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

Give an indie a go

I’m not a shameless advertiser, but I am desperate.

Simon J. Cook (independent scholar – on Tolkien among other subjects) has written a short post, Awesome Amgalant, where he calls the start of the book at least ‘up there with Mary Renault, which is to say damn near perfect.’ I hope to God he likes the rest, but then again, after that I scarcely care if he doesn’t.

While you’re there – seriously – play the music vid. It’s Altan Urag, Mongolian folk rock band, and they are beyond fantastic. In fact, visit just for this wild instrumental…

… which I sort of identify with. Maybe I’m doing Mongol folk rock. It’s what I like in Mongolian music: fusions of traditional and contemporary. I’m told it’s how I write my prose. If I can in future create sentence-equivalents to pieces of this track I’ll be, in an artistic sense, happy ever after.

Of course, I look forward to Simon J. Cook’s discussion on what makes the perfect historical novel. As a practitioner, fairly obviously, I’ve become more and more interested in the writing of history, fact and fiction. So much so, I’m going back to uni next year to study it.

Meanwhile here I am, plugging or begging: Be adventurous – try an unknown indie, who’s trying adventurous things herself. If you need a paperback, contact me. I haven’t done huge giveaways, so I’d think of individual asks as a better way to giveaway. We’re still fighting for traction at Amgalant.

Publishing is a dispiriting business for perhaps the majority of writers (trad or indie, dead or alive). I won’t be throwing in the towel, because I have things to say. But of course, one wants those things to be heard. I don’t write ‘for me’, no more than I write for an audience.

I write for Them. I write because no-one has said these things about them. In part I’m stitching together ideas and interpretations from disparate books – that tend to be less mainstream Mongol history, or else that aren’t Mongol history but shed light. In part – as happens when you begin to do this – I have come to conclusions/speculations/inferences unwritten as yet in book. My job isn’t as simple as to turn into a story what the history books have to tell me. Mongol history is ever more contested, including by me. If you’re interested in Mongols, there’s much in my novels I can pretty much guarantee you won’t have met. And that you may think dodgy, but the point is, I try to write an interpretative historical fiction.

It isn’t that I think my Tchingis is the true one. That’s why I spelt him Tchingis, instead of the common transcriptions. But he’s a possible one, I believe, and my mission is to express these possibilities. [1]

With Three – that is, with the Conquests – even more so. I have my material for Three and my main lines. I want to add factors that aren’t usually considered in work on the conquests. They’re not mine: as I say above, stitching together disparate books. Leads to leaps… there’s a thing about novelising history, about the demands of fiction, the cogency and the psychology required, that can result in another, valid way to write history. Or so I fully believe, but I don’t have my thoughts sorted, and that’s why I’m going off to study next year…

Today T. Greer was kind enough to write, when asked for non-fiction recs, ‘For what it is worth, [Bryn Hammond’s] novels on Chinggis’ early life are possibly a better introduction to the period, its characters, and the timeline than anything else in print.’ That’s much appreciated, since T. Greer isn’t a big fiction reader, but has a website, The Scholar’s Stage, on matters strategical, geopolitical, etceterical. If you look under entries tagged ‘Steppe and Sown’, you’ll find Greer’s independent work on steppe subjects (I’m happy to say, my Goodreads shelves were found useful as a kind of annotated bibliography).

  1. One HF I’ve been excited by this year is Shan Sa’s Empress, on China’s woman emperor Wu. It excited me because I felt she was doing a similar ‘possible interpretation’ (out of a hostile historiographical tradition) – that might be seen as whitewash of a shady character, but I think is more than that.

Hoaxes, satire, legends

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

Hoax exposed on this satire watch site:

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

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

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

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

Alternate translation, courtesy of Yu, Dajun & Zhou:

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

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

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


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

Subedei-Chinese ink

thoughts of Three

blake_death_pale_horse__Best copy














This won’t be my horse for Three, but as you can see I have my eye out already. Here’s a William Blake rendition of ‘Death on a Pale Horse’ — after the Turner of that name we have on the cover of Two. It’s fairly perfect, at least to think about Three with. Is that a History scroll above? Is that, beneath, a black horse and a driving spirit whose name might be he of the Black Tuq… my Jamuqa drives my Temujin in these wars — psychic presence though he is. Imagined? Is Temujin mad these days? In our terms, no doubt, but what about his own? Whatever the case, he leans on Jamuqa for the work he has to do in Three. Like the face in the Blake, he’s committed but freaked out, and you notice the wild spirit’s ahead of him. He feels he has a mission in/from history, yes. History accumulates in Three (a weight on his shoulders, and a struggle for me: how to make that history digestible). There was a quote I liked very early on, from a Joachim Barckhausen, L’Empire jaune de Gengis Khan, Paris 1935:

Genghis Khan was certainly one of those men — perhaps the greatest — who made history. But he could only become it because History created him. He acknowledged this role by trying to understand it and play it, by subordinating himself to it, by serving it...

I’ve always thought there’s something in this, and Ile Ahai has been ruminating on it ever since (he owes at least one speech to Joachim Barckhausen).

This morning I thought I might need a nightmare horse, Fuseli-style, or a war horse done in horror fashion. Or else, the one-horned beast leapt to mind too. The unicorn vision they have in India has become significant in my telling — maybe he’ll belong on the cover, for the Wonder side of my draft, to-be-ditched title, Wonders and Horrors. Can I fuse both?

Meanwhile I like this Blake, to think by. Temujin an old king (hey, he’s only sixty at the end, but let’s exaggerate in picture) and believes he’s on a white horse, doesn’t he? In China white is for a funeral, white is death & ghosts, whereas on the steppe white is blessed and the holy ride white horses. Chinggis has a white tuq for his days of peace, a black tuq when at war. When he gives the reins to Jamuqa (unaged, dead at 39, in scale armour or just scales), lets the black horse loose… Jamuqa being, at this point, a figment of his mind, his attempt to be Jamuqa may end up worse than Jamuqa. “Nobody stopped me,” Jamuqa said once.

The unicorn stops him. We may yet have a unicorn.

Good cop/bad cop: Chinggis/Genghis

On the very split personality of our most famous Mongol. For years past I have believed that there can’t be another historical figure with such opposite images… can there? Since I only know bits & pieces of history I haven’t claimed this to be so, but a few pages by Timothy May on ‘Mongol Image’, in his book The Mongol Conquests in World History, have kicked off this post. May’s pages display plainly his split image.

He divides them on the names: after running through “the most innocuous forms of popular entertainment, from movies to comic books,” to see the sheerly casual use of the Mongols to stand for evils and worst-case events, he concludes, “the G-Word or Genghis Khan appears to be the avatar of this image, while Chinggis Khan is the historical figure.” [102]  Let’s footnote that ‘Genghis’ can be insisted upon by publishers, on the grounds that the general public doesn’t know who Chinggis is (John Man says his did, and John Man’s book falls on the Chinggis side).

It’s not a matter of popular culture versus scholarly history – not in the least. But I’ll linger for a moment on the popular culture. The Mongols, and Genghis in particular, are at saturation-level on the internet, television, in casual talk. Last week on QI the honourable Stephen Fry gave us twaddle about Chinggis – a little barb in my thin skin, as it always is. For a Mongol researcher like me, it’s dangerous to turn on the internet. The amount of off-the-cuff, casual – I’m going to use that word a few times – use & abuse of Mongol history, and Chinggis in particular, has got to be beneath the internet’s usual standards… hasn’t it?

Timothy May’s book, just yesterday, told me that yes, the Mongols (and Chinggis in particular) are a stand-out case. It has told me that the stigma and infamy are, indeed, unexampled. “Certainly the Vandals garnered some recognition,” but they don’t have the Mongols Motorcycle Club, rival to Hells Angels. [103]  As a teacher of world history, he ought to know, and he has told me this much in a scholarly book, and I am going to try to explain the effect on me. However weird this post turns out. You see, historians rarely look at the popular culture – as if there is a partition and they needn’t be concerned – and so, I haven’t seen this situation described in an (ahem) legitimate source. And you know what? I feel legitimated – in the emotions I have had, as a Mongol researcher. I feel like I’ve been a secret alcoholic and now I’m standing up and talking about it, because a person has given me permission. I have been given permission to feel what I felt. Therefore, you’re going to hear about it. I promise not to be too splashy-emotional, and Timothy May is in no way to blame for the content of this post. He only wrote a few pages on ‘Mongol Image’.

As I said above, it isn’t only popular culture. If it were, we’d fix it in no time, for there isn’t a partition, there’s a… zone… and I live in that zone. It isn’t as simple, either, as that old scholarship = negative towards Mongols, new scholarship = more enlightened. Rene Grousset (1939), Michael Prawdin (1935), even Henry Hoyle Howorth (1876–1888), can give you more sympathy towards Chinggis and his Mongols than you might find in a recent biography. In fact without Rene Grousset… this post is a sort of sequel to one on Grousset’s tragic Jenghiz Khan, where I talk about the inception of my novel and complain about scholarly portraits of Chinggis, so I needn’t do that here. Today I just want to describe my experience.

The bad cop Genghis input – not only when I ventured onto the internet, but in the privacy of my library of academic books – barraged me for years. I felt mentally battered and besieged, by my own books. That good cop/bad cop routine is meant to discombobulate you, right? It did me. I’m not natively thick-skinned… I tried to grow elephant hide on the Mongols’ behalf, and not be a wuss or make a fuss. I used to feel sorry for myself, in a quiet, hangdog, hunched-up way, and I had to wonder, do other researchers cop this flak? Flak’s the word for it: random, violent, senseless, everywhere. Misery wants company, and I sniffed about for others with misunderstood pet subjects… there were the Richard III Rehabilitation Society people, perhaps they suffered a bit too? But not like me. This was in the days before Jack Weatherford published. When his Genghis came out, in 2004, I reacted like a starved prisoner dragged suddenly in front of a banquet: you can’t eat it, you can’t digest it, you half-hate the sight of it. I went into a strange mental reel, because I was in an unhealthy state, head huddled in my arms against the blows of my library books. Things have climbed from there, I stride the world with confidence, I don’t cringe at the mention of Genghis…

See, Timothy May told me yesterday that the Mongols — and Chinggis in particular — are an exceptional case, that the casual, saturation-level vilifications go beyond what researchers on other subjects have to face. I had a reason for my self-pity. It feels good, I feel liberated to talk about it.

Dashi_Genghis_Khan_gallery page
Of course, his other image lives in Mongolia, largely. Very largely – have you seen the size of the statues? As May says, as has been said before, at home he’s a King Arthur equivalent, but elsewhere he’s a Hitler. These two collided with the installation of Dashi Namdakov’s sculpture at Marble Arch in London (pictured). You can see this is an inspirational, spiritual image, Genghis as “thinker” as Dashi said to the papers. Quote a councillor: “To erect a statue of Genghis Khan at Marble Arch is a bizarre decision… Who’s next? Stalin? Pol Pot? Saddam Hussein?” Here’s the story in the London Evening Standard. If that comment were unusual… but it isn’t, it’s absolutely standard. Genghis is so often bracketed with Hitler that a phrase has come into use, ‘to the right of Genghis Khan’. I can only explain the etymology of this by assimilation: Genghis & Hitler = killed a lot of people: Hitler & Genghis = extreme right-wing. The senselessness. Timothy May has an online post about that phrase: To the Left of Chinggis Khan. Hey, I used that title… I hadn’t met his when I did. Irritated minds think alike.

I wish May’s discussion of image had covered fiction. He talks film, from John Wayne to Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol. That latter was a healing event for me: Genghis in the cinemas, and the most sympathetic fictional portrait in existence… outside of Mongolia. I have seen three or four Mongolian-made historical films on/with Chinggis, and of course they have far more of King Arthur than of Hitler. Hitler doesn’t enter. It helps to understand – as Timothy May iterates – that Mongolians remember him for his internal activities, not so much his external wars. It’s like the Secret History, where the off-steppe conquests are the least important thing he did. I’d kill (oops) to have Mongolian fiction on Chinggis translated and widely disseminated. Novels are better than movies. I believe it’s fair to say that our novel-reading public expects and wants bad-Genghis, and that’s almost always what they get. Historical fiction is allowed to fictionalise. It isn’t written to salvage his reputation. It does affect the view of him in the streets. Example: in nine out of ten Genghis novels (I have a little collection) he rejects or is estranged from his son Jochi because of Jochi’s bastardy. For the sake of a story, although we have Jochi’s own word for it that Chinggis accepted him as a son. When we rob him of documented good deeds, he hasn’t got a hope. I cheered when Bodrov’s Mongol has him embrace two bastard kids (he adopted several enemy children — they have an excuse to make it two). A Japanese novel, The Blue Wolf, hangs its theme and story on his rejection of the bastard, and has him psychotic at the age of eight. A French Blue Wolf tells the story this way: “But soon, his hunger for power becomes increasingly violent and leads him to experience overwhelming paranoia and a growing mistrust of old friends and allies…” (perilously, I quote the blurb – never believe a blurb, but I have the book for back-up). As I say in my Grousset post, see above, what I admire Temujin for is exactly that this didn’t happen. However, the negative image in fiction is changing too: Chinggis isn’t bad cop in Tom Shanley’s, while Elizabeth Bear has historical fantasy where Mongols are simply human beings.

I’m going to wind up this post, that has been a catharsis for me. Thanks for listening.

Mongol women: a miscellany, part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


IlkhanidHorseArcher WikiCommons











Why I like indie covers

Quick and easy answer:
Because the creator of the work chooses them.

Under those conditions, you can judge a book by its cover. Its cover is an integral part of the creative work – is the writer’s expression of what her/his book is about.

I have come to see, over a couple of years, I’m on what I’m going to call now the anarchist end of indie. In cover terms, that means, to my mind the idea isn’t to look ‘just like a trad cover – you can’t tell it isn’t.’ No, no, trad covers are ugh, we’re here to fix what’s wrong with them. This is your chance to get out of the rut. I don’t care if your cover’s not quite up to scratch in production values – what interests me is your creativity (doesn’t mean you have to draw it yourself. If you can, I’ll be wowed). It’s about the idea. Put into a picture your idea of your book, and I’ll learn about your book in a way I can’t from a market-standard cover. Indies can be artisans and craft their books as objects too, inside, outside. When I love an indie cover, I think I’m in tune with the writer and am likely to love the story. Trad doesn’t have that chance at self-expression, nor that additional data when I try to pick whether I’ll like a book.

Indie: Today stands for Individual Fiction.

Title page by ‘The Author & Printer Will.m Blake’, a patron saint of indie.

The author and printer Will. Blake


I want to thank…

I’m 50 today and kids, it’s tough to turn 50. I’ve had a questioning week. You’re lucky you’re not getting a post called Futility at Fifty, but instead, by grace, I’m in the mood to thank a few people.

First my sister, without whom. Every book of Amgalant has this dedication:

My sister has been godmother to the book. Amgalant, what’s written and what isn’t written yet, is dedicated to her, with waves from Tem and Jam, and no sight or scent of a goat. In steppe epic, a steed and a sister are your trustiest, most intelligent and indefatigable aid: the hero doesn’t have to be heroic, but these do.

When gloomy in the past week, I browsed writers’ blogs for the harsher side of the writing life. The sad experience is, numbers of writers operate without support from those closest to them – or with active sabotage of their attempt to write. One comment I saw this week I understood: a writer said she found dedications in books hard to read. A few years ago, I did too. You don’t like to confess it. But those dedications that go, ‘my wife lived with this novel for five years, and listened to my instalments every evening at dinner…’ I mean, frankly, you think, poor wife, don’t you? And if you’re me you think, I don’t know how to ask that of another person, even if I believed you should, and I have to believe you shouldn’t. Neither do I happen to know, in person, of writers with this sort of husband; if you do have a significant other like this, value them and for God’s sake don’t ask too much. It can hurt to see dedications. Because of the ones you don’t see: ‘I wrote this alone and nobody helped.’ I felt like that a few years ago, but I was with a man who gave me daily discouragement. I think he sensed – and he was quite right – that the novel was the only thing to have come along that mattered to me as much or more than he did; and it was a shock to him, who had been the centre of my attention. I left the man and kept the book, as any sensible writer does. People don’t write dedications such as that in published books, and so struggling writers only see the nice ones. On blogs, in writers’ groups online, is where you see admissions of the real situation. There are writers who have to function in the total absence of support from husband, children, family and friends. I know how lucky I am to have my sister. Without whom, I’d be a worse person and possibly no writer.

At slight risk of embarrassment to him, I next want to thank Don Jansen, because he’s the perfect reader, of whom we writers dream. Why is he the perfect reader? He’s an intelligent, curious reader who ranges widely, without prejudices. He reads at the high end too but has no genre prejudice; and nor does he avoid the self-published. Bless his socks. While one can count one’s readers on one’s fingers (or at least, readers who don’t wish I were Conn Iggulden – because folks, I never set out to be, I never shall be; live and let live, I wish him well) – in that situation, a single reader can make it feel worthwhile. Sorry to embarrass you, Don.

Thanks to fellow novelists. For instance, I assured Gary, twice, he shouldn’t feel he has to read mine – his subject had been a hook to me but I couldn’t see he had any earthly interest in Mongols – still, he read it on the quiet and surprised me. John, no doubt, is too much of a gentleman not to have returned a read; even so, it was in no way incumbent upon him to read Two.

Thanks to Joseph. It’s hard even to place mine with book bloggers, I think, and therefore, to have his professional reviews, of both One and Two, is invaluable. To be honest I can’t work out how ‘professional review’ is defined in the indie context – I certainly don’t mean paid reviews, which I abhor. Whatever, I know he’s a professional, and his opinion has mattered as much to me, in its own way, as the coveted ‘reader-only’ opinion.

That’s it. I’ll go away and be fifty now. You’ll excuse that I complain about this fact online; I’m a solitary creature and when I talk I tend to tweet or blog.

mucked with

When I was 49, with heavy book on shoulder. I tried to do an imitation-shot after Joy Hester’s ‘Girl with Book on Head’ – which is such an identification-picture for bookish girls – but the shot didn’t work out.
Girl with Book on Head




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.

mucked with

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