Ancient Koreans and Xiongnu: What was the Nature of their Relationship?
Maurizio RIOTTO, Universita degli studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”
(Maurizio RIOTTO’s wife is a South Korean)
Journal of Northeast Asian History. Volume 6, Number 1 (June 2009) 5-35.
Today’s scholarship considers the Xiongnu culture a subject of Central Asian studies, and Korean culture, a subject of Far East Asian studies. Indeed, by the time the Xiongnu and Koreans made their appearance in history, they were two distinct peoples.
But what was their relationship before then? It is very difficult to answer such a question. Whereas archaeological sources give us little to nothing, we only can guess, from historical sources, that the two peoples shared some cultural affinities whose nature and characteristics have yet to be investigated.
This paper is to be considered a starting point, not the arrival. By proposing an attractive hypothesis supported by an extensive bibliography, including even Greek and Latin sources, this paper intends to open an academic debate involving the specialists of Central and East Asia. In other words, this paper is to be regarded as a call for further studies on a so far neglected topic. The author hypothesizes a possible primitive identity between ancient Koreans and the Xiongnu. By means of this provocative paper, the author hopes to open a discussion that will help overcome the obstacle of interdisciplinary barriers between Central Asian studies, East Asian studies, and other relevant fields.
This paper deals with a number of historical and cultural aspects pertaining to the ancient Korean kingdoms of Buyeo and Goguryeo, with particular reference to the relationship between Buyeo-Goguryeo and Central Asian cultures, such as that of the Xiongnu. This paper also represents the first stage of a project I started in Korea in the summer of 2006 at the invitation of the Goguryeo Research Foundation.
The Chinese insist on the “non-Koreanity” of the Goguryeo kingdom (as well as its actual “independence”). I think— and this is one of the purposes of my study— that at least a part of the historical truth of the matter can be uncovered through the examination and correct interpretation of relevant Chinese historical sources. From the perspective of scholarship, a major problem lies in the fact that since the very beginning, Korea has not been as widely studies as China, especially in the western world. Some scholars dealing with Korean matters cannot even read Korean, or they simply ignore Korean sources, even I the sources are written in Chinese characters. The fact of the matter is that Chinese influence on Manchuria and Korea at the time of Buyeo and early Goguryeo is anything but clear. Thus, it may have been exaggerated in Chinese sources and modern scholars’ interpretations of them. Consider the following example. In 12 CE, Goguryeo rejected the request of China’s ruler Wang Mang (r.9-23 CE) for Goguryeo to join China is a military campaign against the Xiongnu (Gardiner, 1969). This resulted in a clash betsween Goguryeo and China.
A) From very early on— i.e., the early 1st century— Goguryeo had an independent foreign policy, possible as a consequence of its independent political status. It is difficult to say if the Goguryeo people of this episode effective belonged to the Goguryeo kingdom; they may have been a trible or tribes of Goguryeo ethnicity but living beyond the borders of the Goguryeo state. Nevertheless the importance of this report is undeniable
B) Goguryeo was strong enough to challenge China’s military power.
The events during Wang Mang’s reign provide us with an opportunity to initiate, from a broader perspective, research concerning the relations between Goguryeo (and its predecessor, namely Buyeo in Manchuria) and the Chinese empire. On the basis of the episode mentioned above, we can assume that Goguryeo enjoyed friendly relations with the Xiongnu, and this is exactly one of the key points I inted to develop in the course of my study. Close interstate relations are often associated with shared cultural features. Therefore, an in-depth investigation of the relationship between the two peoples could go as far as to establish the possibility of a common origin. As a matter of fact, the Buyeo-Goguryeo kingdoms and the Xiongnu empire seem to have shared similar cultural traits as well as a generally hostile attitude towards China. Indeed, it would seem that the Korean peninsula had friendly links with the Xiongnu from the time of Wiman Joseon (ca. 190-108 BCE).
I will not elaborate at length on the linguistic aspect of the Goguryeo-Xiongnu linkage. Nevertheless, I do want to point out that if a linkage between the Goguryeo language and that of the Xiongnu— of which is even less known than the Goguryeo language— could in fact be unraveled, it could serve to support the common primitive identity shared by the two peoples and shed light on the role Goguryeo played on the Korean peninsula. As aforementioned, some Chinese scholars claim (especially from the political perspective) the “non-Koreanity” of the Goguryeo kingdom— the “true Korea” being on Baekje and Silla. However, Chinese historical sources themselves report that the languages of Goguryeo and Baekje were almost the same; thus, if Baekje was a Korean state (and nobody doubts that), then Goguryeo was a Korean state too, at least from an ethno-linguistic point of view. Indeed, the substantial cultural similarities between Baekje and Goguryeo are repeatedly attested to in Chinese sources (e.g., Xin Tang Shu, 220) and this observation can extend to include Silla as well. Now let us get to the core of my research— the Xiongnu and the Korean peninsula, with particular reference to Buyeo and Goguryeo.
II. The Xiongnu Empire
In spite of the extensive bibliography on Goguryeo, Goguryeo’s relationship with the Xiongnu remains shrouded in mystery. More precisely, the subject has rarely been touched upon. In a more general sense, it may be said that, in spite of the large body of research that has been done on the Xiongnu, and other ancient peoples of the steppes (Maenchen-Helfen, 1973; Grousset 1970; Roux, 1988), the relationship between the Xiongnu and the Korean peninsula in the delicate period from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE has not yet been fully investigated. Thus, it has been rightly pointed out that there is a shortage of studies concerning the relations between the various ancient peoples of Northeast Asia (Duncan, 2007). It may be stretching it somewhat in attributing Korean characteristics to the Huns— also recorded by western historians of Late Antiquity (Rohrbacher, 2003)— who ravaged Western Europe between the 4th and 5th centuries. However, Atilla and the Huns appear more closely related to the Turks.
The name “Atilla” itself seems to have Turkic origins since “at” (horse) and “ata” [father] are both Turkic words. This segues to the language used by the Huns. Did they speak a Turkic language? They probably did not (Deny et al., 1959, p. 685 ff.). And if not, how much did the Turks borrow from the Xiongnu language? The other problem is the identification of the Xiongnu with Attila’s Huns— an identification that is possible, though not definite, given the temporal gap separating Atilla from the “Golden Age” of the Xiongnu empire.
Even if the Xiongnu still remain a mysterious people, we know that at their peak (2nd century BCE), they controlled a vast expanse of territory stretching along a west-east axis from Lake Aral to Korea. All we know about them comes from Chinese historical sources. Given the antagonism between the Chinese and the Xiongnu, the portrayal of the Xiongnu in these sources is understandably skewed and negative. The Chinese characters used for “Xiongnu” mean “savage, turbulent slaves”. They are, of course, just phonetic transcriptions of a foreign name. While we do not know what the Xiongnu did not call or consider themselves as “slaves”.
The Xiongnu do not seem to have left their mark in any western source. This is certainly very strange for such an expansive empire. Perhaps they were the “Phaunoi” mentioned by Strabo (Apollodorus apud Strabonem, XI, 11) of the “Thuni” mentioned by Plinius (VI, 55). However, neither is backed by definitive evidence. The absence of meaningful refernces to the Xiongnu in western classical historiography could be due to the fact that large volumes of Greek and Latin sources have gotten damaged or lost over the years. In short, the only reasonable hypothesis we can draw for the time being seems to be a generic identification of a branch of the Xiongnu with the Huns, who played an important role in the so-called barbarian invasions of Europe at the time of the Later Roman empire. The issue remains unresolved.
While the true identity of the Xiongnu remains shrouded in mystery, it is certain that for China, the Xiongnu were a formidable opponent for centuries. While the Chinese reported numerous defeats as well as victories against the Xiongnu, they never won an decisive victory against the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu empires collapse is due to, above all else, its own internal, structural weakness of being composed of so many different clans and tribes. Nonetheless, they were skilled warriors. Their battle tactics, which involved the heavy use of mounted archers— typical to all nomadic peoples of the steppes, often overwhelmed the Chinese armies that compromised primarily of infantry. This weakness of the Chinese army was well perceived by Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE) of the Han empire. He asked the king of Dayuan (Ferghana: a region corresponding roughly to todays Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) for many horses. When the king of Dayuan refused, Emperor Wu declared war. The war lasted from 104 to 101 BCE, and China emerged victorious. Three thousand horses were brought to China from Dayuan and Emperor Wu himself wrote a poem celebrating “the heavenly horses of the far west”.
At least according to early historic references, the Xiongnu came from Manchuria, near where the Donghu lived. The Donghu were a tribe or a tribal union in Northeast China that included ancient Koreans. Many noteworthy tombs (perhaps of kings) attributable to the Xiongnu culture found in Manchuria seem to confirm their Manchurian origin. The first significant clash with the Chinese army occurred in 245 BCE when Li Mu, a commander of the Zhao, defeated the Xiongnu, the Donghu, and other “barbarian” peoples in the same military campaign. Soon after China’s unification, the Xiongnu suffered another attack from the Qin (214 BCE). Touman, the Chanyu (king or ruler of the Xiongnu, fled north. Toumans successor, Mo Du, (r. 209-174 BCE), is considered the greatest Xiongnu ruler. He was the founder of the Xiongnu empire. He subjugated all the nearby peoples, including the Dingling (proto-Uihgurs and Yuechi). He even forced multiple migrations after crushing the Yuechi around 170 BCE. The Yuechi, in fact, are the very Tocharians who conquered the Indo-Greek kingdoms of Batriana. They also later founded the Kushana kingdom.
It must be noted that this was in Central Asia, an area that had already been affected by earlier migrations. In particular, Modu defeated and incorporated the Donghu after forming an alliance with them (Shiji, 100; Han Shu, 94; Pak Seong-ho, 1988). This last episode is especially important. ON the one hand, it means that the Xiongnu extended their territory so far eastward as to border the Korean peninsula; on the other hand, it was exactly around 190 BCE (during Modu’s reign) that the so-called Wiman Joseon— whose existence is only reported in certain historical sources and has not yet been archaeologically verified, we are informed that Wiman, the founder was a man of Yan who had presumably taken refuge among the Xiongnu (Shiji, 115) and later defeated King Jun of Gojoseon. There is no doubt that the Xiongnu were in some way involved in the founding of Wiman Joseon. In this regard, a suggestive hypothesis I dare to advance here is that Wiman could have been for the Xiongnu a trustworthy official who was given by Modu the job of controlling and managing the affairs of a part of the Korean peninsula in the name of an alliance with the Xiongnu themselves. In other words, I suspect that Wiman Joseon could have been a kind of satellite state or even an important part of the Xiongnu empire with a predominantly Korean population who may perhaps have been the forefathers of the Goguryeo people. As a matter of fact, both the foundation and fall of Wiman Joseon were intimately tied to the destiny of the Xiongnu as we shall see later.
III. Xiongnu and Koreans (Buyeo-Goguryeo): What was the nature of their relationship?
If we look at the Xiongnu and the ancient Koreans of Buyeo-Goguryeo, we can easily notice that their cultures share similar features. It goes without saying that the cultures of the Far East and those of Siberia cannot but share some similarities rather than differences. Nevertheless, some of the similarities between the Xiongnu and the ancient Koreans are so uncanny that they cannot fail to arouse the interest of researchers. I will discuss some of them here.
1. Houses and Tombs
The excavation of presumed Xiongnu sites and studies on Xiongnu artifacts are revealing more and more about the Xiongnu culture, especially about Xiongnu burial customs (Erdy, 2001; Monggol jiyeok, 1995; A Xiongnu cemetery, 2002, p.293). One of the few villages surely attributable to the Xiongnu is located near Ulan Ude, east of Lake Baikal. It was excavated by Soviet archaeologists. The village has been dated to around the reign of Modu (end of the 3rd – early 2nd century BCE). The houses there have heating systems comprising pipes built into walls. Such a heating system is, in respects, similar to the Korean ondol, which began to be used in Korea more or less around the same period. It also appears that the Xiongnu occasionally farmed (Rudenko, 1969) and kept various species of domesticated animals, some of which remain unidentified.
As for the burial system, the Xiongnu favored the tumulus, which indeed was wide used in many Siberian cultures. Tumuli were almost unknown in Korea until the Proto- Three Kingdoms Period (although they seemed to have been common in the ancient Buyeo kingdom. When they first began to be used on the Korean peninsula (e.g., early Goguryeo), the tumuli exhibited the typical Siberian (and Xiongnu) structure, which comprises a wooden coffin on a stone platform. Moreover, it is also a fact that the people of Goguryeo and Buyeo did not use jar coffins, a burial system unknown to the cultures of the steppes nor to the Xiongnu (Riotto, 1995).
2. Whistling Arrows
The first reference to ‘whistling arrows’ concerns the Xiongnu. They seem to have been invented by the famous Chanyu; Modu, with the purpose of getting many arrows to converge on the same target during a hunt or a battle. Whistling arrows continued to be used for many centuries, and they were most certainly used in Goguryeo. As a matter of fact, the arrows depicted in the famous hunting scene of the mural paintings of Muyongchong (Tomb of Dancers) seem to be whistling arrows and are very similar to the ones excavated in eastern Siberia that are currently housed in the Institute for the Archaeological Research of Novosibirsk in Russia. Whistling arrowsheads, which are called “uneun sal” or “hyosi” in Korean, or “zhaojian” in Chinese, have also been excavated in Korea, including the one found in Tomb no. 4 at Hwango-dong, Gyeongju (Hanguk Munhwa, 1994).
In Sanguozhi (Records of Three Kingdoms), it is said that Goguryeo had customs similar to those of Buyeo (30). In particular, there is mention that Goguryeo had “no prisons”. This record coincides in some ways with what is reported in Shiji and Han Shu apropos the Xiongnu: “Their prison sentences never last more than ten days and actually very few people are imprisoned.” The absence of prisons is quite natural among nomadic peoples such as the Xiongnu, but how does one explain the same phenomenon in Goguryeo? Perhaps the meaning of the Chinese record simply is that Goguryeo prisons were made of perishable material, but, if not, should we believe that (at least in the epoch to which the record refers) the Goguryeo people were still unable to forget their nomadic past ?
*Hunting seems to have played a very important role in Goguryeo society. An echo of this is found in the famous episode regarding General Ondal described in Samguk Sagi. Indeed, Goguryeo culture at large exhibits typically Central Asian cultural features (Goguryeo sasang, 2005b: Yi Ok; Watson, 1999).*
As is well known, the levirate was a characteristic custom of ancient Buyeo and Goguryeo. The levirate episode of King Gogukcheon, as reported in Samguk Sagi, is very famous. The levirate custom was also practiced among the Xiongnu, as is clearly indicated in Shiji and Han Shu. Regarding the practice of this particular custom in Buyeo, Sanguozhi leaves no room for doubt (… when a man dies, his younger brother marries the widow; and this custom is identical to that of the Xiongnu…). This account is very important in that among the many peoples, the Chinese source mentioned only the Xiongnu in connection with Buyeo’s levirate custom. If other ethnic groups practiced the levirate custom, there must have been mention of them in the same source or elsewhere.
According to Chinese sources, the Xiongnu were divided into four (or five) clans: the Luandi, Huyan, Quilin, Lan, and Xubu. The Luandi clan gave rise to a figure named Tuqi, whose status seems to have been second only to the Chanyu. In recent times, more light has been shed on Xiongnu clans and their social ranks, thanks especially to the studies of Chinese scholars. As is well known, Goguryeo was also originally divided in five clans: the Yeonno, Gyeru, Gwanno, Jeollo, and Sunno. What is very interesting in this respect is that the character “no” of the Goguryeo clan names is identical to the second character of the word “Xiongnu”. The character “no” means “slave”. Independent of any possible variations in the pronunciation of the character, it is quite obvious that the character’s ideographic meaning was used in addition to its sound. Was it used, the, by the Chinese in order to deprecate Goguryeo, or is it another hint to a shared identity between the peoples of Goguryeo and Xiongnu? Yeonno is said to have once been the ruling clan but then “lost its power.” Why? Was it toppled and replaced in a moment of crisis? The hypothesis founded on linguistic resemblance are the most hazardous, partly due to the fact that the ancient pronunciation of Chinese and Korean is still anything but completely clear, and we only know Xiongnu terms by their Chinese transposition. Nevertheless, what is “Huyan”, “Qiulin”, and “Yeonno” are phonetic deformations, respectively of “Buyeo”, “Jeollo”, and “Xiongnu”? This question may never be answered, but the idea of a shared identity between the Xiongnu, Buyeo, and Goguryeo is surely enticing.
6. Government Ranks
Xiongnu government officials were divided into twelve ranks, with each rank being subdivided into the “right” and “left”. We are told that in Goguryeo, too, there were twelve ranks, as reported in Xin Tang Shu and Sui Shu.
7. “White Horse Oath”
In 42 BCE, the Xiongnu Chanyu; “Hu Ha Xie” and Chinese ambassadors Han Chang and Zhang Men entered in an alliance. The aliiance was solemnized by a “white horse oath.” The Skin of a white horse was scratched until blood spirted forth. The blood was poured into a cup. On that occasion, the “cup” was the skull of the Yuechi who had been killed in battle by the chanyu. It was then drunk by al the contracting parties (Han Shu, 94; Prusek, 1971). In Korea, the “white horse oath” is mentioned in the novel The Tale of Hong Gildong, written in the early 17th century, indicating just how common such oaths were. Koreans seem to have used regular cups, rather than the skulls of slain enemies, but there is very little more we know about the ritual as it was practiced by Koreans in the ancient epoch. We do know, however, that the practice of drinking out of the enemy’s skull was quite diffused in Central Asia and also spread among Germanic peoples, including the Longobards: “… in eo proelio Alboin Cunimundum occidit caputuque illius sublatum, ad bibendum ex eo poculum fecit…(… in that battle, Alboin killed King Gunmund, and after beheading him, Alboin turned King Gunmund’s skull into a cup to drink from…)” (Palus Diaconus,I,27).
8. Tangri = Dangun?
The Xiongnu word for “sky” according to Chinese sources, was “chengli”, which is anything but the term “tangri” — used in the sense of the heaven or god—found in the modern Turkic vocabulary. This does not mean that the Xiongnu spoke a Turkic language: on the contrary, it is more probably that “tangri” is a pure Xiongnu word that was later adopted by the Turks. Another plausible hypothesis is that “tangri” and Dangun (Korean sky god, grandson of the lord of heaven) are related terms sharing the same root. It was originally suggested by the famous Korean scholar and write Chonam-Seon (1890-1957) and the idea has been revisited in more recent studies.
9. “Parthian Shot”
One of the most famous murals in the aforementioned Muyongchong (Tomb of the Dancers), which dates to the 5th century, depicts a hunting scene. The mural is in just about every publication on Goguryeo art. Some of the hunters portrayed in the fresco are in a stylized pose, which art historians refer to as the “Parthians’s arrow” or the “Parthian shot.” This artistic motif represents a mounted archer riding in the “flying gallop” (none of the horse’s legs are touching the ground), with his torso turned to the side to fire an arrow. This particular theme is common to Central Asian art, represented since ancient times in what is common referred to as Scytho-Siberian art.
Also, while the frescoes of Goguryeo tombs were painted somewhat later—starting in the 4th century CE, Goguryeo artists may have first become familiar with the art of the steppes before then.
10. Legend of Kim Ilje
A very interesting albeit not very well-known legend concerning ancient Korea involves a man by the name of Kim Ilje (Jin Ridi) (134-86 BCE). If we trust Chinese sources (Shul Zizhi Tongjian), we can also assume that he was a real historical figure and that his story is relevant to this research.
Kim was a Xiongnu prince, who, along with his family, was captured by the Chinese for refusing to betray his people… As time passed, his skills, fair looks, and honesty impressed Emperor Wu, who decided to give him a family name. Since the Xiongnu used to make sacrifices to a sacred statue made of gold (or metal), the chosen family name was “Jin” (or “Kim” in Korean), meaning “gold” or “metal”. In terms of Xiongnu religion, there are no doubts about its shamanistic nature. As a side note, the statue was seized by the Chinese in 122 or 123 BCE. In 25 CE the descendants of the Xiongnu prince were forced to flee to Korea. At this point, history becomes legend as it is reported in the Samguk Sagi and Samguk Yusa: in the year 65, King Talhae (r. 57-80) of Silla adopted the young Kim Alji (a descendant of Kim Ilje) and eventually named Kim his successor. Kim Alji declined the throne, but seven generations later, one of his direct descendants ascended to the throne of Silla: King Michu (better known as Michu isageum) (r. 261-284). He became the first Silla king from the Kim family, and in particular, from the famous clan known as the Kim of Gyeongju.
Whatever the truth may be, the events regarding Kim Ilje and his descendants is yet another exemplification of the linkage between the Xiongnu and the Korean peninsula in an epoch that had been crucial to Korea’s destiny. Even though it is difficult to extrapolate veritable historical records from the sea of sources, there is no doubt that a core element of truth does lie in them. We can easily assume that Silla still did not exist as a national entity in the 1st century, since the traditional date of foundation (57 BCE) is unacceptable; both Baekje and Silla clearly emerged as “states” in the 4th century. However, Goguryeo did exist in the 1st century. If Kim Ilje’s descendants really did reach Korea, it is more likely that they reached Goguryeo, not Silla, even if legends tells it otherwise.
IV. Provisional Conclusions:
What if the ancient Koreans (Buyeo and Goguryeo) were themselves a branch of the Xiongnu people? Better still: what if the Xiongnu were originally a branch of the ancient Korean people?
It appears that from early on, Goguryeo was a state with a distinct cultural identity that was very much Korean.
Nevertheless, we know little to nothing about its origins. Goguryeo is surely linked both to Buyeo and Wiman Joseon; Goguryeo may represent the continuation of Wiman Joseon in a cultural sense wherein it was still in transition between tribalism and the early state, and that in spite of the four military commanderies (whose locations have never been identified for certain) established by the Chinese in the territory of Wiman Joseon after the war of 109-108 BCE. The role and location of the Chinese commanderies is still debated, particularly in view of the scarcity of archaeological evidence, and above all, in the absence of written records, such as steles and other documentation one might expect to find in the area where they were hypothetically located. Scripture was not taken up on the Korean peninsula until relatively late; however, the presence of the Chinese should have resulted, theoretically speaking, in the faster adoption of writing. My study centers on the linkage between the Xiongnu and ancient Koreans (including those of Goguryeo) and conjectures that the linkage derives from the common origin of the two peoples. In finding supporting evidence, the main obstacle lies in the fact that most of the sources dealing with the early Korean people do not deal with their very beginnings: the sources generally cover the time period in which ancient Koreans had already lost some of their primitive cultural characteristics.
Regarding the Xiongnu, the problem is similar, and in spite of the many references to them in Chinese historical sources, we know very little about them. The Xiongnu were probably a part of a federation of tribes, which through conquests, assimilated other peoples until the federation gradually came to form a more or less unified identity from an ethnic and linguistic poit of view. We cannot ruleout the possibility that under the generic name “Xiongnu”, there were various tribes and ethnic groups—from Proto-Turks to Koreans— that occasionally found themselves serving a single chief. According to a brilliant definition proposed by J.Roux, “A Turk is anyone who speaks a Turkish language” (Roux, 1988). Perhaps, a similar line of thinking could be applied in defining the Xiongnu. With reference to their origins, the myths that Chinese sources attribute to them are controversial. On the one hand, the Xiongnu seem to share with the Tujue (Turks) a totemic descent from a divine wolf. Of note is that the figure of Chun Wei can be easily identified with Gija of Korean sources. For now, what we can say, based on ample sources is that at least in the early stages, the Xiongnu and ancient Koreans shared similar cultural features. Were they two faces of the same ethnic group? I don’t know yet, but I am simply enchanted by the idea that a people speaking a proto-Korean language could have reached the doors of Europe, founding the largest known dominion before that of Gengis Khan. It is also mesmerizing to imagine the sounds of a proto-Korean language being heard and spoken as far away as the natural border between Europe and Asia, perhaps even at the core of Europe herself. Several years ago a Korean friend of mine, half jokingly and half seriously, told me that “Adalla”, better known as Adalla Isageum (r.154-184), the king of Silla, and “Atilla” the chief of the Huns, are one and the same name. What more can I say ?