Dear Mongol Empire,
I’m sorry that I suggested you caused the Black Death. I’m sorry that I thought your tribe was a bunch of bloodthirsty barbarians who raged across Asia, killing everything that moved, just for fun. I don’t know where I got that idea.
I’m sorry that I mentioned that you used biological warfare to bring the Black Death to Europe, when it was more likely ships that brought infected animals and people from those voyages in search of Chinese silk and porcelains. And I sort of glossed over the millions of deaths of Mongolians and others in the Far East. I’m sorry that I thought this sort of caused the Renaissance rather than giving credit to the Khan’s enhancement of trade along the Silk Road which brought printing and gunpowder from the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty in Northern China to the West.
I’ll admit, I was a little confused about why the Mongols could end up being called hordes, Tartars, Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Buddhists, Muslims, and worshipers of a Sky God (Tenggeri). I think I’ve finally figured all that out. “Hordes” comes from a Turkish word ordu which means group, so it’s not throwing shade to say Mongol hordes. Anyway, I’m sorry I thought you all looked like Shan Yu in “Mulan.” I don’t know where that came from. (Oh, maybe “Mulan”?)
Mea culpa. Wait… that’s Latin. How about намайг уучлаарай?
Why Write About the Mongols?
I’ve just spent six weeks reading about the Mongol Empire’s sweep across the Asian steppes and, boy, are my eyes tired! Before this, my understanding of the culture was pretty limited and apparently very skewed, so I’m trying to be proactive, in just one little post, to set things right.
To tell the truth, I did this research for a class. The class was on relational race theory in 20th century Los Angeles, so well you may ask how the Mongols got involved, but let’s just call it an intellectual exercise. I learned all about a colonizing discourse, which is a fancy way of saying how European white guys tend to filter history so they can reframe the past into their preferred image (i.e “whitewash” har har). This clarified for me why video games and popular histories that cover the Mongols portray them as drunken louts, kidnapping women, burning down things, and killing everything, including the dogs, cats, and library books. They were quite different, although they were conquerors.
I promise, I will leave out the academic flummery and refrain from mentioning white supremacy, settler colonialism, or racial triangulation. Let’s just focus on cool stuff about the Mongol Empire; that is, let’s try take the colonizing filter off for a few minutes.
Poetry from the People of the Felt Walls
You can impress your friends by telling them that there’s only one version of the story written about Genghis Khan by the people in Mongolia of the time. It’s called The Secret History of the Mongols. One translator is convinced it was written in part by Genghis’ son Ogedei, who was also the Supreme Dude for a few years. While Secret History was written in the 14th century, there weren’t copies in Western languages until the mid-20th century and English translations only created in the 1970s & 1980s. So much of what’s written in English-language world history textbooks doesn’t even factor in what the Mongols wrote about themselves, but was instead written by those who lost battles or who had never seen them. Like this dude up in an English monastery, Matthew Paris, who insisted the Mongols were cannibals. P. S. They weren’t cannibals.
Secret History is really an epic, a little Iliad, a touch of Genesis, with a dash of Gilgamesh thrown in for good measure. The man who would become Genghis Khan–that’s a title, not a name, meaning either “Fierce” or “Universal Ruler”–was actually named Temujin. The epic starts with the union of a blue-grey wolf and a doe and Temujin’s family sprung from that lineage. Temnujin’s noble mother, Hoelun, has a sharp and eloquent tongue and says things to her children like:
This one was bornfrom Secret History of the Mongols, Chapter Two
Clutching a black clot of blood
Like a Khazar dog snapping at its own afterbirth
Like a panther assailing a cliff
Like a lion uncontrollable in its rage…
You have destroyed! Just when–
We have no friend but our shadow
We have no whip but our horse’s tail…
Medieval Mongol poetry! Who’d have thought? Might be surprising to think of those Game of Khans guys writing epics, but they did. Temujin, it turns out, has to endure a lot of hardships, even in a culture where hardships are second nature. His father is poisoned by enemies, his step-brother beats him (Temujin takes revenge which makes things worse), his family is cast out into the wilderness to starve–lots of bad things happen.
In general, growing up on the steppes in a culture built around horses and livestock was no picnic. The tribes moved to where the grass grew, so they didn’t farm anything. Steppe families ate meat and dairy only; no bread, no vegetables. Wall to-wall storms, deserts, rock, wind, snow. It’s not that life was cheap to them but that death stalked them in so many ways that they were accustomed to it. And they didn’t waste anything.
The Unique Approach of Genghis Khan
They called themselves the people that lived within the felt walls, and as Temujin grew older, he enlarged his family, then his tribe, then his khan. The guy was really charismatic and kept amassing people in his inner circle, until that circle got really big. Of course, being the leader of a group also makes you a target. His group was constantly being challenged, and he was a brilliant military strategist and fierce fighter, so he kept winning.
After winning a battle, he had two approaches that any current leader might want to pause and think about. First, he’d divide up the gains fairly and embedded that in the new legal code he created (more on that in a minute). Secondly, and this was the brilliant part, he would absorb new people–the losers–into his group. And he would re-organize the groups, not by tribe, but by merit. So he would spread his loyalists and the best of former enemy tribes together, reorganizing them into groups of 10, 100s, 10,000, like a Roman century. These mini-groups were loyal to each other, even more than their prior tribal affiliations or before the Khan. All other rewards were bestowed by merit. One researcher says Genghis never had a general defect; now you know why.
Somewhere around 1206, after Temujin had defeated challenges for leadership, he was voted Genghis Khan, or head honcho, supreme ruler, and all that. Of course, they didn’t vote by ballot or voice, but by showing up. The heads of the tribes or groups would gather in a khuriltai. If you came to the gathering, you were voting for Genghis. Later, when differing descendants of Genghis wanted to be the head guy, there were rival khuriltais or gatherings without the majority of the tribes, so that rivalry led to the House and Senate being divided, or something like that.
Genghis and his army of horse archers started moving across the steppes looking to gather more wealth, more people, more territory. Of course, when the Mongols did it, people have generally called them marauders, whereas when Europeans and Americans did it, it was called colonizing. Hm, promised I wouldn’t use that term, but it’s true. If you think about the ideas of pioneers or settlers, who then “cleared” out the natives, not much difference. Except that in the U.S., the pioneers attached Manifest Destiny to it, i.e the “God-given right” to be there.
Genghis had that religious fanaticism, too. He was extremely pious about his devotion to his God, and at one point when the pope asked for aid in the Crusades, he rejected the request for interference, saying “There’s only God in heaven, and on earth, there’s only one sovereign, me.” He also told one of city leaders who defied him: “If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
The curious thing about the Khans was that they were extremely tolerant of other people’s religions, even though they were devout about their own. You could be Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Nestorian, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Waldensian — they didn’t care and didn’t ask you to give up their religion when your city was absorbed into their empire. And they did absorb all the territories they encountered, up until they reached Egypt–their extreme border to the southwest– and Japan and Southeast Asia in the east. Horses didn’t fare so well in the Vietnamese jungles. Grandson Batu did get as far as capturing Budapest in the northwest. Luckily for Europe, Uncle Ogodei, the Great Khan of 1241, died so Batu stopped ravaging Eastern Europe and had to go back to Mongolia to vote.
The Wolf & the Doe Create International Trade + a Few Dynasties
The Mongols did conquer cities, let’s be clear about that. When the mayor of a city gave Genghis the key without a fight, historians say that the taxes weren’t all that high, and life didn’t seem that different than before the horse archers showed up. The bigger problem was when the mayor or sultan or caliph or whoever was running the town decided that his army was better. Things did not go well for the cities that rebelled, defied, resisted, or otherwise gave the Khan the middle finger. In those cases, populations were massacred and the finger-giver was usually rolled up in a carpet and tramped by horses. Which actually was the execution they reserved for nobles, since it shed no blood on the ground.
Still, by the mid 1260s or so, things had calmed down enough that there were decades of peace, called the Pax Mongolica. The Mongols ultimately wanted to run things smoothly. They let populations have their own religion, they loved art and promoted artisans, and they kept the Silk Road–that pathway from China to the Constantinople–relatively safe for merchants. So here are a few things that the Khans did:
- Wrote a legal code called the Yassa or Jasagh. It included things like religious tolerance, but also required all men either to serve in the army or do other work without pay for a period of time. Also pissing in the water supply was a capital crime.
- Created the first written Mongolian language.
- Exempted priests from taxation.
- Designed a postal system (messenger/communications across the steppes).
- Gave tax breaks and patronage to artisans.
- Supported free trade and promoted merchant exchanges.
- Through those exchanges, sent innovations from Asia to Europe and vice versa, chiefly, the printing press, paper, and gunpowder.
Where Did the Mongols Go?
If you read some of the European historians, they kind of hint that the Mongols died out either from debauchery or an excess of bile. Some quasi-textbook histories compare the culture to locusts, which suggests that they just self-destructed. The truth is more complicated.
On the one hand, that gunpowder thing. Prior to the Europeans getting a hold of it, no one had thought much about putting gunpowder in a tube. The Chinese used firecrackers, and gunpowder was used in simply siege weapons, but never in anything like a gun. Once armies had things like arquebuses and primitive muskets, horse archers had less of an advantage.
The other issues were the size of the empire, the reduction in charisma for Genghis’ descendants, and the seductive nature of peace. It was hard for one guy to convince that many cities, populations, and horse archers to continue pressing for more land. Although Genghis’ grandson Khubilai was voted Great Khan, he stayed in China, and the remainder of Asia was split into the three other territories, each of which was run successfully by Mongol descendants for another century.
Eventually, most of the horse archers simply intermarried, accepted the religion of the locals (Buddhism, Muslim, whatever), and became part of the groups. In China and in the Northern part of Russia, rebel groups “took back” the leadership, but by then the Mongols were enjoying eating vegetables and bread along with their fermented mare’s milk. Czar Ivan III took land back from the Golden Horde and the Ming dynasty overthrew the Yuans in China, so basically the empire was melting away by the 1400s.
But there was one last legacy. Khubilai, Great Khan and Emperor of China for decades, hosted this Italian merchant who had a strong imagination. Marco Polo, who returned to Europe after years hanging out in the Yuan dynasty court, told fantastic stories about the great cities of Dadu, Shangdu, and the wonders of the Mongolian empire to the far, far east. It inspired people like Columbus to get into those ships and start sailing off to find silk, gunpowder, and Xanadu.
So here we are. Thanks, Genghis Khan!
*The people who know such things spell this Chinggis Khan or Chinggis Qa’an. I’d add the citation footnotes for Morris Rossabi or Jack Weatherford, my Mongolentsia dudes, but I still can’t quite figure out the Chicago Manual of Style.