Regrets, I’ve had a few: the self-critical spirit in the Secret History

David with the head of Goliath - Caravaggio














What follows is an interaction with a truly wonderful piece on the Secret History of the Mongols by Caroline Humphrey and Altanhuu Hurelbaatar, ‘Regret as a political intervention: an essay in the historical anthropology of the early Mongols.’ You can download a PDF from Humphrey’s page at

This post won’t be for the faint-hearted. But nothing I’ve seen on the Secret History touches ‘Regret’ for depth and sensitivity of treatment, and I have bounced off it; it’s been a framework to hang my impressions from, great mental equipment (both an exerciser and an organiser), and I am happy to have got down the main things I want to say about the Secret History, in another format than my fiction. A few months ago I complained about a dearth of arts criticism on the Secret History: that was before I stumbled on this essay, which is exactly what I had in mind, although written in the light of anthropology. If any visitor – I have visitors, they’re fairly quiet – knows of other work on the Secret History, interpretive work of this quality, I beg you to point me to it.

By way of introduction Humphrey and Hurelbaatar (hereafter H&H) ‘characterize’ the Secret History [section starts page 5]. They list the ways in which it is unexpected. “Curiously absent in it are what one might expect from a document written at the pinnacle of Mongolian success.” [7]  It isn’t one-voiced, or an official discourse. It has space for a plurality of voices, voices in conflict with themselves and with the ideas of the day. It pays great attention to human subjectivity, to “imaginative possibilities for individual people” [45], and allows its actors space to be free agents – these “political actors involved in [a] great historical transformation… a revolution.” [41-2]  For us, in matters of interpretation, it’s important not to forget this work’s unexpectedness – lest we see what we expect to see in it. It’s a unique document, “genuinely Mongolian” [6], and “whatever its evident defects as factual history, it is only in this curious historical work, written by Mongols for Mongols, that we can gain some understanding – patchy, it is true – of what were internally plausible depictions of psychology at important moments of political life.” [10]  It is only in this curious work we can hope to enter the mind and the imagination of Mongols. Luckily the work is preoccupied with ‘politics and ethics’ and how these intersect.

I’m going to jump to H&H’s five examples of regret. First up is Ambaqai/Ambaghai and his misjudgement of an enemy. [27]  The attitude of ‘learn from my mistake’ – in the message he sends home – I see as very present in the Secret History, and one reason why people might admit to mistakes. Second is Chilger/Tchilger. [28]  On him I have more to say.

Chilger has done no wrong. We’re reminded of this when we meet him: his passage [Secret History #111] starts with the history of the feud, how Temujin’s father stole his mother from Toqtoa’s brother; years on, in direct if late retaliation, Toqtoa steals Borte from Temujin. It’s justice. Chilger is only mentioned as involved when Borte is given to him, another brother of the injured party – who must be dead, so that Chilger inherits rights to this compensation. Furthermore, the language used of his time with Borte isn’t negative. In Cleaves, “they seized Borte Ujin there and made her to be cared for by Chilger Boko, the younger brother of Chiledu. As he had been caring for her since that time…” IdR has “they entrusted her… [he] had been looking after her”, while Onon goes with “keeping” her. Cleaves is very literal: the word means care, he isn’t influenced by context to make it a worse word (I’ve seen Chilger assumed to be an evil rapist in both documentaries and novels – this is to ignore the source).

After we’re told of his position, we go straight into verses in his voice [quoted 29] – verses of a self-blame intensified to self-hatred. His action, not wrong in itself, has had disastrous results for his tribe, and now he feels his possession of Borte was a huge sacrilege – very obviously wasn’t meant to be, and as the cause of catastrophe he demeans himself in imagery and calls down his punishment. I don’t know about you but I feel sorry for the buzzard who ought to have been content with his scraps of skin. It helps that he is so polite to Borte. Since he is extreme with the ‘I should have kept my hands off’ line, the way is open for a Mongol audience to pity him, and I believe that’s asked of them. I’ll suggest that we don’t need to see his self-blame as about social station. He heaps on himself terms of abuse  – wild terms, or at least wildly translated; most of them are in contention, if they aren’t plain unknown. Where they are social status terms, may not Mongol do a little of what English does, with them? In one line Onon has “ignoble and bad”, Cleaves, “commoner and bad”, IdR, “lowly, base.” Chilger is of chiefly family, his brother a tribal head or king – he won’t call himself a commoner, but can call himself ignoble.

That leaves unanswered the question of what he has done wrong to feel so bad, if it isn’t to violate a social order. He has violated a queen, but that is Mongol hindsight. I think the next passage in the Secret History can shed light, because it has echoes of Chilger’s. It’s a strange little incident, that I’ll quote in full. Belgutei’s mother was captured along with Borte, and now he’s in search of her:

#112 “It being shewed by somebody, saying, ‘The mother of Belgutei is in that ayil,’ Belgutei going for to take his mother, with Belgutei’s entering into her tent by the right door, his mother – clothed with a raiment of tattered sheepskins – being gone out by the left door, when she spake unto another person outside, having said, ‘I am told that my sons are become qad {plural of qan/khan}. Being joined here unto a bad man, now how shall I behold the faces of my sons?,’ she ran and slipped into the thick woods. So he sought her, but she was not found. Belgutei Noyon, saying, ‘Bring thou unto me my mother!,’ shot with yodoli {blunt arrows} any person which was but of the Merkid ‘bone’. ” [Cleaves]

Like Chilger, she runs away from her own people – from her own rescue, in her case, with the only explanation her remark to a bystander that she has been too humiliated in captivity to face her family. She slips into the ‘thick woods’ like Chilger in his ‘dark defile’ and is never seen again. But Belgutei is desperate to find her, and displays no consciousness that she need hide from him or be ashamed. Nobody’s going to blame her for being given to an enemy ‘bad man’ – no more than Borte is blamed for Chilger (Borte has already run to Temujin, in the moonlight; they happily embrace). The problem is in her head. She has psychological damage from captivity. Chilger’s self-blame is likewise inexplicable – irrational and yet a psychological fact. These are portraits of consequences, from this violent time, emotional consequences unattached to who’s done right or wrong, who’s been just or unjust. Chilger needn’t make more sense than does Belgutei’s mother. Because, as H&H several times assert with academic passion, these aren’t culture-robots (excuse my lack of academese) whose behaviour is determined by their social norms. They are individuals, with agency. I’d stretch and say both Chilger and Belgutei’s mother are in these moments mad, by our lights and theirs. Come to that, when Belgutei shoots blunts at captured Merkit, we have no real idea what he’s doing. Books tell you things like, he was marking them out for execution, but that’s an absolute guess. Emotional fallout? Perhaps he’s gone a bit mad too – a third in these sketches between the winning of the war and the celebrations.

And there’s a reason why I want to look at the Secret History as art: so we don’t over-rationalise behaviour. I don’t understand what H&H are telling me about anthropology (its uses in study of this historical text) – not my discipline, but for me, habits of arts criticism help. Letting people be irrational, for instance. Nothing more common in novels.

I want to go back now to the cause of this quarrel, when Temujin’s father Yesugei seizes his mother Hoelun from Chiledu, in #54-6. We begin with Yesugei as he sees the couple and pursues, but then we switch perspectives to the victims of his attack, as Hoelun persuades Chiledu to save himself and flee. In fact, neither Yesugei nor Chiledu has a spoken part; it’s Hoelun we hear from, her concern for her husband, her laments for him after he’s gone. It isn’t pretended, in this Mongol history, that she is happy to be stolen, later to mother Temujin; she has a poignant gesture of love for her first husband, where she tears off her inner garment, a shift perhaps, for him to remember her by scent. Because this telling is focused on Hoelun, we may think, as is likely – she survived the other parties – that she’s one who told the tale.

The Secret History follows victims if that’s where the story is.

It is similar with Temujin’s Tatar wife Yisui, in #156: she too loves the husband from whom he took her, and that enemy husband is given a romantic end, in the telling. He walks into the lions’ den of Mongols to glimpse his ladylove. Yisui, sitting with Temujin, sights him in the crowd and ‘sighs deeply’; this alerts Temujin to his presence. The Mongols single him out in view: he is “a young, good, elegant person” in Cleaves, or in Onon “a handsome young man”. If there is a villain’s part in this story as presented it’s Temujin’s, who has him executed (not unjustly). Yisui spends her subsequent life a major queen; Temujin listens to her and trusts her; she is alive and with him at his death, and the Secret History is dated a year later. None of which inhibits this story, which must have touched a Mongol audience’s sensibilities.

The Secret History’s liking for pathos and for tragedy means it won’t be a political tract, a discourse of the victors. Pathos, tragedy: H&H use these words about the death of Tolui, who offers himself to outraged local spirits in China as a substitute for his brother the khan, whom they have made sick: “Now it can be seen from the pathos with which Tolui’s act is treated that this episode is meant to be understood as tragic.” [24]  Tolui’s self-sacrifice is too often explained, with vast reductionism, as a fancy story to gloss over his death by drink. But as H&H say: “It seems unlikely that this drama could have happened quite as depicted, but this is nevertheless what the authors intended as a plausible account.” [24-5]  It made sense to, and had significance for Mongols, and tells us more about them than the facts. It isn’t that the conquest is thought wrong, but they are aware of consequences: the victims’ spirits strike back and claim a victim. The episode of Tolui’s death unsimplifies the conquerors’ feelings about conquest.

On to H&H’s third example of regret, Ogodei, from imperial days, with a formal statement of his wrongs. [30]  Clearly he feels the honesty incumbent upon him. For a sense of Mongol values of honesty, let’s look at a contemporary account of the army: “Chinggis Khan moreover in {the administration of} justice was such, that, throughout his whole camp, it was impossible for any person to take up a fallen whip from the ground except he were the owner of it; and, throughout the whole army, no-one could give indication of {the existence of} lying and theft.” [Juzjani, quoted in Lane, 5]  High attainment for an army but such are the witness statements (and Juzjani is thought a hostile witness). We might imagine that this level of ethical commitment has to be led from the top, or the example set at the top, and here’s Ogodei to do his bit. For obligations at the top, we can look at Chinggis, too. Whatever ‘toru/principles’ meant to the Mongols at the time [see pages 25-6], toru was a two-way street. Chinggis twice invokes ‘the great principle’ – without, unfortunately, spelling it out – and one of those times is about what he owes to Jurchedei for service. Toru, H&H say, starts to refer to “a number of sacred political-moral principles imminent in the new order”, and these include “honesty in acknowledging what one has done.” [25]  Ogodei’s third wrong seems to be the confession of a murder that isn’t recorded elsewhere. Whether it was common knowledge or suspected or whether he here admits it for the first time, we can’t tell, although the act was done ‘secretly’, with suggestion, in the words used, of a grudge or feud. Later I’ll put a case that his father has set a precedent for this acknowledgement of Ogodei’s.

Fourth is To’oril/Toghrul: Temujin’s message of reproach to him from Baljuna, Toghrul’s expression and gesture of remorse. I thought first of Toghrul when H&H say, “The Secret History provides ample evidence of the Mongols’ attentiveness to singular personality and the way individuals go on taking characteristic action in different contexts and over time.” [42-3]  Toghrul is dragged through unforeseeable events; he remains himself, although that self is unpredictable, by him or us. The Secret History’s interest in personality is evident in the weight given to Toghrul’s regrets, which, as H&H point out, “as a political intervention… were ineffective.” [35]  His remorse leads nowhere, it doesn’t aid Temujin’s cause, it has no sequel in the ‘plot’. That doesn’t make it unworthy of being recorded. It’s a big moment for Toghrul. The Secret History cares about his mental or moral life for its own sake. The story must have moved the audience. It moves me. In their conclusion H&H have this: “Declaring regret… always says also ‘I retain my freedom from my act’.” [45]  That moves me, too. Toghrul is not reduced his worst acts – in his own eyes, or in the Secret History’s eyes. He may be a frail old king, but he can stand apart from his frailties for a moment here, and be watched ‘attentively’ in H&H’s word. Because he’s a free agent – as in a novel. He can behave above himself or beneath himself, he can change his mind, he can disown his actions, and a mental event is important, whether or not it has effects in history. These are descriptions of art. Toghrul is often called tragic at this point, in his conflicts and his inability to act up to his best. Their next exemplar is the other who gets called a tragic figure.

Fifth and final is Jamuqa, his last speech to Temujin wherein he asks for his own death. I don’t want to blubber on the keyboard, so I won’t comment on him. Here, though, I have to come clean and say I run counter to H&H on the political trajectory… on what the Chinggis project was about. It isn’t easy to determine – in the Secret History itself, “expositions of an overt ideology are altogether absent” [7] – and there is great disagreement. What did this ‘revolution’ of his stand for? He overthrows clans and kinship, but what did he replace them with? The answer has been seen several ways. For instance, where H&H talk of a new order of centralism and hierarchy, Isenbike Togan talks of a new order of universalism and equality – spoils for the common soldier. If I have a regret, it’s that I didn’t write Temujin and Jamuqa as Isenbike Togan has them: Temujin the universalist, Jamuqa just as sincerely committed to an old pluralism – friends split over politics, and both sides with ideals I can invest in. That’s for another novelist. On this subject, I’d ask us to keep in mind that revolutions don’t always end up where the starters of them wished or envisioned. Indeed, do they ever? I want to say that we can’t assume Temujin’s objectives from the imperial-age results.

For the rest of this post I discuss Temujin. “Even the great founder, Temujin/Chinggis, is not excepted from the tendency of the authors to record blameworthy acts, and he is depicted as often afraid, sometimes committing wrongful actions, making mistakes, accepting criticism and changing his mind.” [8]  H&H look at an incidence of these last two things, when he is talked out of the execution of his uncle Daritai. In their own lovely translation, “And they spoke with him like this until /He sobbed so much it was as if /He had smoke in his nose. ‘Let it be,’ he said.” [11]  Those two little lines I’ve italicised are in verse, and then he quotes the Beatles. Because of the bodily description, the sobbing, no-one, this time, doubts Temujin’s genuine emotion. But in other incidents he is very often taken to be insincere, a note I find false. Does the Secret History deal in insincerities? Do they even work in the society it portrays, in this ‘moral community’, this polity made up of ‘human relationships’? [26,10]  The thing is, if you have a certain view of Temujin, you have to see him as a practitioner of hypocrisy at several cruxes. For one, when he offers to Jamuqa in their last scene a companionship of equals – see H&H on this. Because Isenbike Togan understands a different politics, she needn’t postulate that he only pretends. It’s simplest to take him at face value in his speech to Jamuqa. The Mongols did; they depict him as ‘blameworthy, afraid’ and the rest, but not one to feign emotion or commit that grave fault, to lie.

I mean to take Temujin through a single episode in his youth: the Secret History’s #75-78, his murder of his half-brother Begter/Bagtor. I think this is a story that has been told by Temujin, and implicit in the telling is his acknowledgement of wrong.

The story is told at the level of personal memory. The others who shared these memories, his mother Hoelun and brother Qasar/Khazar, significantly predeceased him; also, there’s no reason to think that Chinggis went without a voice on the question of what the Secret History was to record. As H&H note, “There is a widespread, though not universal, agreement among historians that the urtext… was written down in 1228… shortly after the death of Chinggis Khan in 1227.” [6]  I’d say he had a hand in it, he who was the prime mover for other Mongol records. On memory, and on subjective experience in the Secret History, I’ll quote H&H from their introduction and conclusion. Their argument is: “that there were resources within early Mongol culture for ‘thinking the self’, and that the expression of painful reflections on action is one way we can access such reflection.” [5]  And they conclude: “{The Secret History} reveals the Mongols’ understanding of subjectivity in a broad sense, in the form of recollection and memory, self-consciousness in relation to the opinions of others, reflections on the self by analogy with creatures in the world, or imaginative projections into the future.” [42]  They look at this range of subjectivity in speeches – what can be ‘elaborate’, long, poeticised speeches. Isn’t it only a step from this, to conjecture that Temujin’s real speeches upon his past may be elaborated, poeticised and incorporated in the Secret History, as this tale? I see ‘painful reflection’ in the way the tale is told.

After the famous verses on Hoelun’s tireless efforts to feed her children, they grow up enough to have the desire to feed her in return: Saying unto one another, ‘Let us nourish our mother,’ /Sitting on the bank of Mother Onan, /Preparing for one another fishhooks, /Angling and hooking /Maimed and misshapen fishes, /Bending hooks out of needles…  /Catching little fishes, /They nourished the benefit of their mother. [#75, Cleaves]  That last expression is awkward in English. ‘Benefit’ is the word hachi, that means a return of like for like: they feel they owe her food. Their efforts are childish and inadequate. Only ‘maimed and misshapen fishes’ allow themselves to be caught. I hear a wry memory in that – along with the sense of innocence, how well-intentioned they were. There’s no mention they want to feed themselves.

Then they are at odds with their mother. It is this that is focused on, as if this is where the pain was: Begter and Belgutei’s seizure of food is told briefly, but the spoken exchanges are between Temujin and Qasar on the one side and their mother on the other. She refuses to listen to their complaints against the half-brothers, and instead tells them off themselves for family dissension. Upon the second such exchange, when they leave her tent to go and kill Begter, ‘They flung open the felt door’, lit. ‘they cast aside the (felt) door’ [#77] – in the translation of IdR, who notes, “corresponding to our ‘slammed the door’”. [366]  They exit rudely. For Mongols, a door has sacred properties: it’s very rude, and it’s a memory, one that might well stick in the circumstances.

As for the killing, I think it only seemed like a good idea for a short time. Begter, before he is shot, is given Hoelun’s own lines to them, her phrases and her verse: to the effect that Tayichiut is the enemy, not each other; they are in a forlorn situation, and fighting amongst themselves can only make it worse. Hoelun uses these phrases yet again when they come back from the killing. Dunned in three times, I think this is the lesson to be drawn. Begter also asks them to spare Belgutei, which of course makes him sympathetic. After the fact, they don’t have a word to say for themselves to their mother. She ‘perceives their faces’, understands from their faces what they have done, and delivers a tirade in verse, savage animal imagery. Her condemnation is left to stand; “she berated her sons violently” (Onon) and that ends the episode. In the exchanges with their mother Temujin and Qasar give their motivation then. But in the now of the story’s telling, no defence is offered: on the contrary, their mother and even the victim have the last word, the right word. That’s plain in the telling, and if these are Temujin’s memories, he has told the story against himself, entirely.

Of expression of regret in general in the Secret History, H&H observe: “These regrets do not take the form of apologies, pleas to be forgiven, or vows to compensate or atone for wrongs committed. The righteousness of many modern expressions of apology is absent. Nor can these Mongolian regrets be seen simply as tactical manoeuvres in a game of political reconciliation. They are, at one level at least, simple declarations of having got it wrong.” [7]  There are none of these things in the Begter episode. But in the telling, I believe, Temujin declares he got it wrong, just for the sake of saying so. I hope that after this journey through the Secret History we have at least seen that it is not out of place, or foreign to the culture, for Temujin to have acknowledged this wrongdoing. It makes a difference, of course, in how we think of him.

Don’t miss the last sentences of Humphrey and Hurelbaatar’s essay, that affirm human freedom. And you wondered why I love the Secret History.


David head lrg


translations used:

Cleaves: The Secret History of the Mongols, Translated and edited by Francis Woodman Cleaves, Harvard University Press, 1982. Online here
IdR: The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century, Translated with a historical and philological commentary by Igor de Rachewiltz, Brill, 2004
Onon: The Secret History of the Mongols: The Life and Times of Chinggis Khan, Translated, Edited and with an Introduction by Urgunge Onon, Curzon Press, 2001

other works cited:

Isenbike Togan, Flexibility and Limitation in Steppe Formations: The Kerait Khanate and Chinggis Khan, Brill, 1998
George Lane, Early Mongol Rule in Thirteenth-Century Iran: A Persian renaissance, RoutledgeCurzon, 2003

I warmly recommend Caroline Humphrey’s book written with Urgunge Onon, Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols, Oxford, 1996. This has been, for my purposes, head and shoulders and torso above whatever else I have managed to consult in order to write about early Mongol religion.

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