World History 1 221 - 14.1.3 The Rise of Chinggis Khan and Mongol Unification

While an increasing number of steppe people gathered in settled communities, many still lived as nomads. The clan, a small group of several families that shared an encampment and herded or hunted together, was the basic unit of steppe society. Each clan had a ruling lineage from which leaders were selected and that intermarried with other lineages to avoid in-breeding. Thus, the ruling lineages formed an aristocracy of sorts. Clans could split apart, creating a ruling lineage for a new clan, so it was possible to move from commoner to aristocrat, although founding and leading a clan was no small feat.

Given the high mortality among the steppe peoples, the adoption of children and widows was commonplace. Polygamy was practiced by men who could support multiple wives and the children they would produce, and most households included some enslaved people. Children, wives, enslaved people, and livestock were often obtained by raiding weaker, underprepared clans.

Clans joined together to form tribes under a single leader to better protect their herds and households, cooperate on resource management and migration, and engage in united actions like raids on other clans. Eurasian tribes were loosely organized, often multiethnic and multilingual, not exclusive to a kinship network, and open to any who were willing to obey the leader. Clans drifted in and out of tribes depending on their needs and wishes. Multiple tribes periodically united around a single skillful or charismatic leader, creating a larger confederation. This unity was very short-lived, rarely lasting beyond a generation or two.

Many clans and dozens of tribes occupied the Mongolian grasslands in the late twelfth century (Figure 14.7). Settled peoples like the Jin and Song had long incited these nomadic groups against one another, adding to the turmoil of incessant clan raids. In 1161, concerned that a confederation led by Mongolian speakers was growing too powerful, the Jin encouraged and supported a confederation led by Tatars to attack the Mongol-led confederation. Tatar was a Turkish language spoken by many inhabitants of the grasslands north of China. (The fluidity of membership in clans, tribes, and confederations makes it problematic to consider a group led by a speaker of one language as truly having a common ethnic heritage or long-standing communal bond such as a modern nation has. Nevertheless, perhaps for the sake of simplicity, scholars tend to refer to confederations of seminomads by the primary language of their leader.)

A map is shown with land highlighted in beige and water in blue. The Angara R., the Onon R., and the Amur r. are labelled in the north and the Herlun R. is labelled in the middle of the map. The Huang He (Yellow R.) is labelled in the south. In the southwest of the map an area is highlighted dark pink and labelled “Kara-Khitan Dynasty.” In the middle south of the map an area is highlighted orange and labelled “Xia Dynasty.” In the north of this area is a label for “Dunhuang” and in the northeast a label for “Yinchuan” is shown. A large area in the east is highlighted green and labelled “Jun Dynasty” with a label for “Jurchen” in the west, and these in the south: Zhongdu (Beijing), Kaifeng, Nanjing, and Hangzhou. In the beige highlighted land, these areas are labelled, from west to east: Naiman, Kyrgyz, Oirat, Khori-Tumed, Kereit, Mongol, Merkit, Barga, Jadaran, Khiyad, Onggirat, Taichuud, Jalair, Ongut, Tartar and Saljiut.
Figure 14.7 This map shows (in yellow) the areas that various Mongol tribes considered their lands in the late twelfth century and where they were in relation to the three settled kingdoms of the Kara-Khitan, Xia, and Jin between the steppe and the Southern Song dynasty. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The Tatar attack on the Mongol confederation scattered its clans, forcing them to form new tribes and seek to join other confederations. It was in this context that a son was born to Hoelun, primary wife of one of the clan leaders of the recently defeated Mongol confederation in their camp between the Onon and Herlen Rivers. The child, born as Temujin, is better known today by the title he acquired later in life and that history most remembers him by: Chinggis Khan, meaning “universal ruler.” He completely altered the relationships between the nomadic groups on the Eurasian Steppe and radically changed the trajectory of world history.

There are no historical records of Temujin before he became known as Chinggis Khan, the powerful ruler of the world’s largest empire in his time. A work called The Secret History of the Mongols, likely written after his death, is the most potentially reliable source, though it is suspect because it is based solely on oral history interpreted by non-Mongols.

Whereas The Secret History of the Mongols recounts many heroic exploits in Temujin’s family’s struggle to survive, it paints a bleak picture of their existence on the steppe. Temujin was briefly enslaved by the rival clan until a sympathetic family helped him escape. Not long after Temujin married, raiders from the Merkit Mongol tribe attacked and kidnapped his wife, Borte. Temujin sought help from Ong Khan, leader of the Kereit Mongol confederation, to retrieve her, and she gave birth to a son not long after. The timing made it unclear who the father was; nevertheless, Temujin accepted the child as his. At some point in the early 1180s, Temujin broke with his friend and clan leader Jamukha and formed a new clan with himself as head.

In Their Own Words

Jamukha and Temujin Pledge Eternal Friendship and Loyalty

The Secret History of the Mongols is silent on how Temujin and his close friend Jamukha became blood brothers when Temujin and his family were roaming clanless on the Inner Asian Steppe. In the aftermath of the battle in which they fought together to free Temujin’s wife, Temujin joined Jamukha’s clan. The selection that follows is an account from The Secret History of the Mongols describing their pledges of unity and loyalty. As you read, think about how the two depict their relationship and what obligations they pledge to each other. Consider also how they symbolically confirm their new relationship, and how they celebrate it.

This is how they declared themselves friends by oath for the second time.

They said to each other, “Listening to the pronouncement of the old men of former ages which says: “Sworn friends—the two of them Share but a single life; They do not abandon one another: They are each a life’s safeguard for the other.” We learn that such is the rule by which sworn friends love each other. Now, renewing once more our oath of friendship, we shall love each other.”

Temujin girdled his sworn friend Jamukha with the golden belt taken as loot from Toqto’a of the Merkit. He also gave sworn friend Jamuqa for a mount Toqto’a’s yellowish white mare with a black tail and mane, a mare that had not foaled for several years. Jamuqa girdled his sworn friend Temujin with the golden belt taken as loot from Dayir Usun of the U’as Merkit, and he gave Temujin for a mount the kid-white horse with a horn, also of Dayir Usun. At the Leafy Tree on the southern side of the Quldaqar Cliff in the Qorqonaq Valley they declared themselves sworn friends and loved each other; they enjoyed themselves revelling and feasting, and at night they slept together, the two of them alone under their blanket.

—Igor de Rachewiltz, The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century

  • What personal values and behaviors in the oath Temujin and Jamukha swear to each other are important to the Mongolian-speaking peoples?
  • What do the gifts they exchange suggest Mongolian speakers greatly value?

By 1187, Temujin had such an impressive force and reputation that Ong Khan turned to him when the Jin induced Ong Khan to attack the Tatar Confederation. Ong Khan and Temujin defeated the Tatars and acquired goods more luxurious than Temujin’s people had ever seen. This drew even more people to his clan. As the clans allied with Temujin grew, Jamukha expanded his clan to keep up with him. Soon those in the Mongol-speaking part of the steppe were left with the choice of joining Temujin, joining Jamukha, or risking attack by one or the other.

Temujin made drastic changes to traditional Mongol practices, in part as a reaction to the hardships he suffered growing up, which laid the groundwork for his creation of a huge multiethnic empire. As he engaged in warfare with a wider array of rivals, he considered class differences. He punished those who led any resistance and executed the leaders of rival clans, but he often spared the common people and integrated the men into his army. He ordered his fighters to refrain from looting and raping and instead to pursue any fleeing warriors to capture or kill them, minimizing future retaliatory raids by those who escaped. Rather than enslaving the captured adult males, he put the members of aristocratic lineages on trial for committing whatever affront he had used to justify the attack. Once found guilty, which was the general outcome, they were executed. Temujin then divided the spoils of the raid equally between the participants and the households of his men killed in the raid. By assuring his soldiers that their widows and orphans would not be at the mercy of whoever took them in, he reduced the incentive to desert.

Temujin also divided his warriors into units of ten, each bound to the others by oaths of loyalty, and then units of one hundred and one thousand that chose their own leaders and swore similar oaths. Only at the highest level, ten units of one thousand warriors, did he appoint commanders, and he did so on the basis of merit and loyalty to him, not kinship or clan identity. The groups drilled precision moves and learned simple musical chants that identified the formations their commanders desired in the heat of battle. This innovative organization not only forged a deadly, efficient fighting force; it also provided all males with a shared and classless role in society and unified an increasingly ethnically and linguistically diverse portion of the steppe people, whom Temujin began to call the People of the Felt Walls in a reference to their fabric-covered homes.

Temujin’s reforms introduced a new division in steppe civilization that today might be called class warfare. People from aristocratic lineages began to fear Temujin and joined with Jamukha, but commoners sought the protection and rewards of joining the People of the Felt Walls. The aging Ong Khan disapproved of Temujin’s attack on tradition and aristocratic privilege and began favoring Jamukha. After Ong Khan tried to lure him into a trap, Temujin fled to a rendezvous with his top leaders, who swore renewed loyalty to each other in the Baljuna Covenant. The covenant became a rallying point and symbol of Mongol nationalism for future generations.

The men who swore to the covenant came from nine different clans and represented at least four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the traditional Mongol worship of Tengri, the Eternal Blue Sky. The glue that held the People of the Felt Walls together was not kinship, ethnicity, or religion but devotion to the civil society Temujin had created. Word went out from Baljuna to the scattering People of the Felt Walls to regroup and to find Temujin and the others in a remote part of the steppe.

Ong Khan believed Temujin was hiding out a weeks’ ride away in the east. Temujin and his followers were much closer, however. They surrounded Ong Khan’s forces, using the element of surprise to launch an attack that lasted three days. Demoralized, many of Ong Khan and Jamukha’s followers began to join Temujin. Ong Khan was killed while crossing alone into territory controlled by the Naiman, the last confederation that could oppose Temujin.

With Temujin expanding and the Naiman harboring Jamukha and other refugees from Ong Khan, war between the two groups was inevitable. Temujin’s discipline and tactical training of his troops paid off, and in 1204 the Naiman collapsed, its leadership dead or in flight. The survivors joined the People of the Felt Walls. Jamukha was eventually turned in by his followers and executed, along with those who had betrayed him, since Temujin felt their treachery to their lord deserved punishment.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax