Khazanov on Man, 'Empire of Horses: The First Nomadic Civilization and the Making of China'

John Man
Anatoly Khazanov

John Man. Empire of Horses: The First Nomadic Civilization and the Making of China. New York: Pegasus Books, 2020. 336 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-64313-327-0

Reviewed by Anatoly Khazanov (University of Wisconsin-Madison) Published on H-Asia (October, 2020) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version:

John Man is a popular author of many successful history books for the general public. They are based not only on his extensive reading of scholarly publications but also on his personal travel experience. He is by no means a professional historian. But his engaging style and straightforward assertions that, as a rule, eschew presentation and discussion of alternative views make his books bestsellers. They are translated into over twenty languages and are published around the world. Among many quite different subjects, Chinese and Inner Asian history are of particular interest to Man. A history of Inner Asian nomads, with an exception of the Mongols, remains rather obscure even to educated nonprofessionals. Whether Man uncovers new evidence that will transform our understanding of the profound mark that the Xiongnu (= Hsiung-nu) left on half the globe, as the book’s blurb boldly claims, is another matter. But after all, a main goal of blurbs is advertising.

In fact, the book does not contribute anything new to our understanding of the Xiongnu political history or to their interrelations with China. But I would by no means hold this against the author. This should never be a goal of books aimed at the general public. It is more than enough if they adequately convey the current state of the art. In this respect I have only one critical remark. The author sometimes resorts to such terms and notions as “nations,” “nation-states,” “classes,” and the like. They are not applicable to the premodern periods, and I assume that as an experienced author, Man knows this himself.

In my opinion, the book’s deficiencies are of a quite different order. Man is a very good storyteller, but sometimes his stories (the author calls them “diversions”) deviate too far from his main subject. More than half of the book is devoted not to the Xiongnu and even not to the Chinese-Xiongnu interrelations but to a political history of China. But even the latter is often related in an inconsistent and, not infrequently, quite repetitive way.

I wonder if the author really needs to describe in such details the court intrigues and the fight for succession in China during the Qin and Han periods of its history. For the history of Xiongnu they are irrelevant. Likewise, I am puzzled what connection a story of a painter and poet, Zhao Mengfu, have to the history of Xiongnu. He lived in the thirteenth century, around one thousand years after these people had left the historical arena. Or, to provide another example, why does Man convey at such length a story of Zhaojin, who had to marry Xiongnu chanyu Huhanyu? Apparently, just because it is a good story, since the author admits that to a large extent it has a legendary character. And I can ask many similar questions.

The book’s composition also has many deficiencies. The author too often mentions historical personalities and events to whom and to which he promises to return in later chapters. This is a common tactic in writing detective stories and mystery books. But history does not need it. It is an exciting and engaging subject by itself and it is full of mysteries, unsolved questions, crimes, plots, and intrigues. Sometimes, the author conveys them in an engaging way. This is why I wonder if a biography of Suma Qiian and the composition of his magnum opus should be repeated several times in different chapters of the book. Perhaps, its original manuscript did not undergo good editing.

As a result of these shortcomings, the book does not convey either the Chinese or even the Xiongnu histories, or even their interrelations in any systematic way. Even the Xiongnu political history is not related consistently enough. As for their sociopolitical organization, economy, culture, and religion, the author devotes to them only a few brief comments, sometimes correct but sometimes wrong.

The bibliography of the book indicates that Man is acquainted with almost all major publications on the Xiongnu, except those in Russian. Unfortunately, the book still has many factual and other mistakes. Some of them are almost inevitable in books of this genre. But others could and should have been avoided considering the author’s good acquaintance with scholarly publications in the field. In this brief review I will mention only some of those mistakes with the pages on which they occur.

In the very beginning of his book, Man makes a very strange statement that he later repeats several times (pp. 2, 143, 291). He insists that the Xiongnu Empire was the third largest empire in history before the rise of modern superstates. (The first and second ones were the Mongol Empire and the medieval Muslim Empire.) I am puzzled. Did he forget about the Roman Empire or even about the Byzantine one before the advent of Islam? I cannot believe that he does know that at one time, the Türk qaghanate(s) stretched from the Korean borderland to the Crimea.

Starting on page 12, Man claims that pastoralism in the Eurasian steppes had first emerged among the farmers living in the oases that dot the deserts and grassland of Inner Asia. He also follows an outdated view that Owen Lattimore expressed in the book Inner Asian Frontiers of China. When the book was first published in 1940, it was a seminal study that influenced many scholars. But at present, it is already completely outdated both in theoretical and factual respects. Thus, Lattimore thought that in the second millennium BCE, marginalized groups of agriculturalists in the borderlands of China were pushed to the grasslands of Inner Asia and had to turn to pastoralism. This hypothesis is wrong. Already in the Bronze Age and even earlier, the whole Eurasian steppe belt was occupied by various groups that practiced mobile pastoralism combined, though in different proportions, with agriculture as a secondary economic activity. Moreover, growing data indicate that mobile pastoralism was brought to Inner Asia by groups migrating from the West, or at least under their influence.

On page 17, Man attributes to Herodotus a claim that he never made: that the European Scythians traded across all Inner Asia. The Greek historian described a trade route that went from Scythia only to Central Asia, or more probably, to the Ural Mountains, but in any case, no further to the East. Otherwise his informants would not tell him that those Eastern lands were populated by peoples with goat’s feet, those who slept for six months a year, and those who had only one eye. Until the first century BCE, the Greeks did not know about the very existence of China on the far eastern side of Asia.

Man boldly claims that Tuva was the heartland from which the Scythians originally came (p. 18). Does he really mean that all Scythians, that is, the ancient Iranian-speaking nomads who occupied vast territories from the Danube River to Inner Asia, came from such a small region? This is impossible.

Most scholars consider the Yuezhi (= Yueh-chih) to be not Türkic-speaking but Iranian-speaking people (p. 81). Some equate them with the Tokhars. At that time, the Türks lived far to the East.

A suggestion that the Xiongnu borrowed their decimal military system from Achaemenid Iran, with word passing from group to group across Eurasia, is absolutely groundless (p. 92). Rumors do not create military organizations; social, economic, and political conditions do. Besides, only one regiment in the Achaemenid army, the so-called immortals, consisted of a permanent number of ten thousand soldiers.

People who are still involved in mobile pastoralism in contemporary Mongolia are by no means ignoring their relatives who have turned to the sedentary urban life (p. 123). They are maintaining with them close reciprocal ties. And by the way, nowadays, mobile phones are quite common even among the Mongol mobile pastoralists.

The Romans never settled in China, as Man states starting on page 199. Actually, in the Han period, China and Rome did not know anything substantial about each other. The Romans did not have any connection to the history of Xiongnu as well. The author’s reference to an “eccentric” Professor Dubs does not change these firmly established facts. This is what Man admits himself. Then why does he describe those false conjectures at such length? The author honestly explains his reason: just because it is a good story. No further questions or comments are necessary.

Man claims that the Xiongnu who migrated to Central Asia turned from being pastoral nomads into a robber band (p. 269). Does this imply that they had abandoned pastoral nomadism? I wonder where he got this information. Finally, in political terms, the Sarmatians never constituted a single confederation, whether loose or not.

Still, I would not blame Man alone for these mistakes. I assume that his publishers followed a usual practice and sent his manuscript for internal reviews. Alas, his reviewers either were not competent enough or simply did not do their work well. Otherwise, they would have noticed these mistakes and the author could have corrected them.

One may wonder whether these mistakes, and I have mentioned only some of them, do really matter in a book aimed at the general public. Perhaps my critical comments and remarks are no more than the cavils of a professional scholar. I think that they do matter. The general public deserves to be provided with accurate and up-to-date knowledge even more than do professionals who know it for themselves. However, after all, such books are aimed at commercial success above all other considerations. Man’s name has become almost a brand. I will not be surprised if this book is as successful as his previous twenty.

Citation: Anatoly Khazanov. Review of Man, John, Empire of Horses: The First Nomadic Civilization and the Making of China. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL:

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