Posts on Inner Eurasia and the Mongols

These are the things I’ve written on Inner Eurasia and the Mongols which I think are still worth reading. My general goal in these pieces is to describe Inner Eurasia, the nomads, and Genghis Khan in the context of the rest of world history, treating the rise of Genghis Khan as a normal historical event rather than as an unexplainable anomaly. In order to do this it has been necessary not only to come to an accurate understanding of the Mongols themselves, but also to come to a more accurate understanding of the civilized world, in all its ruthlessness and brutality.

Genghis Khan’s motives and methods were more or less the same as the motives and methods of the the other great conquerors of world history. (I include my out-of-date Bibliography on the chance that someone might find it useful. Two as-yet-unfinished pieces are listed but not linked; they will be linked soon. The Appendix at the bottom lists less-scholarly, more-literary pieces on topic relating to steppe history and Inner Eurasia).

Many of these pieces will have to be substantially rewritten.

Why the Mongols?

To sum up: the Mongols started out with the same advantages that nomad cavalry armies had always had over sedentary armies defending fixed lines and vulnerable real property. Over the course of centuries hybrid nomad-sedentary states developed whose armies combined the strengths of sedentary and nomad armies. This process culminated during the period 900-1200 AD in the north and northwest of China, where for a century or more armies of this type contended with one another and with the still-nomadic Mongols. At the beginning of the thirteenth century Genghis Khan unified the Mongols and formed them into a disciplined military-politico unit. Gradually this unified nomad force gained dominance over the hybrid states confronting it, and upon doing so absorbed many of their military specialists and other military units. The century of warfare had served as a military training-ground, and when the resulting force finally broke out of the intercivilizational area where it had been formed, it was unstoppable and swept everything before it.

The Barbarian Reservoir (to follow)

The Politics of Genghis Khan

Gellner and Tilly, in their somewhat different ways, have distinguished two distinct aspects of social life: production (or capital, or wealth), and coercion (or violence, or control). Tilly makes a further distinction between the accumulation (quantity) and the concentration (centralization) of each of these. On Tilly’s chart, Genghis’s Mongols would have a unique and paradoxical position: the lowest accumulation and concentration of capital of any nation, combined with the highest concentration of coercion of any nation.

The difference between the “logic of production” and the “logic of coercion” is enormous. Production and exchange involve cooperation, competition, bargaining over differences, and dividing the profit. Coercion involves an all-or-nothing battle to the death (Gouldner’s “total commitment rationality”). The coercion specialist gambles everything (his life) for enormous benefits. At the beginning there are many contenders, all indistinguishable from bandits or extortionists. In the end, there is ideally one man left, and the others are all either dead or subjugated: the one bandit still alive is called “King”. As ruler, the new King receives taxes from those whom he will protect from future bandits — this is Mill’s “king of the vultures” theory of the state — and in fact most states and dynasties were founded on murder.

Who were the Mongols?

“Instead of ethnic designations we shall have to deal with terms of nomenclature reflecting essentially the form of the constitutional organization of nomadic groups. We believe that the dark mists obscuring the history of the steppe would be dispelled sooner if emphasis were laid on the study of the migration of political symbols rather than that of hypothetical migrations of ethnic units, on the ‘alarums and excursions’ of political groupings, rather than on the mythical meanderings of self-conscious ethnoses, each bent on propagating its particular linguistic or ethnic self.” (Boodberg).

Climate and the Rise of the Mongols

The climatic theory of the nomad invasions was developed during the era of high positivism, when ambitious determinist-reductionist theories, often cyclic, were uncritically welcomed; in the extreme cases the goal of these theories was to describe all human behavior in terms of external causes, leaving no place for any human agency at all. Often these theories were also shaped by grand geopolitical theories of the rise and fall of empires and European dreams of world dominance — stories that had to be simple and vivid in order to be effective. And a final strand was the age-old civilized suspicion that there was something uncanny, unnatural, mysterious, and inhuman about the nomads and their triumphs. At a certain point some version of the climatic theory became a required, obbligato part of any discussion of nomad history, always good for a speculative paragraph and requiring at least a nod even from skeptics.

At the same time, however, this discussion may now be entering a new era, when the theory can actually be tested against data and refined or rejected accordingly. If the data keep coming in, at some point it should be possible to produce a nuanced case-by-case history of the two millennia of nomad incursions within which the role of climate change and weather variations can be plainly seen, in some cases driving desperate refugees from the steppe to become either bandits and raiders or mercenary defenders of civilization depending on their reception, and in other cases allowing the nomads to build up enormous, well-fed armies capable to sweeping all before them. But it seems highly unlikely that these new histories will include grand universal theories of the Huntington-Toynbee type, which seem to me so weakly grounded that they should just be forgotten.

2000 Years of Barbarians

The long confrontation between Inner Asia and the civilized rimland is often thought of as a conflict between pastoral and agricultural peoples. It is that, but it is more illuminating to think of it as a conflict between two different forms of political and military organization. In the sedentary world, men were controlled by controlling land from castles. In the pastoral world, land was controlled by controlling men. Peasants could not flee because their only wealth was their land and the crop in the ground. Nomadic warriors were mobile by definition, and they remained loyal to a leader as long as they felt he would win. Once they came to believe that he would lose, they deserted as soon as they could. The large nomadic confederations were unbelievably volatile and could disintegrate overnight. (Chinggis Qan appears in the Secret History not as a hero, but as a wise, charismatic, persuasive, and fair leader of men). The enormous steppe confederations only came into being for the purpose of warfare against the civilized world, and only existed as long as they were successful or seemed likely to become so.

Steppe society has been described as “nomad feudalism”. In many respects this is accurate, since the sworn bonds of the nokor to his lord were not too different from the villein’s bond to his. But there’s an enormous difference: on the steppe there were no fiefs — and indeed, no real property at all, but only chattels. And where feudal ideology emphasized sameness, stability, and normality, nomad ideology stressed events, change and initiatives. Feudal space was rooted, whereas nomad space was to be traversed. (It might be be argued that the long distance traders and raiders who were precursors of today’s world economy were more like nomads than they were like the lords of the manors.)

The Comanche Empire

Lane tentatively suggests the four-stage development of states. According to this theory, the Comanches were already at Stage Two with regard to their Santa Fe dependency and the Native Americans to their north and west, but still at Stage One (“anarchy and plunder”) in the contested areas of Texas and Northern Mexico. An alternate history could be written in which Comancheria passed through the other stages to become civilized frontier trading state like Bulgar, Khazaria, or Xixia, all of which were founded by nomadic trader-raiders. In order for this to have happened, a large number of things would have had to have been different, but if, for example, there had been no railroads or firearms, and if the United States still had to contest control of North America with an equally-powerful state, Comancheria might still be with us today.

The Secret History of the Mongols and Western Literature  (published as Sino-Platonic Papers#135, May, 2004.)

The armored knights of chivalry, the tactic of the feigned retreat, mounted archery, and the “rainstone” at Brereton all might be traceable to the steppe ancestors of the Alans who had settled in Armorica.  It might also be asked whether the Breton legends and poems, which in their French adapatation have had such an enormous influence on Western literature might not have had an Alan element too.  After all, the Alans arrived in Armorica at about the same time that the historical King Arthur did.

Shengwu Qinzheng Lu

(An annotated translation of the Shengwu Qinzheng Lu beginning where Pelliot and Hambis left off, and continuing as far as Temujin’s proclamation as Chinggis Qan. Needs revision. This project was tremendously stimulating but I ended up thinking that I did not have the language and library resources to do a good job of it. Needs extensive revision.)

As a primary source based on a Mongol original, the Shengwu Qinzheng Lu, for all its problems, gives us a version of the Mongols’ own understanding of the sources of Chinggis’ power. These are not what we would expect. Neither here nor in the Secret History is Temüjin credited with extraordinary valor or prowess, and supernatural forces are virtually absent. (When belief in such forces is present, it usually backfires on the believer). The SWQZL is a chronicle, not a poem, and is quite soberly written. (The SH is likewise a chronicle, and its many poetic passages are always in the voices of characters in the story). In these texts we are shown a man who attracts followers by means of honor, fairness, and generosity — someone whose whose severity is always grounded on righteousness. (However, we can also see in these texts a patient, disciplined man of iron will who achieves his goals by means of shrewdness, ruthlessness and treachery.) Rather than a heroic epic,what we see in the SWQZL is a skeletal account of the making and dissolution of alliances, the timely delivery of crucial military intelligence, and descriptions of the ensuing battles and their outcomes.

Bibliography on The Mongol Empire, Central Asia, Eurasian Travellers, the History of War, and the Barbarian World


 The pieces below are more literary than scholarly and are also posted on my literature archive. I include them here because of their subject matter.

Murder Most Foul: Chinggis Qan’s Mother Speaks

The first recorded act of Temujin (the future Chinggis Qan) was the murder of his half-brother Bekter. In the Secret History we can read the eloquent speech his mother Ho’elün made when she heard the news. It seems like a bitter denunciation, but in the context of the book as a whole it functions as a prophecy that Temujin would prove overwhelming and irresistible, and become the greatest of Qans. (Includes Mongol text of Ho’elün’s oration.)

Does the Bush Protect the Little Bird?

For little birds hoping for refuge, by and large, the odds are not really good. Cao Zhi and Prince Rakoczi escaped with their lives, but the Chinese poet had to sit helplessly and watch while his friends, one by one, were murdered by the his brother the Emperor. (The almost mawkish pathos of the poem here is very rare in the Chinese poetry). Temujin escaped too, but he devoted his life to tracking his enemies down and killing them. He was not a sparrow, but the fiercest of sparrowhawks, and from him there was no refuge.

The Torgut Exodus

At the beginning of the modern age the Torguts were still nomads, and were able to move across the continent on short notice. Living in the days before railroads, automobiles, and airplanes, during their time on the Volga they fought against the Swedes and Turks, sent a delegation to the Dalai Lama in Lhasa 2500 miles away, and exchanged delegations with the Manchu Emperor in Beijing 3600 miles away. They also served the civilized world as a conduit for information about the continent as a whole: around 1715, Chinese emissaries returning from the Torguts brought the Manchu emperor news of Russia’s 1709 defeat of the Swedes at Poltava in the Ukraine (about 600 miles west of the Torgut’s Volga homeland). The Russian victory at Poltava also indirectly contributed toward enlarging the Western universe: captured Swedish officers were transported far to the east, and two of them ultimately brought back a German translation of the first Mongol work ever seen in Europe (a history written in 1659 by the ruler of Khiva in present-day Uzbekistan, by Abu al Ghazi Bahadur).

Starting from Greenland (or, the Turkish Kayak)

“Kayak” is probably a Turkish word, and the word “caique” has entered the European languages from Turkish as the name of an entirely different boat. The two words met in Scandinavia ca. 1700, having circumnavigated the globe between them. The Ivory Road from Greenland to China ca. 1000 AD. The Varangian (Norse) circumnavigation of Europe at the time of the Fourth Crusade.

The Crimean Goths

At one time or another Gothia lived under the control of (or within the sphere of influence of) the Scythians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Huns, the Khazars, the Comans / Polovtsi / Kipchaks, the Varangians / Rus / Russians, the Genoese, the Mongols, the Tatars, Tamerlane, the Cossacks, and Russia, and Gothia also had significant dealings with the Bosporan Greeks, the Greeks of Trebizond, the Petchenegs, the Alans, the Avars, the Bulgars, the Hungarians, the Crusaders (from “Romania”), the Wallachians, the Zikhians (Circassians), and the Lithuanians.

History of the Caucasian Albanians

“Bestial, gold-loving tribes of hairy men…. demented in their satanically deluded tree-worshipping errors in accordance with their northern dull-witted stupidity, addicted to their fictitious and deceptive religion….They also had drinking horns and gourd-shaped utensils from which they lapped their broth and similar greasy, congealed, unwashed abominations. Two or three of them to one cup, they greedily and bestially poured neat wine into their insatiable bellies which had the appearance of bloated goatskins….. Possessing completely anarchical minds, they stumble into every sort of error, beating drums and whistling over corpses, inflicting bloody sabre and dagger cuts on their cheeks and limbs, and engaging naked in sword fights – oh hellish sight! – at the graves, man against man and troop against troop, all stripped for battle.

From Scythia to Camelot

So while someone might come away from this book thinking that “The Arthurian legends weren’t really British or Breton at all!”, what the book really is saying is “The people who created these legends were who they were — Britons or Bretons, with both Celtic and Alan ancestors”. And when, in the end, the Arthurian legends went on to become English and French, they became English and French legends with Celtic and Alanic ancestors, just as Englishmen and Frenchmen themselves are English and French, but with a few strange ancestors.

Published on January 10, 2014 at 8:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

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