2.3 Chinggis Khaan and the Mongolian empire
While there appears to be a wealth of information about Chinggis Khaan himself, a caveat must be noted. 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. Written mostly probably in either 1228 or 1240, with later amendations, the Secret History must be treated with caution.[4] It was probably written by someone who knew Chinggis Khaan personally, and was intended as a sort of dynastic history.

It is impossible to be sure that many of the events, especially the early years of Temüjin's life, took place as described. Folkloric elements are apparent in certain sections of the Secret History (Bira 1990). In general, however, the basic outline of Temüjin's life and accomplishments are accepted by most scholars as given. Additionally, a few independent sources exist, such as the account of the travels of Chang Chun, a Taoist sage who visited Chinggis in 1222 (Waley 1931).

It is also known that Rashid al-Din, the famous Persian historian, and chief minister in the Il-Khanate (Morgan 1986a: 8), had indirect access to the Altan Devter, another dynastic 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.

The date of Temüjin's birth is one of the mysteries about him. Most Western authors agree upon 1167, while some argue for 1155. Both of these dates have some support in various traditions and historical writings. The Yüan shih, the dynastic history of Mongol rule in China, written during the succeeding Ming dynasty, gives 1162 as the year of his birth. As this is the date currently used by the Mongols in their writing, we too will take this as the year of his birth.[5]

Chinggis's father died when Temüjin was still young (about eight or nine), poisoned by a group of Tatars.[6] The Tatars were the chief power on the eastern 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 fealty 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. We could perhaps consider the leadership of this period as reminiscent of Weber's charismatic leadership, but one in which the pool of potential candidates was delimited.

It is worthwhile to disgress briefly to note here that the exact nature of Mongol social structure of this time is far from agreed upon. Although many Mongolists see it as tribal in character, others argue for a more feudal social structure. Arguments for both a conical clan structure and segmentary lineages (ie, Irons 1979) are difficult to sustain in the Inner Asian case (Lindner 1982). It must also be kept in mind, as Lindner reminds us, that most models of nomadic social structure and kinship are based on nomadic groups constrained by modern state-systems (Lindner 1982: 696). Such constraints would not have held in medieval Mongolia.

Szynkiewicz (1975) offers perhaps the most sophisticated and convincing analysis of the situation, arguing that during the Chinggisid period, a kinship-driven system was being replaced by one more feudal in nature. He, however, admits that the question is "still controversial" (1975: 117), and notes that

On occasions the Secret History employs the names of Borjigin lineages as if these were coherent groups with efficient leadership which took an influence on the policies of the steppe. Still, this particular efficiency may give rise to doubts as to the character of such a group. Some of them are known to have among their members people from alien groups who either had joined voluntarily of had been included by force. Contrariwise, members of one and the same lineage would find themselves places in opposed political camps, even though such a split has occurred chiefly with clan groups rather than lineages (Szynkiewicz 1975: 125).

It should be made clear, however, that evidence for the medieval period is necessarily textual in nature, and as Gellner reminds us, "texts tend to stress ideal and legal requirements, rather than concrete social reality" (1994: xv).[7] In general, the feudal (or rising feudal) argument appears compelling. At any rate, it is abundantly clear that steppe society of the time was stratified, and marriages between ruling groups were often arranged for political purposes. As we noted with the Hunnu, political succession was not based upon seniority within a group. Indeed, Chinggis himself was probably not Yesühei's eldest son.

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).[8] 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 earlier, depending on what date we accept for his birth), Temüjin was elected Khan of the Borjigid Mongols. 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.

From this still tenuous position, Temüjin launched his campaigns against the other steppe nomadic groups.[9] 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.[10]

Having the 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, 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 (one-time governor of Baghdad) 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.[11]

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. (For one account of the Golden Horde, see Halperin [1987].) 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. 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, 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 (Ratchnevsky 1991: 143-4).

In any event, a horde 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 was in this region that the Gurvan Gol project, a joint Mongolian-Japanese archeaological venture, was to search unsuccessfully for Chinggis' tomb for three years in the early 1990s.

Continue on to the next part of the chapter (more on the Mongol Empire)


4. See de Rachewiltz (1965) for a comprehensive discussion of the dating issue. For a more recent treatment, see Yü (1986-1987) and de Rachewiltz (1986-1987).

5. Ratchnevsky (1991: 17-19) offers a concise examination of the various arguments.

6. For fuller accounts of Chinggis Khaan's life, see Onon's translation of the Secret History (1990), and Ratchnevsky's biography (1991). Morgan (1986a) also provides a good overview.

7. Gellner (1994) also contextualizes the nomadic social structure arguments within the larger frameworks of Western and Soviet anthropology.

8. Tooril Khan, a Nestorian Christian ruling in the western part of Mongolia, is often cited as the origin of the Prester John legends.

9. Most biographies of Chinggis Khaan cover his military exploits, but see also Saunders (1971).

10. A word about titles: The Mongolians usually refer to Chinggis as Khaan (Emperor), while the Secret History (sec. 202) says that he was give the title Chinggis Khan (a lower rank). As usual, I have adopted the modern, cyrillic Halh Mongolian useage.

11. Juvaini's work has been translated in English (Boyle 1958). Part of Rashid al-Din's work has been translated as well (Boyle 1971), but unfortunately, not the part dealing with Chinggis Khaan himself.

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