I offered to review Mongol history titles for them after they took my novel for review, the results of which are here:
I offered to review Mongol history titles for them after they took my novel for review, the results of which are here:
If most places in the world of George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire have a rape culture, still Dothraki are different; Dothraki have a society based on rape. Others rape in war, but only Dothraki rape at wedding celebrations – in the open, ‘like animals’, as the norm. Dothraki are meant to be reminiscent of Mongols and other steppe peoples. Why Mongols? Why rape? Our popular culture (I’ll use ‘ours’ in this post about largely English-language fiction, to own it, being a white woman, British-Australian. I don’t need to address PoC with a post like this.) – our popular culture equates Mongols with rape. It goes unquestioned. The Mongols raped their way through China, Iran and Europe, is the common wisdom, and the common material for fiction on or inspired by the Mongols. But how historical is this? In this post I look at the evidence, and at our habit of stigmatising the Mongols with rape, above other peoples – such as ourselves – in fiction.
Dothraki are animalised sexually: they have sex in public like their horses; the Dothraki sexual position is ‘dog-style’, from behind; the bestial sexual customs of Dothraki are kept front and centre in the story.
The Dothraki mate like the animals in their herds. There is no privacy in a khalasar, and they do not understand sin or shame as we do.
She was afraid of the Dothraki, whose ways seemed alien and monstrous, as if they were beasts in human skin and not true men at all.
Yet every night… Drogo would come to her tent… to ride her as relentlessly as he rode his stallion. He always took her from behind, Dothraki fashion…
Daenerys teaches her husband Khal Drogo to couple face to face – like human beings.
It is instructive to look at Martin’s first novel Game of Thrones (1996) alongside a novel of the same vintage, the 90s, Pamela Sargent’s historical fiction about Genghis Khan, Ruler of the Sky (1993). Possibly Martin read Sargent, both being in the American science fiction crowd, but I won’t hang an argument on that. Though dated to the 90s, of course, Martin’s fiction is still very much active in our culture, while Sargent’s has become a lesser-known. But Martin conceived of the Dothraki in the same decade that Sargent used the Mongols to tell a story about rape. Sargent has more frequent rape in her novel, and more violent, than Martin manages in his sections on Dothraki. Yet she comes from a very different place. I knew her as a feminist SF writer and editor of the Women of Wonder anthologies. Her reason to write about rape was a feminist one. Her choice of setting was the same as Martin’s: let’s use the Mongols.
To fail to ask why is racist. On racist stereotypes bell hooks says: ‘the sexual stereotype of black men [is] as overly sexual, manly, as “rapists”.’ Jeff Yang talks of American ‘stereotypes of Asian males as emasculated and nonsexual.’ When Black means hyper-sexual, while Asian means emasculated, where do the Mongols sit? They are Asian, but they are everybody’s rapists. They have been fantasized as a threat to white women. An old scare about the Mongol stain emerging in Europeans down the centuries has been replaced by a DNA meme – ‘1 in 200 men alive today descended from Genghis Khan’ – which on investigation (you can do this on the internet) is pseudo-scientific tripe. The assumption behind both memes is a lot of rape. Never mind that when a similar percentage of modern European populations are attributed to Charlemagne, the case of the white Christian king is not immediately explained by the proposal that he had intercourse with every woman in sight.
Evidence for the early thirteenth century – Chinggis Khan’s conquests – is simply insufficient to say much about rape. Did Mongol armies rape in war more than other armies, so that they are justifiably associated with such stories? Did they rape at home, more than other societies? Was rape more prevalent among them than we call the baseline, so that we choose them to be the protagonists of such stories? The answer is: not to our knowledge. It can’t be proved either way.
Here’s a transcript of Jack Weatherford when questioned at a talk:
I know of no documented case where [rape in war] happened… The whole Mongol masculinity is so different than ours… Steppe culture in general – rape was not a part of it… To my knowledge, [rape in war] did not happen. I cannot prove this, but no-one can prove to me it did happen.
Weatherford goes out on a limb, not for the first time, since we can scarcely imagine war without rape. Most obviously, he discounts the ‘horrid acts to women’ in Ibn al-Athir. Weatherford is not alone in this judgement. To Ibn al-Athir, who watched from Mosul out of the Mongols’ reach, as to Juzjani who escaped and wrote from Delhi, Mongols were evil and prone to every evil act. There is no possibility of scrutiny of what they heard and wrote down. How are we to distinguish rumour, news, and horror tales from the thirteenth century, when we can’t today? We can assess historians.
Juvaini is the most detailed source for the sack of cities in Chinggis Khan’s war against the Khwarazm Shah in Turkestan and Iran – for the worst of the massacres. In his description of sack and massacre, a city to be plundered has its residents ordered outside and kept under watch, ‘men and women’ the same. Where the population is to be punished with massacre, they are killed without distinction. Indiscriminately – but indiscriminately does not mean an unleashed slaughter. Massacres weren’t messy but done with discipline and efficiency, each soldier allocated an equal number to kill. Juvaini’s usual ‘men and women’ might be thought a pat phrase, if not for a single city where the procedure changes. At Merv, under Tolui’s command, Mongols put the men and women into separate groups. Juvaini takes the opportunity to sentimentalise the women’s situation:
The Mongols now entered the town and drove all the inhabitants, nobles and commoners, out onto the plain. For four days and nights the people continued to come out of the town; the Mongols detained them all, separating the women from the men. Alas! how many peri-like ones [peris are fairies] did they drag from the bosoms of their husbands! How many sisters did they separate from their brothers! How many parents were distraught at the ravishment of their virgin daughters!
If he had reason to write like this at other sites, he would. At Merv, both groups were massacred just the same, without mention of a sexual motive for splitting them up. Splitting them caused upset, however – we see from Juvaini’s sentiments. It would not be efficient to split them. Treatment of women was a flashpoint, likely to cause trouble. Juvaini and Ibn al-Athir have two different stories about the death of a well-known religious scholar at Bukhara. In Ibn al-Athir, the Mongols commit ‘horrid acts with women’ while people look on and weep; some, the scholar and his son among them, cannot accept the sight and choose rather to protest, fight and be inevitably killed. Juvaini has this same religious scholar give the local imam a speech of quiescence. It’s possible both have the right of it: pious resignation until he challenged Mongols on women. Protest did not have to be about sexual assault; it was enough that Mongols killed women just like men – they did not make the distinctions a chivalrous society was used to.
It is not that we don’t hear about women, it is not that they are ignored. The explicitness or vagueness of language is a problem. For example, the word ‘ravishment’ in the quote above at Merv. ‘Ravish’ means ‘to seize away’, like Juvaini’s other escalating sentences; it can also mean ‘to rape’. The word is an ambiguous translation of an imprecise original. Juvaini makes some use of the stock phrase ‘rapine and pillage’. Rape and pillage go together (‘like a horse and carriage’, Sinatra might sing) in our speech habits too. The Mongol army was alien to most of our witnesses. It behaved in ways unfamiliar to them. A stock phrase cannot be conclusive. Juvaini records a sentence from an eyewitness at Bukhara, circulated by survivors for its ‘succinct Persian’: ‘They came, they sapped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered and they departed.’ Absent is ‘they raped.’
Silence is not evidence that a thing did not occur, but my aim here is to prove our lack of evidence. In a lack of evidence, our assumptions rush into the breach, with those auxiliaries our fantasies.
I’m going to attempt a general comment. In my view, industrial-scale rape alongside industrial-scale massacre can be ruled out. Silence is not evidence. Even so, Juvaini, who does not stint on description of the massacres, and who sentimentalises women victims, does not have rape as an official practice, and that is weighty. And if it wasn’t ordered, it wasn’t done, large-scale – not in an army whose discipline was inexplicable to witnesses from other societies. Mongols laid enormous stress on communal action. You did it in a group or you didn’t do it. This was the grounds of their efficiency. To exceed orders – to do violence where he had specified no violence – was severely punished by Chinggis. Rape, I think, at sacks or at the scene of massacres, was either ordered or frowned upon. No in between is likely.
What about captured women?
In the sacks I dealt with above, it is wives and daughters of the (Qangli Turk) garrisons who are taken into captivity, while women of the main city populations (Iranian) are not. Those led into captivity are lost sight of, even queens. The Khwarzm Shah’s mother eked out a ‘miserable existence’ (no details) among the Mongols for twelve years; Chinggis Khan gave other royal women of Khwarazm to Muslims in his service.
We should not think of captive women as necessarily in the custody of men. Often they were distributed to royal and noble Mongol women, who ran households (these may seem to us more like caravan convoys) staffed and well-populated by women. Pascha, who by luck has her story told in the sources, is one of these. Friar William of Rubruck is in the Mongol capital Karakorum:
We were discovered by a woman from Metz in Lorraine, named Pascha, who had been captured in Hungary… She belonged to the household of the lady who had been a Christian and whom I mentioned above, and told us about the unheard-of destitution she had suffered prior to her arrival at the camp. But now she was well enough off: she had a young Russian husband, by whom she had three very fine little boys, and he knew how to construct dwellings, which they regard as a worthy craft.
After a journey on foot from Europe – a journey the friar himself, on horseback with Mongol companions, found a harsh trial – she was given to an Oirat wife of Mongke Khan. Intriguingly, she has been wed to another captive. Did her mistress marry them, to make the useful household unit they are when the friar finds them? Friar William makes no inquiry or comment about sexual abuse of this young woman.
A more extraordinary captive’s story is that of Fatima. A Muslim woman captured in the Khwarazm campaign, she became a companion to Queen Toregene, who, once in charge of the state as a khan’s widow, made Fatima de facto prime minister.
Ordinary stories do not get preserved.
One thing we can say with certainty is that ‘miscegenation’, which disgusts Dothraki, did not bother Mongols in the least. They were exogamous to begin with, and Chinggis’s sons and grandsons had wives from the royal families of defeated enemies. Also, adoption of enemy children was common practice: Temujin does this with steppe enemies, and then with a Tangut boy too. When Dothraki after a victory are raping women over piles of corpses, Daenerys again tries to civilize them: ‘If your warriors would mount these women, let them take them gently and keep them for wives… let them bear you sons.’ Qotho, a cruel Dothraki, laughs: ‘Does the horse breed with the sheep?’ But Mongols did not need to have such a conversation.
And Chinggis Khan himself? Now I have words with Rashid al-Din. The more gaudy tales about Chinggis Khan often come from Rashid, whose account of Chinggis has a legendary flavour, in distinction from his coverage of the grandchildren’s times, where he is in sharp focus. It is Rashid who tells us Chinggis had ‘nearly five hundred wives and concubines, each taken from a different tribe. Some he requested after the Mongol fashion of marriage, but most he took as booty when he conquered a territory or tribe.’ Hundreds of wives and hundreds of children is not gospel, although it is an internet fact. Rashid al-Din, prime minister, ex-Jewish Muslim who wrote the first world history, was nothing if not representative of the new cultural mash-up of the Mongols in government in Iran and China. When he writes, Mongol rulers have harems and concubines, but these are not Mongol words, and Chinggis kept to a frugal Mongol lifestyle. True, Chinggis’ wives after Borte were political signals; he took one from each steppe people who joined him, and then demanded a princess in treaty with Tangut and China, this being a clause that signified he had the better of them in the treaty. Further than that we are in guesswork, and Rashid’s five hundred looks like an exaggerated brag that he conquered five hundred tribes and peoples. In addition to Borte’s nine children, Rashid names four others, from women of the steppe. He doesn’t claim there were more offspring, in spite of the number of wives. To lose track of offspring would be suspicious, what with the prestige of the Chinggis line. Children from a casual rape were not thought nothing of: twice in his genealogies of Chinggisids, Rashid tells us that a certain child – a named Chinggis descendent – was begotten when his father had sex, once, with a slave’s wife. In each case the father isolated the woman in a tent away from her husband to see whether a pregnancy resulted, afterwards returned her to her family, and brought up the child. Rashid al-Din doesn’t leave out of his Chinggis count two who died in infancy, and his practice is to include daughters as well as sons. Thirteen children looks like a complete list.
Most general histories of the Mongols repeat Rashid’s five hundred wives figure and repeat the DNA meme. They do not offer a specific discussion of rape. It isn’t for the sake of Chinggis’ reputation that I want more scrutiny, more caution; it’s because these claims foster a connection between ‘Mongols’ and ‘rape’. Wives acquired in conquest are not the same as later institutionalised harems. Historians who write jocularly – one recent history book has Chinggis ‘go forth and multiply’ – need to remember they are writing about rape. What ends up on the internet is that Genghis ‘f___d every woman in sight’.
Rashid, too, is responsible for a quote that has grown to be ubiquitous; you can scarcely read about Genghis Khan without it. Because it’s so perfect – too perfect, we ought to suspect.
A man’s greatest pleasure is to defeat his enemies, to exterminate them and seize everything they have; to watch their wives weep, to ride their smooth steeds, to treat their lovely queens and concubines as pyjamas and pillows, to gaze on and kiss their rose-tinted faces, to suck their sweet lips berry-tinted like their nipples.
This quote is very often put into plainer language, so as to sound more like a thing Genghis Khan might say and less like a Persian historian. You’ve met the flowery language of Persian historians with Juvaini and his peris, above. To fiddle with the quote may seem like a fair way to do history. It is not a fair way to do history. You can’t change the words into more believable ones and then present them as what Genghis is known to have said. I’m afraid that’s cheating with the evidence. Did Chinggis talk about pyjamas and pillows? No. Did he say this at all, in his own language? His own language can be found solely in the Secret History of the Mongols, the only extant primary source. It is where to hear how the early Mongols thought and spoke, what stories they told themselves, what figures of speech they used; where to study their imaginations. I can only answer that similar talk of the use of women’s bodies, or of war as a pleasure (rather than a condition of life) does not occur in the Secret History.
So what about that Mongol lifestyle, what about abduction of women in steppe society? On this our source is the Secret History and we know so much because both Temujin’s mother and his wife were abducted. Since it is Temujin’s family we tell the story, and what we do is add violence. Value-add is violence-add, to us. Almost always, we have Borte, Temujin’s chief wife, raped violently by the man she is given to in an enemy tribe. Both Pamela Sargent and Stephanie Thornton in her novel The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan (2014) make him rape her in public, for humiliation or as normal treatment of a captured wife. None of this is from the Secret History. The text only says that this man ‘cared for’ or ‘kept’ her, and he is given a conscience in the story. He is her husband by coercion, but he is not a violent type and does not insult her. Mongol society had its rules around abducted women, had its expectations. In our fictions, we imagine violence instead.
Two incidents of mass sexual violence
Note: These two stories, post-Chinggis, are not told in the Secret History either. Again I have to say they are not gospel.
The Oirat had flouted Ogodei’s instructions as to where to give away their daughters. His new instructions were to assemble the girls of Oirat, four thousand by report, and whoever was present had to rape them. For once – and I mean once – we have in our sources a scene out of Game of Thrones; this is the kind of thing that happened at the celebrations when ‘Daenerys Targaryen wed Khal Drogo with fear and barbaric splendour’. Now let’s notice the differences. The Mongols thought this a tyrannical act and a disgrace to Ogodei. It was an enormity and a one-off. Ogodei included it in his four misdeeds when near the end of his life he gave in public his own verdict on his khanship, with a list of four things he did right and four things he did wrong. For Dothraki, on the other hand, this is perfectly normal behaviour.
Tolui on campaign in China is being pursued by an army much bigger than his own.
Because of their own multitude and superiority and the fewness of the Mongols, pride and vanity had taken root in their brains and they looked with the glance of contempt upon the Mongol army and spoke big words, saying: ‘We shall encircle these Mongols and their king, and take them prisoner, and do this and that to their womenfolk.’ And they gave expression to shameful ideas and unworthy desires.
After a fraught few days the Mongols defeat the Chinese army.
And because they had jeered at the Mongols, speaking big words and expressing evil thoughts, it was commanded that they should commit the act of the people of Lot with all the Chinese who had been taken prisoner.
‘The act of the people of Lot’ — for Rashid al-Din, with reference to the Sodom story in the Quran — is anal intercourse. Tolui takes revenge for the enemy’s obscene threats to Mongol women, and he takes it on the bodies of those who threatened. He seems to have invented this revenge for the situation. We don’t know what he might have heard of as a precedent. By this time the Mongols have fought halfway around the known world, and been exposed to much in foreign practices in warfare. Although this campaign is in North China, the enemy threats had teeth because Mongol women operated near front lines, involved in the baggage and in custody and transportation of loot. We think ‘camp followers’, but this is Mongol wives and daughters in official function. It is worth noting too that obscenity has not been found a Mongol speech habit, in times when we can attest such things; foreign obscenities might have been upsetting.
You notice these are both cases of ordered rape – not licensed abandonment. They were ordered to rape and they did, whether tribal comrades or Chinese men. Mongols’ obedience to orders astonishes outsiders. Obedience is a dangerous weapon, as we know.
Tales of our own masculinity
Where I have dots in my transcript of Jack Weatherford, he explains to the questioner that Mongolians do not have the ‘macho’ culture of the West. It’s typical that Temujin is younger than his wife, the other way round from the West. Weatherford briefly sketches out a masculinity his audience doesn’t recognise. Mongolia is having its Me Too moment, but the terms won’t be exactly the same. Masculinity is not a constant across cultures, although the ‘young men’ bracket towards which much Mongol fiction is aimed, aren’t asked to consider this. They want to see themselves. In the first of Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, Wolf of the Plains about young Genghis, masculinity is written as emotional lock-down and an absent father. Everything womanly is devalued and thought weak, down to the wives’ tribe Olqunot. There is no honour in this tribe living off giving wives to other tribes — unlike what’s in the Secret History, where the wife-giving tribes have prestige and boast of their peaceful relations to others. Instead, in Iggulden, they are debased, despised, and they bash their wives and daughters. Temujin’s father Yesugei cannot express his feelings, and his sons have to work very hard for a slight word of approval from him. It is a script of use to boys who have a difficult relationship with their fathers, and who see that men around them have trouble to emote. This isn’t criticism: it is right that our fiction be written for us. The bad thing is the ‘feedback loop’ whereby we believe this about Mongols – and disbelieve pictures that don’t resemble this.
Helen Young says that readers are caught in a ‘feedback loop’ in which George R.R. Martin’s work helps to create a neomedieval idea of the Middle Ages, which becomes their idea of what the Middle Ages ‘really’ looked like, which is then used to defend Martin’s work as ‘realistic’ because it matches their idea of the Middle Ages.
If we come to acknowledge the simple truth that there is no reason to pin rape culture on the Mongols ahead of other medieval societies, that would be a great step forward. But at this point in the feedback loop, to disassociate Mongols and rape in the public mind frankly looks impossible. When we choose to portray Mongol men (against the evidence) as ultra-masculine, non-emotional and anti-weak, with a contempt for women, we prime them to be rapists. We prime ourselves to think of them as rapists.
Hyper-masculinity and its ills is Sargent’s main subject in her novel on Genghis Khan. Like Iggulden, she addresses a Western readership to say what she wants to say about men to them. She has a poignant story of a son, the consolation of the women’s quarters while he is a child, who at adolescence learns a shame of the womanly, acts from then on as if he despises his mother-figures, and takes his place in the ranks of men for whom rape is normal sex. This is a terribly sad story and told for a purpose. But whether we want to teach boys how to be men, or whether we want to spotlight toxic masculinity, in either case we write about Western culture. We displace Asian masculinities, we project ours into a Mongol setting. In a funny way this means we do examine our own rape culture when we write about the Mongols (or Dothraki). But we avoid admitting it’s ourselves. The distance of the Mongol setting lets us look at hyper-masculinity, emotional inability, and rape culture – our problems. Sargent was either aware that the masculinity she wrote about was Western or else she universalised. In her feminist fiction it is half-acknowledged that our toxic masculinity is the subject. She still badmouths the Mongols in order to do this, so I’m conflicted about her fiction.
You can see the difference if you watch English-subtitled films made in Mongolia about Chinggis Khan and his times. To grow up and be a man does not need that rejection of the mother, of the woman, seen in our fiction. The way Mongolian films portray grown men and their mothers – through the story of Chinggis Khan – would get a laugh, or an embarrassed titter, in Hollywood. These films are also far less violent than would float in Hollywood.
Jochi’s paternity makes a case study. Jochi is the child conceived around the time of Borte’s abduction and which man fathered him, Temujin or the enemy husband, was uncertain. The story we like to tell is about disputed paternity, and very often we have Temujin reject Jochi or hold his origins against him. The Japanese movie Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea (directed by Shinichiro Sawai, 2007) makes disputed paternity the crux of the plot. Temujin’s mother and wife were both abducted; in the film first Temujin has to prove he is a true son, and then Jochi has to prove the same to Temujin. Both were in danger of infanticide at the hands of their fathers. Infanticide, as far as I know, is not attested in Mongol life. We hear a great deal about adoption of children, which suggests the steppe’s problem was underpopulation, not an excess of mouths to feed.
A scene in the Secret History tells us differently. Chagatai, the next son, is disgruntled to be number two and calls Jochi a bastard. Chinggis and one of his oldest friends react with shock and dismay. Jochi answers Chagatai, ‘Our father has always treated me the same as his other sons, and now you…’ The Secret History, I say again, is the only extant primary source. But audiences (in Japan this time) want a tale about the importance to men of paternity. So Temujin’s generosity to Jochi becomes a grudge in the great majority of our fiction. An honourable exception is Sergei Bodrov’s movie Mongol (2007), which has Temujin cheerfully adopt not one but two children of Borte’s by other men.
The Stallion Who Mounts the World
Dothraki await ‘the stallion who mounts the world.’
The stallion is the khal of khals promised in ancient prophecy, child. He will unite the Dothraki into a single khalasar and ride to the ends of the earth, or so it was promised. All the people of the world will be his herd.
Clearly the Stallion references Genghis Khan, whom Juvaini calls ‘the world-conqueror’. Perhaps I have said enough to make you see how unMongol this imagery is. It is a sexualised image that certainly the Mongols did not use in any official capacity, such as this Dothraki prophecy and public acclamation. It is fantasy. It is of the same stuff as the DNA meme. I have seen newspapers tell us that the DNA study means Genghis Khan was the alpha male of rapists in world history. I have seen history books say almost as much. But this is our sexualisation of conquest. The Mongols, to my knowledge, never spoke in these terms, or inclined towards such images. This is us.
image at WikiCommons
Description from the Commons: ‘The Bulgarian Martyresses, 1877 painting by the Russian painter Konstantin Makovsky, depicting the rape of Bulgarian women by Africanised Ottoman bashi-bazouks during the suppression of the April Uprising a year earlier, served to mobilise public support for the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) waged with the proclaimed aim of liberating the Bulgarians.’
I use this piece of propaganda because a writer whose work has been important to me, Dostoyevsky, fired up into one of his worst phases of ethnonationalism and issued racialised propaganda for this war himself, due to how newspapers wrote up the rape of Bulgarian women by Turks.
 Carolyne Larrington in Winter Is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones (I.B. Taurus 2016) says that Pascha’s circle were voluntary visitors, ‘Europeans who had come to trade or work there’. No, this is a community of captives.
 Some primary sources on women here, translated by Paul D. Buell: http://worldhistoryconnected.press.uillinois.edu/7.1/buell.html
 Shiloh Carroll, Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones (Boydell & Brewer 2018), 6%.
“The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.”
For me, the above short message (sent on Tumblr) is self-explanatory. I had for years pulled faces, quietly, at grimdark, and ‘hopepunk’ is a fabulous name for its antidote. If you need more, the originator of the word wrote a blog post: One atom of justice by fantasy novelist Alexandra Rowland.
Grimdark has no room for human improvement. Hopepunk, by Rowland’s explainer, scarcely believes in improvement – it isn’t ‘noblebright’ where the world can be set right, but in spite of that, it’s activist.
My fiction practice is activist. An example that I care about: execution.
Mongols have a reputation for a cut-his-head-off approach to justice. They even had back then, when ‘to punish in the way of Chinggis Khan’s Jasaq’ meant a capital punishment. At once I have to tell you two items of information to mitigate this impression. One is, over the course of Mongol history punishments inclined towards fines. Another is, when in government in China the Mongols greatly reduced (or simplified) the preexistent list of capital crimes.  Even so, execution was a visible feature of life and in my story of the rise of Tchingis Khan I had frequent close encounters with execution to write about. How does a grimdark author write about executions, and how does a hopepunk?
A hopepunk author who hates capital punishment today (me) won’t let go to waste those ‘mitigations’ I mentioned. Behind a trend towards fines, there must have been sentiments, attitudes, people who didn’t like execution altogether. A hopepunk author notices an extraordinary reluctance to execute known individuals in the Secret History of the Mongols. A hopepunk author is fascinated by the information that Mongols considered it a cruelty to let a sentenced person wait for death.
Unlike Texas today, where you can wait on death row for years. Are you astonished to hear that 13th century Mongols have a critique of present-day execution in Texas on grounds of inhumanity? You shouldn’t be. Medieval Europe also offers critiques of modern indifference, if you look for them, if you want to write about them. Grimdark doesn’t want to: grimdark paints it black, and Grimdark Genghis is ‘ruthless’, ‘merciless’ – adjectives demonstrably untrue, but nailed onto his name in grimdark history. Grimdark fiction (and I have a certain fiction in mind), makes up execution practices, as hideous as possible, and presents them as ‘steppe culture’.
Aside from the demonisation of steppe culture, what does this do, what does this contribute to? It lowers our expectations for humans; it leads us to think, when our ‘civilizations’ are stripped away, this is what we are. Dystopian SF or barbarian HF: the grimdarks of both teach this lesson.
In the hopepunk camp myself, I think the lesson is untrue. Both camps can dig up evidence, of course, and frankly, I’m persuaded it’s a matter of temperament, where you sit. I won’t convert a grimdarker with my little pieces of evidence about the humanity of Mongols, or Vikings, or us after the breakdown of society in the imminent apocalypse.
I use execution as an example because no author has been more influential on me than Dostoyevsky, and his own close call with execution often turns up in his fiction. He describes the psychological cruelty of a wait for execution. His descriptions are what Mongols saw and knew, when execution was so near at hand and not removed from public view. In Europe at the same time, we probably think of public spectacle and ghoulish crowds. In the midst of this, though, I am only the more struck by accounts of times when a crowd decided to be sorry for the criminal instead, and made a great emotional event of their grief and sympathy. In an incident recorded by Beyhaqi, an ex-vizier is executed in the streets of Balkh, 1059. ‘The order was shouted out for people to stone him, but no-one touched a stone and everyone was weeping uncontrollably.’ Silver coins were given out to bribe ‘the rabble’ into picking up stones, but they didn’t fancy it, and the executioner had to strangle him. Perhaps it’s because I’m hopepunk that I find this a rare insight, and deeply indicative.
Hopepunk doesn’t paint it black; hopepunk searches out those chiaroscuro shafts of light. To let readers know, a crowd once in 11th century Balkh didn’t want to throw stones on instructions from the state. For a hopepunker, this is important. You’d better believe I’m going to seize on these nuggets and feature them in my fiction. When they are true.
And that’s the thing. When they are true. I have a rule, hard and fast (unusual for my rules): Invent No Evil. It feels like slander to say a person who was once alive committed a bad act I know he didn’t, or one he might be accused of in the gossip of his enemies, but can’t be convicted of. He may not have recourse to a court but I can feel his ghost, reading over my shoulder. Why would I trash the reputation of a person, even if he’s centuries dead?
To make a good story? Good for who? Not for Mongols. Not for Mongol image. I won’t make up evils so that you can think the worse of Mongols. Yes, you know it’s fiction, but fiction sticks. Fiction affects your views, and the majority of people think Mongols were pretty much as they appear in popular fiction. You know this is true.
But it’s not just about the Mongols, is it, about my chosen subject? It’s hopepunk. It’s the question: Are you hopepunk? Or are you grimdark? If you’re grimdark, pile on the evils, revel in them, invent them freely – since to you they are the truth. They are fair invention. Details are made up for the story, but the bottom line is accurate, this is the base of how humans behave.
If you’re hopepunk, it isn’t.
Invent no evil. The grimdarks do. It’s rude to quote actual examples, but you can imagine the kind of thing: cannibalisation of live enemies, etc. I’ll include every piece of evil that is well-documented in the sources, but I’ll never make evils up. I feel I have a duty to the historical people I write about, but behind that, deeper than that, in my hopepunk bones… you just wouldn’t catch me adding unnecessarily to the world’s evils, telling people this is how it is. There is evil enough in my tale without inventions. It does a disservice to the evils that took place: how can you look real evil in the face when you’ve confused the real with inventions? Hopepunk isn’t about avoidance.
Take Dostoyevsky in the House of the Dead. After his sentence to hang was commuted at the place of execution, he was sent to hang out in Siberia. A few political prisoners, gentry class, in with the serf class who were criminals. You can read about what happened to him in The House of the Dead, his documentary-novel. This is what he thought going in:
‘There are bad people everywhere, but among the bad there are always some good ones,’ I hastened to console myself. ‘Who knows? Perhaps these people are in no way worse than those outsiders, those who are outside the prison.’ I thought this and shook my head at the notion; but – God in Heaven – if only I had known then to what extent it was true!
Dostoyevsky wasn’t hopepunk when he went in. He was liberal-minded, idealistic, and ‘perhaps the convicts are as human as my outside acquaintances’ was a piety that he felt he ought to believe. It fell away quickly, once inside, and he experienced the prisoners as monsters – for years. Nearer to the end of his prison term than to its beginning, he underwent a change. He came out with a deep conviction, a kind of conversion that stuck with him for his life: that frail liberal piety he had in his head when he went in, turned out to be the actual truth. Nobody else had grasped it, he thought – none of his old acquaintance who would have mouthed the same piety, but didn’t have his lived experience of individual convicts – murderers and worse – whom at last he perceived as fully human.
Dostoyevsky is my guiding light in writing people who do evil. From the redemption of the criminal on the last page of Crime and Punishment to the round of cheers that finishes off his last book, he is unabashedly hopepunk. I’ve had several conversations with people who assume he’s grimdark, because they have heard of his dark material. No, he’s one of ours. Let me link you to a piece on his radical empathy, written by a novelist: Dostoyevsky’s Empathy by Laurie Sheck.
I haven’t always had faith. I went through grimdark years fed by evolutionary psychology which I took to be the science of the day. The darkness was total, and in my anguish of spirit I reached out for Dostoyevsky, who fought tooth and nail against the unfreedoms of the science of his day. I don’t feel free in grimdark fiction; I feel trapped in a dark cell, otherwise known as its vision of humanity. Let the light in. There’s a window. Go hopepunk.
1. see the section on ‘Law’ in Sechin Jagchid and Paul Hyer, Mongolia’s Culture and Society, Westview Press, 1979, pp. 353-63.
red door © CaoChunhai/istock
snow leopard © Rixipix/istock
One day — and I aim to be still alive for the event — there’ll be published a Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Chinggis Khan, to match the Reception of Alexander the Great I just saw announced (Table of Contents).
It must have 800 pages, like the Alexander. I was disappointed enough when Cambridge’s History of Inner Asia: The Chinggisid Age came out at half the spine-width of one of its History of China volumes. Obviously my sin is envy.
I have slowly become as interested in Chinggis reception as in the history itself. Not only our reception today — his portrayal in popular and academic mediums; the study of that portrayal, its whys and wherefores, its habits and its tropes — but the history of reception. His portrayal, say, in 18th-century France and England, which is a high point (I dipped into this in my post Genghis Englishhed in the Eighteenth Century). His reception by Roger Bacon in the English 13th century, and in turn the use of Bacon and Mongols in John Cowper Powys’s 1956 novel The Brazen Head. His reception in biographies, like the one by Ralph Fox which I collected to see how a British communist in 1936 explains the Mongol conquests. (What for? Believe it or not, it sheds light on how we do. We are positioned too.) A year or two ago I outlined a vast research project on the reception of Turks and Mongols in Byzantine and Persian historians of the 11th to 13th centuries, and how the shapes they made of history might persist in centuries afterwards. And I’d love to fulfil that project, as far as I am equipped to… except my first task is the piece of reception I am writing myself: my novel.
One part of Chinggis reception that does attract attention is in modern-day China. The ‘Who owns Chinggis’ thing would be a controversial chapter in this prospective book.
No history is told straight. It is always received. And what Chinggis has been made to represent in different times and places, fascinates me. Reception history fascinates me: I collect those I find analogous, such as Emma Bridges on ‘imagining’ Xerxes and the Persian Wars. Because again, I want to see a similar for Chinggis and Mongols.
2017 was a year of urgent attention paid to race and medieval studies, with resources made for general use as well as for teachers and researchers.
I followed these projects on Twitter, which has turned out a great venue for medievalists: news, crowdsourced efforts and scholarly engagement with the public.
There is now available a bibliography, facilitated by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski.
It has sections on ‘Academic publications’ and ‘Blog posts and journalism’.
Link to PDF:
Over 2017, The Public Medievalist website curated a series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages. This series extended to forty posts by contributors. It is written to reach the general public, and is a great place to start on race issues. Here’s the final post of the year, from where you can browse through the subjects covered:
For those interested in medieval Mongols, it is exciting to have these resources and a new focus on race — as ‘race’ was then, and in the way we study the past today.
In late Jurchen China, as the Jin dynasty slowly lost its war with the Mongols, a school of poetry came into existence, coalesced among intellectuals in Pien where the court, and cultural figures, retreated for the last few years. It’s called the School of Death and Chaos. Alternate translations: Death and Disorder, Loss and Chaos. Yuan Haowen, who was captured with the city in 1233, was its chief poet. In the week between the Mongols’ seizure into custody of the entire Jin court and his own removal as a prisoner, he wandered the empty royal chambers (as he was allowed) and wrote a suite, ‘In the Farcical Style’. There isn’t much of farce about these poems, beyond the savage irony of that title and the employment of an unusual measure, for serious verse.
Stephen H. West: ‘[Yuan Haowen’s poems] are seen by traditional and modern critics alike as some of the finest examples of historical poems ever written and are extolled for the way in which they carefully trace and lament the decline and subsequent extinction of the Jin.’ The above-mentioned cycle of fifteen ‘introduce the master tropes that will govern his poetry over the next two years: the cold seas of political chaos and the flowing rivers of cultural dissolution’. Everything was at stake in the view of Yuan Haowen: ‘…by the imagery of dissolution and exodus, he suggests a return to a precivilized state… the dispersal of Chinese civilization’. 
J.I. Crump: ‘Much poetry written during this period is called sang-luan verse, or “poetry of death and destruction,” and sang-luan verse in many ways is a far more accurate measure of the emotional battering the Chinese underwent at the hands of the Mongols than any amount of historical documentation.’ 
It’s a tragedy of Jin that this century-old foreign dynasty was finding its own distinctive voice, its unique arts, as the Mongols struck, and inspired unexpected loyalty in its last fight. I’m a fan of Jin China; being both short-lived and foreign, it hasn’t had much glory in the history books. Those books, too, disagree, by wide margins, on how much fight Jin put up against the Mongols. My answer: Jin put up enormous fight, and the loyalty of Han and non-Han – old chauvinism, often, set aside – was of great inconvenience to Temujin.
When Song China in the south went to war against Jin in the north, on the eve of its Mongol troubles – Song thought to exploit a difficult situation for Jin, that hadn’t used its once-frightening war machinery in years, that was meant to be crippled by floods and famine – Song sent out agitation for the native Chinese population to rise against the foreign rule. For Han officers to mutiny and kill Jurchen officers.
It didn’t happen. Jin discovered they had a unity that nobody knew for sure was there, until Song tested them. This is bad news for my Temujin. And that war machinery, which Song hoped had rusted in their forty-year peace? Functions pretty well.
Another tragedy of Jin: some historians say the dynasty didn’t come to terms with the Mongols the way a traditional Chinese dynasty might be expected to; they refused to pay the Mongols off, which perpetuated the war. That is, the fact they were foreigners and didn’t act to script led to confusion and unusual destructiveness. My story’s a little different to this. But the achievements of late Jin, as a culture and as a society, are found, are recognised, even as they are engulfed. And that is tragic.
I’m going to have to antedate the School of Death and Chaos, give them a slightly early start, because I end when Temujin ends and he’s not around for the win over Jin’s fallback capital at Pien. Artistic license: no way am I missing out on the Death and Chaos School. As an arts person, I notice that the story can be told through the fate of the arts, and isn’t well-told without. There are, of course, other tales. In enclaves of Chinese who had made peace with the Mongols under local leadership, zaju drama was hatched, even while the war went on, from a fusion of cultures, as creative people gathered to these safety areas too.
A week back I nearly disqualified myself from writing book three, as I watched Aleppo on Twitter and told myself, I haven’t been in an Aleppo. How do I have the nerve? Past couple of days, end-of-year existential angst hits and I feel, past two years, everything I hold dear is under threat. My only enemy is on the loose. And my mind reverts to the Death and Chaos School, which I was fascinated by as I’ve always been fascinated by ruin, but which I did not foresee I’d feel so close to.
Writers are vultures.
1 ‘Chilly Seas and East-Flowing Rivers: Yuan Haowen’s Poems of Death and Disorder, 1233-35’ in China Under Jurchen Rule: Essays on Chin Intellectual and Cultural History, eds. Hoyt Cleveland Tillman and Stephen H. West, State University of New York Press, 1995.
2 Chinese Theater in the Days of Kublai Khan, University of Arizona Press, 1980.
Image A.Y. Jackson, A Copse, Evening, 1918, from the Commons.
Last year I wrote a post where I used the word racism of the state of affairs in Mongol studies. A year ago (but doesn’t a lot happen in a year, these days?) that felt almost daring, actually, because very few seemed to be addressing it, or calling it out, as I said. The skimpy bibliography I attached to the post was the most I knew of to point to.
It was a crude post, because I don’t have the analytic tools on this subject of racism. But boy, have I been bothered by its obvious presence in Mongol history-writing.
Now a PhD candidate, Sierra Lomuto, has written a post that is being much shared, on ‘the utter lack of racial consciousness in our field of Medieval Studies’.
It’s a welcome post, and what excites me is that Lomuto says she is working on Mongols and race: ‘As a mixed-race Asian woman working on histories of racial structures in medieval European-Mongol relations, this lacuna in Medieval Studies is not news to me. I regularly read adjectives like “uncultured” and “barbaric” to describe Mongols in books published within the last decade. I still see “Oriental” used uncritically to refer to Asian peoples.’
I hope she publishes soon. I hope she or others address racism in the historiography on Mongols.
It’s been quiet a while on my blog – ever since I went back to university to study historiography. The way we write history. This I was led to by curiosity as to the way we write the Mongols’ history. I was in search of explanations as to why we write the way we do, what goes on behind the results I read in my research books, and what goes wrong with that process.
I have turned my eyes back to the 18th century. Edward Gibbon’s views on Zingis fascinated me back when I first encountered our great Mongol (in those years of early intellectual stirrings; I have kept my notebooks, fondly. I like my consistency). To study Gibbon is mostly an excuse to bathe in his sentences: listen to the cadence in this, his most famous pronouncement on Zingis.
But it is the religion of Zingis that best deserves our wonder and applause. The Catholic inquisitors of Europe, who defended nonsense by cruelty, might have been confounded by the example of a barbarian, who anticipated the lessons of philosophy and established by his laws a system of pure theism and perfect toleration. [7.64]
Thank God for historians who are great writers.
Much more recently I have become intrigued with a life published in London in 1722, translated from the French by a novelist, Penelope Aubin (I’m sidetracked by her too). Its original was written in the 17th century by François Pétis, an interpreter of Arabic and Turkish at the French court, and published by his son François Pétis de la Croix twelve years before its Englishhing. Perhaps the title, The History of Genghizcan the Great, First Emperor of the Antient Moguls and Tartars, gives its rather heroic flavour.
I want to know both about the state of knowledge and the attitudes in these 18th century works, so I am out to investigate as part of my historiography study.
I don’t like to drop old history in the bin. Obviously one doesn’t drop Gibbon, being a great writer with a great concept of how to write history. But the idea that most history books become obsolete never made sense to me. The ‘of-its-timeness’ that is easy to spot in an old history book, is just as true of the histories written in our time, where, being contemporaries, we cannot spot it. So it’s terribly useful to read history from another time. Also, let us not assume that the latest history is the most intelligent. By golly, I haven’t found that true in Mongol studies. I feel the need to get back behind the 19th century, with its huge ideas that affected history-writing.
It is easy perhaps to see why we’d want to get back behind the 20th century. Those World Wars influenced the way we think of the Mongol world war. Is that influence for better or for worse? Either way, post-20th century it is inescapable, unless you go back and read history written beforehand – and see the difference. Mired in our time, we might think them innocents (‘now we’ve learnt what a world war is’) or we might think them imprisoned by ideas of religion or politics. But we do not see our own prisons, although we are guaranteed to be in them. This is about the struggle to get out.
So I am going to bask in 18th century English for a bit, and try to see the whys and wherefores of their biographies of Genghis Khan. Who knows? They might have been placed to understand things that we are not placed to understand. In fact, I think that’s a safe bet for any era, on any subject.
Facsimile of François Pétis’s Genghizcan the Great here.
I like to muck about with translation of the Secret History. Inspired by Everett Fox’s raw translations from the Bible, that imitate what the original does no matter how strangely this comes across in English, I have tried to get more authentic with the Mongol.
I don’t read thirteenth-century Mongol; yet you can acquaint yourself thanks to the resources at Monumenta Altaica, who have the Cleaves English translation along with three transliterations of the original. With a transliteration in front of me and rival translations with notes on word use, I concoct.
Take a passage: Blue Jos describes Temujin, The Secret History of the Mongols, §254.
First, the version I have in my novel (Tribal Brawls, epigraph to the chapter ‘Jamuqa Back from the Dead’):
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.
Here’s the original Mongol. You can see the shape and the rhymes (hint: look for rhyme at the start of the line not the end). The first and last lines are prose – I leave them unitalicised; in between is verse:
Qan ecige tan-u qamuq ulus-i bayi-ul-urun
qara teriü-ben qanjuqala-ju
qara cisu-ban nambuqala-ju
qara nidü-ben hirmes ülü kin
qabtaqay ciki-ben dere-tür ülü talbin
šilüsün-iyen unda la-ju
ölümle-n kicien yabu-quy caq-tur eke tan-u qamtu-bar joboldurun…
Here’s an attempt to imitate in English what it does. For instance, that qara, three times in a row, means black — used far beyond the literal, opposed to white to stand for unfortunate or non-noble, common. I left it out of my loose translation that had to be self-explanatory for the purposes of the novel. Now I’m interested in ever more authenticity…
The khan your father, in his work to found the whole ulus [people or state] –
black head being strapped to his saddle,
black blood being poured into his flask,
black eyes unblinking,
not lying his flat ear to a pillow, making do with his sleeve,
making do with his coat-skirts spread out,
satisfying thirst with his saliva,
eating his gums for meat –
he struggled –
until the sweat from his brow ran down to his soles,
until the sweat from the soles of his feet ran to his brow –
diligently he gave himself to the great work.
Racism is a theme in my twitter-news lately. In Australia we have footballer Adam Goodes who has been too Indigenous for certain sectors of the crowd – whereby unacknowledged racism is being talked about. In America… I don’t often America-watch, but I have to say, the Charleston church killings have left more of a permanent impression on me than any event in my lifetime within the US (aside from capital punishment, which I do watch). Now Twitter tells me a bloke at the head of the UK government is in trouble for describing unwanted people as a ‘swarm’, and thus dehumanising them.
People as swarms? That’s very familiar to me, on my home ground of Mongols.
You probably know there is a history of animalistic language used of steppe people by settled. Chinese names for steppe identities often punned on animal and insect imagery, or else were simply insult-names (if you don’t know, you can ask my Tchingis, but he’s sensitive on the matter: Tribal Brawls, chapter 2/2). As for the right today not to be spoken of as animals, steppe people are way behind.
“The ensuing chaos led masses of Turks to swarm into Syria…” [706-7]
“The Turkic khaganate became the breeding-ground for other powerful Turkic tribal confederations.” 
– D. A. Korobeinikov, ‘Raiders and neighbours: The Turks (1040-1304)’ in The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c.500–1492, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
definition of ‘breeding ground’ in The Cambridge English Dictionary:
1. A place where animals breed and produce their babies.
Example: These animals always return to the same breeding ground.
2. A place where something develops easily, especially something unpleasant.
Example: Poor housing conditions are breeding grounds for crime.
I don’t know whether cloistered steppe historians upset themselves over this kind of language. I do.
‘Horde’ itself is overused. At least it is commonly explained these days that the original orda or ordo meant a chiefly camp, a court camp. Does that excuse our permutations of it? But I am more concerned by ‘swarm’ and ‘breeding grounds’, both of which I see around the traps.
In my last post I urged the watching of films from China and Mongolia. What I didn’t work out a way to say is, in these you’ll see Mongols, simply, assumed to be human beings, and there the difference lies. That’s crudely put but it is my perception. It seemed too crude to say.
You know that thing when you don’t call people racist, even though you know they are? It’s too confronting, it’s impolite. At the moment, in Australia, we’re over that attitude. Racism is racism. It hurts people. Call it.
I’ve complained about prejudice in history books before in this blog, but I haven’t called it racism. It is. Steppe nomads can be talked about as not-quite-human. It’s not on.
I think other historical peoples have been stood up for, already, better than my Mongols have. People feel free to talk about Mongols in ways they wouldn’t of most other historical peoples. With the amount I read on Mongols, I honestly believe this to be true. In the worst of it, there’s no thought that they are still an existing people; no thought that our coverage – popular and academic, fiction and non-fiction – is still Eurocentric, and unfair. I’m on the verge of slapping on that label Orientalist. Because most of our coverage is.
In a biography of Genghis published last month, Frank McLynn (more at home with biographies of Europeans) reaches the verdict that the Mongols were ‘parasites’. I won’t talk here of what I think he has left out of this assessment; here I just want to ask, as I want to ask in a hundred similar cases, whether he or those who read him would be comfortable to apply this word to other peoples? A European people? An African people? A Native American people? I have to suspect (in this and a hundred other cases) that no, they wouldn’t be comfortable.
Historical discourse doesn’t matter? It does to me, who am invested in Mongols. It does to Mongolians today who call themselves proud Mongols. Besides, it matters, whenever and wherever, that you acknowledge human beings’ human status – that you are not racist.
Kevin Stuart, Mongols in Western/American Consciousness, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.
Timothy May, ‘Mongol Image’ in The Mongol Conquests in World History, London, Reaktion Books, 2012, pp. 102-6.
Christopher I. Beckwith, ‘Epilogue: The Barbarians’ in Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 320-62.