Khazanov Nomadic Tribe Summary

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The idea of nomadic pastoral tribes, due to the Western adaptations on Central Asian history and the bias towards sedentary cultures, has been skewed in a way that does not necessarily represent the true nature of tribal societies. Often times, due to our lack of knowledge and reluctance to investigate, we associate the term “tribe” with words such as uncivilized, barbaric, and underdeveloped. Khazanov, in “Characteristic Features of Nomadic Communities in the Eurasian Steppes,” is a classic example that lead to misinterpretation of tribal societies as less civilized and lacking in structure. Describing tribes as kinship based societies with a strong emphasis on kinship, Khazanov is not mistaken in his argument. The significance of kinship…show more content…
Despite some truth behind this argument, his bias towards sedentary communities sheds a negative light on the nomadic societal organization and ignores several instances throughout history when nomadic tribes were united under a single rule. Due to the sporadic nature of these tribes and the stress on tribe autonomy, without a charismatic ruler, tribes were no more than what Sima Qian described in Shi Ji: “All of them were scattered about in their own little valleys, each with their own chieftains. From time to time they would have gatherings of a hundred or more men, but no one tribe was capable of unifying the others under a single rule.” In this sense, Khazanov’s characterization of tribes as decentralized entities brought together only through war and exploitation may seem correct. Contrary to such assumption, in cases such as Xiongnu empire, the tribes flourished under a strong central authority and complex state structure. According to Barfield, the Xiongnu developed its hierarchy starting with the Shan-yu at the top, onto the Ten Thousand Horsemen who were the aristocracy, and then to tribal leaders, forming a federation-like imperial government. The ranking system also launched in two directions, decimal and nondecimal ranks, each used for military units and political governance, respectively. Moreover, we notice the tribes’ constant…show more content…
In reality, raids mainly functioned as a crucial negotiation device for the nomads rather than as a means of fulfilling what the nomads lacked, especially in relation to China. Even though China was a considerably larger nation with an enormous army for most of history, the nomadic tribes managed to maintain their standing through their calvary’s raiding skills, demonstrating their might and retaining autonomy. For example, in Shi Ji, we see that the Xiongnu and Han arranged peace treaties in which Xiongnu received “tributary items” — such as silk, cloth, and grain — from Han with a promise to stop the raids against Han as an exchange. In addition, Jagchid and Symons demonstrate that what the nomads wanted to gain from their trade with China, their best known and most “advanced” neighbor, was mainly luxury goods in exchange for horses, a product unique to the nomads. The horses from the steppes played a vital part in Chinese military defense. Besides, although the nomads bought grains from the Chinese, certain nomads who were outside of the tradable range managed to farm on their own, displaying the tribes’ capacity to participate in agriculture and that they “chose” to trade with Chinese out of convenience, not necessity. This disproves Khazanov’s argument that nomads were not
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