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A History of China by Wolfram Eberhard

Using his bondsmen as a nucleus


Toba (T'o-pa) formed a small group in the north of the present province of Shansi, north of the city of Tat'ungfu, and they were about to develop their small state. They were primarily of Turkish origin, but had absorbed many tribes of the older Hsiung-nu and the Hsien-pi. In considering the ethnical relationships of all these northern peoples we must rid ourselves of our present-day notions of national unity. Among the Toba there were many Turkish tribes, but also Mongols, and probably a Tungus tribe, as well as perhaps others whom we cannot yet analyse. These tribes may even have spoken different languages, much as later not only Mongol but also Turkish was spoken in the Mongol empire. The political units they formed were tribal unions, not national states.

Such a union or federation can be conceived of, structurally, as a cone. At the top point of the cone there was the person of the ruler of the federation. He was a member of the leading family or clan of the leading tribe (the two top layers of the cone). If we speak of the Toba as of Turkish stock, we mean that according to our present knowledge, this leading tribe (_a_) spoke a language belonging to the Turkish language family and (_b_) exhibited a pattern of culture which belonged to the type called above in Chapter One as "North-western Culture". The next layer of the cone represented the "inner circle of tribes", i.e. such tribes as had joined with the leading tribe at an early moment.

The leading family of the leading tribe often took their wives from the leading families of the "inner tribes", and these leaders served as advisors and councillors to the leader of the federation. The next lower layer consisted of the "outer tribes", i.e. tribes which had joined the federation only later, often under strong pressure; their number was always much larger than the number of the "inner tribes", but their political influence was much weaker. Every layer below that of the "outer tribes" was regarded as inferior and more or less "unfree". There was many a tribe which, as a tribe, had to serve a free tribe; and there were others who, as tribes, had to serve the whole federation. In addition, there were individuals who had quit or had been forced to quit their tribe or their home and had joined the federation leader as his personal "bondsmen"; further, there were individual slaves and, finally, there were the large masses of agriculturists who had been conquered by the federation. When such a federation was dissolved, by defeat or inner dissent, individual tribes or groups of tribes could join a new federation or could resume independent life.

Typically, such federations exhibited two tendencies. In the case of the Hsiung-nu we indicated already previously that the leader of the federation repeatedly attempted to build up a kind of bureaucratic system, using his bondsmen as a nucleus. A second tendency was to replace the original tribal leaders by members of the family of the federation leader. If this initial step, usually first taken when "outer tribes" were incorporated, was successful, a reorganization was attempted: instead of using tribal units in war, military units on the basis of "Groups of Hundred", "Groups of Thousand", etc., were created and the original tribes were dissolved into military regiments. In the course of time, and especially at the time of the dissolution of a federation, these military units had gained social coherence and appeared to be tribes again; we are probably correct in assuming that all "tribes" which we find from this time on were already "secondary" tribes of this type. A secondary tribe often took its name from its leader, but it could also revive an earlier "primary tribe" name.

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