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Крадин H., Скрынникова Т. Империя Чингис-хана



Nikolay N. Kradin, Tatyana D. Skrynnikova
Chinggis Khan Empire.
Moscow: "Vostochnaya litcratuta RAN", 2006.

Over past few decades, the interest in the figure of
Chinggis Khan and the empire he established has been increasing. To a
large extent this is related to the coming 8001 anniversary of the Great
Khuriltai, which in many respects determined the further history of the Old
World. Scholarly research in this field has grown, old works are being republished,
and conferences are being held in various countries around the
world. The subject is attracting the attention of many journalists and persons
of literature who engage in the writing of history for popular audiences.
The 9th Congress of Mongolian Studies will be held in Ulaanbaator
in August, this year, and the main focus for the conference will be "Mongolian
Statehood: Its Past and Present."
Reflecting on that increased interest, we would like to focus on some
important problems of Mongolian medieval history that, in our opinion,
deserve closer consideration. How and why a transcontinental empire arose
from a small nomadic nation is, beyond doubt, the main question of concern
to most scholars in the field. A great variety of opinions have been expressed
on this issue. They can be reduced to the following causal explanations
of the Mongol state's meteoric rise: (1) various climatic changes; (2)
the bellicose and adventurous nature of nomads; (3) overpopulation of the
steppe; (4) growth of productive forces and class struggle, weakening of
agricultural societies due to feudal disunity (Marxist concepts); (5) the necessity
of replenishing an extensive livestock economy by raiding more
stable agricultural societies; (6) the reluctance of settled population to trade
with nomads (surpluses of livestock that could not be sold anywhere); (7)
the personal qualities of steppe society leaders; (8) impulses of ethnic integration.
Most of the factors on this list are based on rational arguments. But the
significance of some of them may turn out to be exaggerated. Contemporary
data of paleogeography do not confirm a strict correlation of periods of
drought or increased rainfall on the steppe with declines or flourishing of
nomadic empires. The role of the demographic factor is not entirely clear
because the growth of total livestock occurred faster than increases in population
and, as a rule, caused the trampling of grass and crises in the ecosystem.
It is beyond any doubt that the nomadic way of life can contribute to
the development of certain bellicose qualities. But there were many more
farmers of arable land with an ecologically more complex economy, reliable
fortresses, and a more powerful artesian and metallurgical basis.
What did lead the Mongols and other nomads to conquer and form confederations
of nomads? An outstanding American anthropologist, Owen
Lattimore, who himself had lived for a long time among Mongolian pastoralists,
wrote that the specifics of nomadic societies cannot be correctly understood
only on the basis of their internal development. Nomads can easily
survive using only the products of their own livestock herds, but real nomads
will always remain poor. Nomads needed food produced by farmers
that is rich in protein, they needed handicrafts, silk, weapons, and refined
decorations for their leaders, wives and concubines. All these could be obtained
either by peaceful trade with agriculturalists or by war. Both means
suggested uniting and creating a super-tribal society.
But it is far from true that the need of nomads in establishing contacts
with settled and urban societies led to the creation of nomadic empires.
Anatoly Khazanov showed convincingly that large societies of nomads (in
reference to their early stages of development) were established due to the
asymmetry in relations between nomads and settled environments. Thomas
Barfield, rejecting interpretations of diffusion and of nomadic borrowing
from agriculturalists, demonstrated that the level of centralization of steppe
society was directly connected with the level of political integration of settled
agricultural society. A complex hierarchical organization of power in
the form of nomadic empires developed in the nomads only after the completion
of the axial age, when powerful agricultural world-empires were
formed, and in regions that were sufficiently large for nomadic pastoralism,
and where nomads had long-term and active contacts with more highly organized
settled-urban societies.
The most developed thesis was expressed in terms of the world-system
approach. In the work of Christopher Chase-Dann and Thomas Hall, a
viewpoint on the role of nomads, including the Mongols, was articulated
within world-system processes. If we consider nomadism in terms of this
type of methodology, then in the pre-industrial period nomads, as a rule,
occupied semi-periphery that combined different regional economies (local
civilizations, world-empires) into a united territory. The political structure
of each region within its semi-periphery was in direct proportion to the size
of the core. That means that nomads of North Africa and Middle East, in
order to trade with oases or to attack them, joined into tribal confederations
or chiefdoms; the nomads of the Eastern European steppes existing on the
outskirts of ancient states, such as Byzantine and Russ, set up quasiimperial,
state-like structures: in Inner Asia a nomadic empire became a
similar means of adaptation.
Thomas Hall shares Barfield's opinion that there were synchronous cycles
of flourishing and decline in agricultural civilizations and nomadic empires.
From this point of view Hall, following Barfield, suggests understanding
the Mongol Empire not as the peak of nomadic history governed
by laws, but as a unique case where Chinggis Khan's personality and the
power created by him show themselves as phenomena going beyond the
limits of the traditional Hsiung-nu-Turkic model of imperial confederation.
Thomas Barfield also draws attention to the role of accidental factors in
world history. He notes that there were many accidental events in the life of
the founder of the Mongol empire: if they had not taken place, the development
of a number of human civilizations may have been notably different.
Some scholars may interpret this as an intellectual weakness in the researcher's
viewpoint—as an inability to find substantial causal interpretations.
But Barfield was right in saying that we are often inclined to exaggerate
the role of objective tendencies and underestimate accidental factors
in the historical process.
Researchers usually do not think about the appropriateness of the term
empire as applied in reference to medieval Mongols and to the polity set up
by Chinggis Khan, as this term arose in Ancient Rome and was subsequently
used in Western Europe. Nor is it clear how the acknowledgment of
the Mongol state as an "Empire" influences our conceptualization of this
state formation. We shall try to show that the description of the Mongol
Ulus as an empire is correct and allows for explanations of the specific
functions of the state, and is also important in indicating in what ways the
"empire" grew from family and tribal ties of the Mongols to become a
complicated political entity.
From our viewpoint, the term under consideration means the form of
statehood that has, as a rule, two main elements: (1) large territories and
(2) the presence of dependent territories or colonies. In this case a nomadic
empire may be defined as a nomadic society organized according to the
principle of military hierarchy and occupying a comparatively large territory,
while exploiting neighboring territories, as a rule, by means of outward
forms of exploitation (robberies, war and contribution, extortion of
gifts, non-equivalent trade, tribute and so forth).
The following characteristics of nomadic empires can be identified:
(1) a multistage hierarchy of social organization penetrated at all levels by
tribal and super-tribal genealogical connections; (2) dual (on the wings) and
triadic (on the wings and center) principles of administrative division within
the empire; (3) a military hierarchy that characterizes the public organization
of core, mostly according to the decimal principle; (4) the yam system—
a messenger service as a specific way of linking the administrative
infrastructure; (5) a specific system of power inheritance (empire as the
property of the entire khan's kin, an institution of co-government, khuriltai);
(6) a specific character of relationships with agricultural world.
The stability of nomadic empires, including the Mongols, depended directly
on the Khans' ability to organize external sources of important products.
As a result, political connections between tribes and government bodies
of steppe society were not purely autocratic. The super-tribal power persisted
due to the fact that, on the one hand, membership in the imperial confederation
gavfe the tribes political independence from neighbors and numerous
other important advantages, and, on the other hand, the ruler of the
nomadic empire and its environment secured for his tribe a certain inner
autonomy within the empire.
The institutes of prestige goods and economics served as mechanisms
that connected the headquarters of the steppe empire to its tribes. By manipulating
gifts and giving them out to comrades-in-arms and tribal chiefs,
the ruler of the nomadic empire increased its political influence and prestige
of a generous Khan. At the same time, he bound those who received the gift
by the commitment of giving in return. The tribal chiefs receiving the gifts
could, on the one hand, satisfy personal needs and, on the other hand, increase
their tribal status by giving out the gifts to fellow-tribesmen or by
organizing ceremonial festivals, hi addition to receiving a gift from the
ruler, the tribal chief received a part of his supernatural charisma that in
turn contributed to the increase of his own prestige.
Nomadic empires were organized in the form of imperial confederations.
These confederations had an autocratic and state-like appearance
from the outside (they were set up for obtaining external goods from outside
the steppe), but still remained collectivist and tribal from inside. The
kin (obok) was of great significance and it was determined by the character
of blood and kinship relations that were expressed by the term uruk. A
group of people designated by this term can be both part of a kinship group
(obok), or separate from it, forming a new kin, in which context uruk and
obok act as synonyms. As part of a kinship group, the first means lineage,
and it is in this context that it gets most often mentioned in the text Secret
History of the Mongols. It was necessary to be a blood relative—uruk—in
order to have the right to participate in kin sacrifice on the place of placental
burials (ihesyin gazar). Performing rituals of the kin's cult, open only to
the kinship members, is one of the kin's functions.
The hierarchy of taxis can be presented in the following way: uruk
(lineage)—obok (kin)—irgen ulus (tribe, chiefdom). By this, one ethnonym
could be used with each of the taxis, which signified the level of social organization
and, in this way, could be turned into a term designating a polity
as the aggregate of the kin was turning from being only ethnic language and
cultural commonality into being a consolidated social and political organi-
zation—a tribe as an ethno-social commonality, the name of which was
given by the ruling kin. Uruk, acting as a lineage on the level of a conic
clan, could in its turn be equal to a kin, and the kin may become a basis for
a different social unit that receives its name from the kin. In the source, this
new ethnic commonality is named by the terms irgen, ulus or ulus irgen,
which act as synonyms.
The terms irgen and ulus meant large ethno-social alliances, the stress
being on people rather than on formal institutions. These terms defined a
social-political commonality of heterogeneous character, in which the ruling
class, whose ethnonym became a name for a polity, was the aristocracy.
The borders of unions marked as irgen ulus were delineated not by the borders
of the territories, though the latter were well-defined, but rather by the
circle of people heading its separate parts. Personal membership in this
commonality was fixed in genealogy. Its actuality is proof that it could be
fictitious rather than factual. Inside one conic clan, the dominationsubordination
relationship was marked by the place of leaders of ethnosocial
unions in the genealogical table, with a special importance inside the
clan being attached to its elder and younger representatives who stood out
terminologically: the elder was called bekhi and the younger, otchigin. The
double principle of the ruling elite was preconditioned by a simultaneous
relevance of two systems of kinship in Mongolian medieval society: patrilinear,
that determined a primogenitor principle of power heritage (the eldest
of the conic clan in the male line), and matrilinear, due to which the
youngest in the clan preserved the right of possession of the kin's territory—
its sacral center (= the locus of throne). In its turn this led to struggle
for power most distinctly revealed in the conflict between Khubilai and
The ethno-political self-consciousness of the Mongols was under constant
change relative to changing circumstances, revisions of group borders
of communities and, accordingly, those who were members in them. During
the periods of unstable public life leading to the formation of the hierarchy
of identities, ethnocentric ideas assume primary significance. Everything is
based on genealogy and, if there is none to rely on, it is to be constructed.
The marking of borders of commonality (cultural, geographical, political)
was carried out within the limits of traditional power and political culture,
and the specific political situation promoted revitalization of the ethnic terminology
and its establishment as a real political force.
Limiting access to power was one of the main objectives in the formation
of a hierarchy of identities. Reconstruction of ethnic configurations as
an agent of political practice in the Mongol Ulus allowed the expression of
duality through different codes: Tayichi'ud-Nukuz, Chino-Borjigin, Borte-
Chino and Mongol-Kiyat, Ghoa-Maral. The establishment of the Mongolian
Empire by Chinggis Khan and designation of the ruling elite by the double
ethnonym, Kiyat-Borji, signified an important stage of interrelations within
the region. In this regard it is worth noting that the election of Temujin, and
its necessary repetition, becomes clear in the context of opposition between
the Mongols and Taidziuts.
Strengthening the heterogeneity of an alliance and enlarging it causes
the formation of a new ethnic consciousness when groups that entered the
alliance take its name and simultaneously preserve their own. Broadening
the borders of commonality and strengthening the power of an alliance
through marking it by the ethnonym Mongol, establishes a new level, that
of power, and designates a polity, a confederation of groups at different
levels (kins, tribes, alliances). Broadening the use of "Mongol" not only
began to alter the meaning of ethnophore and to designate larger dynastic
political units and territories which they occupied, but also led to the necessity
of terminological separation from the polity of the ruling elite that possessed
its own ethnical coloring. This, accordingly, actualized the terms that
designated the elite (Kiyat-Borjigin) in opposition to the groups that did not
belong to the Golden kin. The ethnic meaning of the terms Kiyat (Mongol)
and Borjigin (Tayichi'ud) was combined with a social meaning, pointing
out that they formed a stratum of military aristocracy which came to power
in a military alliance. Social and political structures (institutional elements,
social and cultural environments) also changed imperial ideology and created
new value orientations; polyethnicity was deepened and assimilation
processes strengthened. Mythological constructs become phenomenological
reality, which impact the social, cultural and political processes of the
Mongol Empire.
Through the integrity of public life, the social structure of society defined
the character of the organization as it consisted of taxes, which were
hierarchically differentiated as roles for each social unit were determined.
Blood-kin relations were the basic criteria of dynastic and political organization,
not only vertical (taxis hierarchy) but horizontal, that determined
interrelations between different ethno-social unions at each level. The
power and authority in traditional societies, including Mongolian, are not
manifested in the pure form in which they exist in developed, modem societies.
Social stratification based on uneven distribution of rights and privileges,
power, prestige, influence, duties, and property, and characterized by
systematic interaction of various elements and levels, is one of the mechanisms
through which the organization of society is structured. We undertook
the identification of mechanisms of social stratification in Mongolian
society through analysis of the terms. These are, first of all, well-known
terms of blood relationships: father-son, elder brother-younger brother.
Relations of supremacy and subjection were marked through the leaders of
groups by these terms in cases where they were not regulated by genealogy;
that is, they belonged to various blood-relation groups.
Social stratification in Mongol society did not suggest strict hierarchical
structure. Belonging to an ethno-social group that occupied a subordinate
position did not prevent one from rising up the hierarchical ladder and
achieving high individual status (emir, ruler of the province, etc.) through
individual social mobility. But, in a traditional society, individual mobility
was limited. Even officials who reached high positions within the hierarchy
were marked by special terms that demonstrated their membership in
groups that were not included in the supreme ruling elite of Chinggis' offspring.
The hierarchy supported the integrity of the system by defining
place and roles for its separate parts, and the terms of supremacy or subordination
were one part of the power mechanisms in the political institution
through which the power was executed.
Analysis of the use of such terms of sociaJ organization as bogo! and
kharachu, traditionally translated as slaves and common people, allows reconsideration
of the mechanisms for structuring the core of the Mongol
Empire. In the broadest sense, they show the designation of relationships of
domination and subordination within the empire and mark priority access to
the power of Chinggis Khan's kin rather than indicating social strata within
Mongolian society. The study of these terms in their historical context (on
the basis of original historical sources) shows that they were used in the
Secret History not only for marking socially and economically dependent
strata but for receding interrelationship of kin, tribes and leaders with the
ruling kin of Chinggis Khan. The mechanisms expressed by the terms anda,
father-son, and elder brother-younger brother, and the position of the
leader of the conic clan, were characteristic of the social and political organization
of the Mongols of this period and testify to the fact that these are
primarily power institutions, not political organizations. Relations between
ethno-social organisms were regulated by terms of blood kinship that
marked social organization. Even bogol is equated with the category of a
younger brother in the Secret History.
The question of the principles of Mongolian social regulation during the
period of Chinggis Khan's Empire and the character of the orders that determined
them is an important issue that requires attention. Most often the
answer to this question is the assertion that the Mongols, since the time of
Chinggis Khan, were guided according to the statute-book called Yasa. We
can suppose that the elders in conic clans were keepers of knowledge concerning
norms of behavior. Chinggis Khan, for example, said before his
death that "those who want to know yasa, rules, law and biliks should best
go to Chagatai". Thus it is still an open question if everything that Chinggis
Khan reformed was written down into the statute-book during his life or if
we have to thank his Near East descendants. In China, the text of the Yasa
was unknown. We would iike to note the most important facts.
1. The rights issued from the will of the ruler and in this case we can
speak about the archetype of traditional consciousness when Chinggis
Khan, as a cultural hero, is the creator of everything including the laws.
2. This is not a statute-book elaborated by professionals on the basis of the
state practice that existed at that time. It is worth noting that the designation
of a statute-book by the lern yasa was inherent not only to Mongols. At the
same time, the Tatars also have this term. 3. We cannot speak about fixed
court practice in the person of Shigi-Khutukhu. We think that researchers
will still have to decide what the position of dzargu dzargulugsan which
was established by Chinggis Khan for Shigi-Khutukhu may mean, moreover
we see him at the head of the detachment in the war, and court cases
are judged by the khan himself; for example, Ugedei makes the decision
about Dokholkhu execution. 4. All the extant abstracts from Yasa deal with
personal issues (killing, military discipline, robbery, family and property
affairs, including the cases dealing with management of households by
women in the absence of the man-warrior, a religious taboo) and have an
occasional character as they were written down as uttered by Chinggis
Khan on certain occasions being a reminder of the existing customary law.
In essence, these famous abstracts do not contain the laws that determine
basic principles of the society's life. The number of the texts that could
serve as legal norms to guide the Mongols in their activity is much wider
and have a relation to the common law: bilik (bilig), zasak (zasay = yasa),
zarlik (zarliy), yosun, torn. Only the last term can also mean sacred law.
One of the most important problems of the Mongolian Empire's formation
is Uie problem of ^ega\ proceedings where 3 forms are singled out: the
Hagan court, the khuriltai court and the court of specially appointed persons—
judges (the latter are characteristic of the conquered agricultural territories),
this penitentiary system had not only the character of a wellbalanced
court organization but, as Ryazanovsky wrote, more of "administrative
reprisals". All these combined factors allow us to determine the
Mongolian society as a pre-state one.
The corporative owning of power that was connected with the formation
of a privileged situation of the ruling elite of Kiyat-bordzhigi to which
Chinggis Khan belonged and which subsequently got the name of the
Golden lineage, was a characteristic feature of the Mongolian society. In
connection with Chinggis Khan's distribution of duties among his relatives
and nukers in 1206 the Mongolian Ulus is for the first time divided into two
wings (yiur) and two hands (gar)—right and left. We should note that
power is divided into secular and military (the latter is connected with singling
out military units—lumens consisting of the population of the right
and left hand in each of the wings). Chinggis Khan relates himself to the
center, which is expressed by the Mongolian word qol (§ 226). This division
of the Mongolian Ulus corresponds to the secular (civilian) and military
structure. But, as we have already mentioned, the kin territory was of
great significance (sacred center) that resided in the left wing, and its owner
(otchigin). Therefore the Secret History indicated the existence of one more
center expressed by the Mongolian term tub and related with Tolui and
"throne" (§213).
The distribution of power in the wings was determined by ideas of a sacred
essence of power according to which its owner was able to ensure the
world universal order and the integrity of society (Mongol Ulus or the ruling
Golden lineage) which were characteristic for the traditional Mongolian
(and in a broader sense: nomadic) society. The integrity of traditional consciousness
allowed the possibility to combine ritual, political and military
functions in one person. The right for power became legitimate if the candidates
for the throne had the abilities to perform ritual practice and in this
way they could act as guarantors of the integrity and well-being of the collective
body. Chinggis Khan carried out both sacred and profane power
functions (charismatic type of power). After his death, when traditional
mechanisms were to be restored, the problem of power redistribution regularly
emerged anew, entailing further subdivision of provinces into wings.
Ultima (the youngest) and primogeniture (the eldest) were essential as two
principles; the Mongolian society of the 13th century was characterized by
the overproduction of the elite which made the fight for power even
harsher. In the same way, two tendencies were always in confict: the power
of the eldest of the wing or the power of the hagan, which was connected as
a rule with the left wing—the sacred center of the Mongolian world. But
inside of the of the left wing, in its turn, as it has already been mentioned,
there could be competition between the hagan (the eldest in the left wing)
and the otchigin. The study of the system of wings allows determining a
complicated structure of power of nomads, though the kin principle remained
the main principle of its organization. A constant redistribution of
power functions is connected with the changes in the structure of power
between lineages even within a single kin—the ruling kin of Kiyat-
Borjigin. Various power institutions are considered in the chapter—the
decimal system, a group of fighting men, the khuriltai, court and legal practice
of the Mongolian Empire.
How can we determine the character of the society of this kind? We
should note that there is no unanimity in this question among different researchers,
this problem being controversial not only for the Mongolian
studies but also for the studies of nomad peoples on the whole. Only part of
the scholars studying nomad societies think that medieval Mongolian soci-
ety was pre-state, others treat only the Mongolian uluses of the llth-13th
centuries as pre-state societies, whereas, according to the majority of the
scholars, the state nature of early Mongolian uluses and Chinggis Khan's
Empire is beyond doubt.
In this connection, we assume that it is necessary to consider this problem
from two angles: first, the possibility of existence or absence of a political
system among the Mongols themselves; that is, the Mongolian political
system as such, and second, the political system of the Mongol Empire.
The second suggests the presence of features of the state (administrative
and territorial division, tax system, bureaucratic system for the execution of
state and government functions) that have xenocratic forms as they should
be directed at the exploitation of the population of more complicated societies
compared to the nomads. From our point of view, it would be more
correct to name the societies of nomads of this kind supercomplex chiefdoms.
In conclusion, a few words about the reasons of downfall of the Mongol
empire should be said. The researchers frequently pointed out a number of
reasons, which have lead to the collapse and disintegration of nomad empires,
including the Mongolian one. They are the following: (1) natural
phenomena (the drying out of the steppe, short-term climatic stresses and
epidemics); (2) external political factors (invasions of enemies, protracted
wars, cessation of external incomes, crises of neighboring agricultural civilizations);
(3) inner reasons (demographical explosion, the loss of inner
unity and separatism, gigantism and weakness of administrative structure,
class struggle, internecine strife between the khans and civil wars, mediocre
political rulers).
Contemporary data do not prove the significance of some of these factors.
As it was mentioned above, the data of paleogeography of the last decade
testifies to the absence of a direct connection of global cycles of drying
out/moistening with the periods of decline/rise of steppe empires. The thesis
about the class struggle of nomads proved to be incorrect, as they did
not have such. But most of the above-mentioned reasons influenced the
fates of various steppe polities. Frankly speaking, comparative analysis
shows that it is not rare that several circumstances rather than a single one
have an impact on the downfall of a nomadic empire. As a rule, misfortunes
never come singly. Internal conflict could be accompanied by both local
ecological disasters and enemy invasions.
At the same time, there were reasons which potentially increased the
structural instability of nomadic empires: (1) external sources of natural
resources and income, which combined economically independent tribes
into a united imperial confederation; (2) mobility and armament of the nomads
that made the supreme power of empires balance in search of a con-
sensus among different political groups; (3) specific province and tanistrial
(in Ancient Russian: lestvitsa—top/crown of a tree) system of power inheritance
according to which each of the representatives of the ruling (Golden)
lineage from the main wives had the right for promotion of administrative
status including the right for the throne according to the age line; (4) polygamy
among the highest elite of the nomads (Chinggis Khan, for example,
had about 500 wives and concubines, Jochi had 114 sons, Khubilai about
50 sons; one member of Golden lineage had 100 sons and had a jocular title
"commander of hundred solders"). Even if we might theoretically admit
that "the average" khan had, for example, five sons from the main wives,
then even at the same rate of birth he should have no less than 25 grandsons
and 125 grand grandsons. According to this progression, in 60-70 years the
competition for the inheritance, as a rule, should lead to a bloody conflict,
and, finally, to a civil war which would end in the massacre of a greater part
of the rivals or in the disintegration of the ulus. This law-governed nature,
noticed as early as in the prime of the Mongol uluses by Ibn Khaldun, in
recent years acquired solid mathematical grounds. But even referring to the
sciences, if we thoroughly study the facts from the history of medieval
Mongols, we can be easily convinced that it was a history of fight for power
among various groups of Chinggis Khan's descendants.

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