On Chinggis Khaan

By Christopher Kaplonski

Chinggis Khaan: World conqueror, Emperor of all men, the Scourge of God. Whatever the title used, most people think they have some idea of who Chinggis Khaan (aka Genghis Khan) was. In the final analysis, Chinggis Khaan was nothing more (and nothing less) than a rather talented leader of steppe nomads. Establishing the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire ever, Chinggis surely deserves his place among the great warriors of history, but in according him this place, we should not make him into a god. Neither god nor devil, Chinggis Khaan was, as various chronicles show, simply human.

Very little is actually known about the early years of Chinggis Khaan. We can not even be sure of when he was born. Several dates are plausible. The most commonly accepted one in Western scholarship is probably 1167, although the Mongols themselves, and the Yuan shih, the official dynastic history of the Mongol rule of China, gives 1162 as the year of his birth.

Almost all the information available about the early years of Temüjin's life (Chinggis Khaan was his title, adopted in 1206; Temüjin was his given name) can ultimately be traced back to the Secret History of the Mongols. Written mostly probably in either 1228 or 1240, with later amendations, the Secret History must be approached with caution. It was probably written by someone who knew Chinggis Khaan personally, and was intended as a sort of imperial history.

It is impossible to be sure that many of the events, especially the early years of Temüjin's life, took place as described in the Secret History, as folkloric elements are apparent in sections of the text (Bira 1990). In general, however, the basic outline of Temüjin's life and accomplishments are accepted by most scholars as given.

It is also known that Rashid al-Din, the famous Persian historian, and chief minister in the Il-Khanate (the Mongol khanate in Persia), had indirect access to the Altan Devter, another imperial history of the Mongols, and this is often cited as another source. Yet, without knowing more about the Altan Devter, lost to history, our caution must remain, as we can not be sure that it was not just a version of the Secret History.

A few other sources, such as Juvaini's History of the World Conqueror, do exist, but again, when dealing with the details of Temüjin's life, the ultimate source of the information is not clear.

With these caveats in mind, let us examine briefly the life and accomplishments of Chinggis Khaan. Temüjin was born to a noble family. His father, Yesühei Baatar, had been a minor leader of the Mongols, and his ancestry is traced back to Khabul Khan, who had briefly created a Mongol empire of his own.

Temüjin's father died when Temüjin was still young (about eight or nine), poisoned by a group of Tatars. The Tatars were the chief power on the eastern Mongolian steppe at the time, and long- time rivals of the Mongols. The rivalry would be settled years later when they were almost completely exterminated on Temüjin's orders.

With the death of Yesühei, his followers deserted Temüjin, leaving him, his brothers and his mother to fend for themselves. While there were noble lineages among the Mongols, such as Temüjin's, they did not enjoy the automatic loyalty of others on the steppe. Nor did seniority guarantee a position of influence or power. Leadership seems to have often been a more informal institution, open to those with the right to contest for it.

It is worthwhile to pause briefly to note here that the exact nature of Mongol social structure of this time is far from agreed upon. Although many scholars see it as tribal in character, some (myself included) argue for a more feudal social structure. This approach suggests that what are often taken as tribal names are better understood as named lineages - not referring in entirety to the people ruled.

After the death of his father, Temüjin's early years are reported to us as ones of hardship and trials. He early on allied himself with Tooril Khan of the Hereid, his father's and (sworn brother). He also allied himself with Jamuha (Jamukha), a boyhood friend and and who was also of noble blood, and a distant relative. Although these various alliances were not to last, they were instrumental in securing Temüjin's rise to power.

Around 1189 (perhaps later, depending on what date we accept for his birth), Temüjin was elected Khan of the Borjigid Mongols (his lineage). At this time, he was still a junior member of the lineage, and his election is thus somewhat of a surprise. It may well have been an attempt by senior members of the lineage to install a Khan they thought they could control. This political maneuvering (if that is what it was) was common throughout Mongol history - as elsewhere in the world.

From this tenuous position, Temüjin launched his campaigns against the other steppe nomadic groups. By 1206, he had united "all those who dwelled in felt-walled tents," and at a huriltai (assembly) of the nobles was proclaimed Chinggis Khaan. (The exact meaning of the title has never been completely made clear.)

Having the Mongol steppe under his control, Chinggis now turned his attention to neighboring states. He himself led battles against the Tangut state of Hsi-Hsia (related to the Tibetans) in what is now present day Xinjiang (northwest China), and the Chin in northern China, taking Peking in 1215. Neither of these campaigns, however, were to be definitively decided during Chinggis's lifetime.

In 1218, the Khwarazm Shah, Mohammed II, slaughtered a Mongolian caravan and a following delegation of ambassadors at Otrar in Transoxiana (roughly present day Uzbekistan). This precipitated Chinggis's attacks on Central Asia, although in any case it may well have been merely a matter of time before he attacked. Through such Persian historians as Juvaini and Rashid al-Din, the accounts of these campaigns were to become quite famous, and provide much of the groundwork for the European demonisation of Chinggis and the Mongols.

At approximately the same time, Chinggis's general Sübeedei (Sübedei) began campaigning in Russia, as part of a three year long reconnaissance through Russia and the area around the Black Sea. This was "highlighted" by the defeat of the numerically superior Russian army at the battle of the Kalka River in 1223. This was the beginning of what would become known in Russian history as the "Tatar Yoke," and led to the eventual establishment of the Golden Horde (1240-1480), ruled by the descendants of Jochi, Chinggis's eldest son. Not only would the Tatar Yoke be burned into the collective memory of the Russians, but it would also affect the structure of the future Russian Empire, as the shift from Kievan Rus' to the Moscovite Russia took place during this period.

Chinggis Khaan himself died in August 1227, during campaigns against the Tanguts, apparently as a result of a fall from his horse. His body was taken back to his birthplace, in what is today the Hentei aimag (province) of Mongolia, northeast of Ulaanbaatar. According to legend, anyone meeting the funeral procession was killed, so no one would know of Chinggis's death. The cart carrying his body is said to have bogged down in the Ordos region of China, and only began moving again after the prayers to his spirit by one of his followers not to abandon his people. As a result, however, a shrine was built in the Ordos region. Today most Mongols only claim that some effects of Chinggis' were buried in the Ordos, but at various points in history, it has also been claimed that Chinggis himself was buried there.

In any event, a herd of horses was said to have been driven back and forth over his grave in Hentei to obscure it, and soldiers posted until trees grew over it.

It is worthwhile to examine briefly the attributes and accomplishments of Chinggis Khaan. While normally thought of as a despot (at least in the West), Chinggis Khaan was also generous and loyal. A highly charismatic man, he nonetheless also expected loyalty from everyone, including those who served his opponents. He is reputed to have put to death people who, thinking they would gain his good graces, betrayed their lords to him.

In the West, it is usually Chinggis's brilliance as a military commander that is dwelt upon. And indeed, this attention is deserved. It should be noted, however, that certain misconceptions appear to linger concerning the Mongols. They did not, in fact, invent the tactics they used with such effectiveness against their enemies, such as the feigned retreat. Rather, they brought to a new level old steppe nomad military tactics. Even Chinggis's much vaunted organization of the military on a decimal system was to be found among the Xiong-nu, although arranging it to cut across lineages, and thus ensure greatly loyalty to the leader, apparently was an innovation. Innovative too, was Chinggis's tendency to pluck people from the ranks. Although noble birth may well have given one a headstart, one could only be assured of advancement through the ranks based on ability and loyalty.

One should further be aware that although we talk of the "Mongol" army, the reality is more complicated. The commanders were indeed "Mongol" (but even defining Mongol in this context can be tricky), but the soldiers were drawn from allies and conquered areas. Engineers from conquered sedentary populations were put into action as siege experts, and even the cavalry was a mixture of Mongol and other nomadic groups.

The success of the Mongol conquests should also be attributed at least in part to two other factors. One was military intelligence. The Mongols had a extensive network of spies and usualyl had extensive information of an enemy before they engaged them in battle. The other was their use of pyschological warfare. Much is made of the total destruction of cities in Central Asia by the Mongols. What is normally overlooked, however, is that this was more of an exception than a rule. If a city capitulated, Chinggis Khaan was usually content to let them be, once their defences had been pulled down. Only those who resisted faced the sword. This not only wiped out resistance, but more importantly, word quickly spread of the wrath of Chinggis Khaan, and many peoples found it easier to submit than to resist. In short, although the Mongol successes may appear astounding, they are explainable by ordinary means. One needs not look for some mystical explanation. Indeed, to do so does a disservice to the true talents of Chinggis Khaan and the Mongols of the thirteenth century.

In present-day Mongolia, however, it is not so much his military attributes that are emphasized (although they are well aware of them), but rather his administrative abilities. Chinggis is credited with the creation of the Ih Zasag (Great Law, usually rendered into English as "The Great Yasa".) Although portrayed as a codified set of laws, this is debatable. The Secret History mentions only that legal decisions were to be written down (sec. 203). Some scholars have suggested that the Ih Zasag was in fact a codification of existing steppe customs. The David Morgan suggests that although the Ih Zasag existed, it was not as a codification of law. Rather, he suggests, this belief was the resulf of a confusion of Chinggis's bilig (sayings or decrees), the legal decisions mentioned in the Secret History, and Mongol customary law. Igor de Rachewiltz, however, has recently argued for the existence of a more codified Ih Zasag. Whatever the case, the Ih Zasag is accepted by present-day Mongols as having existed, and selections from it, or Chinggis's bilig are quoted for any number of reasons, and have been published in various collections.

Many of the accomplishments of the Mongol Empire - the establishment of the örtöö (relay system, akin to the Pony Express) in fact took place under Chinggis Khaan's successors. (The örtöö is often referred to as the yam[un], but this is a misnomer.)

A note on sources:

There are several good works on Chinggis Khaan and the Mongol Empire (see the SROM for a more lengthy listing). There are also quite a few bad ones. The works listed below serve as a solid foundation for reading about Chinggis Khaan.

Paul Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan: his life and legacy. Blackwell, 1991

David Morgan, The Mongols. Blackwell, 1986

Urgunge Onon, The history and the life of Chinggis Khaan. Brill, 1990. (This is a translation of the Secret History - there are others, but I find this the most readable.)