Inspiration by Dashi

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An inspired Genghis, who for a few months wowed the crowds when installed in the great outdoors in Marble Arch, London. Images from Dashi Namdakov: A Nomad’s Universe exhibition in 2012 at the Halcyon Gallery.

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See more at his site dashi-art

In graphical works, his Warrior series, his Mongol series, and his shamans are of perpetual inspiration to me. But I am speechless about them, so go see.

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Regrets, I’ve had a few: the self-critical spirit in the Secret History

David with the head of Goliath - Caravaggio














What follows is an interaction with a truly wonderful piece on the Secret History of the Mongols by Caroline Humphrey and Altanhuu Hurelbaatar, ‘Regret as a political intervention: an essay in the historical anthropology of the early Mongols.’ You can download a PDF from Humphrey’s page at

This post won’t be for the faint-hearted. But nothing I’ve seen on the Secret History touches ‘Regret’ for depth and sensitivity of treatment, and I have bounced off it; it’s been a framework to hang my impressions from, great mental equipment (both an exerciser and an organiser), and I am happy to have got down the main things I want to say about the Secret History, in another format than my fiction. A few months ago I complained about a dearth of arts criticism on the Secret History: that was before I stumbled on this essay, which is exactly what I had in mind, although written in the light of anthropology. If any visitor – I have visitors, they’re fairly quiet – knows of other work on the Secret History, interpretive work of this quality, I beg you to point me to it.

By way of introduction Humphrey and Hurelbaatar (hereafter H&H) ‘characterize’ the Secret History [section starts page 5]. They list the ways in which it is unexpected. “Curiously absent in it are what one might expect from a document written at the pinnacle of Mongolian success.” [7]  It isn’t one-voiced, or an official discourse. It has space for a plurality of voices, voices in conflict with themselves and with the ideas of the day. It pays great attention to human subjectivity, to “imaginative possibilities for individual people” [45], and allows its actors space to be free agents – these “political actors involved in [a] great historical transformation… a revolution.” [41-2]  For us, in matters of interpretation, it’s important not to forget this work’s unexpectedness – lest we see what we expect to see in it. It’s a unique document, “genuinely Mongolian” [6], and “whatever its evident defects as factual history, it is only in this curious historical work, written by Mongols for Mongols, that we can gain some understanding – patchy, it is true – of what were internally plausible depictions of psychology at important moments of political life.” [10]  It is only in this curious work we can hope to enter the mind and the imagination of Mongols. Luckily the work is preoccupied with ‘politics and ethics’ and how these intersect.

I’m going to jump to H&H’s five examples of regret. First up is Ambaqai/Ambaghai and his misjudgement of an enemy. [27]  The attitude of ‘learn from my mistake’ – in the message he sends home – I see as very present in the Secret History, and one reason why people might admit to mistakes. Second is Chilger/Tchilger. [28]  On him I have more to say.

Chilger has done no wrong. We’re reminded of this when we meet him: his passage [Secret History #111] starts with the history of the feud, how Temujin’s father stole his mother from Toqtoa’s brother; years on, in direct if late retaliation, Toqtoa steals Borte from Temujin. It’s justice. Chilger is only mentioned as involved when Borte is given to him, another brother of the injured party – who must be dead, so that Chilger inherits rights to this compensation. Furthermore, the language used of his time with Borte isn’t negative. In Cleaves, “they seized Borte Ujin there and made her to be cared for by Chilger Boko, the younger brother of Chiledu. As he had been caring for her since that time…” IdR has “they entrusted her… [he] had been looking after her”, while Onon goes with “keeping” her. Cleaves is very literal: the word means care, he isn’t influenced by context to make it a worse word (I’ve seen Chilger assumed to be an evil rapist in both documentaries and novels – this is to ignore the source).

After we’re told of his position, we go straight into verses in his voice [quoted 29] – verses of a self-blame intensified to self-hatred. His action, not wrong in itself, has had disastrous results for his tribe, and now he feels his possession of Borte was a huge sacrilege – very obviously wasn’t meant to be, and as the cause of catastrophe he demeans himself in imagery and calls down his punishment. I don’t know about you but I feel sorry for the buzzard who ought to have been content with his scraps of skin. It helps that he is so polite to Borte. Since he is extreme with the ‘I should have kept my hands off’ line, the way is open for a Mongol audience to pity him, and I believe that’s asked of them. I’ll suggest that we don’t need to see his self-blame as about social station. He heaps on himself terms of abuse  – wild terms, or at least wildly translated; most of them are in contention, if they aren’t plain unknown. Where they are social status terms, may not Mongol do a little of what English does, with them? In one line Onon has “ignoble and bad”, Cleaves, “commoner and bad”, IdR, “lowly, base.” Chilger is of chiefly family, his brother a tribal head or king – he won’t call himself a commoner, but can call himself ignoble.

That leaves unanswered the question of what he has done wrong to feel so bad, if it isn’t to violate a social order. He has violated a queen, but that is Mongol hindsight. I think the next passage in the Secret History can shed light, because it has echoes of Chilger’s. It’s a strange little incident, that I’ll quote in full. Belgutei’s mother was captured along with Borte, and now he’s in search of her:

#112 “It being shewed by somebody, saying, ‘The mother of Belgutei is in that ayil,’ Belgutei going for to take his mother, with Belgutei’s entering into her tent by the right door, his mother – clothed with a raiment of tattered sheepskins – being gone out by the left door, when she spake unto another person outside, having said, ‘I am told that my sons are become qad {plural of qan/khan}. Being joined here unto a bad man, now how shall I behold the faces of my sons?,’ she ran and slipped into the thick woods. So he sought her, but she was not found. Belgutei Noyon, saying, ‘Bring thou unto me my mother!,’ shot with yodoli {blunt arrows} any person which was but of the Merkid ‘bone’. ” [Cleaves]

Like Chilger, she runs away from her own people – from her own rescue, in her case, with the only explanation her remark to a bystander that she has been too humiliated in captivity to face her family. She slips into the ‘thick woods’ like Chilger in his ‘dark defile’ and is never seen again. But Belgutei is desperate to find her, and displays no consciousness that she need hide from him or be ashamed. Nobody’s going to blame her for being given to an enemy ‘bad man’ – no more than Borte is blamed for Chilger (Borte has already run to Temujin, in the moonlight; they happily embrace). The problem is in her head. She has psychological damage from captivity. Chilger’s self-blame is likewise inexplicable – irrational and yet a psychological fact. These are portraits of consequences, from this violent time, emotional consequences unattached to who’s done right or wrong, who’s been just or unjust. Chilger needn’t make more sense than does Belgutei’s mother. Because, as H&H several times assert with academic passion, these aren’t culture-robots (excuse my lack of academese) whose behaviour is determined by their social norms. They are individuals, with agency. I’d stretch and say both Chilger and Belgutei’s mother are in these moments mad, by our lights and theirs. Come to that, when Belgutei shoots blunts at captured Merkit, we have no real idea what he’s doing. Books tell you things like, he was marking them out for execution, but that’s an absolute guess. Emotional fallout? Perhaps he’s gone a bit mad too – a third in these sketches between the winning of the war and the celebrations.

And there’s a reason why I want to look at the Secret History as art: so we don’t over-rationalise behaviour. I don’t understand what H&H are telling me about anthropology (its uses in study of this historical text) – not my discipline, but for me, habits of arts criticism help. Letting people be irrational, for instance. Nothing more common in novels.

I want to go back now to the cause of this quarrel, when Temujin’s father Yesugei seizes his mother Hoelun from Chiledu, in #54-6. We begin with Yesugei as he sees the couple and pursues, but then we switch perspectives to the victims of his attack, as Hoelun persuades Chiledu to save himself and flee. In fact, neither Yesugei nor Chiledu has a spoken part; it’s Hoelun we hear from, her concern for her husband, her laments for him after he’s gone. It isn’t pretended, in this Mongol history, that she is happy to be stolen, later to mother Temujin; she has a poignant gesture of love for her first husband, where she tears off her inner garment, a shift perhaps, for him to remember her by scent. Because this telling is focused on Hoelun, we may think, as is likely – she survived the other parties – that she’s one who told the tale.

The Secret History follows victims if that’s where the story is.

It is similar with Temujin’s Tatar wife Yisui, in #156: she too loves the husband from whom he took her, and that enemy husband is given a romantic end, in the telling. He walks into the lions’ den of Mongols to glimpse his ladylove. Yisui, sitting with Temujin, sights him in the crowd and ‘sighs deeply’; this alerts Temujin to his presence. The Mongols single him out in view: he is “a young, good, elegant person” in Cleaves, or in Onon “a handsome young man”. If there is a villain’s part in this story as presented it’s Temujin’s, who has him executed (not unjustly). Yisui spends her subsequent life a major queen; Temujin listens to her and trusts her; she is alive and with him at his death, and the Secret History is dated a year later. None of which inhibits this story, which must have touched a Mongol audience’s sensibilities.

The Secret History’s liking for pathos and for tragedy means it won’t be a political tract, a discourse of the victors. Pathos, tragedy: H&H use these words about the death of Tolui, who offers himself to outraged local spirits in China as a substitute for his brother the khan, whom they have made sick: “Now it can be seen from the pathos with which Tolui’s act is treated that this episode is meant to be understood as tragic.” [24]  Tolui’s self-sacrifice is too often explained, with vast reductionism, as a fancy story to gloss over his death by drink. But as H&H say: “It seems unlikely that this drama could have happened quite as depicted, but this is nevertheless what the authors intended as a plausible account.” [24-5]  It made sense to, and had significance for Mongols, and tells us more about them than the facts. It isn’t that the conquest is thought wrong, but they are aware of consequences: the victims’ spirits strike back and claim a victim. The episode of Tolui’s death unsimplifies the conquerors’ feelings about conquest.

On to H&H’s third example of regret, Ogodei, from imperial days, with a formal statement of his wrongs. [30]  Clearly he feels the honesty incumbent upon him. For a sense of Mongol values of honesty, let’s look at a contemporary account of the army: “Chinggis Khan moreover in {the administration of} justice was such, that, throughout his whole camp, it was impossible for any person to take up a fallen whip from the ground except he were the owner of it; and, throughout the whole army, no-one could give indication of {the existence of} lying and theft.” [Juzjani, quoted in Lane, 5]  High attainment for an army but such are the witness statements (and Juzjani is thought a hostile witness). We might imagine that this level of ethical commitment has to be led from the top, or the example set at the top, and here’s Ogodei to do his bit. For obligations at the top, we can look at Chinggis, too. Whatever ‘toru/principles’ meant to the Mongols at the time [see pages 25-6], toru was a two-way street. Chinggis twice invokes ‘the great principle’ – without, unfortunately, spelling it out – and one of those times is about what he owes to Jurchedei for service. Toru, H&H say, starts to refer to “a number of sacred political-moral principles imminent in the new order”, and these include “honesty in acknowledging what one has done.” [25]  Ogodei’s third wrong seems to be the confession of a murder that isn’t recorded elsewhere. Whether it was common knowledge or suspected or whether he here admits it for the first time, we can’t tell, although the act was done ‘secretly’, with suggestion, in the words used, of a grudge or feud. Later I’ll put a case that his father has set a precedent for this acknowledgement of Ogodei’s.

Fourth is To’oril/Toghrul: Temujin’s message of reproach to him from Baljuna, Toghrul’s expression and gesture of remorse. I thought first of Toghrul when H&H say, “The Secret History provides ample evidence of the Mongols’ attentiveness to singular personality and the way individuals go on taking characteristic action in different contexts and over time.” [42-3]  Toghrul is dragged through unforeseeable events; he remains himself, although that self is unpredictable, by him or us. The Secret History’s interest in personality is evident in the weight given to Toghrul’s regrets, which, as H&H point out, “as a political intervention… were ineffective.” [35]  His remorse leads nowhere, it doesn’t aid Temujin’s cause, it has no sequel in the ‘plot’. That doesn’t make it unworthy of being recorded. It’s a big moment for Toghrul. The Secret History cares about his mental or moral life for its own sake. The story must have moved the audience. It moves me. In their conclusion H&H have this: “Declaring regret… always says also ‘I retain my freedom from my act’.” [45]  That moves me, too. Toghrul is not reduced his worst acts – in his own eyes, or in the Secret History’s eyes. He may be a frail old king, but he can stand apart from his frailties for a moment here, and be watched ‘attentively’ in H&H’s word. Because he’s a free agent – as in a novel. He can behave above himself or beneath himself, he can change his mind, he can disown his actions, and a mental event is important, whether or not it has effects in history. These are descriptions of art. Toghrul is often called tragic at this point, in his conflicts and his inability to act up to his best. Their next exemplar is the other who gets called a tragic figure.

Fifth and final is Jamuqa, his last speech to Temujin wherein he asks for his own death. I don’t want to blubber on the keyboard, so I won’t comment on him. Here, though, I have to come clean and say I run counter to H&H on the political trajectory… on what the Chinggis project was about. It isn’t easy to determine – in the Secret History itself, “expositions of an overt ideology are altogether absent” [7] – and there is great disagreement. What did this ‘revolution’ of his stand for? He overthrows clans and kinship, but what did he replace them with? The answer has been seen several ways. For instance, where H&H talk of a new order of centralism and hierarchy, Isenbike Togan talks of a new order of universalism and equality – spoils for the common soldier. If I have a regret, it’s that I didn’t write Temujin and Jamuqa as Isenbike Togan has them: Temujin the universalist, Jamuqa just as sincerely committed to an old pluralism – friends split over politics, and both sides with ideals I can invest in. That’s for another novelist. On this subject, I’d ask us to keep in mind that revolutions don’t always end up where the starters of them wished or envisioned. Indeed, do they ever? I want to say that we can’t assume Temujin’s objectives from the imperial-age results.

For the rest of this post I discuss Temujin. “Even the great founder, Temujin/Chinggis, is not excepted from the tendency of the authors to record blameworthy acts, and he is depicted as often afraid, sometimes committing wrongful actions, making mistakes, accepting criticism and changing his mind.” [8]  H&H look at an incidence of these last two things, when he is talked out of the execution of his uncle Daritai. In their own lovely translation, “And they spoke with him like this until /He sobbed so much it was as if /He had smoke in his nose. ‘Let it be,’ he said.” [11]  Those two little lines I’ve italicised are in verse, and then he quotes the Beatles. Because of the bodily description, the sobbing, no-one, this time, doubts Temujin’s genuine emotion. But in other incidents he is very often taken to be insincere, a note I find false. Does the Secret History deal in insincerities? Do they even work in the society it portrays, in this ‘moral community’, this polity made up of ‘human relationships’? [26,10]  The thing is, if you have a certain view of Temujin, you have to see him as a practitioner of hypocrisy at several cruxes. For one, when he offers to Jamuqa in their last scene a companionship of equals – see H&H on this. Because Isenbike Togan understands a different politics, she needn’t postulate that he only pretends. It’s simplest to take him at face value in his speech to Jamuqa. The Mongols did; they depict him as ‘blameworthy, afraid’ and the rest, but not one to feign emotion or commit that grave fault, to lie.

I mean to take Temujin through a single episode in his youth: the Secret History’s #75-78, his murder of his half-brother Begter/Bagtor. I think this is a story that has been told by Temujin, and implicit in the telling is his acknowledgement of wrong.

The story is told at the level of personal memory. The others who shared these memories, his mother Hoelun and brother Qasar/Khazar, significantly predeceased him; also, there’s no reason to think that Chinggis went without a voice on the question of what the Secret History was to record. As H&H note, “There is a widespread, though not universal, agreement among historians that the urtext… was written down in 1228… shortly after the death of Chinggis Khan in 1227.” [6]  I’d say he had a hand in it, he who was the prime mover for other Mongol records. On memory, and on subjective experience in the Secret History, I’ll quote H&H from their introduction and conclusion. Their argument is: “that there were resources within early Mongol culture for ‘thinking the self’, and that the expression of painful reflections on action is one way we can access such reflection.” [5]  And they conclude: “{The Secret History} reveals the Mongols’ understanding of subjectivity in a broad sense, in the form of recollection and memory, self-consciousness in relation to the opinions of others, reflections on the self by analogy with creatures in the world, or imaginative projections into the future.” [42]  They look at this range of subjectivity in speeches – what can be ‘elaborate’, long, poeticised speeches. Isn’t it only a step from this, to conjecture that Temujin’s real speeches upon his past may be elaborated, poeticised and incorporated in the Secret History, as this tale? I see ‘painful reflection’ in the way the tale is told.

After the famous verses on Hoelun’s tireless efforts to feed her children, they grow up enough to have the desire to feed her in return: Saying unto one another, ‘Let us nourish our mother,’ /Sitting on the bank of Mother Onan, /Preparing for one another fishhooks, /Angling and hooking /Maimed and misshapen fishes, /Bending hooks out of needles…  /Catching little fishes, /They nourished the benefit of their mother. [#75, Cleaves]  That last expression is awkward in English. ‘Benefit’ is the word hachi, that means a return of like for like: they feel they owe her food. Their efforts are childish and inadequate. Only ‘maimed and misshapen fishes’ allow themselves to be caught. I hear a wry memory in that – along with the sense of innocence, how well-intentioned they were. There’s no mention they want to feed themselves.

Then they are at odds with their mother. It is this that is focused on, as if this is where the pain was: Begter and Belgutei’s seizure of food is told briefly, but the spoken exchanges are between Temujin and Qasar on the one side and their mother on the other. She refuses to listen to their complaints against the half-brothers, and instead tells them off themselves for family dissension. Upon the second such exchange, when they leave her tent to go and kill Begter, ‘They flung open the felt door’, lit. ‘they cast aside the (felt) door’ [#77] – in the translation of IdR, who notes, “corresponding to our ‘slammed the door’”. [366]  They exit rudely. For Mongols, a door has sacred properties: it’s very rude, and it’s a memory, one that might well stick in the circumstances.

As for the killing, I think it only seemed like a good idea for a short time. Begter, before he is shot, is given Hoelun’s own lines to them, her phrases and her verse: to the effect that Tayichiut is the enemy, not each other; they are in a forlorn situation, and fighting amongst themselves can only make it worse. Hoelun uses these phrases yet again when they come back from the killing. Dunned in three times, I think this is the lesson to be drawn. Begter also asks them to spare Belgutei, which of course makes him sympathetic. After the fact, they don’t have a word to say for themselves to their mother. She ‘perceives their faces’, understands from their faces what they have done, and delivers a tirade in verse, savage animal imagery. Her condemnation is left to stand; “she berated her sons violently” (Onon) and that ends the episode. In the exchanges with their mother Temujin and Qasar give their motivation then. But in the now of the story’s telling, no defence is offered: on the contrary, their mother and even the victim have the last word, the right word. That’s plain in the telling, and if these are Temujin’s memories, he has told the story against himself, entirely.

Of expression of regret in general in the Secret History, H&H observe: “These regrets do not take the form of apologies, pleas to be forgiven, or vows to compensate or atone for wrongs committed. The righteousness of many modern expressions of apology is absent. Nor can these Mongolian regrets be seen simply as tactical manoeuvres in a game of political reconciliation. They are, at one level at least, simple declarations of having got it wrong.” [7]  There are none of these things in the Begter episode. But in the telling, I believe, Temujin declares he got it wrong, just for the sake of saying so. I hope that after this journey through the Secret History we have at least seen that it is not out of place, or foreign to the culture, for Temujin to have acknowledged this wrongdoing. It makes a difference, of course, in how we think of him.

Don’t miss the last sentences of Humphrey and Hurelbaatar’s essay, that affirm human freedom. And you wondered why I love the Secret History.


David head lrg


translations used:

Cleaves: The Secret History of the Mongols, Translated and edited by Francis Woodman Cleaves, Harvard University Press, 1982. Online here
IdR: The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century, Translated with a historical and philological commentary by Igor de Rachewiltz, Brill, 2004
Onon: The Secret History of the Mongols: The Life and Times of Chinggis Khan, Translated, Edited and with an Introduction by Urgunge Onon, Curzon Press, 2001

other works cited:

Isenbike Togan, Flexibility and Limitation in Steppe Formations: The Kerait Khanate and Chinggis Khan, Brill, 1998
George Lane, Early Mongol Rule in Thirteenth-Century Iran: A Persian renaissance, RoutledgeCurzon, 2003

I warmly recommend Caroline Humphrey’s book written with Urgunge Onon, Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols, Oxford, 1996. This has been, for my purposes, head and shoulders and torso above whatever else I have managed to consult in order to write about early Mongol religion.

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‘Milk in his veins’: Mongol slang

or, A Hymn to Idioms

mongol-archer-in-inner-mongolia-1940sSlang, idioms, figures of speech: I love them, love the use of them; they individualise your talkers, and with a culture-specific figure you give the guys Applied Culture – hands-on, without stopping to feed them information. Idioms do wonders. Let’s talk Mongol ones.

About the first thing you notice, when you come to the question of when to use them in your English-language novel, is how very usable they are. Figurative language in the Secret History to do with milk and its products, or to do with sheep and shepherds, has a lot of commonalities with us. Take a look at milk.

My titular example, I admit, might be construed two ways. Is that an insult – to have milk in your veins? Not in Mongol. Grown Mongol men drink milk, so you can’t walk into a bar and order milk with the success he had in Victor Victoria. “Is that cow’s milk, or mother’s?” “How about your sister’s?” Start fight. I doubt milk ever has negative connotations, while mother’s is mentioned like this: “You will not die of this wound. The flowers of the mountain with your mother’s milk will be salve for it.” [The Book of Dede Korkut]  “Thou speakest so as to harden the butter affection and so as to sour the milk heart of thy mother.” [Secret History #254]  Milk-for-blood means the milk of human kindness. I use butter heavily too: “Ogodoi is total butter,” says Temujin, or Toghrul says to him, “I am butter to you,” and the both of them to Jamuqa are “as soft as butter.” This cluster, in English, is the lovely obvious and makes direct sense to us. We can also make sense in Mongol. I can import from English: ‘butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth’, ‘butter up’ and other proverbs from the dairy. Spilt milk, the Milky Way. Like the foodstuffs, milk’s imagery is endlessly useful. (Do you know what number of foodstuffs made from milk there are in Mongolia? Neither do I).

Less edibly… “If one wrap them in green grass, they will not be eaten by an ox; if one wrap them in fat, they will not be eaten by a dog.” [Secret History #255]  Temujin said, or is reported to have said this, on the succession question, so it’s famous. I haven’t used this as often as I might, because in our language, it’s oddly insulting. An example of the over-expressive speech I’ve noticed, that in English is too strongly put. I found an opportunity when Jamuqa describes Nilqa – “Wrap him in fat, a dog wouldn’t lick him” – for there the insult’s fair enough. But Temujin’s talking about his descendants. He goes on: “will they not miss an elk breadthwise, a rat lengthwise?” – i.e., they couldn’t hit the side of a barn. But he doesn’t mean to be as insulting as that. The ‘wrapped in fresh grass’ is a well-attested saying, and Temujin is only speculating about useless heirs; the gratuitous sense it gives in English makes it hard to place. Mongols were outspoken.

In the origin legends at the start of the Secret History, that tell of the beginnings of things, Bodonjar seems to invent for the Mongols both falconry and government. “If a body hath a head, it is good; if a garment hath a collar, it is good… The people at the Tunggelig Stream are without a difference between big or little, bad or good, head or hoof. They are all equal. They are an easy people. Let us rob them.” [#33-34]  More or less. The commonest governmental metaphors are horse gear: bridles, halters, tethers – ‘horsey’ as Altan sighs. It’s a truth that the Mongols knew no word for power, political power, at this innocent stage, but they talked about it figuratively. – It was charged of them by a Chinese that they possess no word for peace. Temujin has his answer ready for my third book, and it’s a trenchant one, but here I’ll just say maybe so – because they talk figuratively about that too. There’s a phrase ‘the many days’ that I have translated ‘ordinary days, days in the main’: this means peaceful days. Which is a splendid answer in itself to the Chinese allegation, for the days without war were thought to be the normal days. How would you find that out, unless for the figurative language? They won’t sit down and tell you, ‘we thought of war as the exception’. It comes out in the idioms.

Hoelun uses hair to lament her first husband, “whose tuft hath never blown against the wind” – that is, the adverse winds of fortune have never blown back his Mongol-style forelock. But “now, tossing his two braids one time on his back, one time on his breast, one time forward, one time backward” – now he has a bumpy ride from fate. [#36]  See, you’ve just learnt about Mongol hairstyles, and it wasn’t like a lesson: that’s idiom.

Another famous one, “with fire in his/her eyes, with light in his/her face,” is nicely self-explanatory: the fire of spirit, the light of intelligence. Hoelun has “a heart bright like the sun, wide like a lake.” [#254]  Then there’s a physicality beyond where English goes. It’s usual to locate a promise in your internal organs: “Let my promise be in the back of my kidneys, in the diaphragm of my breast.” [#96 and elsewhere]  However, Urgunge Onon says this is mistranslated; the Chinese annotators mistook their bowels for kidneys; he gives, “Let my thoughts be in the depths of my bowels and in my backbone/in my ribcage.” Bowels can even be anus, he notes. [Onon, p.32-3]  Deal with it. Meanwhile “a stinking liver” means a bad disposition [Secret History #152] … that’s poor old Toghrul. My Jamuqa says Toghrul “stinks to high heaven,” in a semi-imitation of this – in fact I thought that phrase a lucky import, what with the Mongol heavens and the moral stench idea.

What about obscenity? Obscenities that wouldn’t have been written down? Nah. They used strong but not obscene language, or that’s the theory I’ve run with. I’ve backdated ear-witness reports that Mongolians were tame swearers – before the advent of television, of course. Their neighbours laugh at them for it. English obscenities I do use as a marker of influence from the big bad world outside. It’s true that John of Plano Carpini reports of the 1240s: “Their women are chaste, nor does one hear any mention among them of shameful behaviour on their part; some of them, however, in jest, make use of vile and disgusting language.” [Mission to Asia, p.15]  Unfortunately he can’t write down any samples, of what he considers disgusting, for a woman. Maybe they joked about their dildos. A Chinese in his memoirs tells us about them: a certain phallic root that enlarges itself with moisture…

Then there are the puzzles. Temujin has insulted Nilqa by a reference to Toqtoa the shaman and a fat-tailed sheep. Nobody knows what this means – it might rest on a proverb we’ve lost. I’ve made it a witticism of Temujin’s that fits my Nilqa and offends him direly.

Items of daily life: the ger (felt tent), the hearthfire. Destructive images: to dismember a door frame, to extinguish a hearth. These translate well, and the resonance in Mongol, where a hearthfire is sacred and a threshold mustn’t be trodden on, is quickly learnt. Carts and wagons: the cooperation of allies is always figured by two wheels, and Temujin’s leadership is symbolised by the big ger wagon that transports the home.

Homely metaphor around a few essentials: tents and hearths, carts and draught animals, milk and butter. This is the palette. I have made my Temujin a master at homely metaphor – with inspiration from the simple parables of Jesus. I’m proud to say I’ve never told you what constitutes a bow – I leave that to Temujin in simile. He’s talking about a son suspected dead:

“Why Ogodoi? When Jagatai fought Jochi for agha-rights Ogodoi was the fish glue. The glue between the horn that pushes and the sinew that pulls. The glue gets ignored, but you know, Ahai, up to half of a bow is glue. I suspect Ogodoi is the son I can least afford to lose.”

Temujin also tells you how to churn ayrag (fermented milk):

“My task is a joint labour and whereas Temujin is me, Tchingis is us. Mine is the sack, yours is the milk poured in; Tchingis is stood by the door with the churn in his neck and together we try to beat him a thousand times a day, and whenever we step in or out we lend a hand.”

If it’s strange for Temujin to draw an extended metaphor of himself as an ayrag sack, I take leave from the habits of the poetry, which to my mind is almost of the Metaphysical school. For instance, Blue Jos describes Tchingis, a bit bizarrely, and turns him upside-down:

In his hazards he tied his head behind him with his bags,
For safety from spillage he kept his blood in his flask.
With his sleeve for his cushion,
With his coat-skirts for his couch,
The flesh between his teeth he ate for supper
And swallowed his spit to slake his thirst.
In his efforts for us the sweat of his brow ran to his feet,
The sweat of the soles of his feet ran to his brow.

Those detachable body parts: figurative language is slipping into poetic tropes here, which I guess is another subject, but I have mused on them, through Temujin, as a poetry of war wounds. Body parts come off, except they go back on again – in the poetry.

At first I didn’t use the full verse above for my chapter epigraph – the sweaty soles were too odd for me and I left them out. Until I grew to love them. Again, it bothered me, in Jamuqa’s spontaneous poetry to the Naiman king, that he has a drooling falcon. Hang on. Falcons don’t drool, do they? Until I got it through my head, it’s poetry, you dolt. And a Mongol knows better than me. I’ll shut up and translate.

Let me end with a piece of Jamuqa’s spontaneous poetry (straight translation by me). These are Temujin’s dogs of war:

“My anda Temujin keeps four hounds to hunt for him in battle. Their brows are welded bronze, the whiskers of their muzzles iron spikes, their hearts are cast bells with great clappers, their tails cable whips. In the days of peace he ties them up with iron chains and the dew of the dawn nourishes them. On the day men slay and are slain they feast on the flesh of men. When enemy encounters enemy Temujin encourages his hounds with the quarry’s offal. See, he has unfettered them: those are his Four Hounds who chase your watch in cry; they are off the leash, they are jubilant, their jaws drip. Their names? They are Jelme and Zab, Jebe and Khubilai.”

Mongol Archer, Inner Mongolia ,1940'sI’ve used the Francis W. Cleaves translation of The Secret History of the Mongols, available online:  At times I’ve simplified it — mostly, I’ve taken out his brackets.

Urgunge Onon (translator), The Secret History of the Mongols: The Life and Times of Chinggis Khan, Curzon Press, 2001

Christopher Dawson, Mission to Asia, University of Toronto Press, 1980

Photographs from Inner Mongolia, 1940s


oh yeah


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Slumming in historical fiction

or, Politics? What Politics?

Yesterday I read a Tim Kreider piece at the New Yorker blog: Our Greatest Political Novelist? In it he argues that a science fiction writer might count as our greatest political novelist, and boo-hiss to genre snobbery. His chosen one is Kim Stanley Robinson. As an old science fiction lover, I thought his first few paragraphs simply the statement of an overdue truth: of course we’re important. Then he comes to discuss Kim Stanley Robinson’s foray into prehistoric fiction – which he introduces thus:

“Robinson’s new book, Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age, is what you might technically call historical fiction, though it’s not the kind with a buff Byronic groomsman clutching a swoony supermodel heiress on the cover.”

F***. As I tweeted at the time. Genre snobbery? From the intellectual heights of his science fiction, Robinson slums in historical… Tim Kreider, genre champion, trots out the worst of the stereotypes.

Are the charges true?

Is HF a tame genre that doesn’t throw out experiments? Does it fail to do any analytic task, when it talks about history? Why are we lampooned, by a genre champion?

What I hear from listening is that historical novelists, when they think about their job with history, think of accuracy. Accuracy first, and they can obsess over accuracy. How about analysis? You have to think about your history too, but it’s fair to say analysis is less discussed. These are the two parts of the job with history, and it’s the analysis one that matters and that makes for fiction that aspires to be exciting (in an intellectual sense) or important.

Science fiction isn’t afraid to use these terms of itself, in the face of a sceptical world. They know they’re writing important stuff, stuff on the edge of the intellect, and they can knock your brains out of your head. They know this, they are self-aware, whether or not the world sneers at “that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine.” (quote Kreider)

Why can’t I stand up and confidently say these things of historical fiction? Why does the world still sneer? Why does Tim Kreider sneer?

Perhaps Kim Stanley Robinson himself wasn’t aware of the potentials of historical fiction, since he’s put out a tamer effort with not enough analysis – going from Kreider’s criticisms. (Or he just wanted a rest. Because he has been to history in The Years of Rice and Salt). – I can see an argument that the experimental stuff is happening in historical fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay is said to think about history, although I was let down by his Under Heaven. Or KSR in the alt-history just mentioned.

Kreider seems a groovy dude, but his attitude to historical fiction is out of the dark ages, and I see our reputation is as low as ever, at least in his quarter. And I do care what he says, as a cultural commentator, and as a champion of science fiction – the thinking person’s genre.

Why isn’t historical fiction a thinking person’s genre? The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. My first instincts, that I Twittered out, were, ‘It’s not his fault, either. It’s ours.’ I was in a slump with historical fiction yesterday, anyway, and had turned for strong liquor to 70s scifi in the person of James Tiptree Jr (intellectual giant). So this New Yorker post struck a chord. We’re not as well-off for thinking books as science fiction. I grew up on Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions. Where were historical’s dangerous visions? Where are they now?

Intellectual work can be done by historical fiction. This statement of Tim Kreider’s is rich to my ears in unintended irony: “Science fiction is an inherently political genre… It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding) in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident…”

What the eff is historical fiction for, then?

Historical fiction sees, or should see, our present as just the latest slice or stage of history, as subject to change as that which went before. It studies, or should study change.

Yet I bet he’d call us an inherently conservative genre. Because I’m almost fit to do that myself.

I worry about the time we spend with kings and queens. It’s nice when we have revolting peasants instead, but notoriously, they don’t look so glamorous on the bestseller shelves. The least-thinking sort of historical fiction lets every woman live a queen’s life and every man revert to a Viking. – And do we need an Anti-James Tiptree Jr Award in hf, as the least gender-questioning of genres? Yes, we do.

Criticise your king. If you wouldn’t vote for a king today, but you’re writing about one in the past, don’t leave your politics at the door. Think about them. There’s a crowd of what I can call wish-fulfilment hf, where we sink indulgently into history because it was more vivid, more bloody, more glamorous – that’s our pulp, like sf has a pulp, and most of us are fond of pulp. Right now I’m only here to talk about the intellectual end. There is one, even if Tim Kreider hasn’t caught up with the fact.

Every page we write has consequences. As he points out, prehistoric fiction has to take a stand on rather major and contentious issues: human violence, human sexuality. I’m here to tell him, if he doesn’t know, historical fiction does too. My subject’s steppe-and-settled, and I meet major issues. Write a page, it’s political.

On that I agree with Julian Rathbone. In an interview he said this:

“We should acknowledge that we experience our sources through modern sensibilities. All historical novels, consciously or unconsciously, present a point of view and I think it is better if the writer knows what he is doing, rather than not. It’s a more honest approach. If you think of historical fiction in the past, Walter Scott for instance, they definitely had contemporary relevance – the Whig view of history for instance. When you get into modern popular historical fiction, on an overt conscious level that disappears – but however unconsciously, the writer’s ideology or agenda are still there.” — the interview online

They are still there. Politics sticks out a mile. No doubt a great artist can disguise it… but these are the Rathbone Rules –
1) Your politics comes out in your work, no matter what.
2) It’s dangerous to have unconscious politics in your fiction. Better have them conscious.

I know how present politics is, I know I face political questions, big ones, and I don’t want to dodge them, I want to tackle them head-on. Leave my politics at the door? leave my beliefs & principles? No way, or else what’s the use to even look at the past? I’m with Julian Rathbone on this. As for Tim Kreider, to write about the past can be as political as to write about the future. Inherently political, even inherently liberal, “in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident…” That is HF’s job.

Research through enemy eyes

Attila ceiling _Delacroix_You cannot research through enemy eyes. Self-evident? I don’t know…

I’m resolved to name no names in this post. It isn’t fair to – the problem seems so common. Later I might single out one very famous author, since what I have to say can’t leave a scratch on him. I think I need one example.

What I have to say is self-explanatory, and self-evident too, and yet the urge to write this post has grown upon me, as I see what I think are examples of this one-sidedness in historical fiction. Books that are one-eyed on a conflict of the past.

You’re writing about a people in the past. When you come to write about that people’s enemies, you can’t take your people’s view of them as the truth. You have to understand your people’s impressions of them as the usual half-truths, lies and distortions in circulation about a foreign, hostile culture.

Further, you can’t read only the history books focused on your people – in order to research that enemy people. Why can’t you do this? Let me quote Thomas Barfield on the case of China:

“Scholars who devoted their lives to exploring the history of imperial China, for example, so immersed themselves in the classical literature of that culture that they often unconsciously absorbed and accepted its values and worldview. Careful and critical about interpretations within the Chinese cultural sphere, when they wrote of those other people, ‘barbarians’, who threatened their civilization, it was usually from the Chinese perspective, with all the sympathy of a report by court scholars recounting the reception of a smelly envoy from the steppe come to insult the empire with an outrageous demand.”
[The Perilous Frontier, p. 4]

This is an acknowledged problem in Chinese scholarship – Barfield puts nicely what I’ve seen said a number of times. My interests are with China’s northern neighbours, where the problem – one-sided history, one-sided historical fiction – I’m convinced, is encountered at its worst. I think other histories haven’t had the problem as acutely as the China case (or else I just feel sorry for myself and my area of history). It’s an inevitable problem. These societies were so alien to one another they were in hostilities for thousands of years – nobody’s likely to have an equal interest in them both. China aficionados won’t love the steppe, which is so different. Steppe freaks – like me – won’t feel at home in China.

I face this problem, right now, as my guy goes to China, so I’m aware of it. It’s a big problem, because through my whole life I’ve been drawn to steppe-type cultures, but have not had that innate sympathy for Chinese-style. Can I write about China fairly?

It is more usual for me to see the opposite: China fiction that has a visit from the steppes. And you might imagine that I’m hyper-aware of the unfairness I see. Yes I am. I try to shut up most of the time. I’m letting off steam in this general post of complaint.

Now I’ll drag in my example. It’s Guy Gavriel Kay. In fact he’s safe from criticism because his Under Heaven is historical fantasy. However, what he does, I pretty much see in historical fiction – so he’ll do for my example, and I’m not even bagging him out – because he has the fantasy clause and he’s allowed. How’s that for tact in these matters?

He’s obviously in love with Tang history, to which he pays scrupulous attention, even if he changes names. That’s why it’s a shock to travel beyond the Wall and meet – troglodytes. Troglodytes on the steppe, whom he uses for a Heart-of-Darkness journey into the primitive evils. Like I say, he’s allowed, it’s fantasy. But his Tang China is almost what it was, while at this time on the steppe stood the In which he happens not to have an interest. That’s fine.

It might irritate me… More irritating of course is the syndrome in historical fiction. Wherever you are in the world. You can’t take at face value what your people thought of their enemy. You can’t even trust the historians – not the old-fashioned ones – you can’t have uncritical faith in them, you have to subject the history to discrimination and scepticism, too. It helps if you go to books written about that enemy. Because it’s hard to get away from the skew: have you absorbed skewed history, in your research concentrated on – the enemy of your enemy? You need to learn to recognise the Schafers.

Let’s blame the historian, since novelists depend on historians. Edward H. Schafer is a perfect case of what Barfield described, above: he himself, as an historian, is entirely uncritical as he transmits Chinese views of the Uighurs. The Chinese records insult and scoff at Uighurs – so does he. His book is offensive. It’s also a classic on Tang, and cited by Guy Gavriel Kay. Whereas if Kay were to write historical fiction on Tang – which he isn’t, so never mind – he’d want to read several books upon the Uighurs that give you very different ideas.

Even if they are bit players – your people’s enemies – I believe it’s our duty, as the unprejudiced lot we aspire to be these days, to research them on their own terms, in their own right, and never perpetuate an old prejudice. Amen.

#   #   #

Thomas J. Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757, Blackwell, 1989

Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics, University of California, 1963

Image: Stereotype by Delacroix. Oops, I think he called this ‘Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts’. Sorry, Delacroix, I used your steppe art on my 1st book.



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Translations of The Secret History

Available English translations of The Secret History of the Mongols, with my (personal) notes on them.

Cleaves coverFrancis W. Cleaves
The Secret History of the Mongols, Translated and edited by Francis Woodman Cleaves, Harvard University Press, 1982

The translation I’m fondest of: Francis W. Cleaves, who has run afoul of the majority for his attempt at a King James Bible English. He argued that he should be archaic, like his original, and that the King James style was ‘singularly consonant’ with the matter in hand. Dammit, he was right. Isenbike Togan defends this style, which grants to the oral tradition of history, not just its true dignity but its true weight and strength for people of the time. Cleaves is obscure, but often because he is over-exact.

Sorry, but I find him more in sympathy with the material than other translators — which includes Igor de Rachewiltz. The latter you need too for study, because of its hundreds of pages of notes. Cleaves meant to put out a second volume with his notes, but never did: this volume only has brief footnotes.

The Francis W. Cleaves translation — alongside translations into other languages — can be downloaded in pdf at Monumenta altaica


Urgunge coverUrgunge Onon
The Secret History of the Mongols: The Life and Times of Chinggis Khan
, Translated, Edited and with an Introduction by Urgunge Onon, Curzon Press, 2001

I like this for Urgunge Onon’s notes and material fore and aft. Certainly better annotated than the Cleaves (who meant to put his notes into a second volume that never saw the light of day). Maybe this version is the best of both worlds: not off-putting for non-scholars, but with Urgunge’s knowledge on Mongol lifestyle and culture.


de Rach coverIgor de Rachewiltz
The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century, Translated with a historical and philological commentary by Igor de Rachewiltz, Brill, 2004. Two volumes.

My complaint with this edition of the Secret History — unarguably the scholarly edition — is how frequently, in the notes, he’ll say ‘this issue has been discussed by [insert names] so I won’t comment on those lines.’ I’m an amateur Mongolist, at home, and for me, that’s an intensely frustrating habit. It often means that this book in my hands is least useful on the most important passages — since these have most work done elsewhere (which may be less accessible and/or in other languages), that he simply refers you to.

I prefer the translation of Cleaves, if only perhaps for its greater art. Cleaves is also more literal, but at least, when IdR paraphrases, he gives us the ‘lit.’ meaning in the notes. As for the notes… I can’t call them exhaustive, because of what he leaves out (see above). Detailed, although, I’d venture to say, more at home in language than in culture study. He does do interpretive work in his commentary, but for my part, I’m often in argument with him on interpretation. I can find him reductionist.

Kahn coverPaul Kahn
The Secret History of the Mongols: The Origin of Chingis Khan, An Adaptation by Paul Kahn

He calls this an adaptation, not a translation, and that’s my note of caution. It interprets for you, and often, I think, chooses a simple meaning out of several. Still, it’s great for an easy-to-get and unfrightening English version. I love the Cleaves — Francis Woodman Cleaves whose translation he uses for this, but whose language he changes. Even though Cleaves’ presentation, the intro and how he sets out the text, is only fit to baffle you, and he never did publish the second part: the notes.

Urgunge Onon is another alternative: strictly a translation, but meant for a general audience.

Waley coverArthur Waley
The Secret History of the Mongols and Other Pieces, (translated by) Arthur Waley, House of Stratus, 1963, 2002

This is an anthology of texts from China, Japan, Korea. If The Secret History is what you’re after, Waley only gives extracts. As he says himself, “Of The Secret History, I have translated only the parts founded on story-teller’s tales.” Whatever he means by that, it’s loose translation, story-style. He says he doesn’t believe in its historical value, so you won’t get the text as document here.

I won’t comment on what the cover tells you: “A saga of epic battles, betrayal, love, tyrants and prisoners in Ancient China”.


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link: Perceptions of Genghis in Mongolia today

Worth a link: an interview by Harvard Asia Pacific Review with Dr Ts. Tsetsenbileg, a sociologist who researches what the figure of Genghis Khan means in Mongolia today. How deep is he in the Mongolian psyche — after decades of the negative Communist image of him? Where does he help, as a social tool, with the tensions between traditional values and modernisation?

Etched into Mongolian consciousness…

A court on horses: Khitan painting

Anonymous-The_King_of_Dongdan_Goes_ForthA little gallery-post: Khitan painters of court life in the north. [1]

Above we have the prince of the eastern circuit Dongdan — given as a principality by Abaoji to his first son Bei. This work was once attributed to Bei, a poet and painter. His father, founder of the conquest state, wished him to succeed, but even Abaoji failed to foist first-son succession upon the old tribal order, and Bei was exiled to China. From there he sent intelligence back home, and his paintings were of home, never mind that they had thought him “too Chinese” to head the state. Here’s ‘The Prince of Dongdan Rides Out’ in parts:

mid-right Dongdan

left Dongdan

This is one, if lesser in splendour, still ascribed to Bei:
by Prince Bei

And this is by a painter named Hu Gui, a Khitan of the 10th century. It’s known as ‘Rest Stop for the Khan’ and has a Khitan khan and his wife on a rug, with musicians, amongst their nomad court. The painter’s life overlaps Abaoji’s, but I don’t know that we can identify the khan:

Rest Stop 1


Rest Stop 2
Rest Stop 3


Rest Stop 4


[1] The Khitan of Khitai or the Qidan. In my novels I call them Qatat and their state Qatay, in part because I’m in Mongol speech and in part to suggest our old word Cathay. Khitan fame stuck and North China was known by their name throughout Central Asia and onwards, for centuries afterwards. The Liao Dynasty (dates 907-1125) is the Chinese name, inconsistently used by the Khitan themselves. Here’s a map, and for further information, the Wikipedia entry isn’t bad.









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A recommendation

Port Royal coverThis is simply a recommendation, for a novel that has nothing to do with the usual subject of this blog. But I also like to support indie publishing.

I read Port Royal in May 2012, and it’s been a highlight of my historical fiction explorations over the past couple of years. Trad authors, famous authors, dead authors have had trouble to beat this one. I’d line it up for historical fiction prizes, and vote for it over Hilary Mantel. That’s how I feel, and this is a challenge to you to try the first few pages. Because the first page screamed the book’s quality to me.

Here’s a link to my review on Goodreads.

Did Jamuqa shoot in the wrong direction?

OttomanHorseArcherMine does, “incorrigibly”. How radical is this in the field of Jamuqa studies? Who else has him so?

A couple of biographies at least contemplate the idea. Michel Hoang is convinced in his Genghis Khan, and if you forgive the archness of his presentation I’ll quote him.

From a section he titles ‘A Strange Friendship’: “Rarely has the chronicler of The Secret History spoken so effusively or at such length about love… Jamuqa was suspected by Temujin’s wife and mother of having ignored ‘proper manners and customs’. Is this to be understood as an allusion to the private habits of Jamuqa…? Did the ‘sworn brotherhood’ conceal some other intimacy? Like the Sinologue Arthur Waley, the Mongolist Paul Pelliot claims not to know the significance of the line, ‘they slept together under the same blanket.’ However, the clause ‘they loved each other’ repeated four times in just a few lines, lends weight to the theory that this was a special kind of friendship taken to its conclusion. One cannot speak with any certainty on this point… however, there is only one inference to be drawn.”

Qorchi’s dream, after Temujin and Jamuqa have quarrelled, “adds to the ambiguity surrounding the anti-hero, Jamuqa.” Hoang relates the dream, in which Jamuqa is symbolised by a cow who knocks her horn off and Temujin by a hornless bull, and asserts that it “does little to dispel the equivocal character of Jamuqa.” [pp.100-1]

I have to quote one other thing from Hoang. In a section titled ‘The Tragedy of Jamuqa’ he puts forth the opinion, “The story of this strange pair and its disturbing denouement might have inspired Shakespeare.” Amen. If only Shakespeare had got his hands on the Secret History of the Mongols. Hoang gets his teeth into it, the Jamuqa and Temujin bits, like an incipient novelist – and he even attributes to Jamuqa “incontrovertibly a greatness of soul”. [pp. 140-1] But this is a tangent, isn’t it, Jamuqa?

Go on, then. Tell them I’m gay.

You just made sense that way, Jamuqa.

I never did.

I do have a note on this, at the end of Tribal Brawls/The Sheep from the Goats. Wherein I don’t offer much grounds but my gut feelings or a novelist’s logic. (… ‘It’s just that he’s fascinated by Temujin his whole life and his life hung together that way, he came across that way to me, and he’s such an outsider, too.’…)  Another novelist, Pamela Sargent in Ruler of the Sky, has him in love with Temujin, although he’s Bad Jamuqa.

A second biography I want to quote has a more sensible tone. Doeke Eisma in Chinggis Qan and the Conquest of Eurasia concludes that Jamuqa was the major emotional involvement of Temujin’s life: “Jamuqa seems to have been the only person for whom Chinggis had strong personal feelings, much more intense than for his wives, or he may have kept them more private, so that they are hardly recorded. He clearly fell in love with Qulan and the only record of an intimate gesture is when he was glad to find Borte again after she was kidnapped by the Merkit. With Jamuqa things were different… There was in Jamuqa a mixture of love, jealousy and hatred… It is not clear to what extent homosexual love was also involved, but their relation certainly was tragic.”  [p.53]

Qulan I’ve named Ulun, Brown Usun’s daughter near the end of Tribal Brawls. Later he takes her with him on the Turkestan campaign, when Borte has to mind the home camp. Then, to be equal, he takes Yisui on his last campaign in Tangut.

On his wives, the above is better than what I’ve seen in several places: that he evinces no particular affection toward any one woman. How the heck would we know, is the first thing to ask. I’d say – against the above – the evidence is there for Borte. However, “with Jamuqa things were different,” in that the Secret History is drenched in emotional description. Most biographers take this with more or less of your cynical salt. But what the Secret History tries to tell you is, whether love or friendship, Jamuqa was the big emotion of his life. I think the cynical lenses lead us astray too often with old cultures, but… that’s getting into deep water. This is a short post.

The second biography quoted was self-published at Lulu and seems to have lost its availability. No ebook. It began as an annotated translation of Rene Grousset’s old Conqueror of the World, until the annotations took over. Rene Grousset certainly gives us a highly charged Temujin and Jamuqa (where both are great-hearted, quite often) – no mention of sexuality, but he too puts Jamuqa at the centre of Temujin’s life, and enters into the spirit of the text. I love his book.

Jamuqa, if I may invite you to comment? The last word is yours.

Can you do a post about my military genius?