumbered by the Xiongnu, and he led them to safety. Once, as a wounded prisoner of the Xiongnu, he pretended to be dead and then jumped on a nearby horse, pushing the young rider off and grabbing his bow. He rode some ten miles toward his army at full gallop while shooting several of his pursuers with the bow he had stolen from the Xiongnu boy.
Li was easygoing and generous with his men, and he hated pointless routine and paperwork. The soldiers, not surprisingly, loved him. Court officials and his politically well-connected superiors, however, were not as enthusiastic, and he was never awarded great rank or lavish rewards. In the end, he was kept out of the action in an important battle and then accused of negligence for not showing up on time. Rather than face a court-martial, he committed suicide. Sima Qian reported: “All the officers and men in his army wept at the news of his death, and when word reached the common people, those who had known him and those who had not, old men and young boys alike, were all moved to tears by his fate.” Such popularity could make a successful general seem dangerous indeed to the central government.