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NEW: The Nomads in Eurasian History:

NEW: Who were the Mongols?

Hypotheses on the rise of Chinggis Qan: A draft:

Bibliography on this and related topics:

The Secret History as a source (needs revision):

Translation of a passage from the Sheng-wu Ch'in-cheng Lu:


The Steppe Barbarians in Eurasia:
A Work In Progress (updated 03-16-03)

An outline of a new interpretation, with special attention to the Mongols of Chinggis Qan (Much of this sketch has been transferred into "Who Were the Mongols?" and "The Nomads in Eurasian History" -- links above.)

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial vessels dry; this happens again and again; eventually it can be predicted, and becomes part of the ceremony.
Franz Kafka

A petty thief is executed, but a big thief is proclaimed emperor;
and wise men and scholars vie to sit at his feet.
Chuang Tzu.

The Steppe Barbarians

"Pastoral" cultures with cavalry armies were a factor in Eurasian history from approximately 700 BC to approximately 1300 AD. They were not primordial or prehistoric, but developed as an ofshoot of sedentary (agricultural) societies and afterwards developed in parallel with civilization. By 1200 AD the pastoralists, who were non-urban and non-literate but not primitive, had refined their way of life to a fine point: the yurt and the composite reflex bow, for example, were technological marvels.  The Mongols were the last of a line which included Scythians, Turks, and others.  

According to Robert O'Connell (Ride of the Second Horseman, Oxford, 1995), the horse had been domesticated and ridden astride as early as 4000 BC. Steppe/sedentary hostilities, he claims, go back much earlier than 700 BC and were always central to the pastoralist/nomad way of life. (Barclay, in the earlier The Role of the Horse in Human Culture, had assumed for a later date.) However, the large cavalry armies characteristic of the Scythians, the Hsiung-nu, and later groups only appeared about 700 BC north of the Caucasus and the Black sea, and much later (ca 300 BC) northwest of China.

The pastoral stage used to be spoken of as an intermediate stage between primitive hunters and gatherers and sedentary peoples dependent on agriculture. This theory has been thoroughly discredited, since a purely pastoral society making no use of agricultural products has never been found and is probably impossible. Pastoral peoples always exist in symbiotic relationships with sedentary peoples. Initially pastoralism was carried on in mixed economies; more purely pastoral peoples later split off from these groups, without losing their dependancy of the agriculturalists. (These first pastoral, non-agricultural societies very likely survived partly as bandits raiding their agriculturalist relatives.) While pastoralists can survive on land too dry to be good agricultural land, agriculture is not at all impossible on the steppe, especially with irrigation, and many of history's supposed pastoralists practiced a mixed economy -- most notably, the Scythians, who were major grain exporters. (Significantly, the "royal Scythians" were cavalrymen and pastoralists, more or less; the agricultural Scythians were unfree and possibly of a different ethnicity). Pastoral peoples became completely non-agricultural for one of two two mutually-dependent reasons: either because it was too hard to defend their croplands and stores of grain against their steppe enemies (since that would require giving up their mobility advantage in warfare), or else because it was more economical for them to rely on tribute and plunder than to grow grain themselves. (Di Cosmo, Lattimore)

While (as Di Cosmo argues) the steppe barbarians were able to grow grain, their land was less productive and less densely populated than the agricultural areas were. What the barbarians wanted from the civilized world, however, was not primarily food, but luxury products used to mark status. The sedentary societies' superior production of foodstuffs was merely the cause, and measure, of sedentary societies' greater production of wealth of all kinds. Explanation of barbarian invasions by the need for food is just another example of the "explanation from deficiency" which I discuss below. (In fact, barbarians regarded war as a positive activity and scarcely needed a reason for it. In the steppe culture, males could gain status only through success in battle, and the most highly honored men were the greatest warriors.)

Beyond the misconception that pastoralism is a pre-agricultural stage of civilization is a second related error. It is really misleading to speak of the barbarians primarily as pastoralists at all. While most pastoralists probably could have survived by practicing a mixed agricultural-pastoral way of life, whenever possible they preferred to exploit the civilized world. What they had to offer in peaceful trade was not of great value to the civilized world, so war (and the threat of war to extort tribute) came to define their relationship to civilization. The herds of the barbarians can be regarded as overhead, like the power plant of a factory: they made it possible for them to do their real work, which was to make war. A barbarian nation at peace and living on meat and milk was comparable to a factory standing idle.

It was the greater mobility of pastoral peoples which made it possible from very early on for them to choose this predatory form of symbiosis. Pastoralists' property is movable whereas sedentary property is fixed, and pastoralists can concentrate all their forces on a single part of the sedentary realm, and then retreat and disperse with their plunder. Sedentary peoples cannot defend every point on their borders and are even worse equipped to pursue the raiders. As a result, plunder often became regularized, either by the payment of tribute to the steppe leaders, or by the conquest of the sedentary world by the steppe and the formation there of regular governments dominated by the descendants of the formerly pastoral cavalrymen.

The Bedouin and Berber raiders, the Viking sea-raiders, and probably the classical and preclassical (Homeric) Greeks, like the steppe nomads, all relied on superior mobility, concentration in attack, and dispersal in retreat. All these peoples were also trading peoples, and (as I will explain below), plunder can be analyzed simply as a limit case of (forced) trade. (As an example of a positive form of Viking trade, narwhale and walrus ivory from Greenland probably made its way to Sung China by way of the Volga Bulgars or the Khazars and the Khwarizmians).

The Indo-Europeans invaders from the north in prehistoric times, as well as most of the Germanic invaders in Europe after the fall of Rome, were not really steppe barbarians by my description. They were initially barbarians as I defined the word below, but mostly fought as infantry and were much less mobile. The Germanic world met the world of the steppe on a line running roughly from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and over the centuries there were numerous interesting hybrid formations there. (The late Cossacks were basically Turkified Slavs, but they also had a pirate navy on the Black Sea and thus can also be called heirs of the Scandinavian Rus and Varangians. As late as 1709, "the last Viking", Karl XII of Sweden, allied himself with the Cossack Mazeppa against the Russians, and the decisive battle of Poltava was fought so far south that when he was defeated Karl escaped to Turkey rather than try to return to Sweden.)

The word "nomad" sometimes is used to mean the most purely pastoral peoples, and sometimes is used to designate the cavalry armies on the steppe. Because the pure nomad has scarcely existed in history, and because many wandering peoples are entirely unlike the "steppe nomads", this term is really rather useless. Because the primary significance of the pastoral peoples in history is military, I believe that the word "barbarian" is the appropriate one. The "barbarians" can be defined as uncivilized peoples who pose a military threat to civilized peoples. (Uncivilized peoples who do not pose a threat, such as the hill tribes of southern China, would have to be called something else.) "Civilized" can be conventionally defined: peoples mostly dependent on agriculture which make extensive use of writing and live in permanent cities and towns. (The existence of transitional and borderline cases -- e.g. the Volga Bulgars or the Rus -- is not really a problem; in fact, as trading peoples of barbarian origin they are central to the later part of my argument).

In many ways civilization can be defined by fixity and barbarism by fluidity. Civilized political entities exist to control territory and to tax peasants, who are normally fixed to their small plots of land. Civilized peoples live at fixed locations and are organized into heiearchies of big and small walled cities which live on tax grain. Civilizations are ruled by fixed written laws, often worship according to written scripture and liturgies, and are organized into fixed heierarchies of ranks, titles, and offices. By contrast, the steppe cultural tradition is oral and malleable. There are no cities and only a rather weak and transient identification of individuals or clans with specific tracts of land. The names, titles, and other designations of the steppe peoples exasperated the Chinese by their imprecision. Mongols usually went by a single name which did not usually indicate paternity or clan and which could be easily changed, and often did not know their own dates of birth. Names were often preceded by unsystematic titles or epithets which were awarded either by a war chief or by public opinion on a rather ad hoc basis.

The sedentary civilizations which emphasized order, control, caution, and ancient tradition could not appreciate the steppe peoples who emphasized speed, enterprise, and resourcefulness, and whose political units could appear and disappear in a single season. Below I will argue that the steppe peoples, rather than primitive, were highly-specialized, rationalized, modernist peoples (somewhat comparable to the early bourgeois traders), whose different appreciation of time, space, and change led the way toward a geographically more extensive and richer political and economic order.

Below I will use the term "steppe barbarians" to designate what are usually called "steppe nomads". When I say "Mongol" below, I mean the Mongols of the period. 1150-1228 -- roughly, the lifetime of Chinggis Qan and the immediately preceding period. Nothing I say should be assumed to be true for the period 1228--present, though much of it was probably true of the various steppe peoples during the period 700 BC -- 1228 AD. I use Temujin, Chinggis Qan's personal name, for the period before he became Qan. For the record, "Chinggis/Genghis" is an adjective modifying Qan, and not a personal name, any more than "Christ" is Jesus' family name.

ETHNICITY: Way of Life

The way of life of the steppe barbarians was mostly a consequence of pastoralism and military organization. The Chinese stereotype definition of the steppe barbarians -- "People with no fixed residence who follow the water and grass with their flocks, people bent on war and plunder who spend their lives on horseback, people who know their mothers but not their fathers and often kill their fathers and brothers" is actually fairly accurate.

The Mongol lifestyle, which involved constant small skirmishes and raids and occasional big wars, led to extraordinarily high male mortality, and as a result polygyny when the widows remarried. For this reason, sons often did not know their fathers, either because the father was dead or because the mother was only one of many wives.  The mother-son bond was probably  the strongest social bond in Mongol society and women (mothers and wives) normally played a strong political role. (By contrast to China, where strong women were also common but were always resented and denounced, the legitimacy of the Mongol woman's role was not in doubt)..  

Mongol clans were very weak and were always splitting: brother-against-brother and couson-against-cousin battles were more the rule than the exception, and father-against-son battles were not at all rare.   Whatever political order there was on the steppe was transient, formed primarily by the personal allegiance of individuals and groups to a war chief. Unlike sedentary states which controlled walled cities, treasure houses, granaries, formal bureaucracies, professional armies, and large numbers of peasants who were tied to the land, steppe political units really provided nothing concrete to pass down to an heir. A qan's sons, nephews, brothers, and uncles all could bid on his position if they wanted to, and they did this by recruiting followers and fighting against all the other contenders until only one was left alive. This is what Fletcher called "bloody tanistry".

Fletcher, Joseph, "The Mongols: Social and Ecological perspectives", #IX in Studies on Chinese and Islamic Inner Asia, Variorum, 1995.

Murder of kin, which was common in the steppe world, may be a prerequisite for state-formation, which involves a transition from personal, kin-based social forms to non-kin, impersonal social forms. Myths of Jupiter killing Saturn, etc., or the Oresteia, while psychologically deep, may also be relics of a real historical transition.  Thus, the "bloody tanistry" on the steppes may simply be the reenactment every generation of the original foundation of the state -- since on the steppe has to be formed anew every generation and cannot be passed on, whereas in the sedentary world the state has materially-based institutional permanence and does not disappear with the founder.  (Bloody succession struggles between brothers and cousins, and sometimes even fathers and sons, are by no means rare in European or Chinese dynastic history, but there they are not regarded as normal as they are on the steppe, and often the historical record deletes or obscures these events. It is, as one might expects, especially common at the foundation of dynasties; Chinese examples include the beginnings of the T'ang dynasty as well as the succession of Ts'ao P'i to Ts'ao Ts'ao of Three Kingdons Wei. Interestingly, the T'ang founders were intermarried with the Turks, and Ts'ao Ts'ao was a highly atypical Chinese who raised his sons as mounted archers. Ts'ao Ts'ao even defeated his steppe-barbarian Hsien-pei adversaries with a surprise cavalry raid -- the quintessential steppe tactic.)

"Reciprocity" is a fundamental normative and descriptive concept in almost every society. It is a complex concept which takes many forms, prominent among which are usually "Return good for good and harm for harm" and "To those who do harm, harm will be done in return". The first of these principles leads to feud and complex patterns of gift-exchange, both of which (above all the former) are important in Mongol culture. The second principle, however, has taken a peculiar twist among the Mongols, which can be called negative reciprocity: I take and give nothing; I harm others and am not harmed in return. The fact that I am able to escape from reciprocity (or retribution) in this way is taken to mean that I am especially blessed by Heaven. Whereas in most societies it is regarded that killing incurs guilt which will be punished, either in this world or in the afterlife unless expiated, the Mongols believed that their victims would be their slaves in the afterlife. (In this context the incredibly bloody civilian massacres that took place during the Mongol invasions can be seen to have had a religious sanction. At the same time, however, it makes more sense to say that the Mongols' military way of life and their consistent success in that way of life led to the religious belief, than to say that the belief caused the behavior).

[SH#267 pp. 63, 67: Mongols also had a fear of the spirits of the dead]

When a qan or other contender for power kills one of his rivals, functionally there are a number of good things which happen. First, the rival is gone, and the victor has gained a reputation for power. Second, the rival's enemies become friends. Third, the rival's dependents and inferiors are left without their leader. Negatively, certain relatives of the murdered rival are obligated to take revenge at whatever cost, but usually they lose most of their supporters since the victor has shown that he has heaven behind him. (Sometimes the idea is expressed that the victorious contestant gains the power of his defeated and murdered riva: SH #267, p. 50.) Of all peoples the this-worldly Mongols most worshipped the war God and the God of success; for them, victory in battle proved righteousness. (In early medieval Europe "trial by battle" was a vestige of this, as is, in a sense, the duel).

A final functional benefit of the killing of rivals -- this one a more social one -- is simply that it can put an end to disputes. In an ideal case when two equally-qualified leaders are contesting power and neither one is willing to yield, from the point of view of the average subject the only important thing is really that one or the other, regardless of which, should win quickly and end the struggle. The death of either contender accomplishes this goal. The definition of the state as "monopoly of violence" comes from the fact that the state exists to make the final decision between contested proposals, and that sometimes killing is the only way to end the dispute.

(Secret History, #33-40; Shen Tao, position, etc; Mo Tzu, "ten people have ten justices".)

Black-Michaud, Jacob, Cohesive Force, Blackwell, 1975

Lewis, Mark Edward, Sanctioned Violence in Early China, SUNY, 1990

10. War was virtually cost-free for the Mongols.  On the one hand, when there were no large-scale wars, there were constant  small raids and skirmishes. The mortality might be equal in the two cases, so there never really was "peace". Mongols were regarded as adults at 15, so manpower losses were recouped very quickly .  Battle deaths did not reduce fertility at all, since widows immediately remarried. And since the Mongols had no real property, by contrast to the sedentary world, war did not destroy productive capacity.  Different people just grazed the same sheep on the same land.  

11.   War, especially war against the civilized world, was almost the only Mongol activity which required large-scale organization; most  productive non-military activities could be handled locally and personally.  

12. It has been calculated that 0.5% of the people in the world are direct descendants of Chinggis Qan. Mongol polygamy (and it was multiplied with each Chinggisid generation) made this possible: Chinggis Qan is reported to have had 800 wives.  Who exactly was selected for in the Mongol world? Successful fathers were great warriors who were not killed in battle. A degree of military prowess and courage was needed, but shrewdness was just as important. (Kamikazes did not have multiple wives.)  My conclusion is that after establishing credibility as a brave, resourceful, and capable soldier, the most successful Mongols rose up the heierarchy and led from positions of relative safety.  The career of Chinggis Qan confirms this.  Mongol leaders were not heros who led their troops into battle and fought the toughest enemy, but strategists. Prowess, I believe, was just an entry-level initiation. (American Journal of Human Genetics, 72, 2003).

(The stallion/ herd model; buqa; geldings; the alpha male of alpha males.)

13.  All told, the individual Mongol (man) lived in a broad-ranging, fast-moving, violent  world in which quick life-and-death decisions were frequently necessary. Individual Mongols either subordinated themselves to the leader who they thought would be most successful (superstition and prophecy played a major role in this choice) or else set themselves up as leaders.  To claim leadership was a fateful choice, since the leaders of defeated armies were normally executed and their followers distributed throughout the victorious army, usually in lowly and dangerous positions -- from which, however, they could rise if they performed well. The Mongol way of life demanded toughness, boldness, and courage, but it equally demanded shrewdness and caution. Thus, the Mongols may have had a higher degree of instrumental rationality (as opposed to kin loyalties, traditionalism, ritualism, legalism, etc.) than any other people of that time. In particular, warfare is an activity in which success and failure can be known immediately -- in the course of an afternoon -- with the losers permanently eliminated afterwards; whereas the success or failure of rational agriculture, rational economic management, rational finance, rational trade, etc., are usually known only after a bare minimum of one season, but usually only after many years or decades.

14. All barbarian raiding peoples (Vikings, Bedouins and Berbers, the steppe peoples, and probably the classical Greeks)  had in common a mobility which allowed them to concentrate their forces in attack and disperse in retreat. Only a comparably mobile enemy could have defeated them.  They were also relatively impoverished, short-lived, but extremely vigorous  peoples who were willing to gamble their lives for a windfall profit.
15. Nomad leaders controlled men, not territory. Flocks could move, whereas crops are rooted. Nomad wars were fast-moving and offensive, never defensive.  Nomads had an advantage over sedentary rulers who had to protect tax-producing cropland territory. 
16. Chinggis Qan made many centralizing innovations in the previously disunited tribal Mongol (and Turkish) peoples. (Chs. 8-10, Secret History of the Mongols)  By killing and intimidating all rivals, during his lifetime he became the undisputed leader  of the Eastern steppe.  With the end of internecine fighting, the united steppe became  an tremendously powerful force.

16A. Chinggis Qan is hard to call a traditional Mongol; while he had mastered traditional Mongol ways, he transformed them enormously and welded the scattered tribes into one rationally-organized unit, and in this sense was an innovator. At the same time, much of what he did was similiar to what other great Qans of the past had done (i.e., the founders of the Hsiung-nu, Toba, Turk, Uighur, Khitan, Jurchen, Tangut, and other states.) From this point of view we have what resembles the gumsa-gumlao alternation between strong and weak rulers (Leach: Highland Burma. My conviction, however, is that this alternation, however, was not a cyclic alternation in any meaningful sense; that is, it was not governed either by any regular endogoneous internally-generated cycle, nor by some regular external cycle such as climate change or economic cycles in the sedentary world).

But there is also a possibility that there was a progress, and even that Chinggis Qan had learned from the experiences of the great Qans of the past. The Hsiung-nu, for example, by dominating the steppe were able to extort tribute and tax trade, but they did not try to occupy China and did not venture west of the Caspian. The Toba occupied Northern China for a long period, but had no Western extension. The Turks did not occupy China, but sent embassies West as far as Byzantium. The Uighurs briefly occupied China, but returned to Mongolia and were destroyed by the Khirgiz from their rear. The Khitan, Jurchen, and Tangut built hybrid societies which dominated the North and Northwest, but could not conquer the South or the West. Chinggis Qan can be regarded as having built on the accomplishments and learned from the failures of these various peoples. His westward extension outdid the Turks; his rule of sedentary lands was modelled on the Khitai; he took care not to be seduced by Chinese wealth, as the Turks had been; he took care to protect his rear, as the Uighurs had failed to do.

The possibility that he had consciously learned from history cannot be excluded. Renegade Chinese were on the steppe at all periods, and the Turks, Tangut, Khitan, and Jurchen all had their own historical records. Like Muhammed, Chinggis respected the power of writing and consistently protected scribes and clergy.

Lo, Winston W., "Wan-yen Ysung-han: Jurchen General as Sinologist". in Journal of Sung-Yuan Studies, #26, 1996, pp. 87--112.

Constancy, cycles, progress, uniqueness, and randomness. Any of these can be asserted as a theory of history, but really all of them are in play all the time. Steppe incursions on the civilized world were continuous from 700 BC to 1300 AD. By and large there was an alternation of periods of steppe strength and aggression with period of steppe weakness and passivity. But there seems to have been a progressive development, too. And while Chinggis Qan can be thought of as one of a long chain of great Qans, the records show him making a large number of innovations, and it would be an enormous leap to assert that he was not unique. And last, it still might be true that if a certain arrow had struck an inch or so to the right, that the whole story would never have happened.

17. The Mongol horses were mediocre, but the riders slept in the saddle and could travel for 48 hours continuously.(They changed mounts often).  Furthermore, the whole Mongol army originally was cavalry, and they didn't have to wait for the baggage carts since they could eat their horses. (The Mongol equivalent of a "field camp", was actually where the women and children were.  So the Mongol home was their field camp -- there was no static homeland to protect).

18. The Mongol visualization and utilization of time and space was far superior to that of any sedentary army.  They could closely coordinate multi-pronged attacks over different routes at the distance of hundreds of miles.  This is an example of an enormous technological superiority of the Mongols, though not usually included on lists of technological advances.
19. When Eurasia was united by the Mongols, continent-wide trade first became possible.  Thus the Mongols' wider geographical vision proved fruitful for others.
20.  The steppe peoples were always symbiotic with the sedentary peoples and never self-sufficient.  They received economic products from the sedentary peoples.  What they gave was government and protection.  At worst, they were bribed to do nothing; at best, they made long-distance trade possible and profited from it. Furthermore, if a sedentary government was inept, it was replaced by a more efficient  government from the steppe. (The Germans, Vikings, and Arabs are a related but different story). Agriculture was actually possible in the steppe world, but agriculture required a commitment to a defensive military strategy which would have been fatal on the steppe during periods of disunity. (The Scythians were grain exporters during their period of control; in this sense they were a hybrid people; and it is quite possible that the disappearance of the Scythians as a people was the ultimate outcome of their sedentary committments).
21. Students of long distance trade talk about protection as the major function of government and as the most important cost of doing business. Traders were glad to pay tolls to rulers who could guarantee safe passage. Lane calls this negative protection of trade (against bandits, robber barons, and free lance tariff collectors at bridges and passes).  Positive protection, in Lane's ironic phrase, was the suppression and plundering of competitors (together with forced trade with unwilling trading partners.) Thus the Venetian navy protected Venetian trade and plundered Pisan and Genoese trade.  Likewise, cities which refused to trade were sacked and plundered.

Steensgaard, Niels, “Violence and the Rise of Capitalism”, Review (of Braudel Center),  V:2, Fall 1981, pp. 247-73.

 Steensgaard, Niels, The Asian Trade Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, Chicago, 1973. (Otiginally published in Denmark as Carracks, Caravans, and Companies).

Lane, Frederic, Venice and History (Johns Hopkins, 1966), especially "Economic Consequences of Organized Violence", pp. 412-428; especially pp. 414-416..

p. 414

22. During their plundering phase (when they were not governing anyone or taxing long distance trade) the Mongols and related peoples were "providing" pure positive protection (=plunder) and also making a bid to replace the existing protection regime (which often also was of steppe origin). If the existing regime fought off the challenge they retained their protection concession.  If they fell, they were replaced by their Mongol adversaries who now were in charge of both negative and positive protection.

Cases in point: Attila the Hun, named "magister Militum" before he invaded the Empire (Maenchen-Helfen, p. 107); Alaric of the Goths, who had been charged with protecting the Roman border, but who later sacked Rome (Maenchen-Helfen, p. 474); Temujin himself, who had received the title "ja'ut-quri" from the (Jurchen Chin) Chinese in return for his service against the Tatar; and the founders of the Chinese Chou dynasty, Wen Wang and Wu Wang, who (with the help of many tribal peoples) overthrew the Shang dynasty after having been charged with guarding its northwestern frontier. A cross-cultural study of borderers who succeed in usurping power would be an extremely interesting and voluminous book.

23. From about 900 AD to about 1280 AD Mongolia was a military high pressure zone. Armies defeated in Mongolia often fled to conquer sedentary civilizations further south. For example, the Khitan who defeated the Chinese were later defeated by the Jurchen who were finally defeated by the Mongols.  The defeated Khitan moved West, founded the Karakhitai state, and defeated the Khwarizmians. Later the Naiman Mongols defeated by Chinggis Qan destroyed  the Karakhitai state and joined the Khwarizmians; finally the  Khwarizmians defeated by the Mongols fled west to the Holy Land and helped win back Jerusalem from the Crusaders.

While this story sometimes is told as the defeat of a people in Mongolia which later conquered a sedentary people to the southeast or southwest, it also seems to be the case that, as successful peoples drifted south they left a vacuum behind them which more northerly peoples (often forest peoples) filled. Likewise, the disappearance of people like the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Huns can be explained as the assimilation of some of these peoples by the Roman Empire (as mercenaries or slaves) combined with the assimilation of those staying on the steppe by the peoples from the east coming up behind them. Only the leaders of defeated peoples were killed, so we are not talking about extermination. Furthermore, peoples who submitted themselves to an enemy became part of that society without changing culture or even leadership.

William McNeill calls the second chapter of his Pursuit of Power (Chicago, 1982) "The Era of Chinese Predominance, 1000-1500". What is odd about this title is that from about 900 A.D. until about 1400 A.D. North China was continuously ruled by the non-Chinese Khitan, Jurchen, and Mongols, and for about the period 1280-1380 the Mongols ruled all of China. While the purely-Chinese Sung in southern China were a real military force during the first part of the period indicated by McNeill, they could never extend their rule northwards during this time, and after 1280 China was a hybrid state (as the north had been all along).


Explanations of the Mongol invasions by climate change are cheap, plentiful, and seldom accompanied by data about climate.  "Climate, History,and the Modern World" (H. H. Lamb, Routledge 1995, pp. 185, 317-18), is somewhat exceptional. According to Lamb, around 300 AD and also 800 AD droughts were associated with with barbarian incursions into the Roman Empire, whereas the Mongol invasions occured during a relatively moist and fertile period (as Paul Buell also says). Initially it may be concluded that, while climate probably was a factor at every period, there probably was no uniform climatic cause of the "Pulse of Asia" type over the centuries. Early simpler theories have sometimes been replaced (for example, by Lamb) by two-step theories which propose that a buildup of strength for one climatic reason (increased rainfall) was succeeded by a different climatic triggering event (a short drought). The extreme sensitivity to climate of the steppe peoples, who have no stores of food except for their livestock, does make this triggering effect possible. However, it is also true that the steppe people mostly attacked when their horses had been fattened up over the summer; a desperation attack by starving nomads would be relatively easily defeated. So the trigger effect would only work well if a people whose horses were fat and healthy came to realize that they had exhausted their own pastures. (A much more common trigger effect is military defeat: the defeated Qitai founded the Qara-Qitai state, Babur conquered north India after being defeated in Central Asia, and the defeated Naiman played a major role in Qara-qitai and Khwarizmia).

Nonetheless, it seems most probable that, while climatic events often influenced steppe/sedentary military relationships, even the most sophisticated reductionist explanations of single events are misleading. Lattimore, (Studies in Frontier History, Oxford, 1962) points (p. 62) out that a 35% decrease in rainfall can lead to an 80% decrease in pastoral productivity. He also notes (pp. 242-3) that dessication does not reduce the amount of pasture available, but converts pasture to desert and forest and agricultural land to pasture; this would have the effect of bringing the pastoral regions closer to the sedentary centers. From what Buell says I conclude that increased rainfall led both to increased production in pastoral areas, and the encroachment of agriculture into these areas. The hybrid Chin state, which had barbarian antecedents and excellent cavalry, seems to have adopted an aggressive policy on the frontier (judging by the frontier revolt of 1207 and also their break with their Tatar allies in 1196 which led to the award of a Chinese title to Temujin).

Buell, "The Role of the Sino-Mongolian Frontier", 1979.

A synoptic narrative of the climate/steppe pastoralism question might go like this. The economy of the first settlers in Central Asia (thousands of years BC) was an agricultural / pastoral mix. Over the centuries there was a tend toward dessication, which turned some pasture to desert and some cropland to grazing land, with an overall tendency to favor grazing. A second factor favoring pastoralism during this period was military specialization which enabled pastoral peoples to exploit the resources of the sedentary world: around 700 BC cavalry armies from the steppe began to ravage the civilized world, and did so almost continuously until 1300 AD or later.

Variations in rainfall during the later, relatively dryer period had mixed effects: a moderate increase in rainfall would allow a considerably greater increase in the size of herds, but would also enable the encroachment of agriculture (possibly carried on by purely agricultural, non-pastoral rival peoples) into what had formerly been grazing areas. And during any period, a seasonal drought might trigger a desperate aggressive movement, especially during the very short window of time when drought conditions had become evident but had not yet destroyed the herds.

"Overpopulation" cannot explain the Mongol successes.  Otherwise Bangla Desh or Egypt would have conquered the world.  The Mongol life produced very tough and not-undernourished people who had an enormous military capacity.  (Meat-eating may be a partial explanation.) The fact that life was easier and richer almost everywhere else in the world than Mongolia was their obvious motive. Mongolia was vast but thinly populated, but could concentrate its forces anywhere without having to defend a homeland at all.  

In general, explanations by deficiency ("overpopulation plus drought") should be regarded as implausible. The Mongols conquered the world because they wanted to and were able to. Since they presumably had always wanted to; what needs to be explained is their ability to do so.  (War was normal for the Mongols, not a deviation to be explained.)  This cannot be explained by weakness. (The term "overpopulation", of course, is the verbal expression of a strength -- plenty of manpower -- as a weakness).

27. Rather than primitive peoples, Mongols can be thought of as highly developed specialists in "protection" who had evolved in parallel with the great sedentary civilizations.  They were the  masters of space, time, movement, and long distances. As such they were comparable to the bourgeois long distance traders who were also despised by the conservative, control-oriented sedentary societies which depended on controlling and taxing fixed agricultural territory and were destabilized by long-distance trade and  finance, as well as by positive protection specialists proposing to replace them and reconfigure their territory.  

28. From a historical materialist point of view, Mongols controlled the "means of destruction" (=protection) rather than the means of production. Engels' refutation of Duhring's "force theory" of the foundation of the state claims that state-foundation requires an economic basis, but the pastoral  economic basis of the Mongols was only enough to provide support for their real economy, which was positive and negative protection. (Force theory of the state: Gellner, Oppenheimer, Ibn Khaldun).  

28 B. What has been said above about "negative reciprocity" also contributes to our understanding of the foundations of the state. Someone who brazenly harms others but gets away with it can be thought to have divine sanction and exemption from the forms of reciprocity which rule commoners. He has achieved a kind of impunity that can be called transcendance: a one-way relationship in which others cannot hurt him, but he can hurt others. But as it happens, this is exactly the problem of the state. How can the agents of the state enforce its laws and edicts, by violence if necessary, without incurring guilt and making themselves susceptible to revenge?

Oedipus, Macbeth, Dostoevsky, Oresteia; Glotz; Gagarin/Drako

The murder of kin makes this transcendance total. In pre-state clan societies, if murder was not avenged by the clan of the victim or by a clan protecting the victim, there really was no punishment for murder per se. In this system the murder of nobodies was really not a problem unless they later turned out to be somebodies, but the murder of kin was an enormous problem, above all in cases of parricide, fratricide, etc., when the killer was the same person charged with avenging the wrong. The horror in the Oedipus story is that a terrible wrong has been committed without there being anyone on earth to avenge it, and in the story (which is written from the point of view of order) it is supposed that fate and supernatural forces fill this deficiency and avenge the wrong.

But at the foundational moment, this is not true. A man kills his father or brother and gets away with it. He commits the greatest of impieties, and rather than being struck down he establishes a new order. The magnitude of the crime he has commited is a measure of the greatness of his power. While he was still in his early teens, Temujin killed his brother Bekter. Of the male kin in his own and his father's generation named in the Secret History, he is responsible for the deaths of at least a third. (Of the others, only three -- his brothers Belgutei and Temuge-otchigin and his cousin Onggur -- outlived Temujin, and of these only Temuge-otchigin had not faced death at Temujin's hand.)

Plutarch, Mo Tun, Liao, Shaka Zulu, Aeschylus, Charlemagne, Ottomans.

28 C. Sahlins has argued that in capitalist societies value-formation takes place in the economy, which become efficient at the expense of religion, kinship, etc.,  whereas in traditional sedentary societies (Indonesia, SE Asia, India) value-formation takes place in the ritual system, so that the economy is stunted to the benefit of kinship, religion, ritual, and esthetics.  (The economy still exists and constrains other activities, but is not dominant the way economists and Marxists say). In Mongol society (as in early feudal society, 600-1000 AD or so, and many so-called "tribal" societies), value-formation took place above all in war. The economy, religion, ritual, the family, etc., were subordinated to war, which was the predominant Mongol activity.

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Mongol society is said to be patrilineal, and in many respects this is correct. However, when a family is exterminated, the Mongols compare it to extinguishing a hearthfire and scattering the ashes. Hearthfires belonged to the mother and wife -- each wife had her own yurt and hearth. The youngest son who inherited the family's "hearth" or original domain also was responsible for the care of the mother. When Bekter realizes that he is to be killed by his half-brothers Temujin and Qasar, he **begs for the life of his full brother Belgutei, in order that their hearthfire may not be extinguished. If the Mongol family were purely patrilineal, this would have made no sense, since all the brothers had the same father.

Generational errors are frequently seen in the sources on the Mongols -- father and son mistaken for brothers, and uncle mistaken for a brother, or even a wife mistaken for a mother. Mongol males were considered adults (husbands and soldiers) at about the age of 15, so a 15-year-old might easily end up fighting alongside his own 31-year-old father. The skills Mongols needed in warfare were taught from an early age, and the physical abilities needed were those characteristic of youth, and since military prowess was a Mongol's chief road to high status, a young man would often be in competition with his own father and might easily surpass him at a very early age. And since young men frequently married older widows (including their fathers' wives other than their own mother), and since successful older men frequently married young women, it would seem that in the Mongol world there were only two age-statusses, adult and child, and that the adult status was rnked according to a military meritocracy which, as the Chinese said, favored the young over the old.

The "moment of truth" in the Secret History is not found in the heat of battle or in the face of death, but in the decision to affiliate with one of the contestants in a life-and-death struggle.

From Qabul (Jurgin) Killed by Temujin Fate unknown Other
Older generation Buri-boko; (Yeke-Cheren? See below under Qachi'un) Qutuqtu-yurki  
Younger generation Seche-beki, Taichu, Jochi, Altan Girma'u (almost nothing is known about him)  
From Bartan (Kitat) Killed by Temujin Fate unknown Other
Older generation Daritai? (Executed according to some accounts, spared according to others)   Yesugei, Nekun-taishi, Monggetu-kiyan: all died early
Younger generation Bekter, Quchar; Qachi'un?

*It is my conjecture that the Qachi'un denounced by Temujin before this battle was his brother; Qachi'un was a common name seen also in SH #141, but all the others denounced in this speech were familiars of Temujin. Yeke-cheren definitely was fighting in Ong Qan's forces against Temujin in the battle which decisively defeated Ong Qan. Both men disappear from the records I have at this point, but further research is needed.

  Qasar died, probably in battle, before 1220; he had come close to death at Temujin's hands but had been rescued by their mother.

Onggur, Temuge, Belgutei, all survived Temujin; Onggur had been reprieved after angering Temujin; Belgutei had been demoted for an error.


Beijing to the "Jade Gate" (western China) ~1050 miles (+1050)

Beijing to Samarkand (Central Asia) ~2250 miles (+1200)

Beijing to Astrakhan (on Caspian Sea) ~3400 miles (+1150)

Beijing to Sebastopol (on Black Sea) ~4000 miles (+600)

Beijing to Paris ~5100 miles (+1100)

Sebastopol to Jade Gate: 3000 miles.

Iron, smiths, smelting. Temur, Stalin. Shaka, Turks.

Mongols in military history: Kagan, Delbruck, Hansen.

When China was strong, steppe was strong, and conversely (Barfield)

p. 6 Di Cosmo intro (anthology) Mongol organization unique barfield 1982 xiungnu verified

Mo Tzu Shen Tao Bodanchar

while tribute would have been cheaper than war, the demographic precession, complacency, and competing stresses precluded a stable solution (Elwin et all, demographic progression.)

"clean frontier" Lattimore/Barfield vs. hybrid

barfield outer frontier gobi p. 54 1982

Xiungnu state product of Ch'in Han state which disallowed earlier local deals, defensive; ch'in newly aggressive

Barfield 1982 gifts ineffectual because not kept, largesse a central steppe/ and early chinese/ theme largesse: Temujin, China

markets = hybrid, tribute = separation, markets also reduced the shan-yu's power

large scale org. / heierarchy / luxury / long distance trade / government / military as triggers

luxury and trade as linchpin

peace surplus, trade surplus (d of labor)

nietzsche surplus

"cause" thinkers vs doers

granaries cities vs. livestock

Pelliot/ Hambis: PH 316, etc. "destroyed" does not mean "exterminated"; PH 333: transcribers and translaters of SWCCL were not well-versed in the material; PH 305 sorcery and Christianity; Andae: Qurildar, Jaqa-gambu, Jamucha, Ong? Semggum?; PH 426-8 limits of Chin power; 199-200, 196-7, 223 Tatar revolt; PH: SWCCL dates 1250-1285; PH 228-9 200-1, 57, 65, 33-4, 129, 157 tribes: Tayyichi'ut, Jalair, Kereit Mongol Jurkin Baya'ut; PH pp.116-124.

Martin: p. 57, Qabul at accession of Holoma, A.D. 1135; attempted murder; Mongols defeated Chin A. D. 1137; Chin-Tatar alliance thereafter; Ambaqai killed; peace 1147 on Mongol terms; Qutula attacks Tatar; 1161 Chin/Tatar crush Mongols

Secret History (de Rachewiltz): x


seem to be identified as Mongols. It is clear that the Tatar, Naiman, Merkit, and Oyirat, all of whom we would call Mongols, were not Mongols until subjugated by Chinggis Qan. (As for the Kereit, it seems likely that the Kereit were the Mongols' overlords during Temujin's early life, and that Temujin thus would have been called a Kereit -- something that the Secret History is careful not to tell us. Isenbike Togan, Brill, 1998, Flexibility and Limitation in Steppe Formations).

The political meaning of Mongol terminology and the kinship meaning were somewhat independent, with the political terminology dominant. One individual could have several kinship designations, heierarchally organized, according to the structure of the conical clan (clans and sub-clans), and members of subject or allied clans could, in context, be referred to by the name of the confederation to which they belonged (e.g., the Mongols or Naiman) without any real or even fictitious relationship. Mongol clans were so unstable that, for noble Mongols at least, they hardly existed as functioning social units; Mongol society thus is, to a degree, a reasonable approximation of the law of the jungle. (The subject clans probably were kept a little more stable from above by their masters). The more ambitious a noble Mongol was, the more likely he was to kill his brothers and cousins.

Kinship seems to have governed intermarriage and inheritance, with the caveat that Mongol heirs really only inherited a claim to group leadership and would normally have to fight to reform the group and claimits leadership. For all the attention given to kinship terminology in the Secret History, it really seems that kinship was only one resource among many for an ambitious noble, at best granting a certain degree of plausibility to his claims (based on a noble ancestor). And while kinship (including kinship through the mother and wife) could also be used as a pretext for alliance, just as often near kin became deadly enemies. (Golden, Peter, Nomads and Sedentary Societies in Medieval Eurasia, American Historical Association, 1998).

So at the beginning of the Secret History Temujin may have been politically a Kerait (visavis the Tatar and Merkit, for example), was a contender to be the Mongol Qan as an heir of Qabul and Qaidu, as his father had been (the Mongols having fallen on hard times for a generation or two), and was a Kiyan through his grandfather Bartan-Ba'atur).















ego centered: right to make claims to leadership (magic), "throw" of claims, pasisng down (magic) and intermarriage

kinship one resource among many for building group (also magic

A fair proportion of the Secret History is devoted to an elaborate geneology defining the "Nilun" Mongols.

minimal clan just scattered descent group

Another function of kinship, however, stretched further backward in time to the famous dead. Contestants for leadership could make magical or charismatic claims to power based on the reputation of any male ancestor, no matter how far back. Thus, Temujin's claims were based in part on his descent from Qabul Qan, Qaidu Qan, and the legendary Bodonchar. Furthermore, by claiming the mantle of these leaders, he was also laying claim to leadership over all other descendants of these leaders, as well as granting them certain claims on him in the event of his success.

essentially-contested, basis for claims

Qabul Qan (who may have aided in the foundation of the Jurchen Chin dynasty.