The Drunken Defeat Of The Xiongnu In 124 BCE


Wei Qing was one of the most talented military leaders in the service of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE). He became a general in 129 BCE, and quickly went to work battling the emperor’s greatest foes at the time, the nomadic Xiongnu confederation. Wei Qing successfully maneuvered against Shanyu Junchen of the Xiongnu in annual campaigns between 129 and 127 BCE. His successes in these missions gave Emperor Wu enough confidence in the general to give Wei Qing a trial run as general-in-chief of the entire Han military. This hands-on audition took place in 124 BCE, when Wei Qing was put in command of six other generals and given a force of around 100,000 men to direct as he saw fit. After accepting this responsibility, Wei Qing dispatched his troops, some from Shuofang, and others from Gaoque, leading them on a campaign into hostile Xiongnu territory, which was, at that time, ruled by Junchen’s successor, Shanyu Yizhixie.

The invasion by this large Chinese force did not go unnoticed by the Xiongnu. An unnamed “Wise King of the Right”—one of the powerful lieutenants of the Shanyu—had been briefed on the Chinese incursion into Xiongnu territory. The Xiongnu king, however, thought that the Chinese forces were too far away to do him any harm for the foreseeable future, as his Xiongnu army was a considerable distance away from the Han Empire’s frontier that Wei Qing had just passed. According to Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Emperor Wu’s Grand Historian and palace secretary, the carefree Wise King of the Right decided to allow his troops to enjoy themselves in revelry before they had to eventually react to the incoming Chinese army. In this calm before the storm, the Xiongnu discipline was relaxed and drinking was prevalent in the Wise King’s camp.

Unfortunately for the Xiongnu, Wei Qing possessed the skills shared by most of the greatest generals of the ancient world—speed and surprise. While the Wise King of the Right was partying with his troops throughout the day and night, Wei Qing had been relentlessly marching his army deep into Xiongnu territory with incredible speed. Before the first light of dawn began to brighten the morning sky, Wei Qing successfully found the Xiongnu camp and set about encircling the force of the Wise King of the Right. Although the Chinese forces were not visible in the darkness, something tipped off the Xiongnu to the hostile presence that was lurking just out of eyesight—perhaps, it was the rattling of equipment wielded by 100,000 warriors.

By this point, the Wise King of the Right had drunk himself into a stupor. Yet, the sounds of Wei Qing’s forces became so loud that the Xiongnu leader was roused from his haze. Caught off guard as he was, the Xiongnu king allegedly gave up any hope of winning the battle by means of force or strategy. Instead, he devoted all of his then-inebriated mental capacity to devising a way to personally escape from the encircling Chinese forces. In that tipsy and surprised state, the best plan that the Wise king could concoct was to grab his favorite concubine, rally his most able horsemen, and with this small band speed off into the night, hoping to hit a weak spot in the Chinese lines. This plan, interestingly enough, was successful for the king, as he did indeed punch through the Chinese forces and escaped north. Although the Wise King of the Right successfully escaped, he had unfortunately abandoned thousands of his Xiongnu countrymen in the process.

Wei Qing then attacked the leaderless Xiongnu camp and defeated the unprepared and disorganized foe with relative ease. According to Sima Qian, the battle led to the capture of 15,000 Xiongnu (including ten minor kings) and over 100,000 animals. With this victory complete, Wei Qing led his army and captives back into Han territory. Upon the general’s return, the pleased Emperor Wu added more land to Wei Qing’s fiefdom and made the military leader’s title of general-in-chief an official appointment.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Special Exhibit/ Xiongnu, Henan Provincial Museum, Zhengzhou. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons. Complete indexed photo collection at


  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

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