Racism again

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.

Racism: In a history book near you

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’.

White Nationalism and the Ethics 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.

New project: Genghis Englishhed in the Eighteenth Century

frontispiece-genghizcan-the-greatIt’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.

This is my ornamental set of the Decline and Fall. I have updated them for research purposes.

English imitation

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
ciki-ben dere-tür ülü talbin
qancu-ban derele-jü
qormay-ban debüs-cü
šilüsün-iyen unda la-ju
šigi-yen qonaqla-ju
manglay-in kölesün
ula-tur gür-tele
ula-yin kölesün
manglay-tur qar-tala
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: In a history book near you

from Bayan-Ulgii
















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: Amgalant Two, chapter 7). As for the right today not to be spoken of as animals, steppe people are way behind.

Exhibit A:
“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.” [696]
– 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.

Exhibit B:
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 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? 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.

Further reading:

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.

Chaucer goes to the Golden Horde

Diego-homem-black-sea-map-1559Chaucer set his Squire’s Tale at ‘Sarray, in the land of Tartarye’ – that is, Saray, city of the Golden Horde Mongols, Jochi’s ulus, above the Black and Caspian Seas. What did Chaucer know or care about a Tartar khan at Saray and his court?

The Squire’s Tale, as a romance, has been despised in the past; people have said it’s unfinished either because Chaucer had too much discrimination to go on or because the other Canterbury pilgrims stopped the squire’s drivel. You can read it yourself and judge. If you like medieval romances (adventure tales, with fantastic happenings, errant knights and wandering plots), there’s nothing wrong with it. It is unfinished, to the point that it’s only just begun. Flying_Horse,_East_Han_Dynasty.Bronze._Gansu_Provincial_MuseumWe are left with the khan’s daughter, gifted with a ‘quaint ring’ that lets her understand the talk of birds, having listened to the confession of a she-falcon, intent on self-harm, who has been seduced and left for a rival; the rest of the court are still asleep, after a grand feast whereat was given to the khan a flying horse of brass, that transports you anywhere when you tweak its ears. Nobody knows what happened next.

It used to be dismissed as a mishmash of wild marvels ‘for those who like that sort of thing’. Who knew that the Squire’s Tale had historical value? Carmel Jordan told the world in 1987 when she consulted archaeological work written in Russian, and saw that the Golden Horde was as spectacular as Chaucer describes (you can take a little trip with Ibn Battuta, to visit the khan in his gold-tiled tent in 1332-3). Castiglione Horse_Chaoni'erThe setting, at least, wasn’t wild imagination; and furthermore, she suggests that every marvel had its real-life kick-off: the bronze horse, for instance, might have been put into Chaucer’s head by gift steeds that caused a stir at Mongol courts for their unusual size and general foreign glamour. The khans had a fascination with contrivances, too, that might inspire Chaucer’s magical ornamentation: the ingenious silver tree that dispensed drinks at Karakorum had its counterpart in Saray.

Chaucer, unfortunately, never set foot in Saray himself or indeed the Golden Horde. How did he come to be informed? In the latter 13th and the 14th centuries, near the end of which the Squire’s Tale was written, the khans of Saray and the Italian merchant republics operated in a symbiosis, for an unprecedented age of trade. Genoese, above Venetians, won the major part of the Black Sea trade, and moved with confidence in the Mongol world. Genoa also outstripped other Italian cities in trade relations with England. Chaucer took part in a delegation to Genoa for trade discussions in 1372-3; subsequently he was employed in Customs for the port of London. It is agreed he had ample opportunity, in diplomatic and commercial circles, to hear from Genoese their tales of Saray.
Braun_Genova_UBHD View of Genoa in 1572Recently Michael Murrin has written a great book on Trade and Romance: how romance, first turned by Marco Polo’s travels, changed from a ‘Celtic fantastic’ to a ‘marvelous real’ – set in Asia, and driven not by the interests of aristocratic fighting men, although these remain the heroes of romance, but by the adventurous activities of merchants. He posits a dual audience for such romances as the Squire’s Tale, both upper class and those who live by commerce. It is the case that fighting men didn’t visit Saray: merchants did (not that these merchants weren’t up for a fight). Merchants went further, and saw things undreamt of by knights. The popular romances followed in their steps – but doing this, they lost status, and were trivialised, too, in the scholarship.

Caravane_Marco_Polo Abraham Cresques, Atlas catalan

I’m fascinated by Chaucer’s trip of the imagination to Saray, and later adventures too of European romancers in the Mongol world. More to come.

Main works consulted:

Virgil Ciocîltan, The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, translated by Samuel Willcocks, Leiden, Brill, 2012.
Carmel Jordan, ‘Soviet Archeology and the Setting of the Squire’s Tale’, The Chaucer Review, volume 22, issue 2, 1987, pp. 128-9.
Michael Murrin, Trade and Romance, Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Images from Wiki Commons:

Black Sea map 1559; flying horse (hoof on a swallow), East Han Dynasty, bronze; Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), court painter for the Qing, one of his Four Afghan Steeds; view of Genoa 1572; caravan of Marco Polo, from the Catalan Atlas 1375, attr. to Cresques Abraham.

On popular history

This post was kicked off by a grumpy preface from Morris Rossabi to his 20th anniversary edition of Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. Wherein he almost regrets writing so positively about Khubilai, since his work has been fuel for the popularizers. He doesn’t name names, but Jack Weatherford is the target of this ire: “One popularization, based on a doubtful and distorted use of scholarly studies, even reached the best-seller lists…”

I’m tired of Weatherford getting stick from historians. Let me blog. You’d think from this Weatherford was a mad popularist with no original research or intellectual standing of his own: in fact he was a cultural anthropologist (here’s his staff page – Mr Weatherford now enjoys a retirement in Mongolia), and if historians were less grumpy, they might notice that his cultural anthropology, and his application of it to the primary sources, has things to teach them.

As you know if you’re on this blog, my Mongol researches have stretched back fifteen years, fifteen conflicted years in the historiography, over which we have witnessed not only the advent of Weatherford, one-man-band for Genghis, ruffling historians’ feathers, but ‘The Rise of Cultural History’. That’s the title of a recent contribution by none other than David Morgan [in Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change].

Can not a cultural anthropologist and a discovery of cultural history live in peace? Find common ground? (yes, they can: that’s at the end of this post).

I said ‘none other than David Morgan’, because in my household, that’s me and the stuffed bears, his name has the sort of notoriety (excuse my outspokenness; he won’t read this blog) that Weatherford’s name has among your traditional historians. What did David Morgan ever do to me, and my stuffed bears? Believe me, my bears have been a comfort, from angst induced by the good Mr Morgan, before he discovered cultural history. It’s been told to me that historians get angry at mention of Jack Weatherford. Understood. But what about my anger at the Morgan book? Can I be angry too? I’d keep my despair between me and my bears, except – even though the good Mr Morgan now writes about how Mongol historiography has changed, his 1986 book is still disseminated as a standard work. In a book I read two days ago, with new ideas on the Central Asian background of Mughal India, Lisa Balabanlilar was content to use the Morgan as her main information on Chingis. So I am in a position like Rossabi’s: Weatherford bothers him in that Weatherford is everywhere. I meet the David Morgan everywhere, and other than Morgan’s own wish to be superseded, his stated discomfort with its continuance, I don’t see the book criticised. For me, every page – I exaggerate; every three pages – said, loud and clear, ‘I am written from a European perspective; I don’t try to look through Mongol eyes, or understand why a Mongol does what he does, in terms of his own culture.’ The pages scream that at me.

Does nobody else hear them?

His book has been my Exhibit A for why we need culture study: this is the type of history we have in its sheer and utter absence. I don’t see that hostility towards a cultural anthropologist – who, I grant you, has written for a general audience – helps toward the integration of culture study into a historiography that used to be happy to work without cultural knowledge.

The ‘rise of cultural history’ (art history; material and technological transmission) is a fantastic thing; but if you are still afraid of anthropology, you haven’t gone far enough. Can we not acknowledge the good Mr Weatherford for his injection of anthropology into Mongol historical studies?

What I suspect is that historians acquaint themselves with Weatherford due to his NY Times bestseller feats, but don’t otherwise keep a close eye on the popular output. They have no real idea of what he had to combat. From my observation post, Rossabi’s fear, expressed in his preface, that Weatherford has infiltrated the public mind until everybody is now given to ‘hagiography’ of Genghis, isn’t necessary, and he can rest assured Saint Genghis remains rare. You can find him in my novel, but Jesus, I wish I saw more of him elsewhere. [1]

Popular history doesn’t always keep up with ‘the rise of cultural history’. Exhibit: a review of John Man’s latest, where he is quoted thus on the legacy of empires: “[T]he Romans, the Greeks and the British had something to say… The Mongols didn’t.” To be plain-spoken, I was upset that a magazine called the Asian Review of Books didn’t rebut this statement. Well, I rebut it. It’s where we used to go wrong: to expect, from a nomad people, those achievements that have defined our idea of civilization (you notice the etymology of that word). Hence we missed most of what the Mongols did. To judge the Mongol ‘empire’ against the Roman and the British empires, is to ask to fail to see what they meant to do, and what they achieved. I’ll say, to be fair to popular history, that this is no different to the Morgan book.

One of the grooviest things I’ve seen happen lately is histories that truly do bridge the scholarly and the popular, and that give the latest news on Mongols. I’d name a couple in this category: Timothy May, The Mongol Conquests in World History, and a book that Morris Rossabi is involved in: Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. The Timothy May comes out of the rise of world history, which again, has a different perspective on the Mongols, one that appreciates their cross-cultural activities and even ‘what they did for the world’ – which, let me iterate, isn’t what an agrarian civilization might have done but is entirely different. May also looks at ‘Mongol image’ which I wish the scholarly set did more of (instead of just investigating that Weatherford book). The other, kept in publication by the Smithsonian, is a joint effort that includes Mongolian scholarship. I suspect – I may be over-suspicious (Weatherford gets no cred for winning Mongolian awards) – we have had a bit of an attitude that Mongolians are only going to write apologetics on Mongol history – that ‘we know your history better than you do’, which is nothing if not rude. This one is a get-together of well-known scholars, who yet are going to ‘respect the feelings of Mongolian people about their past.’ It can be done.

[1] ‘in my novel’: I’d better add, a tragic saint involved in slaughterous wars. What else do you expect from a novelist?

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: badsatiretoday.com/tomb-genghis-khan

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 MetMuseum.org

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 academic.edu

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 academic.edu]  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.


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