Mongol women: a miscellany, part 1

Wenji - whole
A miscellany on Mongol women. My topic in part one is the state of our ignorance about them. It was Socrates who said – more or less – your first step towards knowledge is to understand that you know nothing, and for the study of steppe women, I think he’s right. The false sense of knowledge is the danger; it means we’ve used a template familiar to us and assumed a similarity. So to start with, I want to talk about how much we don’t know.

An example is the difficulty I have in illustrating this post. I want primary source and it’s hard to get. For reconstructions, go to Zaya’s glorious gallery of Mongol queens and ladies. But where can I find images of steppe women from the time, and if I can’t, how can I know what they look like?

When Linda Cooke Johnson set out to study Jurchen women, she had a single rich image. In her book Women of the Conquest Dynasties she writes: “Jurchen tribal culture is best represented in the painting Wenji gui Han… Apart from the Wenji painting, most extant works of art reveal very little that is specific.” [57, 54]  Above and beneath is the painting; I’ll just have LCJ point you to the women and leave you to look at them: “Six women are shown in the painting: Wenji herself at the centre of the composition, two servants running beside her horse, a woman on the lead mare holding a flag, and two women among the group on horseback.” These last are centre-back in “round fur hats”. [57-8]
Wenji herself

This is a painting on an ancient historical subject. Here’s how the Met Museum captions a Song dynasty painting of the same story:

Represented here are scenes from the life of Lady Wenji, who was abducted by a horde of marauding barbarians about A.D. 195 and spent twelve years among the Xiongnu, a Mongol tribe, as wife of their chieftain. She bore him two children before she was finally ransomed and returned to China. The Southern Song emperor Gaozong (r. 1127–62) probably ordered the story illustrated as a reminder of the capture of his kinfolk by the Jurched Jin. In this scroll, the costumes of the nomad invaders are those of the Khitan people, who established the Liao dynasty (907–1125) in northeastern China. To the early Southern Song viewer, Eighteen Songs, which presents a historical drama in contemporary details, did not represent a mere historical romance but a true, pervasive national trauma. — at

It’s interesting, then, how the Jurchen Jin portray this story (Jurchen are the tribal people who established the Jin dynasty when they conquered north China from the Song). The Jin painter dresses these third-century steppe people in Jurchen costume. Linda Cooke Johnson on this: “To the Jin court of the early thirteenth century, the civilized south was Jin China and the sheng (wild) Jurchen have become stand-ins for the ‘barbarians’ who abducted Wenji.” [59-60]  They view the story in the costume of their own tribal past: “To members of the sophisticated Jin court, these figures would have seemed bizarre, an aberration from the past.” [57]  A recent past – within the century.

As an aside, the ‘horde of marauding barbarians’ only has a name in Chinese transcription: Xiongnu. It’s not their name for themselves, which cannot be certainly recovered from its Chinese disguise. When people call them by the perhaps simplified name of Huns, it’s to acknowledge that Xiongnu is not their original name. If you like you can just call them a horde of marauding barbarians. See the entry on them at Iranica Online, with discussion of the Xiongnu/Hun name.

LCJ has this note on the art she consults: “Because of questions of authenticity and interpretation, I am not making use of paintings depicting pastoralist life that are attributed to Song or later artists… I have previously identified the Kitan tribesmen depicted in [Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute – the Song painting of Wenji in the Met Museum, above] as ‘generic versions of barbarians’ because they are all dressed alike…” [190]  Chinese illustration of steppe life can often be classed as exotica. So the only authentic painting she has is from Jin, who at least depict their own old dress-style with antiquarian accuracy.

And as for me – who’d like to give you Mongol women on the steppe, as they lived before the Mongols conquered China – I have nothing for you. To quote LCJ, for the last time, “Liao and Jin women may not have been as unusual as the Liaoshi  [the Chinese history of the dynasty] claims. Liao, Mongol and Jin women alike drew their strength from steppe traditions. To make a firmer case, however, we need to know more about women in steppe society beyond the frontiers of China.” [139]  And we don’t. It’s important to know we don’t.

To that end I’ll also quote a statement by Bruno De Nicola, whose research has specialised in Mongol women. From the abstract of a seminar paper:

This paper is a section of a bigger project that seeks to analyse the status of Mongol women throughout the Mongol Empire. The main objective is to ‘incorporate’ the history of these women into the general history of the Mongols by looking at the role played by them in different aspects of medieval Mongol society… Mongol women should not be taken as anecdotic agents or placed at the margins of history; rather they are a constitutive element of pre and post Chinggiskhanid Mongolia. Understanding the role played by these women will allow a more comprehensive approach to the social history of the medieval Mongols and their interactions with the societies that later came under their domain. – this abstract on

In other words there’s much more to do. We need to keep in mind that the above hasn’t been done yet. Socrates was right: acknowledgement of our ignorance is where to start – we can go forward from there.

Women in the Ilkhanlig are getting attention (another note on names: I prefer to say khanlig instead of khanate, which is an ugly amalgam of Latin onto Altaic. Let’s stay Altaic). Bruno De Nicola, just quoted, has a book in preparation on khatuns (ladies/queens) in the Ilkhanlig. A study by Yoni Brack, ‘A Mongol Princess Making hajj: The Biography of El Qutlugh Daughter of Abagha Ilkhan’, [on]  retrieves the life and doings of a Chinggis great-great-granddaughter from a Mamluk biographical dictionary, where she rates an entry because she was the first notable from the Ilkhanlig to travel into Mamluk territory on hajj. This is a piece of luck, as al-Safadi records more detail on her than we have from Ilkhanid sources. Here are excerpts:

She was the aunt of Ghazan and Kharbanda  [Oljeitu Ilkhan]. Among the Mongols, she was greatly respected, often referred to, highly revered and her words were valued and appreciated. She was sharp-minded and skilled in furusiyyah [the knightly arts, centred on horsemanship]. She was married to Urab Ti  [Ghurbati]… When her husband died, she rode on her own and killed his killer, beheaded him and hanged his head on the collar of her horse. It stayed there for a long time until she was approached about it and she then got rid of it. Some say that she only got rid of it when instructed by a royal decree. She never married again after Urab Ti.

Then she comes on pilgrimage, in the year 1323, when she is estimated to be in her fifties:

The judge Shihab al-Dın Ahmad b. Fadl Allah said: ‘I was undertaking the hajj that same year and I saw that she was a woman deemed worthy among men for her resoluteness, decisiveness and honour. She had on her the expression of greatness and the gracefulness of majesty. She gave great sums of money to charity and it is said that she gave to charity in the two holy places thirty thousand dinars. She travelled the way on a palanquin and rode a horse, the quiver fastened to her waist and the parasol raised above her. She led ring hunts and hunted all along the way. She was greatly respected for countless good deeds. When she arrived at Damascus, the commander Sayf al-Dın Tankiz went out to meet her and he treated her with most kindness and honour so she entered Damascus without a parasol over her head.’  [parasol etiquette was different in the two states]

Yoni Brack’s study of this biography suggests that her vengeance for her husband may have been execution-style — for injured parties were allowed to perform an execution — and compares it to the vengeance recorded of a Chinggis daughter in Juvaini: she went into the reduced city of Nishapur and slew widely, after her husband had been killed in the fighting. That leads me to the question: how often were Mongol women present at the fighting? We don’t know. This Chinggis daughter is mentioned because of the incident at Nishapur – Juvaini hasn’t told us before that she was on campaign. Who else was on campaign, but didn’t happen to earn an anecdote in the histories? We don’t know. At battles in the Ilkhanlig – again my source is papers by Bruno De Nicola – high-status, high-profile women are mentioned as present. But do they rate a mention because they are Chinggisids? Or, were only Chinggisid women present? Unknown.

I’ll end with a celebration of life in the Ilkhanlig. This time I’m not going to predispose your mind with comment, even to point out the women. I wish I had found more images online, for there are other exhibits in The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256 – 1353.

In part two of this miscellany, we’ll visit the world of celluloid from Inner Mongolia; the complaint of a Mongolian princess in a 1935 newspaper; and ‘Monstrous Mongols’ – androgyny in European depictions of the Mongol Other.


IlkhanidHorseArcher WikiCommons











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.

can use

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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 — from key phrases/concepts to the Mongol art of war. 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 — one most likely to be understood by a readership unacquainted with things Mongol, not, perhaps, the most ‘right’. 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…

Ogodei’s deeds and misdeeds

Genghis_Khan_and_three_of_his_four_sons{Chinggis and three sons, from the Persian histories, 15th century. Perhaps Ogodei is in between, as he was, and little brother Tolui holds the horse.}

In the last passage of the Secret History, Ogodei, son and khan after Chinggis, lists eight deeds of his khanship: four deeds that have been to the betterment of his people and four ill deeds.

Was this traditional, that a king give a reckoning of his services and his sins – an even-handed one, perhaps, with equal count on either side, to be humble? Or is this Ogodei, which you can imagine of him from the anecdotes told about him in Juvaini? Is this Ogodei in emulation of his father, whose own admission of ill deeds allowed the Secret History to tell them?

Fascinating questions. Today I’m attempting investigation and I thought the passage worth a look. It seems to have a sense of a tradition. What with the four + four and statements that might be formulas: “Although I be the Qahan, Lord of the Nation, to deliver myself unto deeds which were errors without principle, this was one of my wrongs.”

The Francis W. Cleaves translation can be downloaded in pdf at Monumenta altaica. I shall quote the passage –  #281 of The Secret History of the Mongols – in his translation.

The misdeeds come second, so hang in there.

If anyone can help my researches with hints towards a tradition, or a background, for this public confession of Ogodei’s, I beg you do so. One editor of the text, Igor de Rachewiltz, suggests it is a posthumous assessment put into his mouth, but I’d be reluctant to take his confession off him, or change events as given, unless I have to. First, seek reasons why it may be as the Secret History says, that’s my approach.


When Ogodei Qahan spake, he said, “[After] sitting on the great throne of my father, [as to] that which I did after my father the Qahan, going a warfare unto the people of the Jaqud, I destroyed the Jaqud people. [As to] my second deed, [I] made one to establish post stations for that Our messengers, hasting on the way, make speed, and again for that [We] make [them] for to convey our need and necessities. [As to] yet another deed, making [one] to dig wells in places without water, making [one] to bring them forth, [I] made [one] to bring the nation and the people unto water and grass. Again placing spies and tammachin unto the people of cities in divers quarters, of the nation and the people, causing [them] to set [them], I caused

The feet to be
On the ground
The hands [to be]
On the earth.

After my father the Qahan [I] added [these] four deeds [to all those done by him]. And, again, being made to sit on the great throne by my father the Qahan, being gone, carrying [as a burden] upon myself my many people, then, to be conquered by grape wine was my wrong. This was one of my wrongs. [As to] my second wrong, to hearken unto the word of a woman without principle and to cause [one] to bring the daughters of the ulus of Uncle Odchigin were [mine] errors. Although I be the Qahan, Lord of the Nation, to deliver myself unto deeds [which were] errors without principle, this was one of my wrongs. Again secretly to harm Doqolqu [was] one wrong. If one say, ‘How [was it] a wrong?,’ secretly to harm Doqolqu which, in the service of his proper [lord], my father the Qan, pressed forward was a wrong and an error. Now, in the service of me, who will so press forward for [me]? I myself have declared as wrong the fact that, not comprehending, I secretly harmed a man which, in the service of my father the Qahan and [of] all, was prudent [in] principle. Again, being covetous, saying, ‘I fear lest the wild beasts which were born having [their] destiny from Heaven and Earth will go toward [my] brethren,’ making one to build in beaten earth fences and walls [to contain the prey], as I was [thus] staying [them], I heard words of murmuring from the brethren. It, also, was a wrong. After my father the Qahan, I added four [good] deeds [to all those done by him] and four deeds were wrongs.”


The Jaqud = North China.
I’m glad he beats himself up about Doqolqu, known to us among his dad’s comrades. – Whether ‘harm’ indicates murder we don’t know, we only guess. And the women? Guesses and gossip, but again, we don’t know the story. As Cleaves notes, “Of the eight deeds… there is no mention elsewhere in the Secret History of the four which are enumerated as ‘wrongs’.” That’s telling, too…

Update next day
Aha — Caroline Humphrey has an article, ‘Regret as a political intervention: an essay in the historical anthropology of the early Mongols.’ It addresses this — and yes, indeed, as a political behaviour with a history to it. If I can only get this article…




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Genocide as a way of life? – a paper by Paul D. Buell

What follows is a paper by Paul D. Buell, author of The A to Z of the Mongol World Empire and Soup for the Qan: see these books on Goodreads. His A to Z I think is the best, most up-to-date introduction to the Mongols.

This paper is an unpublished draft from a few years ago, but sees the light of day on (“share research”), and I am happy to have permission to post it here, too.

Central Eurasia: Genocide as a way of life?
Paul D. Buell

Genocide, here where one culturally distinct group intentionally tries to destroy another, this can be directly (murder) or indirectly (enforced disease and starvation), [1] was comparatively rare in Central Eurasia down to the coming of modern tyrants. Stalin nearly brought it off against the Kazakhs in the name of forced collectivization [2] while the Mongols of the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR), then a closely controlled Russian satellite, did his work for him against themselves during the same period. [3] On the fringes of Central Eurasia, Stalin also tried to destroy the Crimean Tatars. [4] By contrast, few were organized or powerful enough before his time to eradicate anyone in Central Eurasia, which is not to say that there was no massacre [5] there before modern times. Likewise, the actions of both nomadic and sedentary states often had unintended consequences tantamount to genocide. Early Mongolian history in particular is replete with examples, although our sources often distort the record of what actually took place. The supposed genocide of the 13th century Mongols against various groups has been the object of much modern reinterpretation and propaganda, principally by the modern successors of those such as the Russians and Iranians once on the receiving end. Likewise an area of reinterpretation has been the impact of the Chinese and Russians on the Mongols. Chinese sources, for example, stress the benign role of the Middle Kingdom in civilizing the “barbarians” even when civilizing meant mass death. This result could either be direct or due to the repression and slow decline that Chinese rule of virtually all of Mongolia entailed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in much of Inner Mongolia since, for example. Likewise, recent scholarship in both Russia and China has sought to distort the realities of past ethnic relations to suit modern claims that the Soviet Union was a paradise of tolerance and intercultural relations and that the current China is a multi-ethnic and multi-national [6] paradise where all are equal and all are free to develop along their cultures along their own lines. Provided, of course, that you are not an Uighur or Tibetan “splitist,” as recent events have shown. The truth is somewhere in between, as always.

In the pages that follow, which concentrate on the Mongols as the key Eurasian culture, I will examine these issues by first reappraising the nature of Mongolian expansion and the forces driving it, including the economics and social realities of steppe life. This will be from a Mongolistic perspective. I will then look at the many problems of our source material. They have given rise to so much misunderstanding about the degree of Mongol destructiveness itself and the supposed nature of the Mongol empire as a purposely genocidal structure. This was not the case but the Mongols did live within the limits of the cultural environment that produced them and it is this environment that we must strive to understand if we are to understand the Mongols and evaluate their historical role and impact.

Finally, I will look at the more recent fate of the Mongols and some of their formerly steppe relatives, starting from the time when the sedentary states began a counterattack that culminated in their conquest and the subduing of most other independent Central Eurasian societies. The results, I will show in many ways have been more deadly for the groups involved than the Mongol conquest of the 13th century ever was for then Mongol enemies.

Above all, in the interactions between the steppe and the sedentary world over time, from pre-Mongol times down to the present, more telling than intentional slaughter have been the attendant damages resulting from collision between two ways of life, which each side has forced on the other. This was true of the Mongols and other steppe groups during the era of Mongol Empire, and more recently of Russians and Chinese during their period of ascendency.

Continue reading

The Secret History: needs the written arts

Mongolia Manuscript Map 1864You’d think the Secret History of the Mongols had been studied to death, but it hasn’t, or not in English. There is one need that I see and I’m going to talk about here. It is, for those with a written arts background to take a look.

I’m an old English student… majored in medieval history too, but English was my thing. I know I see the Secret History differently than an historian – I come to conclusions from different evidence. Hell, I hang arguments off psychological signals in the text, and I don’t catch historians doing that, nor do I expect to. God knows I’m no historian, and in their field I’m dependent upon them, but on the other hand I have thought more than once or twice, ‘haven’t they noticed this?’ And that’s from arts criticism.

old Mongolian map 1921While working with the Secret History I came up with thoughts… inevitably… which I’ve written into the novel. Whatever cases I make, I make them more persuasively in fiction. Why can I put my ideas better in fiction? Maybe because they rest on little signs and usages of fiction. The Secret History is art, you see, and the trouble is, it rarely has been studied in the Written Arts Dept. It’s seen to belong to History and historians study it.

old Mongolian map another 1921From me, if I were set this in English class, you’d get an essay on the psychological clues in the text. I don’t want to reduce to an essay what I’ve built now with story-materials, that these days seem subtler than an essay – I’ve been reluctant to ‘extract’ my speculations into a blog post. Besides I lack credentials. I’ll admit to you that the original Mongolian is a closed book to me… I do what I can to study at word-level from the editions available [see my Goodreads shelf of editions]. Obviously – but unfortunately, I often think – I can’t write an article on the Secret History that argues my arguments. At times I wish I were an historian – except the point is I need to keep the English student in me. Clearly we need a person who is both, or we need a cross-pollination of ideas: the Secret History shouldn’t belong only to the History Dept, where eyes are shut – trust me on this – to what can be seen over in Written Arts.

old Mongolian map 1912-14So what did I learn from the Secret History that I feel hasn’t been studied? My main contention – it’s there to be torn down – is that Chinggis himself contributed to the Secret History. That we can trace his memories, therefore his thoughts and attitudes. I was led to the deduction that he himself tells us the story of the murder of his half-brother, and then you ask why he told us? Also I like to look at how the artist – for I believe one can be distinguished – lent his own voice to what he told us. I believe there is much more to be learnt, about Mongol attitudes and about individuals, than has been found. Yes. That’s cheeky of me, but it is my conviction, old English student that I am. A sensitive eye, used to analysis of written arts, has things to see in the Secret History that no, I haven’t read in the history books’ discussions.

old Mongolian map 1803-5Even I, just a novelist you know, without Mongolian in my kit, fancy I have new things to say about the Secret History. I didn’t mean to have new things to say, when I began a novel, but the things weren’t said. And they were there, to my eye.

A truth an English student learns is that there is no one interpretation of a text, and what I see won’t be what others see (is that different to the discipline of History? I don’t know). But what’s certain-sure is, there is rich material for interpretation, from a written arts perspective.

old Mongolian map 1928

I hate the word ‘literature’. I say written arts.
I’ve illustrated this post with 19thC and early 20thC Mongolian maps, because… I’ve just found them and they’re gorgeous. At this site:

A history written by the losers

It’s a quip that occurs to people: that the Mongols’ history has been written by the losers. I quipped in my author’s note; I’ve seen a blogger say so, I think I’ve spotted it in a book. History is written by the victors? No, not when the victors don’t write, and the losers do, and the losers are us or more familiar to us. There must be other cases than the Mongols, where victors don’t have a foothold in the historical record and it’s the losing side that’s heard.

The Secret History was the Mongols’ first ever book. It’s famously non-propagandist, in that it bags Temujin on several counts, and besides it was secret, not disseminated; it came to (our) light centuries later. The Mongols haven’t written our history of them. Who has? China, Persia, old Europe. Our historians are used to written sources, and until such as Gideon Shelach pushed the Chinese records aside to dig in the earth with a clear mind, the Chinese wrote our history of the steppe peoples to their north. When do you get past traditions like that? Not yet. I look at my library and think, not yet.

I am discontent with half my steppe library. Severely discontent or disgruntled or driven to despair. What researcher has to say that? Not talking about quibbles here; I’ve got quibbles with every one of them like any healthy researcher: I mean scholarly books I’d cringe to have you read.

“Can you rec me a general history of the Mongols?”


“Biography of Genghis?”


Outside the field (maybe inside) people must assume that Mongol studies is going strong. To me, it’s in a sad state, or just getting its legs. I have to think it’s one of the worst-written histories we possess. Not that I’ve done a great survey of others… but what other field’s novelist (poor me) has to wear a flak-jacket in her library, grow rhinoceros hide, and needs anger management as she researches?

Yes, I bet you’ve got rotten books that say rotten things. But I believe Mongol history, unto this day and age, retains the effects of a history seen through enemy eyes.

How ignorant were the European friars who journeyed among the Mongols in the 13th century? What, we expect them to understand the society they see? They are a major source for us. We fail to question them, we often fail to question our sources, step back and back again, deeper and deeper into question. Can it ever be enough?

Settled peoples won’t understand a nomad people, without the greatest efforts of mind. We’re rude enough to write their history. Our inclinations lead us to the Chinese records, the Persian, as if they were the ones acquainted with the Turks and Mongols. Yes of course they were. I’ve seen Chinese scholarship criticised as slow to shake off old prejudices. Easy for us to say, but I haven’t heard much about ours. Our history books have been slow to shake off old prejudices – let me state. You can read straight history on the Mongols and still wade through those prejudices, up to your knees.

One statement of this truth is in the David Morgan book, The Mongols, 2nd edition. For the 2nd edition, 2007, after the 1st of 1985, he adds a bibliographical chapter, on what has happened in the scholarship since. To quote:

The two decades since then have been, perhaps, more productive historiographically than any comparable period, and the subject now has a distinctly different feel to it. This is not, for the most part, because startlingly revealing new primary sources have been discovered and published… It is more that perspectives have changed: historians have begun to look at different issues. They have dug deeper into Mongol history, and their emphasis has shifted away from purely military aspects, away from the death and destruction which, while it did undeniably characterise the initial Mongol imperial expansion, is now seen as very far from being all, or even what is most important, that there is to say about the extraordinary Mongol phenomenon. The results of this new research are to be found in specialised monographs, collective volumes and journal articles. There has not as yet been any attempt at an overall scholarly synthesis…

Alas no: we don’t have a new general history. The David Morgan is still transmitted from person to person with the magic tag of the ‘standard’ history – even when the book itself acknowledges how out of date its ideas are. For he has not updated his main text, from 1985. That main text is old-school and lacks sympathy for its subject; I wouldn’t have you read it; read the added chapter, not the rest.

Sympathy’s a common-use word in my kit; perhaps it’s a novelist’s word, but I believe you can’t write history, either, without a sympathy for your subject. You can’t see your subject without a sympathy. David Morgan’s book is an example: perfectly valid history (more or less) but there’s a distance, a remove, you’re stuck in an outsider’s perspective, you’re blind to the inside story: there is no explanation. History too needs insight, needs to enter into the experience of its subjects – or else you come to wrong conclusions, as a hostile witness does. I did not like the Morgan book; my hackles rose; at the end I thought, wrong wrong wrong. Yet it’s not the history that’s wrong. In a narrow sense.

I don’t want to pick on David Morgan… it’s because he has that ‘standard’ tag. I’m every bit as unhappy with the ‘standard’ biography (Paul Ratchnevsky).

Not every old book is bad. By God no – just as there are old-school still in operation. How enlightened is Karl Wittfogel, in 1949? How sympathetic Rene Grousset, 1939? I chose Genghis as a subject after I read Rene Grousset, so that the fundamentals of my portrait I owe to him. Afterwards, the battering my brain took from the less sympathetic Genghises that stalk the history books; the walls of prejudice I met; the stupidities I saw, in histories of repute. One’s experience of history isn’t meant to be this way, is it? It must be that the Mongols’ history has largely been written with hostility. We’ve learnt; first to question old European reports, where they roast babies on stakes; next we saw that the Persian-language accounts of the war are indeed by the losers. But massacre figures from those accounts still get quoted, you know. They are quoted in the Cambridge History of Iran: Volume 5, a contribution on ‘The Socio-Economic Condition of Iran under the Il-Khans’. I’ll have to insist that if you read this, you’ll read George Lane. Me, I’ve marked this article to never read again, or if I have to, with a very stiff scotch by my chair (possibly the bottle). It’s in a Cambridge, which I only bought three years ago; old Bernard Lewis was oft-scoffed for cutting down to size those massacre figures; Paul D. Buell has an unpublished paper on their absurdity. Of course those figures get the Mongols onto the Wikipedia list of most destructive human events in history.

I named Paul D. Buell. He has the nearest thing to a general history, that I thrust on people whenever I can: The A-Z of the Mongol World Empire. It’s stuffed with new findings and is definitely new-wave, not old-school. Unfortunately not in a standard-history format, but he’s ideal to do us one, and he gives rumour of “my forthcoming general history, with the late Angelo Anastasio, and Eugene N. Anderson, Mongols and the Outside World. This will include recent Mongolian history, as well as that of the period of empire, all looked at from a unified, Mongolian perspective.” Eugene N. Anderson, on my investigations, seems just as with-it as Paul Buell; he’s a cultural ecologist; I cannot express how sorely we need this book.

In stronger terms than David Morgan, I call the last twenty years a revolution in the scholarship. Thomas T. Allsen, George Lane, Isenbike Togan. A general reader’s book that incorporates these: what a difference that might make. We have popularisers. In 2004 I walked into Abbey’s Bookshop Sydney and saw side by side in the new releases, John Man and Jack Weatherford on Genghis Khan. I bought both in hardback at once, took them home and thought, is 2004 the year of a tide-change, out there on the street? To continue in a reminiscent vein… I felt a discomfort with the Jack Weatherford at first. I’ll admit that, because I know those who won’t have a bar of him. I called him apologetics, I feared he went too far (me, with the most sympathetic Genghis in fiction, by miles). But you know what? That was defensive huddling, that was my psychic bruises, after I’d run the gauntlet of my bad-Genghis library for years. And now? The situation that I see is simple in the extreme. People read Conn Iggulden or they read Jack Weatherford. Conn Iggulden perpetuates stereotypes. Jack Weatherford is out to overturn stereotypes. My allegiances? As simple.

Maybe I shouldn’t complain about non-specialists, but they depend on Mongol scholarship, don’t they? The eminent John Keegan writes about English livestock farmers when he comes to explain the Mongols; Azar Gat is also guesswork: these seek to place steppe warfare within their histories of war. There is a gulf of understanding, and you cannot guess, to cross it. Historians’ only hope is to soak themselves in anthropology or other culture study, which old-school doesn’t do. Here’s a tip: if he/she has a French name you stand a better chance. Do the French have a tradition of more cultural awareness in their history? I swear I remember a fairer mind from the French when I used to read about Arabs.

The purpose of this post, I suppose, is to beg people to be aware, to be extra-wary, when they read history on Mongols. Know that Mongol scholarship remains inadequate and as if in its infancy (perhaps any scholarship worth its salt knows this of itself). Keep in mind how rude it is for settled people to write nomads’ history. Not that I want us not to try, but it’s healthy to see a fundamental impossibility there. I liked David Christian because he gave me a sense that the steppe way of life, since extinct, was almost a different evolutionary road. That overstates David Christian’s case, no doubt, but you need a radical sense of departure – or else you don’t have a history of nomads in your hands.

# # #

I’m an amateur Mongolist with my home library of academic books (no expense spared, to feed the novel; I live on baked beans) but without a university library or journals. This is the view from here.

Links are to Goodreads, either my reviews, the book page or the author page. I’ve done two lists on Goodreads, The Mongols for Beginners and The Mongols In-Depth, with my suggestions.


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My hero on my hero

Hey, he says in his question session, “There’s nothing objective about anything I say” — so why do I have to put an objective title up there?

The wonderful Jack Weatherford stands on a stage at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in February this year, and talks about Genghis Khan. His focus: “who he was as a person.”

Or to quote my own Bultachu Ba’atur, as he tries to talk his wife into softening on Temujin; he points to the figures-become-legends in the epics: ‘The legend, he’s described to curl your hair, he’s the bristly brindled blue-maned wolf, he glares red when he’s roused. Beneath that once was a person. What he was like?’

Jack’s a story-teller as he gives you excerpts from the Secret History of the Mongols. The start Temujin had in life. If you ever doubted Temujin is one of the astounding people in history, let Jack lay out the facts for you.

And what an odd army he had, with which to achieve things no-one else has. Hung together on loyalty and talent — not aristocracy, not kinship. His generals weren’t the steppe aristocrats but poor herders, who never betrayed him. Kin betrayed him and he did not use kinship but found or created other loyalties. Loyalty is his most important word. Army communications? — in verse. Of course, in an oral society, where people can talk in verse, the way fish swim. He built bridges. He built nothing else — no fortresses, palaces, temples, these were alien to him and remained so. But bridges, by the hundred. He was a practical man.

With a huge creative intelligence. I’ll quote Juvaini, Persian historian, dates 1226-83 — because Jack says pretty much exactly this:

The statecraft to be learnt from the great Chosroes of old and what is written on the arts of war and method of government of the Pharoahs and the Caesars was by Tchingis Khan gleaned from the book of his own mind, without records for instruction or the trouble of traditions to observe, but self-taught by the light of the intelligence God gave him: and as for his intelligence and his ingenuity, Alexander, of the curious mind, might have been his student in contrivances for the seige of castles and in how to conquer… To his own conceptions, then, he framed the Jasaq.

The Jasaq is his law code. When the Mongolian government — freed from the Soviets, under whom you weren’t allowed to mention Genghis on the streets — planned its first official statue of him, to preside over the parliament, they took for a model that of Abraham Lincoln: not a conqueror on a horse but a lawgiver. It’s how he’s seen at home.


What sort of government did he run, himself? His government began as an army, yes, and as a distribution machine. This is a man who, fairly certainly, “accumulated more wealth than any person in the history of the world: he didn’t keep it. It went out — it went out. The first people to get a share were war widows and orphans.”

But Jack talks about a dereliction of principles, late in his life. Not a violation but… a retreat from his old principles of ability and loyalty as the only factors that matter. He too succumbed to kinship above these, undone by his love for his sons, and left the government to them. I like how Jack criticises this. It didn’t work out, it had bad consequences, and is a shame, yes. Our Temujin’s only human. Jack tells you the tragedy of Jochi, his first son, who wasn’t fathered by him, but the one Temujin loved most.

Then there’s half an hour of question time. He’s asked about The Secret History of the Mongols. Jacks stresses its intimacy: conversations he had in bed at night with his wife, are reported. This isn’t a public document to honour a public figure — hence the ‘secret’.

Ethics in war? “In warfare I think he was scrupulous… He was a practical man. But a very ethical man.”

He is asked about rape, Genghis Khan and rape. Yes, I’ve seen on the internet he’s the greatest rapist in the world. Never mind evidence, assumption is enough. Jack says: “I know of no documented case where this happened.” He explains a little about how “the whole (Mongol) masculinity is so different from ours.” With wives commonly older than the husband. “Steppe culture in general — rape was not a part of it.” He distinguishes from the kidnapping of women, in tribal life. As I do — it’s quite a different thing. So different, that I have not used the word ‘rape’ — our word rape — in the story of either his kidnapped mother or his kidnapped wife. As soon as I do, modern ideas intrude, and so I don’t. Rape in his wars? “To my knowledge it did not happen.” He wants evidence, see, and they can’t bring him any. As for me, I haven’t got there yet; I’m still in 1206.

I won’t always tally with Jack Weatherford, in my portrait. His Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World came out when I was a couple of years into work on mine — and I was over the moon at such a sympathetic portrait, in a popular history, for a wide audience. But I felt dead lucky, too, that I’d had time with my Tchingis before Jack, BJW, because that’s an Anxiety of Influence I might never have escaped.

Jack Weatherford turns out to be a great talker, if you ask me, and you did since you’re here. If you have a spare hour and a quarter… put it on while you’re knitting, and listen to Jack.

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Jack Weatherford is the author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens. Here’s his author page on Goodreads.

Don’t miss The UB Post on Walker Pearce, where I link to a feature on his wife from an English-language newspaper in Mongolia. Jack gets a look-in.

‘Manas’: inspiration from Chingiz, Bilga Khaghan


orkhon_inscriptionToday I read the beginning of Manas – the Kyrgyz oral epic – and was struck by Chingiz resemblances. Already I think Chingiz overshadows the story. I’m not alone: the introduction to the online Manas discusses its similarities to the Secret History of the Mongols. There are obvious clues. The father of Temujin’s wife-to-be has a dream… I’ll quote my own words, that are straight from the Secret History (of course): “In my dream I saw a gyrfalcon in flight, sheer white, with the sun and the moon in its talons. It flew down to me, as if I had cast the bird, and alighted on my glove with its trophies.” That’s a bold dream, you’d think, but the epic poem is three times as bold. Here’s what the future father of Manas dreams:

Reaching with my right hand,
I grasped the sun for myself.
Reaching with my left hand,
I caught the moon for myself.
My right hand held the sun,
My left hand held the moon.
I took the sun
And put it in the place of the moon,
I took the moon
And put it in the place of the sun. (lines 3083-92)

I don’t know (yet) what that signifies, except it’s fast and loose with the heavenly objects. I have had glimpses ahead to other Chingiz echoes, from the blood clot in his hand as he comes from the womb to, possibly, the manner of his death. It’s more than specifics, though… it’s the story, it’s the scope. I can only talk hazily now – I’ll get back to you.

I consulted another introduction to Manas, by R.Z. Kydyrbaeva. The poem, she says, “can be seen as an imaginary history of the Kyrgyz people, in which myths, fairy-tales, legends and historical events are inextricably interwoven.” She finds distinct echoes of the stele inscribed by Bilga Khaghan of the Blue Turks (pictured above) that I quote – almost word for word – early in Tribal Brawls:

“I did not come to the throne a rich king. I came to a weak people, without food on their inside, without clothes on their outside. Of this I spoke with my brother Kul Tegin, that the work of our father Elteresh for the Turks’ name and fame be not lost, and we spent, for love of the Turkic people, our nights without sleep and our days without a spell from labour. Our nobles and our people who had gone to foreign service came back on foot and naked. Forty-seven campaigns, twenty battles fought Elteresh; thirty-five wars fought Kul Tegin and I, to feed and clothe them.”

Up against this Kydyrbaeva quotes Manas:

Forty-two years was he khan,
Gathered solitary kites and turned them into worthy birds,
Gathered exhausted slaves and turned them into a people,
Gathered gold so that it lay scattered like stones,
Made that scattered people into a great nation. (lines… she doesn’t tell me)

She claims, “The very text of the epic, its compositional structure and stylistic qualities evoke the eulogy of Kul Tegin by Bilga Khaghan.”

And the common theme is unity – with the common weal of the people. “The whole spirit of the epic centres on the idea of unification, an idea that runs through Manas. It constantly stresses that fragmentation and intestine strife are signs of weakness.”

Which certainly echoes both Bilga Khaghan’s stele and Chingiz’ life story.

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– the online Manas translated by Elmira Kocumkulkizil, 2005. Link:

– R.Z. Kydyrbaeva, ‘The Kyrgyz epic Manas’ in C.E. Bosworth and M.S. Asimov, editors, History of Civilizations of Central Asia. Volume IV, The age of achievement: A.D. 750 to the end of the fifteenth century. Part Two: The achievements. Unesco, 2000.