Modu Chanyu

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Chanyu of the Xiongnu Empire
Reign209–174 BCE
Bornc. 234 BCE
Modern-day Mongolia
Died174 BCE

Modu, Modun, or Maodun (simplified Chinese: 冒顿单于; traditional Chinese: 冒頓單于; pinyin: Mòdú Chányú, c. 234 – c. 174 BCE) was the son of Touman and the founder of the empire of the Xiongnu. He came to power by ordering his men to kill his father in 209 BCE.[1][2]

Modu ruled from 209 BCE to 174 BCE. He was a military leader under his father Touman, and later Chanyu of the Xiongnu Empire, situated in modern-day Mongolia.[3][better source needed] He secured the throne and established a powerful Xiongnu Empire by successfully unifying the tribes of the Mongolian-Manchurian grassland in response to the loss of Xiongnu pasture lands to invading Qin forces commanded by Meng Tian in 215 BCE. While Modu rode and then furthered the wave of militarization and effectively centralized Xiongnu power, the Qin quickly fell into disarray with the death of the first emperor in 210, leaving Modu a free hand to expand his Xiongnu Empire into one of the largest of his time.[4] The eastern border stretched as far as the Liao River, the western borders of the empire reached the Pamir Mountains, whilst the northern border reached Lake Baikal.

Modu was succeeded by his son Laoshang.


Several scholars have suggested the reconstructed Middle Chinese pronunciation of Mòdùn (冒頓) is IPA: [mək-twən].[5] His name is also written as Motun in some sources. Ultimately, the Old Chinese pronunciation might have represented the pronunciation of the foreign word *baγtur, a relative of the later attested Central Eurasian culture word baγatur ‘hero’.[5] The etymology of this word is uncertain, although the first syllable is very likely the Iranian word *baγ ‘god, lord’, which is an element in the titles of many later Central Eurasian people.[5] Clauson claims the word to be an original Xiongnu name/title.[6]

Origins and rise to power[edit]

According to Sima Qian, Modu was a gifted child but his father Touman wanted the son of another of his wives to succeed him.[2] To eliminate Modu as a competitor to his chosen heir, Touman sent the young Modu to the Yuezhi as a hostage; then he attacked the Yuezhi in the hopes that they would kill Modu as retribution.[2] Modu was able to escape this fate by stealing a fast horse and returned to the Xiongnu, who welcomed him as a hero.[2] As reward for this show of bravery, his father appointed him the commander of 10,000 horsemen.[2]

Due to his reputation for bravery, Modu began to gather a group of extremely loyal warriors.[1] To be sure of their loyalty, Modu ordered the warriors to shoot his favourite horse. Those who refused were executed.[1] He later repeated this test of loyalty, but with one of his favourite wives, and once again executed those who hesitated to obey his order. After he was sure of the loyalty of his remaining warriors, he ordered them to shoot at his father, killing him in a shower of arrows. With none of his followers failing to shoot at his command and the elimination of his father, Modu proclaimed himself Chanyu of the Xiongnu.[7]

After his self-proclaimed ascension as Chanyu, Modu began to eliminate those who would prove a threat to his newly acquired power. Thus, he proceeded to execute his rival half-brother, his step-mother, and other Xiongnu officials who refused to support his rule.[2]

Rise of the Xiongnu Empire[edit]

Domain and influence of the Xiongnu under Modu at the start of his rule.

Modu's Xiongnu Empire aggressively protected and expanded their territory. When their eastern neighbors, the Donghu, expressed desire to occupy uninhabited land that lay between them, Modu reacted by attacking them. By 208 BCE, the Donghu had been defeated and their remnants split into the Xianbei and Wuhuan tribes. Modun went on to subdue the Dingling and other peoples to the north, and defeat the Yuezhi in 203 BCE. After these conquests, all Xiongnu lords submitted to him.[1]

With these victories, he was able to gain control of the important trade routes, which later supplied the Xiongnu with a large income.

In 200 BCE, Xin, King of Han, surrendered to the Xiongnu at Mayi, Shuofang, Dai Commandery, and joined them in raiding Han territory. Emperor Gaozu of Han led an army against them and scattered their forces, defeating them several times before they retreated. Later Xin set up Zhao Li as King of Zhao and marched south against Gaozu. They too were defeated. Seeing the influence the Xiongnu had on his vassals, Gaozu marched north with a 320,000 strong army to confront them. However his men suffered from inadequate clothing to ward off the cold and a lack of supplies, so Gaozu left them behind and advanced to Pingcheng with only 40,000 men. Modu Chanyu saw his chance to turn the tide and immediately surrounded the city 300,000 cavalry, cutting the emperor off from the rest of his army. It's not clear why, but the Chanyu eventually withdrew some of his men. Sima Qian suggests his consort persuaded him to let the emperor escape. However a prolonged siege would have been impractical anyway since Xin's infantry never made it on time. Seeing the Chanyu's thinned lines, Gaozu sortied out and broke the siege. When Han reinforcements arrived, the Xiongnu withdrew. This came to be known as the Battle of Baideng. Gaozu's narrow escape from capture by the Xiongnu convinced him to make peace with his nomadic enemy. He sent one of his daughters to the Chanyu (heqin marriage alliance) and offered him silk, wine, and food stuffs. The Chanyu accepted the offer and restricted himself to minor raids throughout the duration of Gaozu's reign.[8][2][9]

After his Chinese campaign, Modu forced the Yuezhi and the Wusun to become vassals of the Xiongnu.[1]

In 195 BCE, Lu Wan King of Yan, fled to the Xiongnu after he was defeated by the Han general Zhou Bo.[10]

In 178 BCE, the Xiongnu overran the Yuezhi and Wusun in Gansu and the Tarim Basin.[11]

Modu died in 174 BCE and was succeeded by his son, Jiyu, who became Laoshang Chanyu.[12]

Analysis of the Xiongnu rise[edit]

As Nicola Di Cosmo summarizes the sequence of events, the Qin invasion of the Ordos Plateau (the area within the bend of the Yellow River) came at the same time as a leadership crisis within the loose Xiongnu confederation. Modu took advantage of Xiongnu militarization process that came in response to the Qin invasion, and ably created a newly centralized political structure that made possible his empire. He was aided by the rapid fall of Qin and the fact that the Han initially set up independent "kingdoms," whose leaders, like Xin, King of Han, were as likely to ally with Xiongnu and attack Han as the other way around. Han weakness meant that it supplied Modu and his successors with a steady flow of luxury and staple tribute they could pass down to the aristocracy supporting them. Without that tribute, the Xiongnu might not have been able to expand and maintain control.[13]

Later legends[edit]

Christopher I. Beckwith has pointed out that the story of the young Modu resembles a widespread class of folk tales in which a young hero is abandoned, goes on a quest, proves his worth, gains a group of trusted companions, returns to his home country, slays a powerful figure and becomes a king.[14]

The name of Maodun has been associated with Oghuz Khagan, a mythological ancestor of the Turkic peoples. The reason for that is a striking similarity of the Oghuz Khagan biography in the Turco-Persian tradition (Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, Husayni Isfahani, Abu al-Ghazi Bahadur) with the Maodun biography in the Chinese sources (feud between the father and son and murder of the former, the direction and sequence of conquests, etc.), which was first noticed by Hyacinth (Compilation of reports, pp. 56–57).[15][16]

Another suggestion connects it with the name of the Magyar royal tribe of the Hungarians and with their distant relatives the Mators, now extinct.[17] He has been linked with the Dulo clan known from the Nominalia of the Bulgarian khans[18] and this, in the form *Duh-klah Tuqi King, with the Hungarian Gyula clan.[19] It has been suggested that his name, as Bixtun or Beztur, appears in the genealogy as the ancestor of Attila, in the Chronica Hungarorum of Johannes de Thurocz.[20]


See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e Di Cosmo, Nicola (2002). Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-77064-5.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Barfield, Thomas (1989). The Perilous Frontier. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell. ISBN 1-55786-043-2.
  3. ^ "Bambooweb Dictionary: Huns". Bambooweb. Archived from the original on 26 September 2011. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  4. ^ Nicola di Cosmo, Ancient China and its Enemies: the Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History (Cambridge UP, 2002), 174-76
  5. ^ a b c Beckwith 2009, p. 387
  6. ^ Clauson, Gerard: An etymological dictionary of pre-thirteenth-century Turkish, Clarendon Press (Oxford), 1972. Entry: Bagatur
  7. ^ Loewe 2000, p. 434.
  8. ^ Whiting 2002, pp. 133-134.
  9. ^ Grousset, Rene (1970). The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press. pp. 27. ISBN 0-8135-1304-9.
  10. ^ Whiting 2002, p. 137.
  11. ^ Whiting 2002, p. 139.
  12. ^ Loewe 2000, p. 216.
  13. ^ Cosmo, Nicola Di (2004). Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History. Cambridge University Press. p. 205. ISBN 978-0-521-54382-8.
  14. ^ Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road, 2009, Chapter One.
  15. ^ Bichurin N.Ya., "Compilation of reports on peoples inhabiting Central Asia in ancient times", vol. 1, Sankt Petersburg, 1851, pp. 56–57
  16. ^ Taskin V.S., "Materials on history of Sünnu", transl., 1968, Vol. 1, p. 129
  17. ^ E. Helismki – Die Matorische Sprache, 1997, Studia Uralo-Altaica 41, pg. 64.
  18. ^ O. Pritsak: Die bulgarische Fürstenliste und die Sprache der Proto-Bulgaren, Wiesbaden, 1955.
  19. ^ O. Pritsak, 1955.
  20. ^ Friedrich Hirth (1900). "Die Ahnentafel Attila's nach Johannes von Thurócz" (PDF). Bulletin de l'Académie Impériale des Sciences de St.-Pétersbourg. Retrieved 29 December 2016.
  21. ^ "History of Turkish Land Forces". Archived from the original on 19 April 2014. Retrieved 24 February 2016.</ref Nihal Atsız, "Türk Karaordusunun Kuruluşu Meselesi", Ötüken, Sayı: 4 (1973)
  22. ^ "Modun Shanyu". Archived from the original on 29 April 2015. Retrieved 24 February 2016.


Preceded by
Modu Chanyu of the Xiongnu Empire
209–174 BC
Succeeded by
Laoshang Chanyu

External links[edit]