The Secret History of the Mongols

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National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

Another post from the History Book Club.

The Secret History of the Mongols was written in either 1228, 1240, 1252, or 1264 — in other words, in the Year of the Rat — perhaps by Genghis Khan’s seal-keeper, or the seal-keeper of Genghis’s successor, or maybe one of Genghis’s adopted sons, or again perhaps by several officials working together.

Right away we encounter a familiar problem with primary sources: uncertainty of dating and authorship. From this flow debates over its historical value, evaluated as “almost nil” by the translator Arthur Waley. This is an extreme viewpoint. The Secret History is undeniably the earliest Mongolian historical document “written from the inside”, i.e., by Mongols. Where it has been cross-checked against contemporaneous documents (Chinese or Persian) it stands up pretty well. If we accept the earliest composition date, 1228, then it was written one year after Genghis Khan’s death. Of course we cannot view its account as impartial truth. To quote one translator, the “real interest of the Secret History lies … in its faithful description of Mongol tribal life in the 12th and 13th centuries, especially with regard to the role of the individual in that society.”

The Secret History has been translated over 40 times, at least four times into English. I found that the translation by Arthur Waley flowed easily, with much literary charm. Waley remarks, “It is a work which it would be possible to furnish with endless annotation”, a challenge accepted by Igor de Rachewiltz: his two-volume work of over 1400 pages breaks down into 218 pages of translation and 1255 pages of commentary and annotation.

Twelth century Mongol tribal society has been called “nomadic feudalism”. The flavor of the Secret History reminded me of the Old Testament, with clashes among clans and tribes, a large helping of (extended) family conflicts, betrayals, revenge, victories, and high drama. Indeed, one translator tried to mimic the style of the King James Bible, but with a high toll on readability.

The central figure is Genghis Khan, or more correctly, Chinggis Khan. His birth name was Temujin; he assumed the title Chinggis Khan on assuming the rulership of several clans. Scholars used to think the appellation meant ‘Universal Ruler’, but current thought translates it as ‘Fierce Ruler’; de Rachewiltz devotes an annotation to this. It turns out that ‘Khan’ has two forms, roughly ‘Khan’ and ‘Khagan’, the latter a higher-level ruler — a ‘Khan of Khans’ — than the former. Chinggis starts out as a Khan but soon becomes a Khagan, without the chronicler explicitly noting when the change takes place.

The Secret History contains many didactic set pieces. Example: Alan the Fair, an ancestor of Chinggis Khan, had two sons by her first husband, and after his death three by someone else. The first two sons spoke contemptuously of the three younger sons. So Alan had the five sons sit together and gave each an arrow shaft to break, which they did easily. Then, bundling five arrow shafts together, she asked them to break the bundle. They all failed. Cue the moral.

We may heartily approve this message of unity, but other stories evince a more primitive social code. After Alan’s death, Bondachar, her youngest son, tired of mistreatment and set off on his own. He settled near the Tunggelik clan, who generously provided him with milk to live on. When Bondachar’s brother came looking for him, Bondachar told him: “A body fares badly without a head; a coat is no good without a collar.” His brother found this utterance a bit too cryptic, so Bondachar explained, “These people have no chief to rule them; they make no difference between great and small. Such people would be easy to take. Let us go and make prisoners of them!” The five brothers thought this was a great idea, and carried through the plan without a hitch. So much for hospitality to strangers! But as an indication of the reality of life in this fragmented violent society, it rings true.

The tale of Alan the Fair may suggest a not entirely subordinate role for Mongol women, and I have run across assertions to this effect. However, the Secret History abounds with stories of the abduction of women, for wives or concubines, with no hint of disapproval. The Secret History differs strikingly from the Old Testament in one aspect: there is virtually no mention of gods or religion at all. No miracles occur.

After many pages of battles, palace intrigues, and affecting tales of comradeship (almost ‘bromance’ at times), the Secret History polishes off Chinggis with an anti-climax:

“Having destroyed the Tangut people, Chinggis Khan came back and in the Year of Pig ascended to heaven. After he had ascended, a great part of the Tangut people were given to Yisui Khatun.”

There follow a few pages about the exploits of Chinggis’s successor Ogodei Khan, and then the concluding lines: “The writing of this book was completed at the time when the Great Assembly convened, in the Year of Rat, in the month of the Roebuck …”

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