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22.05.25 Atwood, The Rise of the Mongols

22.05.25 Atwood, The Rise of the Mongols

The populations of the Jin empire in north China represented the first sedentary communities to experience conquest by the rising Mongols under Chinggis (more popularly Genghis) Khan, and the earliest accounts of the Mongols by external observers are accordingly in Chinese. They include three of those translated here: Li Xinchuan, “Random Notes from Court and Country,” dating from 1214-1217; Zhao Gong, “Memorandum on the Mong-Tatars,” written in 1221; and “A Sketch of the Black Tatars,” produced in 1237 by Peng Daya, with a commentary by Xu Ting. All four men were subjects of the Southern Song Empire (1125-1279), the Jin’s rivals south of the Yellow River. Whereas authors writing in the Islamic world--at least prior to 1260--tend to notice the Mongols intermittently in the course of more general historical surveys, to rely on hearsay, and to confine their attention to military operations, the early Chinese accounts, by contrast, are devoted specifically to the Mongols, are ethnographic in character, and are more often than not the work of men who had experience of direct contact with the invaders. Zhao Gong, Peng Daya and Xu Ting had all participated in embassies from the Song to the Mongol headquarters in the north.

The other two sources in this collection were composed slightly later, by Chinese literati who originated in the territories of the Jin, but who--after the fall of that dynasty in 1234--served the victorious Mongols. The “Spirit-Path Stele” was erected by Song Zizhen in 1268 in memory of the minister, Ila (or Yelü) Chucai (1244). Chucai, who belonged to the Khitan (Kidan) people in the present-day Mongolian-Manchurian borderlands and was descended from the former imperial dynasty of the Liao (907-1125), had deserted the Jin to become a leading adviser to Chinggis Khan and his successor Ögedei (d. 1241). “Notes on a Journey,” by the Confucian bureaucrat Zhang Dehui (d. 1274), recounts his visit in 1247-1248 to the encampment of Chinggis Khan’s grandson, the Mongol prince Qubilai (the future Great Khan, immortalized by Marco Polo). These authors had somewhat different preoccupations from the four listed earlier. They saw their task as to present the Mongol rulers with Confucian ideals of good government; with this in mind, they were concerned to foster the image of the Chinese scholar-official who embodied such ideals. Chucai is accordingly credited with assuring Ögedei that although the world might be won on horseback, it could not be governed on horseback, an adage borrowed from Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian of the second century B.C.E. Similarly, in his conversations with Qubilai, Zhang drew the prince’s attention to the necessity of curbing the excesses of the military and employing men of talent in his administration. The scholars’ aspirations failed to bear fruit; the Stele and Zhang’s “Notes,” in Atwood’s memorable words (24), “would remain as eloquent and melancholy reminders of Confucian dreams endlessly deferred.”

This collection of sources yields some fascinating details. Peng Daya, for instance, reports (128) that Chinggis Khan had opted to postpone further campaigning against the nomad confederacy of the Qipchaq-Qangli in the Pontic-Caspian steppes until the Jin had been definitively eliminated. Assuming that this testimony is well-grounded, it runs directly counter to the venerable thesis of Owen Lattimore that the Mongol conqueror’s strategy was to reduce the steppe tribes to his rear, “from the western fringes of Mongolia to the Caspian and beyond,” [1], prior to embarking on the definitive conquest of Jin China. The “Spirit-Path Stele” supplies the well-known tale (140) in which Ögedei is urged to massacre the Han population with a view to converting northern China into pasture, and Chucai dissuades him by dint of rehearsing the enormous sums in taxation that they could otherwise be made to yield. It furnishes a vivid picture of Chucai’s efforts to counter the Mongol practice of punishing the resistance of Jin cities with wholesale slaughter and his increasingly unavailing struggle against the influence of Muslim and other Central Asian tax farmers in the governance of China during Ögedei’s last years.

Among the many valuable features of this book are the editorial notes in Appendix 1 regarding the highly complicated transmission process undergone by some of the texts. The “Spirit-Path Stele” no longer exists, but the text of the inscription was incorporated in an anthology that survives in a block-print of 1336; yet it is also cited in other works in such a way as to suggest that the 1336 version was not flawless. Zhao Gong’s work, preserved in a late fourteenth-century anthology, did not appear in a block-printed version until 1615, though two earlier manuscripts have also been utilized. The oldest known copy of the “Sketch” dates from no earlier than 1542. The text of “Random Notes” relies on a modern version based on two eighteenth-century imprints. “Notes on a Journey” has the most complex history of all. The 1321 printed edition is now accessible only in poor and fragmentary condition, and the most complete block-print dates from 1497; but manuscripts have come to light that appear to be based on the earlier printing. The conversations with Qubilai, which exist independently of the “Notes” and were not included in any edition prior to 1962, are taken from a biography of Zhang Dehui within the important prosopographical work, Su Tianjue’s “Eminent Vassals of the Yuan Dynasty,” printed in 1335.

As Atwood observes, the inadequate survival rate of early printed Chinese works on the Mongols is frustrating, given the tendency of editors in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1910) eras to misread and miscopy Mongolian proper names and terms. A strikingly small proportion of the extensive Chinese material is available to non-Sinologists. Of the five works represented here, three have previously been translated into a European language: the “Memorandum” into Russian by N.Ts. Munkuev (1975); both “Memorandum” and “A Sketch” into German by Peter Olbricht and Elisabeth Pinks in Chinesische Gesandtenberichte über die frühen Mongolen 1221 und 1237(1980); and the text of the Stele, again, into Russian by Munkuev as Kitaiskii istochnik o pervykh mongol´skikh khanakh (1965). In addition to a highly readable English translation and their authoritative and up-to-date commentary, the editors have contributed the identification of new readings on the basis of a wide range of manuscripts and modern printings. No less valuable are the introductory sections on traditions associated with Chinese state-building and on the conventions of Chinese historical writing. In sum, Atwood and Struve have rendered a signal service to scholarship on the history of the thirteenth-century Mongols. Scholars who (like this reviewer) lack a knowledge of Chinese will warmly welcome this collection.



1. Owen Lattimore, “The Geography of Chingis Khan,” Geographical Journal129 (1963): 6-7.