Racism is a theme in my twitter-news lately. In Australia we have footballer Adam Goodes who has been too Indigenous for certain sectors of the crowd – whereby unacknowledged racism is being talked about. In America… I don’t often America-watch, but I have to say, the Charleston church killings have left more of a permanent impression on me than any event in my lifetime within the US (aside from capital punishment, which I do watch). Now Twitter tells me a bloke at the head of the UK government is in trouble for describing unwanted people as a ‘swarm’, and thus dehumanising them.
People as swarms? That’s very familiar to me, on my home ground of Mongols.
You probably know there is a history of animalistic language used of steppe people by settled. Chinese names for steppe identities often punned on animal and insect imagery, or else were simply insult-names (if you don’t know, you can ask my Tchingis, but he’s sensitive on the matter: Amgalant Two, chapter 7). As for the right today not to be spoken of as animals, steppe people are way behind.
“The ensuing chaos led masses of Turks to swarm into Syria…” [706-7]
“The Turkic khaganate became the breeding-ground for other powerful Turkic tribal confederations.” 
– D. A. Korobeinikov, ‘Raiders and neighbours: The Turks (1040-1304)’ in The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c.500–1492, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
definition of ‘breeding ground’ in The Cambridge English Dictionary:
1. A place where animals breed and produce their babies.
Example: These animals always return to the same breeding ground.
2. A place where something develops easily, especially something unpleasant.
Example: Poor housing conditions are breeding grounds for crime.
I don’t know whether cloistered steppe historians upset themselves over this kind of language. I do.
‘Horde’ itself is overused. At least it is commonly explained these days that the original orda or ordo meant a chiefly camp, a court camp. Does that excuse our permutations of it? But I am more concerned by ‘swarm’ and ‘breeding grounds’, both of which I see around the traps.
In my last post I urged the watching of films from China and Mongolia. What I didn’t work out a way to say is, in these you’ll see Mongols, simply, assumed to be human beings, and there the difference lies. That’s crudely put but it is my perception. It seemed too crude to say.
You know that thing when you don’t call people racist, even though you know they are? It’s too confronting, it’s impolite. At the moment, in Australia, we’re over that attitude. Racism is racism. It hurts people. Call it.
I’ve complained about prejudice in history books before in this blog, but I haven’t called it racism. It is. Steppe nomads can be talked about as not-quite-human. It’s not on.
I think other historical peoples have been stood up for, already, better than Mongols have. People feel free to talk about Mongols in ways they wouldn’t of most other historical peoples. With the amount I read on Mongols, I honestly believe this to be true. In the worst of it, there’s no thought that they are still an existing people; no thought that our coverage – popular and academic, fiction and non-fiction – is still Eurocentric, and unfair. I’m on the verge of slapping on that label Orientalist. Because most of our coverage is.
In a biography of Genghis published last month, Frank McLynn (more at home with biographies of Europeans) reaches the verdict that the Mongols were ‘parasites’. I won’t talk here of what I think he has left out of this assessment; here I just want to ask, as I want to ask in a hundred similar cases, whether he or those who read him would be comfortable to apply this word to other peoples? A European people? I have to suspect (in this and a hundred other cases) that no, they wouldn’t be comfortable.
Historical discourse doesn’t matter? It does to me, who am invested in Mongols. It does to Mongolians today who call themselves proud Mongols. Besides, it matters, whenever and wherever, that you acknowledge human beings’ human status – that you are not racist.
Kevin Stuart, Mongols in Western/American Consciousness, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.
Timothy May, ‘Mongol Image’ in The Mongol Conquests in World History, London, Reaktion Books, 2012, pp. 102-6.
Christopher I. Beckwith, ‘Epilogue: The Barbarians’ in Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 320-62.
Son of a gun, this is so heullpf!
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