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A people lost and found
The Xiongnu were driven into the desert, but they may have left a few roots behind in paradise

Li Jian
page12  2006-3-16

"It was not an easy job (to compile the genealogy book) and all the expense fell on myself. But I want our children to know our history and be proud of it."

The descendants of the ancient Xiongnu (or Hsiung-nu) people are still alive and well.

Jin Jiakun, 70, carefully unlocked a wood filigreed box with his shivering hands last weekend; inside lay an ancient book bound with yellow silk cloth.

"This is our family book. We are the descendants of the Xiongnu," said Jin.

The family book, which proves he is the descendant of the Xiongnu, is regarded as a sacred book, kept from any touch by the children and women of the family.

In Xietang, an isolated, 1,000-year-old town near Jinji Lake in the Suzhou Industrial Park, there are more than 3,000 people surnamed Jin. Most keep a family book which they claim could identify them as the children of the Xiongnu.

Xiongnu history

In the third to fifth centuries, the Xiongnu, a group of roaming herdsmen from the steppes of North and Central Asia, invaded and devastated much of Asia and Europe.

The Great Wall, one of the world's greatest architectural achievements and a Chinese cultural symbol, was initially built more than 2,000 years ago to defend against the northern barbarians.

The history of the Xiongnu is complex. The Xiongnu have often been identified with the Huns, who later populated the frontiers of Europe. This theory remains speculation, although it is accepted by a large number of scholars.

The Xiongnu were believed to be forced into the remote desert and westwards into Europe with the rising of empires built by the Han people and historians believe they have left no descendants in China.

This long-held belief was doubted by Yu Wenhao, a retired professor who found a family book given to Jin's family while he was exploring the history in Xietang.

"The family book is solid evidence to prove there are descendants of the Xiongnu living in Xietang. According to the family stories passed on from generation to generation, their ancestors lived in the grasslands of northern China and migrated inland during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220)," Yu said.

He also cited poems written 900 years ago to illustrate his discovery. The poems depict the prosperity and beauty of Suzhou - dubbed a "paradise on earth" - and feature the wine shops run by the Xiongnu, where the girls performed exotic dances.

Yu Huchun, an ancient wine shop in Xietang, is still run by the Jins, Yu said. The historical records of the shop also show it was built by migrant people from the northern part of China.

However, Yu Tongyuan, vice dean of the Department of History of Suzhou University, said that the family book alone could not determine whether the Jins are truly descendants of the Xiongnu. Yu suggested during an interview with a local television programme that further sociological and anthropological studies would be needed to prove their identity.

Jin and his family members show no heritage of the barbaric and warlike people. In the bustling business centre in Suzhou Industrial Park, they have lived the same way as the Han people, who, in history, were regarded as their lambs for hunting.

The Xiongnu settled their tribes in Suzhou, tamed their horses and melted down their swords. Throughout history, they have gradually been tamed and absorbed by Chinese culture.

However, they still keep the tradition of their nomadic ancestors and have big families living together in big houses, well-protected, with thick walls and small windows. Following the stone paved street in Xietang, a series of big houses interconnect with doors and ladders.

The old town has provided them with shelter and their families have thrived as farmers and business people. But none of them showed any interest in politics.

Jin Zenglin, 87, still lives in one of the big houses built 300 years ago. The weather-beaten walls and the roofs remain intact.

Passing through narrow corridors paved with bricks, Jin entered the living room deep inside the house. He said the rooms in the house could accommodate 100 people. Collapsing in a chair bathed in the sun, Jin fell asleep while he was trying to recall the family stories he had heard from his mother.

He said his family was reluctant to reveal their bond with the Xiongnu out of fear of provoking hatred or threats from the local people.

"I had a special feeling for the house. The chaos in the bustling city does not fit me," he said.

Relocation starts

However, he has to move out of the house by the end of the year because the local government announced that it planned to take the land for industrial use. Like his house, other big houses in Xietang will be razed to the ground. Jin and the other displaced residents will face another migration like that of their ancestors. This time, they will migrate to a much nearer place: the city.

But they will be scattered, far away from each other.

Jin Jiakun thought the migration would be a challenge to the tribe and its identity.
In an attempt to connect the people together, Jin compiled a new family book years ago.

The retired professor visited every family in Xietang and recorded their family trees. To his surprise, the elders often told him stories which lent more support to their identity with the Xiongnu.

"It was not an easy job and all the expense fell on myself," Jin said. "But I want our children to know our history and be proud of it."
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