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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Writing the Other: Narratives of China’s Borderlands
2: Stereotyped Perception: Subsistence of Xiongnu Revisited
Monday, March 22, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
New York University, United States
Since the Xiongnu rose to power in the Eastern Steppes from the 3rd century B.C.E, they were perceived by their Han Chinese neighbor as nomadic and pastoral. “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” (Sima Qian and Burton Watson, 1993, Vol III, pp. 129). This label of Xiongnu subsistence, however, appears to be a simplified stereotype. Not only has grain been discovered in multiple sites, studies over the last several decades have also proved that farming was practiced in the Xiongnu realm.
This paper investigates the subsistence of Xiongnu recorded in Han texts as well the evidence from excavated materials to offer a more comprehensive view of Han-Xiongnu interactions. As the chronicles mostly attempt to construct a conflict between the two sides with Xiongnu as a nomadic pastoral group and Han China a sedentary agricultural one, objects and manuscripts unearth another story. On the one hand, Xiongnu people adopt mixed subsistence strategies which go beyond the stereotypical perception of animal husbandry. On the other hand, agricultural products functioned as a significant leverage for Xiongnu political negotiations within its territory and in the diplomatic relationships with Han China.