Book Review: Empire Of Horses

Empire Of Horses: The First Nomadic Civilization And The Making Of China, by John Man

There has long been a fascinating connection between the various nomadic realms of the steppes to the north and west of China and China itself, and how it is that increasing centralization within China had consequences around it. This is true not only in the area spoken of in this book, namely with the Xiongnu (Hunnu), the main subject of this book, but with other areas like China, Burma, Thailand, Korea, and Japan as well. Similar to the process by which edge induced cohesion works along other imperial frontiers, where empires were brought into existence first on one side of a boundary and then on another, the author explores the Quin and Han dynasties and their behaviors and the way that this influenced the Xiongnu, and how it was that China eventually outflanked the Xiongnu and thus gained greater strength, thus presaging the common solution of China to dealing with threats to its north by expanding to its west, a strategy that exists to this day and accounts for the troubled Chinese rule over Tibet and East Turkistan to this day. The author does not examine too many of the possible implications but the discussion here is certainly enough for the reader to advance such matters.

This book is almost 300 pages long and is divided into thirteen chapters with various other materials. The book begins with a list of Chanyus, a timeline, maps, and an introduction to the rise of the Qin and what that meant for Chinese relationships with the “barbarians” across the Great Wall. After that the author explores the rise of the Xiongnu (I), including how they gained mastery of the steppes (1), their move into Ordos (2), the growing threat a unified China under the Qin dynasty provided for them (3), and the efforts of Meng Tian to build a straight road as the Qin faced disaster (4). The author then explores the peak of the Xiongnu during the early part of the Han dynasty (II), with a discussion of their first empire of the steppes (5), the hidden agenda of China’s grand historian (6), the phony peace and phony war that held for decades (7), and the eventual successful Chinese strategy to disrupt Xiongnu power by ruling over the oasis cities of Turkistan (8). The book then explores the collapse of the Xiongnu (III), by looking at the decline and fall of their state (9), the Chinese policy of princesses for peace (10), the shock of surrender when the Xiongnu first gave in to China (11), the division and eventual destruction of the Xiongnu (12), and the possible connection between the Xiongnu and the Huns (13), after which the book ends with an epilogue on the lasting legacy of the Xiongnu, a bibliography, acknowledgements, picture credits, and an index.

By and large this book is deeply entertaining as it explores the problems that China faced vis-a-vis various nomadic groups in terms of attempting to buy their peacefulness, leading to a protection racket which allowed the nomadic groups to maintain power through control of the spoils in a way that did not corrupt them for long periods of time sometimes extending to centuries. Similar to the American means of arming our next enemies, the Chinese did the same thing with regards to the various barbarians at their northern boundary, opening up trade that allowed nomads to upgrade their weapons and gain the necessary goods that allowed them to prosper while engaging in tense periods of truces marked by raiding along the boundary regions of the Ordos that, even to this day, are boundaries between settled agriculture and less settled nomadic herding. The author explores what is needed in terms of leadership to take advantage of the opportunities provided by being next door neighbor to a centralized empire, which allows for fascinating dynamics by which people seek to appeal to others and deceive themselves as to what they are about, and sometimes to change their behavior drastically as a means of proving that they are still powerful when they are no longer so, alas, as happens here on both the Chinese side and the Xiongnu side.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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