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Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom

The trefoil of the Mouse-Hole

Lev Gumilev


10. The Tastes and Sympathies of the Author of the Secret History

Causefor Doubt

Despite the fact that the problem of the creation and destruction of Chinggiskhan's power has excited many historians, it has still not been solved. There is no answer to the first and most important question in the numerous general and special works: how did it happen that a poor orphan, deprived of support even by his own tribe which had plundered and deserted him, became leader of a mighty army, khan of several peoples and conqueror of all the neighbouring states although they were much mightier than he? [+1]

In our brief excursus we try to answer this question; for with a panoramic view of Asia's history it is clear that the disappearance of the legend of the Kingdom of Prester John and the decline of the Nestorian church within the Mongol ulus are linked with the turn of events that accompanied the rise of Chinggiskhan. This particularly concerns a most important subject - the formation of the Mongol state prior to the great kuriltai of 1206, since the Mongols` external wars have been studied with greater detail and precision.

Two thirteenth-century works were devoted to a description of this period: Alton depter (The Golden Book) and Yuan-chao-bi-shi (The Secret History of the Mongols). The first is an official history which has gone through strict government censorship; the second is a work composed in 1240 and devoted to describing the same events, but predominantly the internal history of the Mongol people which, evidently, corresponded to the author's interests and the aim he had set himself. What was this aim and who was the author? - that is the problem we have posed.

In approaching an authentic narrative source, the personal qualities and trend of thought of the ancient author are no less {222} significant than his social allegiance or political orientation. More than that, one determines the other and it becomes so interwoven that it is inseparable. It is still more important to make clear for what purpose and for whose sake the source was written and to what extent one may rely on it. If the author is not gifted, it is easy for the historian to understand, but the Yuan-chao-bi-shi is as much a work of genius as the Lay of Igor's Host, and it is very difficult to determine where the author is leading and what corrections should be made to restore the true course of events. Here is a question of cardinal importance. If we knew the biography and personal connections of the author, then all would be simple, but we do not even know his name.

B.I. Pankratov allows just two hypotheses: a record from the words of an eye-witness and a collective work. [+2] Yet it is still more important to establish the genre and the political tendency of the work itself; but here, too, there is no common opinion as is seen from the various translations of the book's title: The Concealed Tale [+3] and The Secret History. [+4] This is not quite the same thing. [+5]

The researchers are equally contradictory as regards the political trend of the work: [+6] V.V. Bartol'd considered it an apologia for the aristocracy, S.A. Kozinfor democracy, B.Ya. Vladimirtsov wrote that its aim was "to make a secret tradition of the house of Chinggiskhan, of his history, since the tale is really a treasured source of stories about dark events taking place within a single clan, a single family, a single bloodline". On the contrary, the present day Mongolian scholars Ts. Damdinsuren and M. Gaadamba consider that the author's idea amounts to a substantiation of the need to unite the Mongol tribes and to advocate the triumph of feudalism over clan structure. As we see, the difference of opinion is extreme, {223} but only V.V. Bartol'd and G. E. Grumm-Grzhimailo [+7] pose the question of the reliability of the source, though they do not propose a solution to the problem.

It seems to me extremely dubious that the author of the Secret History dealt in such concepts as "feudalism" and "clan structure", or even "aristocracy" and "democracy". Rather, he had personal sympathies and antipathies to particular Chinggisids when in 1240 he composed his tale of past days. It was these sympathies which determined the trend he strove to pursue, with frequent harm to the truth.

As distinct from the Secret History, the official history of the Mongols entitled Collection of Chronicles has an author whose biography is well known. This does not, of course, mean that the history of the creation of this source, its methodological and compositional features are clear, and the reliability of its information is undoubted. Rather the contrary, too much here leads one to reflect and gives rise to doubt.

Rashid ad-Din was an educated man who had made an administrative career under the Ilkhans Ghazan and Oljeitu. He grew fabulously rich: a quarter of the town of Tebriz belonged to him, with its stalls, caravansarai, workshops and gardens; he had enormous estates and, apart from that, an unlimited amount of money because he was in charge of the finances of the Ilkhan state. In 1298 he became Vizir, i.e. head of the government, and his family demanded care and attention. It is easy to imagine that Rashid ad-Din was very busy, but a historical investigation is a laborious matter.

And then, amidst all his daily cares, Rashid ad-Din received the command to compose a "history of the Mongols", and a better one than there had ever been. Probably he himself conceived the idea: to begin with the creation of the world, to cover the countries of the Franks and the Chinese and crown this magnificent edifice with a detailed description of the creation and flourishing of the Mongol Empire, to glorify Chinggiskhan and take the tale to its zenith - the reign of his protector, Oljeitu-qan.

The concept was truly grandiose, but Rashid ad-Din was in the position of Raisky in Goncharov's novel, The Precipice, i.e. he had {224} the ideas and the desire, but had neither time, nor the habit of dealing with the material, did not know the methods of historical criticism and, consequently, could not distinguish reliable versions from distorted ones In short, the great financier did not know how to write history.

But this did not bother him. At that time in Persia there were many unemployed educated men The vizir invited them and entrusted them to collect the materials, which they did Then these materials and notes, without being collated and without their reliability being checked, were filed, interleaved and presented to the Ilkhan who also failed to go into the text, but simply rewarded the compiler [+8] The poor men who had dealt with various sections fell into despair, for the raw material had been passed off as the finished production Some, for example Kashani, [+9] complained of plagiarism, but in vain No one wanted to listen But after the vizir had fallen into disgrace, been executed and the Ilkhan empire had rapidly begun to fall apart, there was no mention of correcting historical works There was no need for that So we got not a "history" and not even a "chronicle", but a collection of materials, in great part contradictory.

Identical events are dealt with differently in different parts of the book, and we do not know which versions are to be preferred But perhaps even this is all right, because twentieth-century historians are able to process the primary material without expending enormous efforts to overcome the philosophical conceptions of the thirteenth century which have long lost their relevance But we must not avoid another difficulty not overcome by the compiler of the Collection of Chronicles, checking all the versions adduced by internal and comparative criticism.


Search for a Way Out

First of all, we must note that the Secret History differs very much in its treatment and exposition of events from the official history, the Altan depter (The Golden Book) the Mongol text of which has {225} not survived but which is the basis for Rashid ad-Din's [+10] Collection of Chronicles and for the Yuan-shi, the Chinese history of the Mongol dynasty. [+11] By establishing the agreements in both works we can restore the content of the lost source.

For our purpose, we do not have to compare both versions, the secret and the official, fully. It is enough merely to point to some disagreements to show that they were written independently. Thus, the battle at Dalan-baljut, according to the "official" history, ended in the complete victory of Chinggiskhan, [+12] but, according to the "Secret" one, [+13] in his defeat which Jamuqa somehow did not make use of. The abduction of Borte is described differently by Rashid ad-Din and in the Secret History. [+14] The execution of Jamuqa is ascribed by Rashid ad-Din to Elchidei-noyan who chopped Jamuqa into pieces, but in the Secret History Chinggiskhan strives to save Jamuqa's life and only at Jamuqa's insistence does he allow him to die "without bloodshed", i.e. with great honour. [+15] One could give many more examples of disagreement, but it is enough merely to add that the features of historical persons are at times diametrically opposed. For example, Jamuqa is depicted in the "official" history as an unprincipled adventurer, but in the Secret one as a patriot and true friend of Chinggiskhan who was only forced into the struggle by circumstances and intrigues; moreover, even in the enemy camp Jamuqa is more concerned about Chinggiskhan's interests than his own ( 170, 195, 200). The differing trends of the sources are quite clear.

It is too soon to pose the question of who is right, the "official" or the Secret History. Both were written in a period of intense struggle between various groupings within the Mongol Empire and, undoubtedly, reflected this struggle. Consequently, both distorted the truth, but in different ways. There is only one way to answer the question which interests us concerning the bias of the author of the Secret History - to investigate the source along four lines: (1) the {226} chronological sequence of events; (2) the constructive principle of the literary work, i.e. to establish its genre; (3) the features of historical persons from the author's viewpoint; (4) the author's political sympathies in 1240, i.e. when the work was written.

Only by critical analysis can we answer the question posed and determine the reliability of the source, without which all historical and sociological considerations of the part played by Chinggiskhan will depend on the whim of the researcher and, consequently, cannot claim to be acceptable as scholarship. After all, everything in the history of Chinggiskhan's rise is doubtful, starting with the date of his birth. Rashid ad-Din noted this himself, allowing glaring contradictions in determining this basic date: at first he says that Chinggiskhan was born in the year of the pig, corresponding to A.H. 547 (A.D. 1152/3), but then determining Chinggiskhan's age at his death (August 1227) as 72, i.e. giving him the birth-date of 1155. [+16] There is an undoubted muddle here and, evidently, the dating in the Yuan-shi is more reliable, which allots Chinggiskhan's birth to the year of the horse, 1161. [+17] Mongol tradition gives the date of 1162, but the difference is only a matter of months because of the differing calendars. [+18] We shall see below why one should prefer this date.

In Temujin's life periods of differing importance are to be distinguished. The first period is his childhood before the death of his father which occurred when Temujin was nine ( 61), [+19] i.e. 1171. [+20] Naturally, in this period there were no events in his life which would be reflected in history.

The second period is his adolescence until Tarqutai-kiriltuq, the Tayichi'ut, captured Temujin who then fled from him. The Secret History gives only one fact from this period: the killing of Bekter by Temujin and Qasar ( 76-8) and then incidentally it recalls that Temujin made friends with Jamuqa when he was 11 ( 116), i.e. in {227} 1173. However, we may suppose that something more significant occurred in this period.

In fact, the Tayichi'ut attacked the Borjigin not for plunder, but only to seize Temujin and, having done this, they left. Tarqutai "subjected him to the rightful punishment". What for? Clearly, Temujin had done something, not very harmful, because he was not to be killed, but something quite definite.

This is not a continuation of the old quarrel as a result of the departure of the Tayichi'ut since subsequently Tarqutai-kiriltuq, seized by slaves wanting to hand him over, tells his brothers and sons intending to liberate him that he educated and admonished Temujin when he was orphaned, and adds: "They say he is coming to his senses and his thoughts are sorting themselves out ... No, Temujin will not destroy me" ( 149).

Here the source's author lets the cat out of the bag about events which he has assiduously hushed up: Temujin's unknown deed for which a cangue was put on him was held to be a childish prank, stupid mischief, because he was spared. But the Tayichi'ut elders overlooked the spark of imperiousness that was beginning to appear and which the batrak Sorgan-shira [+21] noted when he saved Temujin from capture and which the author of the source suppressed. Why he had to do this we shall see below.

It is difficult to date this happening. For some reason it is accepted in the literature that Chinggis was 16 at this time, i.e. 1178, but there is no confirmation of this in the source.

The third period is his young manhood and poses still greater difficulties. The next fact, his marriage to Borte, is dated by the ages of members of the Borjigin family. The basic date is the death of the eldest son, Jochi, who was born in the year of the Merkit raid, as a result of which he was suspected of being illegitimate.

Jochi died in 1227, being thirty-odd years old. That means the Merkit raid was about 1190, and Temujin was then 28-30, but, on {228} the other hand, his second son, Ogedei, was 56 in 1241, [+22] i.e. he was born in 1185.

We know from Mongol tradition that the year when Temujin was first chosen as Chinggiskhan was that of the snow leopard and that one and a half years separated it from the year when Borte was liberated and, consequently, from the year when Jochi was born. Since Jochi was older than Ogedei this year could not be 1194, so it was 1182 and that means the counter-raid on the Merkit was about 1180 Proceeding from these dates we can regard the dates of birth for Temujin by Rashid ad-Din, 1152 and 1155, as completely improbable. It is known that Temujin married Borte having reached his majority, i.e. 16 Consequently (even taking the late date), this took place in 1171, i.e. nine years before the birth of his eldest child Is such a thing possible? Yet if we take the date of the Yuan-shi, which goes back to the Mongol Altan depter, i.e. the official history, the date of the marriage falls in 1178-9 and it is natural to expect the birth of a son a year or a year and a half later. Then, it is known that Chinggiskhan personally made long campaigns, i.e. in the saddle, to the end of his life It is scarcely likely that he could without trouble cross the scorching deserts at 72, but one can imagine this was within his ability at 65. Probability and the lack of contradiction speaks for the Mongol chronology, but both its incongruity and two mutually incompatible dates are against the Persian source. We have given so much attention to this question, for the whole chronology of the late twelfth century has so far been of a conditional nature and, in our view, has not corresponded to reality. The starting point for an investigation of the chronology are the dates of Temujin's birth and marriage. On this foundation we have given a corrected chronology of events above and have not once encountered contradictions in the interpretation of facts or their sequence.

If this is so, then the history of the Mongols at the end of the twelfth century takes on the features outlined above. It was extremely rich, i.e. the Tayichi'ut captivity, flight from it, the Merkit raid, the Mongol counter-raid, friendship with Jamuqa and choice as khan, the events grouped together in the interval between 1178 and 1182. And here the author of the source allows himself a slip which is extremely valuable to us Jamuqa says, in proposing the disposition for the counter-raid on the Merkit "On the way from {229} here, upstream along the Onon there are people who belong to the ulus of my anda [i.e. Temujin]. One host will be formed from the ulus of my anda. Another host from here will be two hosts in all" ( 106). [+23] But not only Bo'orchu and Jelme attached themselves to Temujin, there were some other people subordinate to him, even though nominally. This is an enormous step compared with the time when Yisugei's orphans fed themselves on wild garlic and marmots, but the author prefers not to note it although he alone could explain to us the sudden hatred between the Tayichi'ut and Temujin.

The fourth period, maturity, may be limited by 1201, the year of the cock, when the errors in the source move from chronology to other spheres. 1201 was a year of civil war in Mongolia; it had been started by a confederation of tribes, evidently, disturbed and alarmed by Chinggiskhan's energetic policy. But the source gives no answer as to what this policy was. Only three events occur in all these 18 years". Temujin's quarrel with Jamuqa, the campaign against the Tatars and the reprisal against the laggard clan of Jurkin. These events are dated by the year of the dog which started on 1 Jumad578,i.e. in September 1181. Consequently, they took place soon after Temujin had been chosen khan, i.e. about 1183. [+24] The remaining 16 years, i.e. the period when Temujin changed from a petty princeling to a claimant not only for the throne of Mongolia, but also for the whole Great Steppe, the period which is the key to understanding all the subsequent grandiose conquests, the period of the break in the Mongols" social relations and psychology, this period is not reflected in the Secret History at all. It is simply omitted.

Author's ignorance is excluded since from 120, i.e. from 1182, he replaces the pronoun "they" by "we", showing that he participated in the events. So, he again left out events about which he did not want to speak for some reason. Rashid ad-Din had called attention to this strange circumstance. [+25] Evidently, the "official" history hushed up the same events as the Secret one. In this case the trends of both versions coincide; but where an event is described (for {230} example, the battle at Dalan-baljut) the versions are diametrically opposed. Here we have come up against the basic problem - the direction in which the author of the Secret History was tending with regard to the main actor, Temujin Chinggiskhan. By establishing the direction of the source we shall be able to understand what sort of distortion of events the author of the account allowed or consciously introduced into the text.


The Problem of Genre

First of all, it is essential to note that although the author of the Secret History used many tales, traditions and personal recollections, he so creatively fused them that the single plan of the work suffered no harm. Some of the materials had been little reworked, for example, the list of noyans, or the military articles for the guard, or the folklore insertions in the form of direct speech, the praise of the Onggirat women from the lips of Dai-sechen, of the Mongol army from the lips of Jamuqa. In the first case the author has striven to achieve a, perhaps apparent, precision, but in the second we see a common literary device, introducing into the account direct speech, dialogues and monologues, enlivening the dry account in the third person. Such literary devices only demonstrate the author's erudition and the existing literary tradition, but no more.

The first part of the Secret History is a genealogy of the Mongols, something like a literary reworking of the oral tradition about the ancestor, Bodonchar, but the second part, the youth of Chinggis until he was first chosen in 1182, differs from both the preceding and the following parts. In it the legendary character is lost, and it is not yet a chronicle. The author is still writing in the third person, but in unusual detail. For example, that the moon was shining when Temujin fled from Tayichi'ut captivity, how the horses were distributed at the Merkit raid and so on. Had he been a witness of the events, he would have written something in the first person, so, we should suppose that he used a work on this subject that already existed before him, but reworking it to agree with his plan. Rashid ad-Din confirms the existence of such oral literature.

"At that time there was a certain wise and penetrating old man of the Bayaut tribe. He said: 'Seche-beki of the Kiiyat-Jurkin tribe aspires to rule, but this is not his business. Jamuqa-sechen who continually makes people clash with one another and engages in all {231} sorts of hypocritical tricks to advance his affairs, he too will not succeed. Jochibara, in other words Jochi-Qasar, Chinggiskhan's brother also similarly aspires. He counts on his strength and ability to shoot arrows, but he, too, will not succeed. Alak-Udur of the Merkit tribe, aspiring to power and displaying a certain strength and greatness, will also not achieve anything. But this Temujin [i.e. Chinggiskhan] possesses the external appearance, habit and skill to be a chief and to rule, and he undoubtedly will achieve a ruling position.' He uttered this speech, according to Mongol custom, in rhythmical, allegorical prose." [+26]

This quotation describes a genre which was fashionable in the twelfth century. This is not an edifying or an entertaining work, but a political programme processed in literary fashion, adapted for agitational purposes. One can conceive that such works were used as material by the author of the Secret History. From this he would be able to draw detailed information on the twelfth century. But, while using various materials, the author never departs from the single plan he has envisaged.

The Secret History is traditionally constructed: after a brief introduction there is the opening section, the abduction of Ho`elun. Then the development of the action and the dramatic situation proceeds up to the culmination, Jamuqa's death. The device used is extremely elementary, but always effective, literary parallelism, between Jamuqa and Temujin. Events after the great kuriltai of 1206 are depicted with much less detail. This, strictly speaking, is an epilogue, and the author only becomes enlivened at the end when he makes Ogedei publicly repent of drunkenness, greed and neglect of his military officers (the killing of Doqolqu-cherbi). The author's treatment of his material is extremely uneven. We have already seen that he fails to describe whole decades. But apart from this, the author describes in great detail episodes in the civil war, certain events in Chinggiskhan's personal life discreditable to him, but scarcely touches on the external wars and conquests which were evidently only known to him by hearsay. All this does not harm the work's unity, since an exposition of the history of the Mongols, it seems, was not part of the author's task any more than glorifying Temujin's character was. This is a "Secret History", you know! The work pursued definite aims; which ones will be seen from an {232} analysis of the main characters. Yet, analysing them, we should constantly recall that these people passed through the author's consciousness and became personages, that the author was by no means objective and that we are now not sorting out a period, but a literary work written many years ago and directed against someone.



The main figure in the work is Temujin Chinggiskhan; however, to reach a conclusion about his personality, character or abilities is extremely difficult. The author's relation to the hero throughout the course of the tale does not change; it remains ambiguous.

The first personality: Temujin is an evil, cowardly, stupid, vengeful, treacherous man.

The second personality: Chinggiskhan is a sovereign, far-sighted, restrained, just, generous.

In fact, as a personality Temujin seems antipathetic from the first moment. His father tells his future father-in-law: "My lad is terribly frightened of dogs" ( 66); the child's unhealthy nervousness is presented by the author as cowardice, i.e. the most shameful vice in a military society.

When Charqa tells him of the withdrawal of the ulus, Temujin weeps ( 73). A completely human feature, a detail which might have been omitted when speaking of a world ruler.

During the Tayichi'ut and Merkit raids Temujin does not take part in organising their repulsion, and Borte, the young, beloved wife, remains a prey to the enemy only because of her husband's feeling of panic since her horse had been taken as a remount (egoism) ( 99). His prayer on Burqan mountain cannot be considered to display nobility either in content, or in style, or in any way.

Temujin says: " ... I, seeking safety in flight for my heavy body, on a clumsy steed ... have climbed up Burqan [mountain]. My life, like the life of a louse, was spat out by Burqan-qaldun. Sparing my only life, on my one and only horse I climbed up Qaldun, dragging myself along elk fords, making shelters from twigs. My life was defended by Burqan-qaldun like a shield, like the life of a butterfly. I felt great terror'(103).

In fact, the danger was great, but Qasar, Belgutei, Bo'orchu, Jelme were subject to the same risk and nevertheless behaved {233} man-fully. In overemphasising Temujin's cowardice, however, the author, without noticing it himself, lets slip that both Tayichi'ut and Merkit caught only Temujin. We have to suppose that the author failed to describe the qualities less pleasing to the enemy than cowardice.

Having depicted Temujin as a coward, the author does not halt here. He ascribes to him a fault no less shameful in twelfth-century conditions: lack of respect for his parents and lack of affection for his relatives.

Temujin, because of some childish trifling quarrel kills his stepbrother, Bekter, coming up behind him when Bekter was not even intending to resist. The author's attitude is expressed in Temujin's mother's words, angrily comparing her son to wild beasts and a demon (76-8).

The author put his feelings into the empress-mother's words, yet undoubtedly Ho`elun could not have said these words, because the camel is named among the animals listed. We know that in the twelfth century the Mongols scarcely used camels, although they obtained large numbers of them in the form of tribute after the Tangut campaign. Since literary association should always be linked with objects known to the reader, this detail shows that the monologue was not composed in the twelfth, but in the thirteenth century.

Further: when the shaman Teb-Tenggeri slanders Qasar, Chinggiskhan immediately arrests the latter and submits him to a humiliating interrogation which was only broken off thanks to his mother's intervention. While outwardly giving way to her, however, Temujin does not cease to insult Qasar and this hastens the death of his own mother ( 244).

The author does not reproach Chinggis with the foul killing of Teb-Tenggeri, but he stresses the neglect of his brother, Otchigin ( 245,246); finally, his uncle Daritai owes his life, but his children Jochi, Chagatai and Ogedei owe their forgiveness only to public opinion, i.e. to the intercession of the noyans whom the khan did not dare ignore.

Suspicion and malice are also noted in the episode with Qulan when the faithful and meritorious Naya was tortured and all but lost his life because of the unfounded and unjust suspicion of adultery with the queen ( 197).

Chinggis's malice and vengefulness are specially noted by the {234} author in describing the quarrels with the Jurkin clan at a feast when he fanned a drunken brawl into a feud ( 130-2), and the subsequent punishment of Buri-boko, the only true hero, shocks even the author himself, who is accustomed to excesses, by its treachery This episode is told in a dry, restrained and fastidious manner ( 140)

Even the women, the ladies according to the Secret History, feel a revulsion to the personality of the tale's hero After the captive Yisugen became queen, she seeks an excuse to cede her place and palms her sister off on her husband, her sister, reconciled with her high position willy-nilly, continues to yearn for her bridegroom, a poor exile ( 155, 156), whom Chinggis recognises and executes without any cause or accusation

All this may have actually happened, but it is interesting that the author diligently collected and wrote up the scandals of the khan's headquarters, while he omitted more important events

According to the Secret History, Temujin shows no talent for military activities The counter-raid on the Merkit is an affair run by Jamuqa and Ong-qan ( 113), the battle at Dalan-balajut was lost, the battle at Koyiten took a favourable turn only as a consequence of the break-up of the anti-Chinggis confederation, the rout of the Kerait was achieved by Cha'urqan, Dodei-cherbi ( 193) arranged the dispositions for the rout of the Naiman and they were carried out by Jebe, Kubilai, Jelme and Sube'etei

It becomes completely incomprehensible how such a man, without gifts, malicious, vengeful, cowardly, could found a world empire from nothing But let us look at his second personality

Above everything, the author is a patriot and the successes of Mongol arms always impress him He regards the hunting down of the Merkit, the extermination of the Tatars, the enslavement of the Kerait and Naiman as heroic deeds, and here Chinggiskhan receives all that esteem which had been refused Temujin After the battle at Koyiten Chinggis is shown in his best light he is grateful to Jelme and Sorgan-shira, reasonable with regard to Jebe His legislative measures are mainly benefits and awards to the army officers Chinggiskhan attentively listens to the admonitions of his generals and arranges decisions in accord with their opinions ( 260) Yet it is easy to see that the author's sympathies he rather with the officers rewarded than with their benefactor In describing the army the author falls into an enthusiastic, almost an exalted tone ( 195).

{235} The author's opinion of Chinggiskhan, the hero and leader, is completely expressed in the words: "So he established men as noyans and officers of a thousand men who laboured together with him and together they created the state" ( 224). The author carefully notes what favours are granted for what services, and he does not hold back in describing the services again. In an emotional description of the Mongol army put into the mouth of Jamuqa, first place is given to the "four dogs", Jebe and Kubilai, Jelme and Sube'etei, second to the shock troops of Uru'ut and Mangqut, but the khan and his brothers are given third place and the author finds words of praise for all, apart from Temujin of whom he only says that he wears good armour.

Sube'etei-ba'atur is the author's favourite hero. A whole panegyric on Sube'etei is put in the mouth of Chinggiskhan: "If [the fleeing Merkit princelings] had risen to the heavens, you, Sube'etei, would surely have reached them, turning into a falcon, flying as on wings. If they had turned into marmots, even burrowing into the earth with their claws, you, Sube'etei, would surely catch them, turning into a tool, striking and searching. If they swam away into the sea, turning into fish, you, Sube'etei, would surely fish them out, turning into a seine and catching them" ( 199). Other noyans are also recalled by the author, but not in such a delighted tone and only in the general list of those rewarded, while Sube'etei is also mentioned as the conqueror of the Russians ( 277). In general, the author is clearly not indifferent to the military officers and among Ogedei's four crimes there is even listed the secret killing of Doqolqu, an ordinary officer (cherbi), but who "always went ahead of all in the eyes of his sovereign" ( 281).

So, we can state that the author accepts the khan in as much as the army accepts him, but this is not all.

The author stresses fidelity to the "natural sovereign" as a positive quality irrespective of the harm or use it brings to the khan's affairs.

Chinggis executes Jamuqa's nokors who had betrayed their prince, and Kokochu, Sengum's groom, who had abandoned his master in the desert, and, on the other hand, rewards Naya and Qadaq-ba`atur for their fidelity to his enemies, but their "natural sovereign". Here in essence is the creed of the soldier's fidelity to his banner and leader elevated into a religious and ethical principle, since it only takes account of devotion in battle, but not at all in peacetime. The author's ideology distorts in retrospect the events {236} he has described. But for the moment it is important for us to establish that the positive interpretation of Chinggiskhan is, in the author's eyes, linked with his consistent service to his own troops, while the negative one is linked with his personal qualities.

This interpretation of events is doubtful as regards trustworthiness. We have to suppose that the matter was not quite as the author of the Secret History depicts it for us, the more so as he himself twice lets the cat out of the bag.

The first time, when Sorgan-shira and his family save Temujin from the Tayichi'ut they submit only to the charm of his personality, and the second time Bo'orchu abandons his father's home and follows a man unknown to him for the same reason.

The author wrote these studies wanting to praise Bo'orchu and Sorgan-shira, but in doing so, without himself noticing it, he cast a shadow on his conception, the creation of which I ascribe to the tendentious nature of the Secret History which has been noted more than once.

For a complete picture we should look at the features of Chinggis-khan's enemies: Ong-qan and Jamuqa, his children: Jochi, Chagatai and Ogedei and his real successor in power, the minister plenipotentiary Ye-lu Chu-cai. No less a surprise awaits us.

The matter is simple as regards Ong-qan. The author clearly does not like him, but, evidently, personal concern comes in here. When Ong-qan routed the Merkit, "from this booty he gave Chinggiskhan nothing" ( 157). Evidently, the author himself was counting on a share of the Merkit booty and was offended that he got nothing. In order to blacken the unfortunate Kerait petty king, the author collected scandal, of which there is usually no lack, and twice repeated it: in a separate paragraph ( 152) and in Chinggis's message to the leaders of the hostile coalition ( 177). Yet, if we collect all the references to Ong-qan, he appears as an old man, flabby, dull and good-natured. A sable coat was enough to purchase his favour and he paid for it by undertaking a difficult campaign to free Borte. He replies to Jamuqa's bitter reproaches for being late in a conciliatory tone. He equally quietly reacts to the choice of Temujin as khan, being happy for a sympathetic person. He rebutted Jamuqa's intrigues sensibly and quietly, but his tendency to compromise made him give way to the influence of his entourage and caused his ruin.

In general, even in the author's opinion, he deserves pity, rather {237} than reproof. But, in fact, Ong-qan was the murderer of his uncles, a tyrant and traitor. Can one believe the source?

Jamuqa's personality is the greatest puzzle of our source. He appears for the first time when Borte had to be freed from Merkit captivity, but we know that the friendship between Temujin and Jamuqa began considerably earlier ( 116). Jamuqa responds with alacrity to the appeal for help. The author rousingly depicts for us the image of a knight, faithful in friendship, intelligent, since his speech details the whole disposition of the campaign which Ong-qan had refused to arrange, warlike and experienced. The description of Jamuqa's equipment is particularly full and explicit. His nobility is especially noted: Jamuqa proudly declared to Ong-qan, who was late at the meeting-place: "Both in a storm for a meeting and in rain for a gathering one should arrive with no delay." Does a Mongol "yes" differ at all from an oath? ( 108).

According to the Secret History, the success of the campaign was determined by the exact fulfilment of Jamuqa's dispositions, as is later repeated by the author in Tekujin's expression of gratitude ( 113).

The quarrel between Jamuqa and Temujin is a problem so far not fully sorted out. Those who have investigated the problem have ascribed decisive significance to the riddle which Jamuqa set Temujin about choosing grazing grounds, and in this they have gone along the road towards which the author of the Secret History has urged them. There is no doubt that the riddle contained elements of political programmes, as there were in Borte's reply, but not in the form that this in fact took place, but in a retrospective view of 1182 from 1240. For some reason no one has noticed that those participating in the events, Jamuqa and Temujin, gave completely different explanations. Jamuqa names specific people as those to blame for the break - the Mongol grandees Altan and Quchar ( 127) and repeats this version before his death, asserting that "our opponents incited us, the two-faced ones set us upon one another and we parted forever" ( 201). But Temujin considers that Jamuqa himself is to blame for the quarrel, coming to hate him out of envy ( 179). Thus, we see that the author of the Secret History has again let the cat out of the bag, but his talent was sufficient to impose his version on the reader, a version advantageous to his political tendency the content of which was to glorify Jamuqa since "in thought he {238} hastened further than his anda` ( 201). This assertion was essential to the author. We shall see why later.

The author constructs the image of Jamuqa on the reverse principle to that of Temujin, while the literary parallelism is maintained with unusual precision.

The author evaluates all that concerns Jamuqa's personality unusually highly, and he puts this opinion into the mouth of Temujin as the basis for forgiving Jamuqa. But the author speaks extremely vaguely about Jamuqa's political programme, by hints and half hints. He categorically asserts that "Jamuqa plundered the people who made him a khan" ( 144), forgetting that even after this the greater part of the Mongols followed Jamuqa, not Chinggis.

It seems that the author is trying to discredit Jamuqa's measures which were, apparently, completely comprehensible since the conference that had been organised broke up and the soldiers deserted. The author condemns Jamuqa's intrigues in the Kerait headquarters, but through the mouths of the Kerait Ong-qan and Gurin-ba'atur, i.e. his enemies. Evidently, in 1240 Jamuqa continued to remain an odious figure for certain circles of the Mongol ruling elite, and therefore the author is extremely careful; he does not want to blacken Jamuqa too much, but he is frightened to whitewash him.

The author's attitude to Chinggiskhan's sons is sceptical, to say the least. He does not like Jochi and eagerly retails the scandal of his illegitimacy. In Chagatai he observes only ferocity, while the dull and featureless Ogedei is depicted as a drunkard, a womaniser, and a miser, fencing his hunting reserves in case the animals might escape into his brothers" lands. But Ogedei was, in truth, a weak character, and under him Ye-lu Chu-cai dealt with everything. What does the author write about Ye-lu Chu-cai? Not a single word! This is as strange as if a historian of Louis XIII forgot to mention Richelieu.


The Right to Doubt

So we see that our analysis has disclosed a number of puzzles in the source which we had not at first noticed. The key to solving them is one and the same: the author's political bias. This explains both the chronological omissions, and the slips of the tongue, and the dual attitude to the great ghosts, and his increased interest in internal, rather than external history. The only thing unclear is who the {239} author, with his patriotic and monarchical attitude, was struggling with and engaging in polemic against.

But then our basic and most complete source is not a heroic epic, [+27] since it is a poem without a hero, is not a historical treatise, [+28] since it lacks a chronological sequence, and not an "anthology", [+29] because the principle in selecting facts is antididactic. It seems we have before us a thirteenth-century political lampoon.

The aim of the work was to present the reader in 1240 with Mongol history from a particular point of view and to inculcate in him a particular political conception. Therefore, the title of the "Secret History" has to be recognised as the more apt, just as with the Historia arcana of Procopius of Caesarea. The title of "Concealed Tale" has a somewhat different shade of meaning, a folklore flavour, which I believe is less appropriate.

To understand the bias of the Secret History it is essential to investigate the time when it was created, i.e. 1240, and the relationships of the political groupings, to one of which the author of the Yuan-chao-bi-shi adhered. As for the time that concerns us, the period when Chinggiskhan rose to the throne, accepting a tendentious treatment of events will lead the researcher astray from his analysis, for a talented writer is always able to foist his conception on the trustful reader.

So, for this reason we should doubt the commonly held understanding of Chinggiskhan's ascent to the throne as the consolidation of the Mongol tribes and feudal lords under the authority of a gifted military leader. Were the matter so simple, there would have been no need for chronological omissions, but both versions, the "official" and the "secret", are equally guilty of them. There would not have been such a great discrepancy in describing events, sometimes diametrically opposing them; but, on the other hand, there would have been an explanation of the astonishing fact that a small, poor people conquered the world in half a century. It seems the sources did not intend to tell the truth, and historians, trusting them, have constructed a "false history of the Mongols". I believe this negative conclusion to be very important.

The investigation we have made shows that evaluation and {240} sociological analysis of the period when Chinggiskhan was raised to eminence are only possible after confirming the evidence in the sources by a strict historical criticism, both internal and comparative. We can only establish which of the Mongol knights was struggling to establish feudal relations and which was against when the motives for their actions have been disclosed; but it is these which have been carefully concealed by the authors of the sources. The widespread method of argument by means of quotations will lead us astray onto the false track suggested by the tendency concealed in our source. Moreover, given the disagreements we have noted in the description of events, quotations can always be selected to support contrary views. It is for this reason that scholarly arguments on these subjects have hitherto not produced results.

Those concerned with Mongolian language and literature should decide the problem of the reliability of the evidence in the Yuan-chao-bi-shi. Yet since S. A. Kozin's translation appeared, this problem has not even been posed. All the disputes about the wonderful source made available to scholars have been restricted to details of the translation, with no relevance to the sense of the work, which has remained hidden. Historians of surrounding countries have touched on the problem of Chinggis to the extent that it impinged on their subjects. [+30] That is why I, a historian of Middle Asia, have had to engage in study of the sources to establish their reliability not from the point of view of a language and literature specialist, but purely historically.

The logic of events is the only reliable starting point for generalisation, once their sequence and inter-relation have been established. Only in that way can the prejudiced viewpoints of the thirteenth-century authors, which have hitherto provided a fertile soil for fruitless polemics about the causes and significance of the events they described, be excluded.



On whose side was the author of the Secret History lying or, put another way, for whom did he expend his talent and energy? We have only one thread, one chronology; but this is Ariadne's thread. {241} The work was written in 1240 against the background of a conflict between four unformed parties: the old Mongol military, the Mongol peace, the bureaucratic Chinese-loving and the warlike Nestorian. Which party did our author belong to?

We can immediately exclude the last. The author is not a Nestorian. In his entire composition there is only one mention of Kerait Christianity, and that ironical, in the speeches of one of prince Senggum's friends: "All of us, secretly soliciting the son, bring prayers and incense, we repeat Abai-Babai, offering up prayers" ( 174) (Abai-Babai means Our father). And nowhere else did our author condescend to pay attention to another faith, while he talks a great deal about his own. This is, perhaps, a most difficult question, but for the rest the "creative" talents of the Secret History's author are clear.

Our author's military sympathies, already noted, and his not mentioning the name of Ye-lu Chu-cai, make it possible for us to determine his political attitude with complete confidence.

The description of Guyuk is strongly hostile: he "did not leave men even their back parts whole" and "skinned the soldiers" faces", "in conquering the Russians and Kipchak he not only took not a single Russian or Kipchak, but did not even get a goat's hoof ( 277).

At the same time, the description of Temuge-otchigin is always positive: "Otchigin is a lad of his mother Ho`elun, he is famed as a dare-devil. He is not late because of the weather, he will not lag behind because of a halt" ( 195). In the squalid history of Teb-Tenggeri's killing the author does not try to protect Temujin, but Otchigin. He stresses that Otchigin was always the favourite of the highly esteemed Ho`oelun-eke.

There is enough of this to persuade us that the author of the Secret History belonged to the "old Mongol party". This is why he whitewashes Jamuqa who is for him the bearer of ancient Mongol prowess and of traditions going back into the past. This is why he defends him from the accusation that he betrayed the Mongol cause, from the mouth of Chinggiskhan himself, allegedly proposing that he should "be the second shaft" in the cart of the state, his friend and adviser ( 200). It is for this reason that he praises Jamuqa's treachery towards the Kerait and Naiman whose descendants in 1240 united around Guyuk, hated and despised by the author. And it is not by accident that he says, through the mouth of {242} Jamuqa, that "in thought he hastened further than his anda", remained a complete orphan with one wife, a "reciter of old tales" . [+31] But this is not true! Jamuqa's friends and companions at this time had not yet laid down their arms. The manly Merkit and the unconquerable Naiman prince Kuchlug held out till 1218, and Jamuqa became captive by chance, through the treachery of his soldiers. But what is this to the author of the Secret History? He has to glorify ancient Mongol prowess and depict the Kerait arid Naiman as carefree, effete boasters, almost cowards except for certain heroes like Qadaq-ba'atur ( 185,189,195,196) who was treated kindly for his prowess by Chinggiskhan himself ( 185). Therefore, he hushes up the part played by Elchidei-noyan in the execution of Jamuqa, for he would have had to note that this friend of Guyuk was also a favourite of Chinggiskhan, and then the conception created in the Secret History would have lost its political effectiveness. Elchidei is only mentioned in the Secret History in connection with the fact that once, passing a guard, he was detained, and it was twice pointed out that this was right ( 229, 278).

A return to the old prowess, that is the ideal of the author and the political platform for which he wrote his wonderfully talented work.

In 1240 he was, it seems, very old, because in 1182 the pronoun "we" replaces "they". If the author had been only 16 or 18 at that time, in 1240 he would be getting on for 80. For this reason alone we can say that the Secret History could not be his only work. But time and age have hidden the others from us. Not only are his grandiose erudition and free treatment of quotations, as well as the change of tone in the course of the narrative thus understandable, but also the title itself. This is truly a Secret History, a protest against the official tradition idealising Chinggiskhan's personality.

The author set himself the task of showing that it was not the khan, but the valiant Mongol troops who created the empire. The khan may make mistakes, may have faults, but he should esteem and care for his veterans "who laboured together with him and together they created the state" ( 224).

The lampoon was written when literati were, with the khan's favour, pushing out the veterans. The lampoon was intended to be {243} propaganda among these offended officers, he showed them that it was they who were the salt of the earth and it was to them that the empire owed its existence. Of course, this was a Secret History, since the Mongol government would never have allowed open propaganda for such views.

We can say nothing about the further fate of the author of the Secret History, but it involuntarily strikes us that he was among those noyans who incited Otchigin to the coup of 1242 and who paid with their heads for the lack of talent and cowardliness of their wellborn leader.


[+1] N.Ya. Merpert, V.T. Pashuto, L.V. Cherepnin, Chingis-khan i ego nasledie, 92.

[+2] Yuan-chao-bi-shi, 5-6.

[+3] S.A. Kozin, Sokrovennoe skazanie, 30, note 2, Palladii [Kafarov], "Starinnoe mongol'skoe skazanie o Chingiskhane".

[+4] P. Pelliot, Histoire, E. Haenisch, Die Geheime Geschichte der Mongolen.

[+5] Although it seems to me that the second translation of the title is more appropriate, references are basically given to S.A. Kozin's translation which is described in the foreword as "reliable material" for the historian See Sokrovennoe skazanie, 6.

[+6] V.V. Bartol'd, "Obrazovanie imperii Chingiskhana", 111, S.A. Kozin, Sokrovennoe skazanie, 38f , B.Ya. Vladimirtsov, Obshchestvennyi stroi mongolov, 7, M. Gaadamba, "'Sokrovennoe skazanie mongolov' kak pamyatnik", 5-6.

[+7] V.V. Bartol'd, Turkestan, II, 43; G.E. Grumm-Grzhimailo, Zapadnaya Mongoliya, II, 407-9.

[+8] On the collective nature of Rashid ad-Din's work see I.P. Petrushevsku, Istoriya Irana, chapter V 168-9.

[+9] V.V. Bartol'd Izbrannye sochineniya, 94-5, Abul-Kasim `Abdallah Kashani, Ara is al-jawahir va nafa is al atayib (Wedding gifts of precious stones and rare fragrances), pub I Adshar, in Persian, Teheran, 1346 (1966), 357.

[+10] I.P. Petrushevskii, "Rashid ad-Din", 25.

[+11] [Bichurin] Iakinf, Istoriya pervykh chetyrekh khanov.

[+12] Rashid ad-Dm, Sbornik letopisei, I, 2, 86-8, [Bichurin] Iakinf, Istoriya pervykh chetyrekh khanov, 9.

[+13] Sokrovennoe skazanie, 129 Henceforth, some paragraphs are mentioned in the text (in brackets).

[+14] Ibid., 98f Rashid ad-Dm, Sbornik letopisei, 1,115.

[+15] Rashid ad-Dm, Sbornik letopisei, I, 1, 191, Sokrovennoe skazanie, 201.

[+16] Rashid ad-Din, Sbornik letopisei, I, 2, 74. For an account of the problem using new data, see G. Vernadsky, The Mongols and Russia, 20-1. It is, however, impossible to agree with the date of Chinggis's birth proposed here -1167, as can be seen from an analysis of the chronology of the ages of Chinggis's children.

[+17] [Bichurin] Iakinf, Istoriya pervykh chetyrekh khanov, 137.

[+18] Istoriya Mongol'skoi Narodnoi Respubliki, 109.

[+19] According to Rashid ad-Din, Temujin was 13 years old (I, 2, 76).

[+20] Not in 1166, cp. Istoriya Mongol'skoi Narodnoi Respubhki, 109, where the chronology is inexact.

[+21] During a festival when all the Tayichi'ut were drunk Temujin fled and hid in a creek, with only his face above water Sorgan-shira noticed him, but said "Well, it's because of your quick wits they hate and pursue you so stay there, I won't report on you" [Palladii, "Starinnoe mongol'skoe skazanie o Chingiskhane", 42, in S.A. Kozin's translation "because you are not dear to your brethren since you are so cunning, since there is fire in your glance, the dawn in your face, I shall not give you away" (Sokrovennoe skazanie, 82)]. The next day Sorgan-shira's wife and children hid Temujin from a search, then gave him a horse, a bow and two arrows, thanks to which the fugitive reached his grazing grounds.

[+22] [Bichurin] Iakinf Istoriya pervykh chetyrekh khanov, 285.

[+23] Anda is a sworn brother (Mongol), t`ma (host) is ten thousand horsemen (Mongol tumen), but usually the complement of such a military unit was incomplete.

[+24] Rashid ad-Din, Sbornik letopisei, I, 2, 120, Sokrovennoe skazanie, 153; R. Grousset mistakenly indicates 1198 (R. Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes,203).

[+25] Rashid ad-Din, Sbornik letopisei, I, 2, 84.

[+26] Ibid., I, 2,119.

[+27] V.V. Bartol'd,'Obrazovame imperil Chingiskhana", 111.

[+28] B.Ya. Vladimirtsov, Obshchestvennyi stroi mongolov, 62, 8

[+29] S.A. Kozin, Sokrovennoe skazanie, title page.

[+30] For a list of recent works, see N.Ya. Merpert, V.T. Pashuto, L.V. Cherepnin, Chingiskhan i ego nasledie, 92f.

[+31] This is how Kozin (200) translated it, Ligeti has "gossipers"; Rinchen gives it as "a woman who insistently persuades her husband to do what she wants, without reasons, by 'humming in his ears' (an insolent woman)".


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