home | history

Genghis Khan

A boy named Temujin was a member of one of the nomadic groups that inhabited what today is Mongolia. He was a vassal to Ong Khan, titular head of a confederacy — a coalition, an important source of political power. Temujin joined Ong Khan in a military campaign against Tatars to their east and did well. Following the success of this campaign Ong Khan declared Temujin his adoptive son and heir. Ong Khan's natural son, Senggum (Senggüm), had been expecting to succeed his father and plotted to assassinate Temujin. Temujin learned of this, and those loyal to Temujin defeated those loyal to Senggum. Temujin became had of what had been Ong Khan's coalition.

Before the year 1200, the Mongols had been moving about in small bands headed by a chief, or khan, and living in portable felt dwellings. They had endured frequent deprivations and sparse areas for grazing their animals. They had frequently fought over turf, and during hard times they had occasionally raided, interested in goods rather than bloodshed. Like peoples elsewhere, the Mongols saw themselves at the center of the universe and favored by the gods. In 1206, as the accepted leader of a new phenomenon among the Mongols — the leader of a great coalition — Temujin's supporters justified his success in warfare by proclaiming that he was the rightful master not only over the "peoples of the felt tent" but the entire world. Temujin was given the title Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan thanked his joyous supporters for their help and their loyalty. A man of talent, he was a good organizer. He improved his military organization, which was also to serve as a mobile political bureaucracy, and he broke up what was left of old enemy tribes, leaving as ethnically homogeneous only those tribes that had demonstrated loyalty to him.

He created a body of law, including punishment for engaging in the tradition of kidnapping women. The kidnapping of women had caused feuds among the Mongols, and, as a teenager he had suffered from the kidnapping of his young wife, Borte, and he had devoted himself to her rescue. He declared all children legitimate, whomever the mother. He made it law that no woman would be sold into marriage. He made the stealing of animals — which had caused dissension among the Mongols — a capital offense. A lost animal was to be returned to its owner. Temujin regulated hunting – a winter activity – improving the availability of meat for everyone. He was illiterate but commissioned the first written language for the Mongols. He introduced record keeping and official seals. He created a supreme officer of the law who was to collect and preserve all judicial decisions, to oversee the trials of all those charged with wrongdoing and to have the power to issue death sentences. He created order that strengthened his realm and improved his ability to expand its territory.

Drawing from the scholar Stephen Eskildsen, a Professor of Religion, Wikipedia describes Genghis Khan as having been,

religiously tolerant and interested in learning philosophical and moral lessons from other religions. He consulted Buddhist monks, Muslims, Christian missionaries, and the Taoist monk Qiu Chuji.

Into Northern China

Genghis Khan moved to secure his borders. To his south he made an alliance with the Uyghurs, who were closer to the Silk Road. He married his daughter to the Uighur Khan, and the Uighur Khan brought to the wedding party a caravan laden with gold, silver, pearls, brocaded fabrics, silks and satins. The Mongols had only leather, fur and felt — a humiliation for a master of the entire world.

Genghis Khan needed booty to pay troops securing his northern border and subduing an old enemy there, the Merkits. He attacked the Tangut who for about a century had been ruling Chinese farmers and herders in China's northwest, south of Mongolia. The Tangut had much in goods like the Uighur Khan. Against the Tangut the Mongols were outnumbered in warriors two to one, and the Mongols had to learn a new kind of warfare against fortified cities, including cutting supply lines and diverting rivers. Genghis Khan and his army overran several cities, including Yinchuan (which the Tangut had made their capital.. in 1210 Genghis Khan won from the Tangut recognition as overlord.

The Jurchen emperor, Weishaowang, who ruled a part of northern China that included Beijing, was concerned. He sent a delegation to Genghis Khan demanding submission as a vassal. The Jurchen emperor controlled the flow of goods along the Silk Road, and defying him meant a lack of access to those goods. Genghis Khan discussed the matter with his fellow Mongols, and they chose war. Genghis, according to the scholar Jack Weatherford, prayed alone on a mountain, bowing down and stating his case to "his supernatural guardians," describing the grievances, the tortures and killings that generations of his people had suffered at the hands of the Jurchens. And he pleaded that he had not sought war against the Jurchens and had not initiated the quarrel.

In 1211, Genghis Khan and his army attacked. The Jurchens were also being attacked by the Tangut and by Chinese from south of the Yangzi River, the Southern Song emperor there wishing to take advantage of the Jurchen-Mongol conflict to liberate northern China.

The Jurchens drove the Chinese armies into retreat. The Mongols took advantage of Chinese hostility toward the Jurgens, with benevolence toward those who sided with them and terror and violence against those who did not. The Mongols ravaged the countryside, gathered information and booty and drove populations in front of them, clogging the roads and trapping the Jurchens within their cities, where Jurchen authority was subject to revolt by those they had conquered. The Mongols used conscripted labor in attacking cities and in operating their newly acquired Chinese siege engines. Genghis Khan and his army overran Beijing and pushed into the heartland of northern China. Military success helped as people acquired the impression that Genghis Khan had the Mandate of Heaven and that fighting against him was fighting heaven itself. The Jurchen emperor recognized Mongol authority and agreed to pay tribute.

After six years of fighting the Jurchens, Genghis Khan returned home to Mongolia, leaving one of his best generals in charge of Mongol positions in China. Mongol warriors were happy to be back home, to their higher elevation — less humid and cooler. As eaters of meat and sparsely populated they felt superior to people in northern China, but they liked what China had to offer. Mongols brought with them from China the engineers who had become a permanent part of their army, and there were captive musicians, translators, doctors and scribes, camels and wagonloads of goods. There was silk (including silken rope), iron kettles, armor, perfumes, jewelry, wine, medicines and other goods, which would begin to pass from China to Mongolia with some regularity.

The continuing flow of goods from China would have to be administered and properly distributed, and buildings had to be built to store the goods. Success in war was changing the Mongols.

CONTINUE READING: Genghis Khan Expands his Empire

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.