How to Kill Your Father to Establish an Empire: A Turkic Fairytale from East Asia

Only few sources make us to distinguish real historical events of ancient age from fancy myths in East Asian scene of world history. In this remote part of the world, political history books typically start by some folk tale, a legend consisting dragons, heros or sorcerers, or holy founding father with super powers. Here I try to tell you one interesting story staying just in the purgatory between these two.

Our story is ultimately based on Chinese chronicles, which all whom interested in with this spesific section of history are much obliged to. Sima Qian, also known as “Herodotos of China”, coming from a traditionally intellectual family background, appointed for official historical records of ruling Han dynasty in proximity of first century BC. However, bearing some suprisingly liberal views on history recording and also, notoriously having troublesome relations with the ruling dynasty, Sima chose to write a different version of his deep knowledge of history, today we know it as ‘Shinji’ or ‘Records of the Grand Historian’.


(Young Sima Qian, depicted with his early works) 

In this serious collection of historical records, section 94 tells us some serious historical events with a vividity unexpected from an author recording about what had happened almost a century before his lifetime. This certain part of Records is about famous unification of Chinese feudal states by Qin dynasty and its tyrannical ruler King Qin Shi Huang. Accordingly King one by one defeated his rivals and constituted a strong government build-up across the fertile rivers of Chinese valleys, established the first police state in the history with ‘unfortunate’ policies like “burying the dissident scholars alive” and “burning libraries” and didn’t stop there and actually attempted to initiate erecting a huge wall shielding Chinese agricultural settlements from what he considered to be a threat coming from barbarians at the northwest. Yes, this was what to be archaic core of Great Wall of China and King Qin was the theoretical father of this idea.


(Divided China until Qin Shi Huang’s reign. Warring States were dreadlocked with endless anomisities against each other and first examples of Chinese wall building architecture is dated back to these era. After the unification, Emperor Qin’s regime would exploit this tradition for external defensive purposes.)

King Qin Shi Huang’s political career is a huge story to tell with his many glorius achievements such as a terracotta army patroling his deceased body in afterlife. However, my focus in this story is not even around him. We, hereafter, need to embroaden our proximity of event. King Qin was well-aware that a wall erected next to rich terrains of Yellow River vale would stir his neighbour nomadic Xiongnu people up, as they were already enraged by the restrictions of royal palace bilaterally prohibiting any trade activity between Xiongnu nomads and Chinese settlers dwelling next to borders. Thus, he comissioned his trusted General Meng Tian to set up a pre-emptive attack on Xiongnu, to frighten them right away before any possible interruption to building process to come. Meng Tian was a well-educated and properly experienced warlord in Chinese bureucracy and also known to be a member of a family with a tradition of growing up formidable battle tacticians. He knew that a mere pre-emptive attack against a crowded, warlike, steppe nation would have turned out to be nothing but shoving a stick into a hive.


(Expansion of Qin rule at the end Warring States Period. King Qin Shi Huang established an absolute hegemony over Chinese valleys and fortified cities.)

Considering these, Meng accepted the task but demanded all the cavalry force of the Qin army. His main aim was not only frightening of the nomads but effectively crushing and making them flee away from the construction site. He led a combined force of (allegedly) 100,000 units to the north and surprised the pastoral tribesmen of Xiongnu and utterly defeated their leader Touman in 215 BC, making him run and hide deep into the north of the continent. This record also represents the first citation of a Xiongnu leader, a ‘shangyu’, and today still stipulated in Turkish schoolbooks to be the first direct historical mention of Turks, based on the widely accepted view for Xiongnu to be Turkic/Para-Turkic people. (Due to rise of nationalist ideas in twentieth century, an erroneous transliteration of name “Touman” is revived through Turkish population as “Teoman” which still remains alive today as a popular male name.)


(Meng Tian [dressed black] and his retinue. He was a proponent of Confucian school in China and beyond local political disputes he was respected statesman.)

Implied leading commander over the complex relationships of Xiongnu tribes, Touman, hasn’t been able to turn back near Chinese border for next 10 years. Meng Tian maintained to be an intimidatory figure through the construction period. He enjoyed the full trust of the mighty emperor. However, exile of heir of Qin dynasty, Fusu, has changed everything for Meng’s remaining career. King Qin’s iron-fist domination over every traditional institution in the country had been dealing young prince’s mind for some time and after he counselled his father not to do any harm on Confucian school any more, he was sent out to north, to the retinue of Meng Tian, where he found a welcoming attitude and a satisfactory friendship with the respected general. This was an abrupt and tragic exile for the future of powerful dynasty as, in Fusu’s abscence, eunuchs and officers in the palace monarchy has taken sides with Fusu’s weak demeanored brothers and unreliable generals and capturing more powerful statuses in the expense of stability of the goverment.


(Terracotta Army protecting mighty King Qin’s mausoleum.)

Famous King Qin suddenly died in 210 BC before even his 50th birthday. His death was followed by a series of bloody conspiracies culminated to enthroning of the Qin’s youngest son who was under direct influence of former emperor’s eunuchs. New emperor Huhai instantly issued a royal denouncement for Fusu and unfavored prince’s protector General Meng. Seeing no other honourable choice, both commited suicide. The most eminent force of the empire with more than 200,000 troops in the northern border was thus decapitated. The protector of the Great Wall was perished all of a sudden.


(Estimated status of King Qin’s Great Wall at the time of his death. Even not much manned and strengthened, Great Wall should have been a serious defensive line against nomadic battle tactics strange to siege equipments. Qin’s big project was almost complete by his own lifetime.)

Aware of this opportunity born of the chaos, Touman of Xiongnu restarted to infiltrate into Northern China and renewed commercial arrangements with silk merchants along the borders. Touman had spent his years in the north with dreams of re-establishment of a stabile position for himself. The rival nomadic force in the steppe, Yuezhi clans, was tried to taken into alliance with Touman and an armistice was agreed on with other horselords in the eastern Donghu borders. To strengthen his position even further and secure rest of his chanyu years, Touman arranged a new marriage with a Yuezhi concubine and proposed his son, Modu, to be taken a royal hostage by Yuezhi as a sign of mutual trust. Though his proposal was accepted, this plan was actually meant to be a ruse.

Touman’s idea that includes fathering a Yuezhi-Xiongnu son as a heir to Xiongnu throne while Modu remaining under the strict oversight of the two powerful hordes. Modu was grown up in the harsh conditions of norther Mongolian steppes after the heavy loss against Meng’s advance. Ruthless years among barbarian cultures had forged him to be a total military man and his popularity in the common folk was on perpetual rise. Touman was doubtful about this rise and he concluded to eliminate his son. The custody term of Modu was the secret use of the marriage. After he married the Yuezhi concubine, he immediately ordered a minor attack on Yuezhi hoping such aggresion would have provoke direct execution of his son in custody. This plan would turn out to be a catastrophy. Here our little folk tale begins.

Modu was ready in his mind for such conspiracy of his father and hearing Xiongnu attack, he stole a horse right away and escaped the Yuezhi camp he was held in. He managed to reach Xiongnu fields and Yuezhi were left with nothing in their hands against Touman’s attack. Touman, disappointed with the semi-failure of his plan, decided to pose a welcoming warm-hearted attitude for Modu and ostensibly  presented him with command of 10,000 cavalry for his brave survival, probably hoping it would be enugh for regaining his son’s love and trust. Modu acted a fool and gladly accepted this gift. He turned to be a legendary warrior now and left his father’s throne with his new forces.


(Xiongnu troops ravaging the Great Wall.)

Modu Tegin (Old Turkic title  for “prince”) sought to even increase his force with new recruitments due to his starring popularity. He insisted on a strict course of military training consisting his personal guards. Records of Great Historian describes what happened later with an outstanding vividity:

  • “Modu managed to make whistling arrowheads and with them training his riders to shoot. He gave an order, saying: “Those who do not always shoot at something shot at by an arrow with a whistling arrowhead will be beheaded.” He conducted hunting for game-animals. He had some not shooting at something the whistling arrowhead(s) [had] shot at, and he on the spot beheaded them. That being done, Modu with a whistling arrowhead shot at a good horse of his own. At [his] left and right, some did not at all dare to shoot. Modu straightaway beheaded them. [Next,] he waited, a while passed, [then,] again with a whistling arrowhead, he shot at his own beloved wife. At [his] left and right, he had some who were quite afraid and did not dare shoot, and he again beheaded them. A while passed. Modu went out hunting. With a whistling arrowhead, he shot at a good horse of [Touman,] the chanyu’s. At [his] left and right, all shot at it. Modu thereupon knew that his left and right could be used [for the task]. He went along on a hunt of his father, the chanyu, Touman’s, and with a whistling arrowhead shot at Touman. His left and right, all following the whistling arrowhead, shot at and killed Touman. They put to death both his stepmother and the younger brother and even some important retainers who did not obey and go along. Modu thereupon installed himself and became chanyu.”

Modu, now a self-proclaimed chanyu, quickly turned his look into expansionist ideals of Xiongnu and initiated a campaign against former-allied Donghu tribes utterly crashing them in 213 BC. He made Dinglings of North Mongolia submit and massed entire steppen power against his last but strongest local rival, Yuezhi. As he claimed all Yuezhi territory after clever diplomatic strategy and some major clashes in 208 BC, Modu Chanyu was feeling safe to storm weakened China with the revenge of now-unified nomads.


(Xiongnu and their neighbours. Yuezhi to the west, Donghu and Xianbei to the east, Dinglings to the north-northwest. Modu have taken these vagrant nomads under his command -by force in many occasions- and done exactly the same kind of unification King Qin once had done.)

Xiongnu horsemen organized multiple raids on Chinese bases for three years and Modu instituted a strong hold over all the plains beyond Qin’s Wall. Under Modu’s pressure, Chinese imperial margraves were wavering in their loyalty for the now-weak central monarchy. Finally an important military general of the monarchy, Han Xin, switched sides and agreed to submit to Xiongnu rule tearing a considerable portion of Chinese territory away for Modu’s rule. This treason urged Chinese emperor to act abruptly. Next year new emperor of China, Gaozu of Han, broke the Xiongnu siege surrounding his royal capital, Taiyuan, and managed to drive the nomads northward. However, Modu, ready for such counter-initiate, mobilized his entire forces to blockade the emperor on a high plateau on Baideng and pinned him in his camp with a force over 300,000 horsemen for seven long days.

Emperor Gaozu was in utter despair and far away from any possible reinforcement options. He was willing to fight until an honourable death on the battlefield but his advisor, Chen Ping, persuaded him to send a secret mission away to bribe Modu’s wife with a secret identity. What the mission actually offered as a bribe is also unknown today. The underlying reason of acceptance is also unknown. Modu’s wife should have been living in a remarkable wealth for her age, she didn’t actually need any money. Regardlessly, Records make us sure that she accepted. Later, she convinced his chanyu husband to halt the bloodshed coming through. Modu relieved Emperor and agreed to negotiate peace terms.


(Imperial borders in the time of Modu, especially depicting the invaded parts of North China.) 

Gaozu was over his fifties by the time. Grown up in always dangerous politics of China, he was experienced enough to understand vanity of any military attempt against Xiongnu. Complied with his council’s advice, he accepted what to change the nature of Sino-Xiongnu relations for good in the next centuries. He enriched his generous peace offer with a Han princess to marry Xiongnu leader. Such marriage would assure a long-termed peaceful attitude of Xiongnu for China, since a royal marriage was a binding concept in nomadic traditions called “töre”. No respectable nomadic man could have dared to open war against his own father-in-law. It was a well-known ignoble crime in the Eurasian steppes.

Chinese aristocracy was disgusted of such dishonour. A royal Chinese bride “sold” to nomadic barbarians had never been heard of, that it was national shame. Nevertheless, not Gaozu nor consequent Chinese emperors would afford to leave this practice. Under the pressure of nomadic warlords, China continued to seek peace through “Heqin marriages” and by time, “Heqin princesses” turn into a tradition that royal palace persistantly provided special education to young maids of the royalty according to the Xiongnu Chanyus demands and personal requests. Princesses were trained to learn barbaric languages of steppes, nomadic cultures and family organization and -since a chanyu’s wife was an official and seriously effective member of Xiongnu battle council by the tradition- elegant diplomacy to alter Chanyus’ attitude in the benefit of China. Marriage between nomads and empire became the insignia of a peaceful balance.


(Modu’s borders have been extended in the reign of his son, Laoshoang, reaching to Aral lake, making it the largest steppe faction of the era and giving a full control of Silk Road to Xiongnu chanyus. Xiongnu would keep defending this privileges for a hundred years more.) 

Modu Chanyu and his life story are believed to be the inspiration for famous Turkic folk legend, Oghuz Khagan. Researchers suppose the obvious resemblences between Modu and Oghuz Khagan indicates a direct link. Folklorist Christian Beckwith even goes further claiming Modu’s life might be the origin for universal scheme of heroic tales which always show the same pattern of “humiliated and exiled high-blood youngster, expands his retinue in foreign lands, proves his quality, returns his country as a hero and slays the ruler to take revenge and becomes new rule”. Whether origined in Modu or not, Oghuz Khagan’s legend is still fresh in most of Turkic cultures across the Asia even today.


(Oghuz Khagan’s figurative portrayal on the official banknote of modern Turkmenistan, a post-Soviet Central Asian state with a Turkic-dialect speaker majority of population.)