The sister art of anthropology

Another quick post. I am moved to share this New Year’s statement about What Anthropology Is. Why? As a novelist, seeking to give my readers a lived experience of a culture strange to them (let’s be ‘participant observers’ together), whose main aim, often, is to make the unfamiliar seem familiar, reasonable, and, yes, right: and so to expand our knowledge of ways of being human, our sense of possibilities for the species…  pardon me, but to this historical novelist, anthropology, above other disciplines, I feel to be my sister art. So much of this post is applicable. A novelist about the past cannot do better than contemplate the goals and ethics of anthropology.

Living Anthropologically: What is anthropology? 

Antrosio, Jason. 2017. “What is Anthropology? Critical Inquiry into the Conditions and Potentials of Human Life.” Living Anthropologically website, Posted 12 November 2017. Revised 4 January 2018.

Complaint of a Mongolian princess, 1935

Mongol princess article - better cutI celebrate International Women’s Day with this transcript from an English-language newspaper in China from the year 1935. A Mongolian princess warns the world’s feminists that the Mongol experience (been there, done that – for 600 years) isn’t so crash-hot. I find her view of the matter both intriguing and funny.




Mongol Princess Declares Independence of Mongolian Women Has Its Drawbacks

Laws Framed By Genghis Khan 600 Years Ago Provide Single Standard In Sex, Work And Play; “Woman Is Less Fitted For Life Struggle,” She Says

By LaSELLE GILMAN (CHINA PRESS special correspondent)

PEIPING, Sept. 10. – The independence of Mongolian women, as compared with the dependence of Chinese women, is not as desirable as it might be supposed. Mongolian women do not gain by their equality with men. The strain of such equality is too intense. Primitive peoples try the single standard, but eventually they abandon it, as the Chinese have long since done.

That is the opinion of Princess Nirigidma de Torhout. She is a Torgut Mongol princess in her own right, but was educated in France and has lived much abroad. She considers Peiping her home, however, and she knows whereof she speaks when she discusses the condition of Mongolian women, for she was born on the vast, barren steppes of the Gobi borderlands.

Genghis Khan framed the Mongolian laws as they exist today some 600 years ago, and by those laws Mongol women are completely equal with men. So much so, in fact, that the word “woman” does not exist in the language now, the same word “kun” applying to either sex.

The Mongolian woman is as free as the man; she saddles her horse and goes to visit her relatives and friends; she receives her guests and calls on whom she will; her sexual morals are the same as the morals of her roaming brother. She is equal to him before the law, is completely responsible for herself. Adultery is punishable by death, in the case of both men and women. She has the right of inheritance, of owning property and bringing up children, of seeking marriage or divorce, of serving in the army.

Princess Is Sceptical

But the Princess Nirigidma, considering the state of her sex in her own country, is not certain that it is an enviable one. Equality of men and women is only natural, she feels, because in primitive society each sex was adapted to one form of work and they thus shared the tasks. Woman’s only inferiority was in maternity which unfitted her for any activity for a year. This weakness of her sex brought her privileges eventually and she became dependent on the man.

Today, everywhere, the women are shaking off the yoke of this dependence and demanding equality – which will compel them to renounce their privileges. This, the princess believes, is a serious matter in view of the condition of Mongol women.

“I do not know whether the Great Khan was honoring the woman or simply putting her in her rightful place at the man’s side,” says the princess. “To decide that I should have to know what the position of woman was before him, and that I do not know. I have been told that a matriachate prevailed in the old times, but its memory is lost, for it is never spoken of in Mongolia.”

The Mongol woman’s equality may appear all very nice, the princess points out, but there is another side to the story.

“Because she is the comrade of the man, the Mongolian woman is an object of no particular regard. She shares all the man’s hardest tasks, watches the flocks in rain and snow, loads the beasts, cuts wood. She enjoys no kind of precedence; she rises when a man older than herself comes in and gives him up her place at the fireside or the softest cushions. Man and woman share equally the expenses of life. Flatteries, deferences, everything that in the West is called chivalry – are non-existent. The orphan is protected but not the woman. Having the same rights, she also has the same duties and responsibilities.”

Less Fitted For Struggle

By her constitution, general sentiments and habit of mind, woman is less fitted than man for the struggle of life, in the princess’ opinion. And if women in their struggle for equality do succeed, she does not believe they will gain by it.

“Look at the Chinese woman who until recently was of all women the type most dependent on the goodwill of the man,” the princess declares. “She had no rights in public life. She had no existence, but she was and still is the absolute mistress in her family and almost sovereign in that public life in which she never shared herself. In China a woman is infinitely respected. A man never contradicts her, agrees with her even when she talks nonsense, carries out her whims!

“Compare these two women and ask which is the more enviable lot. Is it not better to have fewer legal rights and preserve the privilege of exerting influence, of being respected, flattered, spoiled, of being free from all responsibility? Or should one prefer the Spartan life of the Mongol woman? Is the emancipated Mongolian woman really happy?”

The princess is willing to concede, however, that all women in the search for equality are perhaps unconsciously groping for something beside happiness. If feminists claim their right to restore to women a happiness and a freedom of which they consider they have been cheated, she argues, then they are taking the wrong road. But if their aim is to open new horizons, aiming at a more spacious and a more worthy life, if with their new rights they are ready to accept all the consequences, then she agrees that that is courageous and admirable – if not particularly wise.


I’d better say at once that I am not educated in early 20th century Mongolia and can’t comment on conditions then. What interests me is that in 1935, she ascribes the social and legal status of women to the Great Khan.

When Ed Bazalgette did his rather fine doco-drama for the BBC [1] my sister sent me a TV guide feature from the UK with a headline that still makes me laugh: next to a nobly inspired shot of the actor, Genghis Khan: Early Feminist. That’s their British way of gently teasing because Bazalgette gives an unexpectedly likeable Genghis; I don’t remember that feminism looms large in the documentary. How much of a feminist was Genghis, himself? Princess Nirigidma hasn’t the evidence to say whether he improved the status of women or whether he merely legislated along the lines that his society already ran: “To decide that I should have to know what the position of woman was before him, and that I do not know.” It’s still tough to distinguish, since the Mongols weren’t paid much attention pre-Chinggis and the Secret History is our earliest internal source. The princess herself, with her views on the advancement of societies, seems to suggest that he needn’t get the glory – civilization in general has been bad for women, if more comfortable.


1. imdb entry
‘Rather fine’ in that it follows faithfully the Secret History – until the Secret History tails off, with the conquests, and he has to switch over to non-Mongol sources: we then devolve into sensationalist drivel. This problem plagues Mongol studies – not just documentaries.

Oral epic online

If I have life in me after I finish this dratted novel, I want to spend it with oral epic from the steppe. Perhaps I can begin to learn Turkic from my dual-language edition of Manas … where I like to browse the facing page for a sense of verse and rhyme. I say ‘Turkic’ because yesterday I read Paksoy’s book on Alpamysh. It is his strong conviction that the ‘cultural-linguistic unity’ of Central Asia has been split up into artificial languages, in a Soviet divide-and-rule strategy: the epics are common cultural heritage and are a way back into that shared tradition. I found this vision a glint of a light of hope – maybe I can struggle into Chagatay, the old common language that he explains to me is more rightly known as Turki and is ‘alive and well across Central Asia. It has never died.’ – although pronounced extinct. Until yesterday I understood I faced Kazakh epics, Uzbek epics, Karakalpak epics… If this was meant to make the task seem impossible, it certainly worked on this interested party in Australia.

Even in Paksoy’s functional translation, Alpamysh is richly a poem. This was thrust home upon me when today I turned to the Battalname (Turkish with Arab background, written down in the 15thC), a folk epic in prose. Battal’s life on the Byzantine frontier has story coincidences with Alpamysh in his setting over east, but suffered from the contrast, being such plain prose. No, no, I want the poetry.

Paksoy also told me that the plot summaries most of us rely on for acquaintance with steppe epic (eg. in Oral Epics of Central Asia or The Oral Epic of Siberia and Central Asia) issue out of a process of distortion with political intent. So there is both heartening and depressing news from him.

For incentive, I have my despair of ever reading Kyrk Kyz /Qirq Qiz unless I learn to in the original. The title translates as Forty Maidens/Girls. If you know me, you might know I have a thing for fighting girls – well, there are forty of them in that plot. [1]  (Never, never tell me that women with weaponry are a contemporary fictional fashion, because I’ll quote you old epics from the Mamluk-age Sayf, Knight of the Yemen to the Byzantine Digenes Akrites – in the latter of which they are wretchedly done. But that only proves they have to be there.)

Let me not get side-tracked.

Oral poetry resources online. First, H.B. Paksoy makes his work available for free online at Carrie Books.

John Miles Foley, pioneer (alas, the late) believed in the congruence of the internet and oral tradition. See his philosophy on this at the Pathways Project.

The Oral Tradition Journal, founded by Foley above, is online and open access. Issues from 1986 onward. A very well-ordered and usable site, and amen to their statement on universal access.

The Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative. PDF files, MP3 audio files, video files. Extremely valuable but not extremely easy to navigate, at least if you need to find English content.

Again I direct you to the online Manas. As Paksoy says, Manas “contains one million lines and requires up to six months to perform.” Here we have the beginning. It’s marvelous so far.

I’ve always liked epic, and spent most of my thirties with Beowulf – a translation that tried for too much poetry, and a novel from Grendel’s point of view, both away in a drawer. But now I have met the epics I like more than Homer… I won’t say more than Beowulf, but he gets enough attention and these don’t.

One thing I smiled to see – as a historical novelist – was at the end of Paksoy’s book, where he talks of a new way to save the dastans, historical fiction inspired by them. Published in Tashkent and Alma-Ata. Like the Mongolian novels I hear about (one called Water on Fire, about Temujin and Jamuqa) – unlikely to be seen in English.

Did you hear of the guy who taught himself English entirely from his copy of Shakespeare? He was a fantastic conversationalist. I’m going to start following my Manas on the facing page.

  1. potted plot (from a Soviet encyclopaedia):
    (Qïrq qiz), a Kara-Kalpak heroic epic. It was recorded in 1939 and 1940 in 20,000 lines from the recitation of the folk narrator Kurbanbai Tazhibaev. The main plot has much in common with Herodotus’ accounts of Queen Tomirisa of the Massagetae tribe and of her war against the Persian king Cyrus, as well as with Diodorus Siculus’ account of Queen Zarina of the Sacae, who freed her people from foreign bondage. In Forty Maidens the heroine, Gulaim, goes into battle against the Kalmyk khan Surtaishi and the Iranian ruler Nadir Shah; she is aided by her beloved, Aryslan, and by 40 girl-warrior friends. Having freed Khwarazm, Gulaim and Aryslan form a government from the representatives of the four nationalities inhabiting the country: the Kara-Kalpaks, Turkmens, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs.

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Inspiration by Dashi

Official London



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

Dashi_Genghis_Khan_gallery page

See more at his site dashi-art

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

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‘Milk in his veins’: Mongol slang

or, A Hymn to Idioms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photographs from Inner Mongolia, 1940s


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A court on horses: Khitan painting

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

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

mid-right Dongdan

left Dongdan

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

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

Rest Stop 1


Rest Stop 2
Rest Stop 3


Rest Stop 4


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









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The ‘Nefertiti of the Amur’

Nefertiti of the Amur 2














So they like to call her. She’s from the Stone Age on the Amur River, and I’ll take her over Nefertiti.

She’s in an online gallery called Faces of the Amur. Named for a strong tradition, as old as we go, in human masks, abstract faces and portraits, as petroglyphs and clay figures. A while ago I posted on Liao tomb masks (I think I used the phrase: Tutankhamun, eat your heart out  — or did I only tweet that?) where I said we know nothing about them, we can only guess at significance and context. These age-old human faces of the Ussuri and the Amur must help with context. The exhibition’s text, found on this page, stresses the continuity of culture, from archaeologists’ finds to ethnographic evidence — what’s in museums from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

There’s a book to go with this exhibition, that I own, but I think you get the full text online, and most of the images. I have to say, though, the big photo in the book makes our Nefertiti’s case more convincingly. She’s lovely, exudes ‘real woman’, and was the first human figure they found in Neolithic excavations on the Amur.

# # #

Alexei Okladnikov, Art of the Amur: Ancient Art of the Russian Far East,1981, Aurora Art Publishers, Leningrad

Where’s the Amur? Here:

Amur River map

Single women on the steppe?

WoCD cover-cutAs a happy single these days, and even committed I think (that’d be a first) (enough about me) — I’m intrigued by the possibility that certain steppe societies allowed women to live singly.

Liao, at least. But Liao was an aspirational society for other nomad cultures, which seem to have found them fit to imitate. Almost the only information I have on this comes from Linda Cooke Johnson’s study of Liao and Jin women, Women of the Conquest Dynasties. She offers the example of Changge (1006-1077), a scholar and poet and member of the royal clan, on whom we have a biography in Liao records. “The entry specifically notes that Changge never married, and [her] epitaph mentions no husband, which suggests that marriage may not have been universal among Liao women.” [p.7]  Other than this, “The numbers of Liao tombs in which women are the sole occupants also suggest that other women may never have married.” [p.111-2]

It’s not much to go on. But Linda Cooke Johnson speculates that the Liao/Kitan custom whereby women married men of the generation beneath them may have led to singlehood. Women of the royal clan (that I like to call the Ile, instead of a Chinese transcription) were often significantly older than their husbands, but “the primary marriage pattern in which younger males married somewhat older women was common among both upper- and lower-class Kitans. Although Jin sources are less explicit, the Jurchen also evidently followed the generation-gap pattern in arranging marriages…” [p.99]  We’ll want to know at this point, sex before marriage was not a no-no. “Liao and Jin sources indicate that premarital permissiveness was a widespread and well-entrenched social custom…” [p.86]  We might feel that the unmarried were ‘left on the shelf’, but that’s our assumption, and this on girls’ sexuality reminds us not to make foreign assumptions.

In Mongol history, we have Qaidu’s daughter Qutulun (c.1260-1306) who tried not to marry, who wished to remain as her father’s right hand in war and politics. As I say, I believe Liao was a glamorous culture for other steppe societies, and I have to guess that Qutulun, to justify her life, cited Liao women, who before her had commanded troops — possibly she cited them on singlehood, too. That is, doesn’t the Liao information mean she needn’t have been pitted against society, to live thus? Still, Qutulun gave in to pressure, and to slander: she and her father were accused of incest, and after this she chose a husband — one of her father’s followers, which let her stay at her father’s side. I was a daddy’s girl too.

That incest accusation, a low blow, has an after-history in a Karakalpak epic, ‘Kyrk Kyz/Qiz’,  known in English as ‘Forty Maidens’. There, a brother and sister lead the fight against a Persian invasion. The enemy Persian Shah slanders them with incest to undo them. The brother, humiliated, leaves his troops and people, but they refuse to believe the accusation and choose the sister to head the army in his absence. Here I must see a memory of Qaidu and Qutulun. The latter’s legend as a war champion and army leader surely went towards the inspiration of this epic, which boasts more women under arms than an average plot of Xena.

I’m afraid that’s the end of my observations. I’ll keep digging, fascinated as I am, for single women on the steppe.

# # #

– Linda Cooke Johnson, Women of the Conquest Dynasties: Gender and Identity in Liao and Jin China, University of Hawai’i Press, 2011

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Impressions of Manas

First impressions of the online Manas, after a once-through yesterday, at the speed I might have heard it sung. This epic talks to me, more directly than the Iliad, say, my king of epics… though maybe, kingly-wise, not as near to me, not at my heart and hearth. I am most emotional about Beowulf, whose hero is my hero, above whatsoever figures in history or fiction. But yesterday I laughed and felt and fell in love with Manas at the age of eight. It isn’t so closed a poem as Beowulf (where I can feel the one hand, that draws significance); to go on I have to switch to A.T. Hatto’s translation of another singer – with plot divergences. Have to see how I feel about that one. For now I mean the online Manas, sung by Saiakbai Karalaev, translated by Elmira Kocumkulkizil: which leaves off when Manas is still twelve – in a monster-child way, the kid’s just flattened a detachment – and Joloy and Dongo attack from the capital of China. Yes, that’s Joloy/Joloi who has his own epic, which we met (or I did, and one or two of you) in The Old Ideal.

Castiglione A tribute of horses to the emperor -detail

These paintings are from Qing China’s wars on the steppe, first east, where they subject and enlist the Mongols, then against Oirats with their Zunghar state. In Manas (and this is a typical situation in extant Turk epic) Mongols known as Kalmyks are in league with the Manchus from Beijing; and they march west, a threat to peoples throughout Turkestan, like the Kyrgyz of this poem. The painting above has Kyrgyz or Kazakhs, post-conquest or perhaps to stave off conquest, with tribute of fine horses for the emperor. While beneath is a champion named Ayuxi, a captured Zunghar who thereafter fought on the side of the Qing. He can represent Joloy and his ilk, steppe greats in high standing at the Chinese court.

Castiglione Portrait of Ayuxi

Manas opens with calamity for the Kyrgyz people: invaded, enslaved, slaughtered or scattered. As a picture of large-scale war, I couldn’t call to mind its like, in old epic. We don’t look at a hero or a king, at this stage, or stay with the leadership cluster; we look at a people. We hear from the girls who are taken as booty, the old men who are beaten up, the remnant populations that are driven into exile. I learnt about war habits. Loot, tax and tribute. Snippets such as the capture of craftswomen. I gained a real sense of war on the scale known in these parts – with Qing, or with Chingiz. It’s no-punches-pulled, and I can’t say that epic often gives me the groups of grandmothers who suffer. Here’s the type of big-scale battle painting we have from Qing’s conquest of the steppe. Notice the cannon ranks and gun smoke.

Castiglione Battle_of_Yesil-kol-nor

Rarely were a people so in need of a hero.

Leadership is important, in Manas. A lament runs through this section for Karakhan (=black khan), whose death exposed the Kyrgyz to their enemies. We never saw him, he was dead before the poem began – but we miss him. He left eight orphan sons, children, and of these, Jakip has promise, and starts a line in rear-guard action or fight-back against the Kalmyks and Chinese (called Kitay: that’s our Cathay). A neighbour khan of the Noygut, Baltay or Akbaltay (ak=white) who has been stripped of his wealth in herds, whose people have been wiped out, determines to lift a hand, to join Jakip’s efforts and at least die fighting – instead of curl up crying. Together they attack a troop with ninety-five camels loaded with loot from their tribes. For a moment they know success. Shortly they are worse off than ever. They are punished, and Baltay – who has my admiration by now – undergoes the humiliations of submission. I found this rough. ‘Humiliation’ is a word often used; there are no bones made about how low our heroes go; however, afterwards Baltay is no less esteemed by the people he led, and leads. I liked that. Here’s a celebration of surrender: a little figure on his knees in the centre of the Qing camp.

Castiglione The_Khan_of_Badakhsan_Asks_to_Surrender

To Be Continued, because I’m pooped for today. Tomorrow we have a change of scene, and an uplift in the story.

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

– art: by Guiseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), Jesuit missionary and court painter to the Qing

– for a history of the Qing’s steppe wars (and where I found these paintings) see Peter C. Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005


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Nomads: state evasion?

State evasion/state prevention. Clastres, French radical, blasted into anthropology with these concepts in the 70s. The title of his definitive essay says it: ‘Society Against the State’. He studied peoples of South America and contended that their lack of a state is not because they are, or ever were, too primitive to establish states, but because they have cleverly in place tactics to prevent the rise of a state amongst them. They are consciously in defence against institutionalised power. What’s more, of course, they succeed.

I first read about steppe nomads as state evaders in Philip Carl Salzman, Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy and the State. We know them as state invaders, but are slow to see their strategies for the avoidance of government. Think of the view from Persia. Salzman does a study of ‘pastoralists of Iran’ – of a patchwork of different tribes/ethnicities, with each its tactics, dependant on situation, location, to NOT became a part or a full part of the Iranian state. They live in the interstices. They live in difficult terrain. They stay on their feet, of course, and that is key. To settle down is a danger, and Salzman looks at cases where once-nomads have had to settle. They lose their liberty of movement, which is the ability to say no. They pay their taxes, like the rest of us, and slip to the status of peasants. It isn’t seen as evolution or advance, if you ask a nomad. How does the Iranian government see its pastoralists? They are ‘backwards’, their growth has been inhibited by their awkward or dead-end way of life.

Integral to the nomads’ state-avoidance – in Salzman’s study – is an ethic of equality, an anti-hierarchy attitude. To understand this, to understand where this comes from – is Salzman right to tell us that pastoralist tribes, in general, yes, are insistently anti-power, that they hold a value of egalitarianism, that their tribal structures are built to frustrate and limit chieftaincies? – as buttress or understructure to this, I think you need a deep background. I did.

Christopher Boehm, who wrote Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, is a primatologist turned anthropologist. That is, he moved from the study of apes to the study of our ancestors – in the light of hunter-gatherers extant today. To me, at that point in my explorations, his book was invaluable, worth galleons of Spanish treasure. For he explains – whether to your satisfaction is up to you – how a species, our species, can achieve and maintain egalitarianism, even if we began with the unpretty politics of apes. He does this in the light, as I say, of just such anthropology as Clastres and Salzman, who watch the techniques tribal peoples have to defend themselves against that p-word, power. Boehm tromps around the world to see anti-power attitude in action. And he finds a similarity of story, in the least ‘advanced’ of societies, where in pockets they remain – those societies that may still shed a light on us, back when the human species were hunter-gatherers – a similarity that is suggestive of his thesis. He works backwards from them, and he works forwards from the apes, and… you be the judge. It’s an important book.

This post was prompted by a book I’m engaged in at the moment: The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by James C. Scott. He quotes Clastres for his epigraph: “It is said that the history of peoples who have a history is the history of class struggle. It might be said with at least as much truthfulness, that the history of peoples without history is a history of their struggle against the state.” James C. Scott sets out to write the unwritten history of an area he calls Zomia, from words for ‘hill people’. Zomia is the hills – Zomia straddles eight states – it is the area people escape to, out of those states, whose reach can’t extend into the high terrain. His main contention is as follows. Hill peoples, even in local accounts, have always been seen as remnant populations, as savage peoples left behind by civilizations, as ‘our ancestors’. This is untrue. Most of the population of the hills fled there. Away from these vaunted civilizations, with their wars, their taxes, their famines and diseases. People choof off. States don’t like to advertise the fact that their citizens choof off, at the rate they do, and if you’re unconscious of this phenomenon, the state wants you to be.

Hey, it’s written by an anarchist – I suppose. – The web just told me ‘choof off’ is Australian slang. Is it? You know I mean scarper.

While I read Scott on the escape of subjects from states, I think constantly of the steppe. He puts me in mind of the steppe – he visits the north of China, too. I think of the archaeological finds of Gideon Shelach, who deduces a story uncannily like the story Scott tells, in Northeast China circa 1100-600 BCE. Uncannily, because… his article, in a book called Mongols, Turks and Others, came as a thunderclap to me, I don’t know whether it’s caused a splash in academia. Or a riot. It’s fantastic, and perhaps my favourite thirty-three pages on the whole subject (though a few of those pages are dry). I’m not an academic, right? I’m a novelist. I’m certainly excitable where source material is involved.

About the article. He asks, “Why did pastoralism gain importance during the first millennium BCE?” and goes on, “I argue that rather than looking for determinative factors such as climatic changes or external influences we should try to explain the choices made by the local population… The transition to pastoralism… was coupled in this area with an ideological change as well as with a new definition of cultural affiliation.”

In this area of Chifeng, where either lifestyle was possible, some people chose to become pastoralists, and some people remained as agriculturalists. When people made the pastoral choice, they displayed – from the archaeological remains – signs of an ideological shift, or commitment, a new identity. They wore badges. I’m a nomad, said these badges, and I believe in… Alas, the remains can’t talk. But they wore animal-style art – because animals had set them free? They were conspicuous with symbols of the steppe. It was a movement.

In circa one thousand BC. People were dropping out, at the time towns were in coalescence, and China wasn’t China yet but state-like tentacles were on the creep. Not likely, said these nomads-by-choice of Chifeng.

— Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State, translated by Robert Hurley, Zone Books, 1987. French original 1974
— Philip Carl Salzman, Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State, Westview Press, 2004
— Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Harvard University Press, 1999
— Gideon Shelach, ‘Early Pastoral Societies of Northeast China: Local Change and Interregional Interaction during c. 1100-600 BCE,’ in Mongols, Turks and Others, edited by Reuven Amitai and Michal Biran, Brill, 2005. Gideon Shelach has a book out, that enlarges on his article: Prehistoric Societies on the Northern Frontiers of China: Archaeological Perspectives on Identity-Formation and Economic Change During the First Millennium BC, Equinox Publishing, 2009

I have never lifted so bodily from a scholar as I have from Gideon Shelach, when Mother Hoelun instructs Temujin in early nomad ideology (Of Battles Past, chapter 8). Although I lift from scholars, it’s usually disguised by the fact I have blent two or three or more together. It is because Gideon Shelach stands on his own, that my theft is naked.



about me and my novels on the Mongols –

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