The Xiongnu were a coalition of ancient nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples to the north and northwest of China, who, by the late 3rd century BCE, built an empire strong enough to pose an existential threat to the Chinese Qin and Han Dynasties. The first high-chief, or Shanyu, of the Xiongnu coalition that was known to Chinese sources was Touman. He was reportedly a contemporary of the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty in the late 3rd century BCE. In Touman’s day, the Xiongnu were powerful, but their dominance was not yet firmly established over the other nomadic peoples of the region. One such rival nomadic group was the Yuezhi, to whom Touman apparently sent his son, Maodun, as a diplomat or political hostage. Yet, all was not as it seemed, for Touman and Maodun had very little in the way of a father-son bond. According to Chinese sources, Touman simply wished that his unwanted son would disappear in order to make life easier for his more favored children, so when Maodun reached his destination, Touman immediately attacked the Yuezhi despite what they might do to his son. Faced with this awkward situation, Maodun reportedly stole a horse, fought his way out of Yuezhi territory, and escaped to friendly land.
While Touman may have been disappointed at the survival of his son, the majority of the Xiongnu contrastingly looked upon Maodun’s escape with awe. Perhaps the incident convinced Touman to give his son a second chance, or maybe the escape from Yuezhi hands boosted Maodun’s reputation enough to obligate the Shanyu to give his son a reward—whatever the case, Maodun was reportedly put in command of 10,000 horsemen.
The Xiongnu were known to train in horsemanship and archery from early childhood, but Maodun brought training to a new level when he was given a military command. His program, according to Chinese sources, focused primarily on horse-archery drills and the cultivation of blind obedience. To contribute to both of these goals, Maodun reportedly developed an arrow that whistled as it flew through the air. Wherever Maodun shot this whistling projectile, he expected his horse archers to immediately launch their own arrows in the same direction without any hesitation—those who wavered were reportedly executed.
Maodun’s training began innocently enough. He was said to have brought his horsemen on hunting trips, shooting his whistling arrows at wild game. It was a simple start, but the horsemen were told if they did not meet Maodun’s expectations in speed and accuracy, then they would be executed. When the archers no longer gave any pause to taking shots at whichever animal they were told to target, Maodun began to escalate his training program.
Once the hunting phase was over, Maodun started the real obedience training. As the tale goes, he first shot one of his whistling arrows in the direction of his favorite horse. Some of the archers apparently thought this may have been a trick command and decided not to shoot at their leader’s beloved steed—these men were unfortunately mistaken in their thinking and were promptly executed. Next, Maodun reportedly sent a whistling arrow in the direction of his wife. Again, some of the horsemen hesitated to loose their arrows, and were executed for their show of care. Finally, Maodun shot a whistling arrow at the most prized horse of Shanyu Touman. This time, after so many executions, all of Maodun’s horsemen launched their arrows without any hesitation.
Around the time of the massive Chinese revolt against the Qin Dynasty in 209 BCE, Shanyu Touman and his son, Maodun, reportedly went on a hunting trip. Unfortunately, no father and son bonding would occur on that trip. Instead, Maodun, who was accompanied by some of his unquestioning horsemen, enacted his long-awaited plan to seize power. The account of Grand Historian Sima Qian (c.145-90 BCE) on this incident was as follows:
“Accompanying his father, the Shanyu Touman, on a hunting expedition, he [Maodun] shot a whistling arrow at his father and every one of his followers aimed their arrows in the same direction and shot theShanyu dead. Then Maodun executed his stepmother, his younger brother, and all the high officials of the nation who refused to take orders from him, and set himself up as the new Shanyu” (Shiji 110).
Under the leadership of the cunning and aggressive Maodun, the Xiongnu would conquer their fellow nomadic neighbors to create a great empire. During his long reign from about 209-174 BCE, Maodun greatly expanded his territory and often got the better of the Chinese Han Emperors.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Painting of Xiongnu nomads, Henan Provincial Museum, Zhengzhou, [Public Domain] via flickr.com and Creative Commons).
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.