Two Sacrificial Deaths

Dish_with_Paired_Fish,_first_half_of_14th_century,_Ilkhanid_period,_Iran_-_Sackler_Museum_-_DSC02511There’s a reason for the fish. Read on.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been deposed; some slain in war;
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives; some sleeping kill’d…

… and some have sacrificed their lives for loved ones, in a bargain with the gods. As usual, it’s a pity Shakespeare didn’t have the histories of Mongol kings to hand, instead of those dull English chronicles. Today we have extracts on two kings or princes who went ‘in the place’ of a sick family member: did the one draw inspiration from the other?

First, Tolui. In the Cleaves translation of the Secret History, that you can read online. I quote the whole of section 272. Apologies for length, but summaries can’t give you the flavour. I have simplified Cleaves’ textual interventions and indicated verse by italics.

In the year of the hare [1231] Ogodei Qahan set forth against the Kitad people and sent Jebe as vanguard. And so, overcoming the soldiers of the Kitad and having slain them till they stood like rotten trees, passing Chabchiyal, making them to assault their towns and cities in every quarter, making the soldiers to march, Ogodei Qahan pitched at Sira Degtur. There Ogodei Qahan was attained of sickness. When, losing mouth and tongue, he was in distress, when one caused to divine by diverse sorcerers and by diviners, they said, “The lords and sovereigns of the land and the waters of the Kitad people, now when their people and folk are spoiled and now when their cities and towns are destroyed, rage violently against the Qahan.” When they divined by bowels, saying, “We shall give in his stead people and folk, gold and silver, cattle and food,” the sickness not abating, the lords and sovereigns of the land and the waters raged more violently. When they divined by bowels, saying, “Could somebody from the persons of the imperial family serve in his stead?,” the Qahan, opening his eyes, requesting water, drinking it, when, being asked by him, saying, “What hath befallen?,” when the sorcerers reported unto him, saying, “The lords and sovereigns of the land and the waters of the Kitad people, now when their land and waters are destroyed and now when their people and folk are spoiled, rage violently against thee. When we divine by bowels, saying, ‘We shall give in his stead whatsoever other thing they may request,’ they rage more violently. When we say, ‘Would somebody from the persons of the imperial family serve in his stead?,’ the sickness abateth. Now the decree shall decide how we shall do,” when Ogodei made a decree, as he said, “Who is there from the princes in my presence?,” Prince Tolui was in his presence. When Tolui spake, saying, “Our fortunate father Chinggis Qahan, while there were elder brethren above and younger brethren below, choosing thee, elder brother the Qahan, even as one chooseth a gelding, and feeling thee, even as one feeleth a wether, pointing out his great throne unto thy person and laying the many peoples upon thee as a burden, gave them unto thee. As for me, I was told, ‘Being in the presence of the elder brother the Qahan go, Making to remember him which shall have forgotten, Making to awake him which shall be fallen asleep, Now if I lose thee, mine elder brother the Qahan, Of whom shall I make to remember him which shall have forgotten? Of whom shall I make to awaken him which shall be fallen asleep? Verily, if mine elder brother the Qahan become not right, The many Mongghol people would be orphans; The Kitad people would rejoice. I shall serve in the stead of mine elder brother the Qahan. I have cleft The back of the tulu fish. I have cut in twain The back of the kileme fish. I have conquered The visible. I have pricked The outside. Fair of face, Long of back am I. Sorcerers, incant and conjure!,” when the sorcerers conjured, Prince Tolui drank the water of conjuration. When, sitting but a moment, he spake, having said, “I am become drunk. While I rouse myself from my drunkenness, let the elder brother the Qahan decide how he may care for his younger brethren, orphans and young, and his younger sister in law, Berude, a widow, until they attain unto intelligence. I have spoken my words whatsoever I had to speak. I am become drunk,” he went out and departed. Such was the manner in which he became not right.

‘Not right,’ as you gather, means not alive.

Thanks for reading that. But now I have to give you, also, the story from Rashid al-Din, the Jami al-Tawarikh, because I think it’s gloriously told. The religious terms have since become Islamic, so that ‘lords and sovereigns of the land and water,’ that is the spirits of place, are changed in Tolui’s speech to the one God. This is from the J.A. Boyle translation: The Successors of Genghis Khan, Columbia University Press, 1971, pp. 38-9.

Because Tolui Khan had been separated from him for some time and he had heard that an enemy had overpowered him when far from the main army, Qa’an [Ogodei] had been in great distress of mind. When the good news arrived of his victory and safe return, he was exceedingly pleased and happy. And when Tolui Khan himself arrived he showed him much honour and praised him greatly. And so unexpected a victory having been gained, he left Toqolqu Cherbi with some other emirs to deal with Altan Khan and subjugate all the countries of Khitai, whilst they themselves auspiciously returned, in triumph. Tolui asked permission to go on in advance: he died suddenly on the way. It is related that several days before, Qa’an had been sick, and at his last breath. Tolui Khan went up to his pillow. The qams [shamans], as is their custom, had pronounced their incantations and washed his sickness in water in a wooden cup. Because of his great love for his brother, Tolui snatched up that cup and cried out with great insistence: “O Eternal God, Thou art aware and knowest that if this is because of sins, I have committed more, for in all the lands I have rendered many people lifeless and enslaved their wives and children and made them weep. And if it is because of his handsomeness and accomplishments, I am handsomer and more accomplished. Forgive him and call me to Thee in his stead.” Having uttered these words with great insistence he drank down the water in which they had washed the sickness. Ogetei recovered and Tolui took his leave and departed. A few days later he was taken ill and died. This story is well known, and Tolui Khan’s wife, Sorqoqtani Beki, used always to say: “He who was my delight and desire went into the head of Ogetei Qa’an and sacrificed himself for him.”

The story survives nicely, with differences of culture; in this Persian-language history from the Ilkhanlig, Tolui doesn’t talk in terms of metaphorical fish, but here you have, at least, his own people’s later understanding of what he meant by the fish. Tolui has been the most slaughterous member of the Chinggis family, the one with an enthusiasm for war; it is right, as he seems to say himself (with the fish), that the local spirits vent their anger upon him. It’s instructive to see this consciousness Tolui has, of damage done, turned into a religious language of sin. His boast (it’s me you want) comes across a bit differently, too; it’s true he’s the better soldier, and he’s taken in a victory moment. Tolui is also known for his love for Ogodei, in particular – they were said to be closer than brothers usually are, more resembling andas. How did Ogodei, when recovered, react to this sacrifice of life on his behalf? Rashid tells us, later in the tale [p.199]:

Previously, when Ogetei Qa’an had gone to war against Khitai and the inevitable disaster had overtaken Tolui Khan, Qa’an was always bemoaning the pain of separation from him, and when he was drunk he used to weep a great deal and say, “I am exceedingly sad because of separation from my brother and for that reason I choose to be drunk, in the hope of quenching the flame a little for awhile.” And because of the great concern that he had for his [Tolui’s] children he commanded that the affairs of the ulus and the control of the army should be entrusted to the counsel of his [Tolui’s] chief wife, Sorqoqtani Beki, who was the most intelligent woman in the world, and that the princes and the army should be under her command.

In other words, he neglected his duties and left government in the hands of Tolui’s widow – who, we heard above, guilt-trips him about her husband’s death. Poor Oggers, whose excuse for drinking is never listened to; but then Tolui gets it worse, dismissed, in that modern way we have, as died from drink – as the cynical said at the time. However, a descendant of the family may have taken their story to heart. Babur, a Chaghatay Turko-Mongol (it’s the British who called them Mughals), who traced his line to Jenghiz, certainly knew this story of Tolui’s sacrifice of life. Did it inspire him? Did he imitate it? Here is what Babur is said to have written about his own demise, ahead of that event. He believes he’s on the way out because he has exchanged his life for his son’s. You can read this full ‘fragment’ of his autobiography ­online. First, the fond and proud father:

[Humāyūn] reached Agra, the imperial residence. I was engaged in talking of him to his mother, just as he arrived. His presence made our hearts expand like rosebuds, and our eyes shine like flaming torches. It was my daily custom to maintain an open table, but on this occasion I held a feast in his honour, and treated him in a most distinguished manner. We stayed together for some time living on terms of the closest intimacy. The truth is that his conversation had an inexpressible charm, and that he realized completely the type of the ‘perfect man’.

Shortly, these events:

Humāyūn took leave of me to proceed to Sambhal, which was the place assigned for his residence, and where he stayed for six months. It is probable that the climate and water of the place did not suit him, for fever attacked him, and continued for such a long time that I ended by making up my mind to speak to him about it. I gave orders to have him conveyed by boat to Delhi and thence to Agra so that capable doctors might see him and prescribe a proper treatment for him. He was accordingly made to travel by water for several days. In spite of all the remedies that were administered to him, he got no better. Then Mīr Abul Kāsim, who was a person of the highest esteem, represented to me that the only remedy that could be applied in the case of such maladies was to make a sacri­fice to God of something of great value in order to obtain from Him the restoration of the patient’s health. Thereupon, having reflected that nothing in the world was dearer to me than Humāyūn except my own life, I determined to offer myself in the hope that God would accept my sacrifice. Khwāja Khalīfah and other close friends of mine said to me, ‘Humāyūn will recover his health, so how can you speak so unwisely? It will suffice if you offer to God the most precious thing you possess of worldly goods. Offer as alms that diamond which came into your possession after Ibrahīm’s defeat, and which you presented to Humāyūn.’ ‘But’, I replied, ‘there is no treasure which can be com­pared to my son. It would be better for me to offer myself as his ransom, for he is in a very critical condition, and the situation demands that I should come to the aid of his weakness at the expense of my own strength.’ I immedi­ately entered the room where he was and went thrice round him, starting from his head, and saying: ‘I take upon myself all that you suffer.’ At the same instant I felt myself heavy and depressed, while he became cheery and well. He got up in complete health, while I became weak and afflicted with malaise. I summoned to my bed­side the grandees of the Empire and the most influential nobles, and placing their hands in that of Humāyūn as a mark of investiture, I solemnly proclaimed him as my successor and the heir to my crown, and placed him on the throne.

Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings…
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, Act 3, Scene 2, line 156. Great speech.

Image: dish with fish, from the Ilkhanlig. On the Commons. Possibly Tolui drank Ogodei’s washings out of one and had fish on his mind.

Genghis Khan and Tangut


{winged horse, Tangut, from the Yulin Caves. On his last Tangut campaign, Temujin fell from his horse and subsequently ascended to heaven}

We’re still in discovery about Genghis Khan and Tangut. As I prepared this post, I saw two January posts at BabelStone, on Tangut defectors to the Mongols. One of these, Laosuo, was unknown to the record until we found an inscription in his honour. He seems to have been an enthusiastic defector, fighting early for the Mongols and fighting hard; Genghis dubbed him a baghatur (hero). The stele tells us very little about his reasons; how can it, erected when his great-greats were alive? But his heroics at Samarkand prove he wasn’t combat-shy; and the stele itself is testament to his loyalty, once he had chosen his side. There were opportunist turncoats, but there are also other histories of loyal service, from the day a person made the big decision to turn, and down through a family.

They didn’t have to be defectors: they can be captives, like the better-known Chaghan, or we may be uncertain how they came into Mongol employ. During the Jin war, Temujin’s principal envoy, sent to the Jin court for negotiations at least seven times, was a Tangut. Jin had rejected his ambassador Ja’far, an Onggot resident of Samarkandi background, as unsuitable, perhaps because he was a merchant; this A-la-ch’ien (Chinese transcription) must have been the right type.

Without voluntary defectors and captives in employment, not only Mongol government of off-steppe areas, but Mongol conquests, wouldn’t have happened. Even in Temujin’s last campaign, after considerable practice, the Mongols can’t easily reduce a Tangut city; it was his engineers corps, staffed by captives, captained by a Han Chinese, who, excruciatingly slowly for the Mongols, began to turn around the general-knowledge fact that nomads can’t take cities. When Jin China’s capital fell, few Mongols were present; Temujin had dispatched one Mongol commander, to join a siege force that was mainly Qatat/Khitan, ex-Jin, part of them revolted, part of them defected. Thus, it is never too early to say, with In the Service of the Khan – a collection of biographies wherein you can find a wealth of defectors’ stories: “The enlistment by the Mongols of so many people of such diverse backgrounds in one grand common enterprise apparently has no historical precedent, and should be counted as one of the main reasons for whatever success was achieved by the Mongols.” [xiii]

13thC camel

{a musical instrument goes into the bags. 13th century. Temujin’s favourite orchestra, which travelled with him, was Tangut}

1024 Djengiz_Khân_et_les_envoyés_chinois.jpeg Rashid illustration

{steppe diplomacy: Chinese envoys arrive for Chinggis Khan. Book art for Rashid a-Din’s world history}

Jin China had a defence-in-depth, a frontier zone. But in a sense, Temujin fought his whole life in frontier zones: where steppe and settled had intermingled for centuries before him; that intermingling, we must presume, was always very present to his mind. It’s what he saw. He remains more interested in nomads and ex-nomads than he ever seems to be in settled life. He never quite reaches that horizon where civilization lives unmeshed with his ‘felt-tent folk’… at most he makes incursions into it. In North China, his early campaign goals are to win and to win over the thick Jin defence zone with its tribal auxiliary troops: the first years of the Mongol-Jin conflict are a fight for the frontiers. Is Tangut ‘frontier’ in this sense, to Temujin? Very much so; and it’s an open question whether Tangut might align with him. Their west neighbour, the Uighur kingdom, does so in 1209; their north-east neighbour Onggot, who have been Jin’s pivotal wall guards, declares for Temujin in 1207 and triggers a revolt along Jin walls.

I did a post about The Revolt of the Frontier. A large segment of these tribal garrison troops who go over to the Mongols are of Tangut ethnicity. Historians remind us that Tangut State never sought to bring into itself ethnic Tanguts resident outside, as we might expect them to: their ethnic consciousness works differently to ours (Frederick Mote is one who notes this). When in 1207 the Mongols enter Tangut to take the fortress Ulahai, which sits on the border with Onggot, their need is to support this revolt of Jin’s Tribal Legion – who are a muddled bag of ethnicity, but nomad or ex-nomad.

When Temujin looks at Tangut he sees a component of the frontier zone with a deep history of steppe-settled interaction. Many of those currently stationed on Jin’s frontier have histories that stretch back to military service to the Tang. Alaqush of Onggot, for instance, boasts for an ancestor a Turk nicknamed the One-Eyed Dragon, who, when government troops failed, ousted from the capital the hideous popular leader Huang Chao (he’s in my post They Eat People in the City). When Temujin makes his appeal to these frontier folk, he can’t despise what is, to many of them, a proud service history, where loyalty to Jin is a hand-me-down from old loyalties to Tang. The Secret History expresses high esteem for specific parts of the Jin army: its auxiliaries of northern peoples, its crack horse troops who were Qatat and traditional-lifestyle Jurchen. These are called ‘brave and courageous’ even as they are ‘crushed’. [#247]  Temujin mentions them in dispatches: “The trusty favourites of the Altan Qan [the Golden Khaghan/Jin emperor] are the Qara Kitat Juyin people [these irregulars] which made an end of the grandfathers and fathers of the Mongghol.” [#266]  They were trusty favourites: Qatat figure largely and perform with honours on both sides of this war. Even those who switched, at one stage or another. What I’m getting at is the entanglement. The Secret History feels an affinity with Jin’s northern, non-Han troops, which doesn’t exclude Jurchen themselves who keep a tribal style.


{fight scene. From the Ilkhanlig}

from Dunhuang - spears

{a fight scene out of Tangut’s past. From Dunhuang}

What of Tangut’s history, and historical interactions with the steppe? They too were in Tang service; but I can see the grounds for a historical grudge or two. How did they come to own the Ordos – that territory that has been contested between steppe and Chinese states since the First Emperor and the first unifier of the steppe, name unknown? (Chinese rendition, Maodun; Beckwith’s hypothesis, Maghtur or Baghtur; to avoid the mangled Chinese I have called him Mattyr). When Elteresh in his Blue Turk restoration was leading strikes into the Ordos, where he himself had been a part of Tang’s ‘tribal prefectures’, the Tang government thought to increase security within the Ordos by forcibly settling those nomad Turks still there under their control. These Turks, and their Central Asian merchant partners, rose up, right across the Ordos, in a revolt that took a year to suppress. One group of Tanguts – likewise prefects for Tang – volunteered to help the government armies put down the revolt. It is this Tangut group and its chieftain who are the antecedents of the Tangut State that Temujin knows. By the time the Ordos was pacified, Tangut, and not the Turks, were its major population, and they have been in possession since. You, like Temujin, are acquainted with the ardent independence of Elteresh’s restoration through the steles they left on the steppe.

And then, before Tang, there was Northern Wei – the name of their Chinese state; or their tribal name, for these were tribals who went Chinese, Tabgatch. When Tangut State was under creation, the new royal family invented – not to put too fine a point on it – a descent from the royal line of Tabgatch, for its prestige value. But look at the Tabgatch century on the steppe:

“… an attack by the Wei emperor in 391, in which half of the Jou-jan were reportedly captured by the Wei… In 399 the Wei army returned north and defeated the other major tribe on the steppe, the Kao-che, taking a reported 90,000 of them captive… In 429, T’o-pa Tao organized a hugely successful campaign on the steppe in which a reported 300,000 Jou-jan and Kao-che were taken prisoner and deported to the frontier, along with millions of animals. While the figures may be exaggerated, their magnitude reveals that Wei policy was aimed at depopulating the steppe… The pattern of the T’o-pa [Tabgatch] military campaigns was to make at least one major invasion a generation. Such invasions were designed to destroy the economic and political base of the nomadic state by robbing it of people and animals… Essentially, Wei was attempting to control the steppe by removing most of the nomadic population to within its frontier where it would become part of the [Tabgatch] military machine.”  [Thomas J. Barfield, The Perilous Frontier, 120-4]

Bad memories on Temujin’s side of the fence. There are those who wonder whether Temujin had ever heard of the steppe states that came before him, to be influenced by them or take to heart their histories. But if you only glance at the historical retention of oral epic on the steppe, you have your answer. Come to that, when the Secret History has him talk of those ‘who made an end of our grandfathers and fathers,’ what grandfathers and fathers does he invoke? How far does he stretch back? Consider that if Tangut can trace its state antecedents to Tabgatch in the fifth century, so too can people remember on the steppe. Tabgatch made such a name for themselves in the Inner and Central Asian world that over in west Turkestan, up into Temujin’s time, China is known as Tabgatch. There’s a khanly title over there, the Tabgatch Khan: not with any claim to rule in China, merely for the grandeur of the name. Tabgatch weren’t forgotten.


{the Tang past: a victory procession as Tang loyalists reconquer the area from Tibet. Dunhuang, 9th century}

Even Hirai/the Kereit are thought to have traced clan lines to Tabgatch. Royal Hirai had relations and relationships with the royal house of Tangut, and may have believed themselves distant cousins – poor cousins, probably, being steppe. Temujin has no such pretensions and has abolished the steppe’s royal lineages – with more or less of hostility towards noble lines and government by clan. How does Tangut feel about that?

The most thorough account I have to hand on Genghis Khan in Tangut is 30 pages by Ruth Dunnell, ‘The Fall of the Xia Empire: Sino-Steppe Relations in the Late 12th-Early 13th Centuries’ in Rulers From the Steppe. She is at pains to point out there is more to the story than we can now retrieve. Yet, that absent information is important: “The Tanguts also faced out into Central and Inner Asia, where the extent and significance of their dealings, considerable though they must have been, remain largely unknown to us… Tangut involvement in Inner Asia intensified throughout the 12th century. The dilemmas Xia faced in dealing with Chinggis Qan were shaped in part by Tangut activities in Central Asia prior to 1206.” [159]  As always, it’s good to know our ignorance: although we have lost the background to Genghis Khan’s invasions of Tangut, at least we must keep in mind there is an unknown background. We can’t slap together the obvious fragments that remain (‘Tangut was in the way’; ‘Tangut was rich’) and call it a pot, or an explanation. Acknowledge the gap.

Isenbike Togan has set out on a quest to write the history of the 12th century steppe, its events, its sentiments, and salvage it from obscurity (and disinterest, as she says). She sees a great ideological shift on the steppe, that brings Temujin in: for her, he did not invent himself so much as he was invented, by what had grown to be a popular movement. She explores the clash between an old tribal order and his new universal order: the old, participatory but run by nobles; the new, centralised but equalised too.

What has this to do with Tangut? Much; anti-lineage feeling, and the attacks on clan government, may affront Tangut on an ideological level. In 1206, the year Temujin is installed as Chinggis Khan over the whole high steppe, there is a palace coup in Tangut. The usurper Anquan is said to have had a royal Hirai wife – a sister to Ibaqa Queen and to the famous Sorqaqtani, wed into Temujin’s family. The plot thickens, for this confuses Jaqa Gambu’s loyalties, who is the father of these queens, Mongol and now Tangut. The Mongols’ first spoliation, into the outer reaches of Tangut in 1205, led by Ile Ahai, is thought to have to do with this tangled story, about which we only have hints. Did Anquan launch his coup on a platform of what line to take with Chinggis Khan? This is the king whom our first defector, Laosuo, tries to persuade to cooperate with Mongols. Every incident we have gives us a sight of internal conflict of opinion, on the Chinggis question. Indeed, Tangut State’s inconsistency of policy is what leads to the punishment of the last campaign. We cannot know the arguments Laosuo used to his king. They are too early to be termed appeasement (nor does he sound the sort); instead, did he have a commitment to Chinggis policy? Ruth Dunnell: “Mongolian practice proved sufficiently compatible with the interests of many Tanguts that they chose cooperation over resistance. The royal Weiming house and its loyal allies, however, resisted Mongolian demands…” [161]


{a Buddhist guardian, from the Yulin Caves. Tangut royalty self-identified as sacred Buddhist figures; Mongols called the emperor the Buddha-king}

Isenbike Togan thinks Temujin has risen on a promise of more equity of distribution – to the torolki, the non-lineaged, the ordinary folk. Also, that he has ridden a wave of merchant discontent, and has the support of travelling merchants right along the Silk Road, who want him to loosen up restrictions. Tangut owns a lot of Silk Road. China calls it the Robber State for its taxes (China is just jealous). By Togan’s reconstruction, Temujin not only has to free up trade for foreign merchants, but get a better deal for common people. When the royal court of Hirai and the royal court of Tangut arranged markets between them, did the ordinary nomad feel him- or herself well-represented? I say him or her, for nomad women, in charge of the home wagons and their freight, had involvement both with spoils and trade. On historical precedent, state-managed trade is a source of frustration for ordinary folk, on the nomad side and the settled; if Togan is right, and Chinggis has promised redistribution of wealth, he’ll probably need to have the terms changed. In general, simply put, settled states had their own internal merchants whose interests to protect; Mongols didn’t, yet they thrived on trade; they did everything possible to attract foreign merchants, and the traders over distance, whatever their provenance, flocked to them. This means Tangut State and Mongols are at loggerheads already.

Footnote. Best book I’ve read on the subject of trade: Virgil Ciocîltan, The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries


{execution. From the Ilkhanlig. Temujin entrusted the execution of the last Tangut king to a comrade who happened to be a son of the shaman Teb Tengri. His wages were the palace-tent the king brought with him, along with its gold and silver vessels}

What about the war? I’ll quote a couple of things from Ruth Dunnell, to counter impressions you may pick up from the likes of Wikipedia (I love you, Wiki, but not always).

It long appeared that the Mongols had wiped out the Tangut empire of Xia, annihilating its people and eradicating its cities and cultural monuments. Modern archaeology has revealed otherwise, although the Mongolian army undeniably did a thorough and sanguinary job on the Tangut capital city… and systematically desecrated the Xia imperial mausolea in its western suburbs. When the Xia state ceased to exist in 1227, many of its subjects and their culture were absorbed into the Mongolian empire and left their mark upon it.  [158]

First of all, it is evident from [the Secret History] and other Mongol Yuan sources that despite the Tanguts’ faithlessness and the variety of poetical superlatives used to describe their bloody punishment, the Mongols esteemed them and gladly recruited them into responsible positions in imperial service. The Secret History paints a Chinggis-qan reluctant to proceed against the Tanguts, ever trying to win over their cooperation, and only after extreme provocation executing a military conquest. The dying qan is made to appear reluctant to undertake an all-out campaign against such a potential valuable member of his expanding empire.  [178]

Mongol funeral Shahnama















{Chinggis dies himself, shortly before or after the Buddha-king. This is a funeral in Ilkhanlig style, although the dead monarch is Alexander}

To wrap up, let’s have a visit to the complaints department. You can skip this if you wish.

In the Secret History’s bombast (and its writer is not a military person) is a Mongol idiom, a figure of speech for the slaughter, and nobody knows what it means. I think we rely too much on the Chinese glosses. I’ll explain. Our translators tend to be conservative of the glosses Chinese-speakers wrote in the margins to interpret words, when they transcribed the Secret History. But Chinese phraseology doesn’t suit the Mongolian.

Here’s an example from IdR’s Commentary on passage 203:

‘When, protected by Eternal Heaven, I am bringing the entire people under my sway’, lit. ‘When, being protected by Eternal Heaven, I am rectifying (ie. conquering) the entire people.’ … The verb  ̌j ü kle– (=mo.  ̌j ü gle– ‘to head for, strive after’), rendered here as ‘to bring order’, is glossed in Chinese as cheng ‘to regulate, rectify’, and is interpreted as ting ‘to fix, settle’ in the sectional summary. The real meaning is ‘to conquer, subject.’ Cf. the verbs ̌sidurqutqa– ‘to make straight (=right),’ i.e., ‘to bring under submission’…

Yes, I work from the translations, and it’s cheeky to complain. But how did a word that means ‘to head for, strive after’ in Written or Script Mongolian (the mo.), and that here Temujin uses to talk about government, end up ‘to conquer, subject’? Even my beloved Cleaves translation keeps the Chinese gloss and has Temujin say, “At the moment when I am… rectifying the entire people…” ‘Rectify’ might be a word used in a Confucian court, but is it right for Genghis? Can’t we take suggestions from the Script Mongolian, that must be more akin? The above is what I call reductionist translation.

It’s the same with words for death and killing. When I see overly formal, usually Latinate words I know they’re from the Chinese gloss. I think of my first Old English class, when the professor demonstrated the difference in tone between our old Anglo-Saxon words and the classically-derived: ‘Would you rather have a hearty welcome or a cordial reception?’ I vote for a more Anglo-Saxon style, for what came out of Chinggis Khan’s mouth. I’ll bet my boots (green Doc Martens, precious to me) he didn’t go around saying ‘I have rectified these people’, and nor did he ever say, ‘Annihilate the Tangut. Exterminate, exterminate.’

I think you’ll find least of these Chinese phrasings in Urgunge Onon’s translation – he being a Mongolian.

Mongol rider with administrator-Yuan













{the government on horseback: this is taken for a Mongol with a Central Asian administrator} 

My images came from Wiki Commons. But a great place to see images from Dunhuang, and other digital resources, is the International Dunhuang Project

Hoaxes, satire, legends

Chinggis - Chinese caricatureIn November a satirical news site announced the discovery of Genghis Khan’s tomb: archaeologists-unearth-tomb-of-genghis-khan

Hoax exposed on this satire watch site:

What’s the purpose of satire? To imitate the real news so closely as to point out its idiocies. The Lost Tomb is among the most popular of Genghis topics, and I get asked about it. Here’s my answer: I hope and trust he was laid simply in the open, on a spiritual mountain, or under a tree – one legend has him choose his tree. In life he was anti-ostentation, and a strong traditionalist in ways — in these ways, I think. The Mongols’ neighbour people transitioned from a shamanist disposal in trees to lavish tombs, quickly with their Imperial Period, as I wrote about here: tomb-masks-from-the-kingdom-of-qatay  Whereas the Jurchen Jin, after a century in China, kept such simple burials, even for royalty, that there is speculation they did not believe in an afterlife. Interestingly, they painted tomb inhabitants as spectators at a theatre: theatre-life-and-afterlife-tomb-decor-jin-dynasty [1] Traditional or pre-imperial disposal among the Jurchen, too, seems to have been so simple as to leave no record.

Sensationalism is of course an ancient art. The most bloodthirsty legend attached to dead Genghis dates to Rashid al-Din’s Jami al-Tawarikh, where you can read (in my Wheeler Thackston translation): “Picking up his coffin, they set out upon the return, slaying every creature they encountered along the way until they reached the ordus.”

I’m not the only one who thinks this as legendary as Genghis’ most-quoted quote, also the responsibility of Rashid:

“Genghis answered: ‘You are mistaken. Man’s greatest good fortune is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize his total possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding, use the bodies of his women as a nightshirt and support, gazing upon and kissing their rosy breasts, sucking their lips which are as sweet as the berries of their breasts.” — the translation found in Paul Ratchnevsky’s biography

Alternate translation, courtesy of Yu, Dajun & Zhou:

“The real greatest pleasure of men is to repress rebels and defeat enemies, to exterminate them and grab everything they have; to see their married women crying, to ride on their steeds with smooth backs, to treat their beautiful queens and concubines as pajamas and pillows, to stare and kiss their rose-colored faces and to suck their sweet lips of nipple-colored.” [sic… or did I mean, sick?]

I found that translation in WikiQuotes, where at least the attribution is ‘disputed’.

I’ll illustrate this post, fittingly, with Chinese caricatures of Chinggis (above) and Subutai (I call him Zab for short – beneath).


[1]  More on Jin tombs in Linda Cooke Johnson, Women of the Conquest Dynasties. She says, ‘The meagre Jurchen interments have typically attracted little archaeological attention’ [60] – which is a pity, because we can only guess what they meant by their tomb murals of the husband and wife seated in a private box above a stage; and I’m intrigued by their afterlife beliefs or lack of.

Subedei-Chinese ink

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

about me and my novels on the Mongols –

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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.

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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: