Modu Chanyu

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Chanyu of the Xiongnu Empire
Reign209–174 BCE
Bornc. 234 BCE
modern-day Mongolia
Died174 BCE (age 59-60)

Modu, Maodun, Modun (simplified Chinese: 冒顿单于; traditional Chinese: 冒頓單于; pinyin: Mòdú Chányú, Màodùn Chányú or Mòdùn Chányú, from Old Chinese (220 B.C.E.): *mouᴴ-tuən or *mək-tuən,[2] 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.[3][4]

Modu ruled from 209 BCE to 174 BCE. He was a military leader under his father Touman and later Chanyu of the Xiongnu Empire, based on the Mongolian Plateau. 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 BCE, leaving Modu a free hand to expand his Xiongnu Empire into one of the largest of his time.[5] 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.


His name Mòdùn [a] (Wade-Giles: Motun) is pronounced IPA: [mǝk-tuənC][b] in Later Han Chinese[6] and IPA: [mək-twən] in Middle Chinese;[7] the name's Old Chinese pronunciation might have represented the pronunciation of the foreign word *baɣtur, a relative of the later attested Central Eurasian culture word baɣatur "hero".[7] According to Gerard Clauson, bağatur, transcribed by Chinese with -n for foreign -r, was by origin almost certainly a Hunnic (Xiongnu) proper name.[8]

His name was also read as Modun 墨頓 (MC: *mək-tuənH; following to Sima Zhen's commentary on Shiji) and Modu 墨毒 (MC: *mək-duok; following Song Qi's commentary on Hanshu), the latter of which, according to Pulleyblank (1999), "does not make sense" phonologically.[9]

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.[4] 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 hope that they would kill Modu as retribution.[4] Modu was able to escape this fate by stealing a fast horse and returned to the Xiongnu, who welcomed him as a hero.[4] As reward for this show of bravery, his father appointed him the commander of 10,000 horsemen.[4]

Due to his reputation for bravery, Modu began to gather a group of extremely loyal warriors.[3] He invented a signaling arrow that made a whistling sound in flight and trained his men to shoot in the direction of the sound in synchrony. To be sure of his men's loyalty, Modu commanded the warriors to shoot his favourite horse, any who refused to do so being summarily executed.[3] He later repeated this test of loyalty, but with one of his favourite wives and once again executed those who hesitated to carry out his order. Only when he was convinced of the absolute loyalty of his remaining warriors did he order them to shoot his father during a hunting trip, killing him in a shower of arrows. With none of his followers failing to shoot at his command and the removal of his father, Modu proclaimed himself Chanyu of the Xiongnu.[10]

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.[4]

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.[3]

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

War with Han dynasty[edit]

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 with 400,000 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 a "princess" 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.[11][4][12] The Han dynasty sent random unrelated commoner women falsely labeled as "princesses" and members of the Han imperial family multiple times when they were practicing heqin marriage alliances with the Xiongnu in order to avoid sending the emperor's daughters.[13][14][15][16][17]

After his Chinese campaign, Modu forced the Yuezhi and the Wusun to become vassals of the Xiongnu.[3]

In 195 BCE, Lu Wan King of Yan, fled to the Xiongnu after he was defeated by the Han general Zhou Bo.[18]

In 178 BCE, the Xiongnu overran the Yuezhi and Wusun in Gansu and the Tarim Basin.[19]

Modu died in 174 BCE and was succeeded by his son, Jiyu, who became Laoshang Chanyu.[20]

Marriage proposal to Empress Lü Zhi[edit]

In 192 BC Empress Dowager Lü Zhi (widow of Emperor Gaozu of Han) received a marriage proposal from Modu, who wrote as follows in a letter meant to intimidate and mock her:

I'm a lonesome ruler born in marshes and raised in plains populated by livestock. I've visited your border numerous times and wanted to tour China. Your Majesty is now alone and living in solitude. Since both of us are not happy and have nothing to entertain ourselves, I'm willing to use what I possess to exchange for what you lack.[21]

Lü Zhi was infuriated at the rude proposition, and in a heated court session, her generals advised her to rally an army and exterminate the Xiongnu immediately. As she was about to declare war, an outspoken attendant named Ji Bu pointed out that the Xiongnu army was much more powerful than the Chinese. At Ji Bu's words, the court immediately fell into a fearful silence.[22] Rethinking her plans, Lü Zhi rejected Modu's proposition humbly, as follows:

Your Lordship does not forget our land and writes a letter to us, we fear. I retreat to preserve myself. I'm old and frail, I'm losing hair and teeth, and I struggle to maintain balance when I move. Your Lordship has heard wrongly, you shouldn't defile yourself. Our people did not offend you, and should be pardoned. We've two imperial carriages and eight fine steeds, which we graciously offer to Your Lordship.[23]

However she continued implementing the heqin policy of marrying so called "princesses" to Xiongnu chieftains and paying tribute to the Xiongnu in exchange for peace between both sides.[24]

Analysis of the Xiongnu's 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 the 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.[25]

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.[26]

The name of Modu has been associated with Oghuz Khagan, a legendary ancestor of Oghuz Turks. 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 Modu 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).[27][28]

Another suggestion connects it with the name of the Magyar royal tribe of the Hungarians and with their distant relatives the Mators, now extinct.[29] Modu has been linked with the Dulo clan known from the Nominalia of the Bulgarian khans[30] and this, in the form *Duh-klah Tuqi King, with the Hungarian Gyula clan.[31] 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.[32]


Modu Chanyu is also known as Mete Khan (particularly, Mete Han in Turkish)[33][34] across a number of Turkic languages.

The Turkish Land Forces claims the beginning of his reign in 209 BCE as its symbolic founding date.[35]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ another pronunciation is mào
  2. ^ another LHC pronunciation mouC-tuənC yields MC mauH-tuǝnH and then modern Màodùn



  1. ^ Hanshu, "Account of the Xiongnu A" quote: "單于姓攣鞮氏"; tr: "The chanyu's surname is Luandi."
  2. ^ Schuessler 2014, p. 277.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Barfield, Thomas (1989). The Perilous Frontier. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell. ISBN 1-55786-043-2.
  5. ^ Nicola di Cosmo, Ancient China and its Enemies: the Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History (Cambridge UP, 2002), 174–76
  6. ^ Schuessler, Axel.(2007) An Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese. University of Hawaii Press. p. 390, 220
  7. ^ a b Beckwith 2009, p. 387
  8. ^ Sir Gerard Clauson (1972). An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth-Century Turkish. p. 313.
  9. ^ Pulleyblank, E.G. (1999). "The Peoples of the Steppe Frontier in Early Chinese Sources" Migracijske teme 15 1-2. footnote 3 on p. 45 of pp. 35-61.
  10. ^ Loewe 2000, p. 434.
  11. ^ Whiting 2002, pp. 133–134.
  12. ^ Grousset, Rene (1970). The Empire of the Steppes. Rutgers University Press. pp. 27. ISBN 0-8135-1304-9.
  13. ^ Lo, Ping-cheung (2015). "11 Legalism and offensive realism in the Chinese court debate on defending national security 81 BCE". In Lo, Ping-cheung; Twiss, Sumner B (eds.). Chinese Just War Ethics: Origin, Development, and Dissent. War, Conflict and Ethics (illustrated ed.). Routledge. p. 269. ISBN 978-1317580973. There were altogether nine marriages of Han princesses (fake or real) to the Xiongnu during these roughly 60 years (for a complete list of details, see Cui 2007a, 555). We will call this policy Heqin Model One, and, as Ying-shih Yu ...
  14. ^ Qian, Sima (2019). Historical Records 史记: The First and Most Important Biographical General History Book in China. DeepLogic. Liu Jing said: "The Han dynasty was just calm, the soldiers were exhausted by the fire, and the Xiongnu could not be ... If the majesty could not send a big princess, let the royal woman or the fake princess, he I will know that I will ...
  15. ^ Chin, Tamara T. (2020). Savage Exchange: Han Imperialism, Chinese Literary Style, and the Economic Imagination. Harvard University Studies in East Asian Law. BRILL. p. 225. ISBN 978-1684170784. In the Han- Wusun alliance (unlike the Han- Xiongnu heqin agreements) the gifts flowed in the proper direction, ... Thus, while Empress Lü transgressed the heqin marriage in having a false princess sent, Liu Jing's original proposal ...
  16. ^ Chin, Tamara Ta Lun (2005). Savage Exchange: Figuring the Foreign in the Early Han Dynasty. University of California, Berkeley. p. 66, 73, 74. Figuring the Foreign in the Early Han Dynasty Tamara Ta Lun Chin ... Emperor Han Wudi's military push to reverse the power relations between Xiongnu and Han stands in stark contrast to the original ... Xiongnu with a false princess .
  17. ^ Mosol, Lee (2013). Ancient History of the Manchuria. X libris Corporation. p. 77. ISBN 978-1483667676. ... 孝文皇帝 sent a girl as a new wife for the Chanyu as a 'fake princess of Royal family' with a eunuch named '中行 ... The Han lured the Xiongnu chief deep into the China proper town called "馬邑," but Gunchen Chanyu realized the trap ...
  18. ^ Whiting 2002, p. 137.
  19. ^ Whiting 2002, p. 139.
  20. ^ Loewe 2000, p. 216.
  21. ^ (孤僨之君,生於沮澤之中,長於平野牛馬之域,數至邊境,願游中國。陛下獨立,孤僨獨居。兩主不樂,無以自虞,願以所有,易其所無。) Ban Gu et al. Book of Han, Volume 94, Traditions of the Xiongnu.
  22. ^ Records of the Grand Historian, v. 100, Burton Watson translation page 249
  23. ^ (單于不忘弊邑,賜之以書,弊邑恐懼。退而自圖,年老氣衰,發齒墮落,行步失度,單于過聽,不足以自污。弊邑無罪,宜在見赦。竊有御車二乘,馬二駟,以奉常駕。) Ban Gu et al. Book of Han, Volume 94, Traditions of the Xiongnu.
  24. ^ (因獻馬,遂和親。至孝文即位,復修和親。) Ban Gu et al. Book of Han, Volume 94, Traditions of the Xiongnu.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road, 2009, Chapter One.
  27. ^ Bichurin N.Ya. (1851). Collection of information on peoples in Central Asia in ancient times. Vol. 1. pp. 56–57.
  28. ^ Taskin V.S., "Materials on history of Sünnu", transl., 1968, Vol. 1, p. 129
  29. ^ E. Helismki – Die Matorische Sprache, 1997, Studia Uralo-Altaica 41, pg. 64.
  30. ^ O. Pritsak: Die bulgarische Fürstenliste und die Sprache der Proto-Bulgaren, Wiesbaden, 1955.
  31. ^ O. Pritsak, 1955.
  32. ^ 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.
  33. ^ Gomech, Saadettin (2012). History of the Turkic Huns (in Turkish). Ankara: Berikan Yayinevi. p. 53.
  34. ^ Baykuzu, Tilla Deniz (2012). Asian Hunnic Empire (in Turkish). Konya: Komen Yayinlari. p. 50.
  35. ^ "Brief History of the Turkish Armed Forces". Republic of Turkey, Ministry of National Defence, General Staff. The first orderly and disciplined formation of the Turkish Army dates back to 209 BC, during the Great Hun Empire; the greatest units in this organization were the divisions made up of 10.000 soldiers, divisions were further divided into smaller units composed of a thousand, hundred, and ten soldiers; this organization continued to exist throughout the history in the Turkish states with small changes.
  36. ^ "Monument of Turkishness". Governorshıp of Kayserı.
  37. ^ "The monument of Turkishness was opened to visitors (in Turkish)". Turkgun news. 2 September 2020.


External links[edit]

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