Wuhuan

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Location of the Wuhuan in 87 BC
Mural depicting horses and chariots from the tomb of an Wuhuan official and military commander from the Eastern Han Dynasty in Inner Mongolia.

The Wuhuan (simplified Chinese: 乌桓; traditional Chinese: 烏桓; pinyin: Wūhuán, Old Chinese: Ohuan, Mongol romanization:Uhuan) were a proto-Mongolic nomadic people who inhabited northern China, in what is now the provinces of Hebei, Liaoning, Shanxi, the municipality of Beijing and the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia.

They were descended from the Donghu, who were defeated by the Xiongnu. After the Donghu were defeated by Modu Chanyu around 209 BC, the Xianbei and Wuhuan survived as the main remnants of the confederation. The Hou Hanshu says that “the language and culture of the Xianbei are the same as the Wuhuan”. Tadun of the Wuhuan (died 207 AD) was the ancestor of the proto-Mongolic Kumo Xi (aka Tatabi). The Weishu (Description of the Khitan, Vol. 1000, 2221) records that the Kumo Xi and Khitan (descendants of the Mongolic Xianbei) spoke the same language.

The Hou Hanshu (Ch. 120) records:

The Wuhuan are skilled in mounted archery. They engage in hunting animals and birds. They nomadise from place to place in search of grass and water. Without permanent settlements they live in round yurts (穹廬 - qiónglú). The entrance of the yurt faces the sun (east). They eat meat and drink kumiss ( - lào). They make clothes from fine wool (máocuì - 毛毳). Youthfulness and strength are held in esteem among them while old age and weakness are not. They are brave and valorous by nature. In anger they kill each other but nobody harms mothers, because the continuation of their progeny depends on their mothers. Fathers and elder brothers on the other hand can create their own separate tribes, so the original tribe does not bear responsibility for them. Whoever is brave, strong and able to deal with contentious cases of litigation are chosen to be elders (大人 - dàren, or taijin). The office of elder is not hereditary. Each nomadic community has its own small commander ( - shuài). A community is composed of a hundred to a thousand yurts. When an elder makes a proclamation they carve markings on wood (刻木為信 - kèmùwéixìn), even though they have no script, and none of the tribes dare to violate it.

In 209 BC, Modu Chanyu, founder of the Xiongnu empire, defeated the Donghu. The Wuhuan and Xianbei were remnants of the Donghu who had fled east. The Xianbei, of the lateral Donghu line, resided to the north of the Wuhuan. The Wuhuan were of the direct Donghu line and got involved in many relations with the Chinese due to their more southern location (around Liaodong). Until 121 BC, the Wuhuan was a tributary of the Xiongnu empire. The Hou Hanshu (Ch. 120) says: "From the time that Modu Shanyu crushed them the Wuhuan became weak. They were kept in constant subjugation to the Xiongnu and were forced to pay annual taxes of cow, horse and sheep skins. If anybody did not pay this tax his wife and children were taken from him."

In 121 BC, the Han dynasty general Huo Qubing defeated the eastern wing of the Xiongnu. He then settled the Wuhuan in five districts (Shanggu, Youyang, Youbeiping, Liaoxi and Liaodong) created on the northern Chinese border in order to make them observe the movements of the Xiongnu. This began the close relationship of the Wuhuan with the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). The chieftains of the Wuhuan paid annual visits to the Han capital Chang'an and were given high rewards. During the reign of Zhaodi (87-74 BC), the Wuhuan, who had become strong, looted the tombs of the Xiongnu emperors. The outraged Xiongnu rode east and defeated them. Fan Minyu was sent to aid the Wuhuan. The Xiongnu were out of his reach. Fan Minyu suddenly attacked the Wuhuan, defeated them and beheaded three of their kings. During the reign of Xuandi (74-49 BC), the Wuhuan came frequently to the northern Chinese border and submitted to the Han dynasty. In 49 AD, Hedan, the Wuhuan elder of the Liaoxi district, came to the Han court with 922 other chieftains and "paid tribute" to Emperor Guangwu of Han with slaves, cattle, horses, bows and tiger, leopard and sable skins.

They were active throughout the latter half of the Han Dynasty, often incorporated into the regular military forces of the Han armies. Unlike most major non-Chinese peoples on the frontiers of the Chinese empire, the Wuhuan were relatively cooperative with the imperial court. Around the fall of the dynasty in the 190s, however, the Wuhuan joined in many of the rebellions and internal wars of the Chinese. In the 200s, the "Wuhuan of the three commanderies", the tribes closest to the Chinese, supported Yuan Shao, the major warlord north of the Yellow River. In 207, Cao Cao led a forced march deep into Wuhuan territory and decisively defeated them at the Battle of White Wolf Mountain. Many of the Wuhuan's powerful horsemen joined him and became known as the "greatest cavalry under heaven". Although various Wuhuan leaders led sporadic revolts throughout the third century, by the fourth century they had largely been displaced by the Xianbei. The remaining Kumo Xi were finally absorbed by the Khitans in the 10th century.

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