Post-classical history

Chapter Twenty-Seven


The Mongol School of Warfare

Between 1201 and 1215, Genghis Khan learns how to fight the civilized world

SINCE 1165, the Jin in the north of China and the Song in the south had kept a fragile peace. But now, a first whisper of unease came from the lands to the north.

Ranging across the flat northern grasslands known as steppes were a loosely related set of tribes known collectively as “Mongols.” They had already migrated southward from the taiga, the cold northern pine forests; according to their own chronicles, the thirteenth-century The Secret History of the Mongols, they had descended from the union of a forest doe with a predatory blue-grey wolf. Every Mongol tribe had its own khan to lead it, and the khans and tribes struggled with each other for power. But within each tribe, clans and their chiefs fought constantly among themselves for horses, wives, loot, and the chance to rise to leadership of the tribe.1

Temujin, son of the chief of the Borjigid clan, was born near the sacred mountain of Burkhan Khaldun in 1167; The Secret History says that the newborn was “clutching in his right hand a clot of blood the size of a knucklebone.” At the age of nine, he was betrothed to the ten-year-old daughter of a clan leader from another tribe, and was sent (as was traditional) to live with the bride’s family. Days later, his father died, and Temujin ran away from his prospective father-in-law and returned home.2

This was the beginning of a fraught adolescence. Temujin and his family were driven from their home by another clan, the Taichi’ut, who hoped to gain the khanship of their tribe; the exiles spent the next years scrounging for food in the cold wastes of the Khentil mountain range. Temujin was later captured by the Taichi’ut clan chief and escaped, still wearing the wooden collar used to confine him. By the time he turned sixteen, he was an adult with fully fledged instincts for survival.3

Now old enough to be considered the head of his clan, Temujin revisited the home of his betrothed bride, Borte, and insisted that her father honor the arrangement. He then approached the khan of the nearby Kerait tribe and negotiated an alliance. The khan, an experienced middle-aged soldier named Toghrul, had been a friend of Temujin’s dead father; but he was more impressed with the gifts Temujin brought than with the obligations of that old attachment.

Almost immediately, Temujin was forced to call on both of his new allies for help. Another three-tribe coalition, known collectively as the Merkit, invaded his camp while he was away and kidnapped Borte.

Kidnapping was the second most popular way for a Mongol to get a wife; Temujin’s own mother had been kidnapped, decades before, from a Merkit tribesman, and the raid was both revenge and an attempt to check Temjuin’s growing power. It backfired. Temujin, Toghrul, and Temujin’s childhood friend Jamuqa joined forces (perhaps ten thousand horsemen, converging on the Merkit camp) and wiped the Merkit out. The Secret History celebrates the victory with song:

. . . [W]e tore their livers to pieces.

We emptied their beds

And we exterminated their relatives;

The women of theirs who remained,

We surely took captive!

Thus we destroyed the Merkit people.4

(Borte was rescued as well, an event that gets much less space in The Secret History than the victory in battle.)

A series of other victories followed. Temujin’s star was rising, and by 1200 or so he expected to be elected Great Khan, the warleader of the entire Mongol confederation. Instead, in 1201—the Year of the Hen in the Mongol calendar—his opponents banded together to throw their weight behind Jamuqa.

This was the end of the friendship between the two men. As children, they had sworn a blood-brothers oath of loyalty; now they were enemies. Between 1201 and 1204, the Mongol tribes divided into two factions behind the two leaders.

But through a combination of persuasion and conquest, Temujin’s following swelled while Jamuqa’s shrank away. When Temujin’s old ally Toghrul hesitated, unsure which man to join, Temujin attacked the Kerait tribe and forced it to submit. Toghrul fled westward, into the territory of the Naiman tribe, where he was accidentally killed by a border guard. Outnumbered and outmanned, Jamuqa followed him.

In 1204, Temujin pursued his old friend into Naiman territory and wiped out the men who had given Jamuqa shelter: “[He] utterly defeated and conquered the people of the Naiman tribe on the southern slopes of the Altai,” says The Secret History. Jamuqa escaped into the mountains and lived there as an outcast until he was finally taken prisoner by Temujin’s men.

Brought before Temujin, he asked one last favor from his childhood companion: “Let me die swiftly,” he said, “and your heart will be at rest. And . . . let them kill me without shedding blood.” To die without bloodshed was the privilege of an honorable warrior, and Temujin granted the request. As Jamuqa left his presence, two guards broke the prisoner’s back.5

Now Temujin was without rival; all he had to do was return to the Mongol heartland, to the foot of Burkhan Khaldun, and claim the title Great Khan. But before he turned back east, he sent his lieutenant, Ilah Ahai, on an exploratory raid into the nearby kingdom of the Western Xia.*


27.1 The Advance of the Mongols

Like the Jin, the people of the Western Xia had once been nomads who aspired to be like the Song. While the Jin and Song battled, the Western Xia king Li Renxiao had been building schools for Confucian learning, endowing Buddhist temples, putting into place a Song-style examination system for civil servants. Under his rule, Western Xia merchants used iron coins to trade with both Jin and Song. He supervised the editing and revision of hundreds of volumes of Buddhist treatises in Tangut, the native language of the Xia. He ordered the Western Xia law codes collected into twenty volumes, written in the distinctive Tangut script (modeled on Chinese characters).6 In 1190, just before Li Renxiao’s death, his court scholars assembled a Tangut-Chinese dictionary (A Timely Gem), containing the earliest complete bilingual glossary in the world.*

Li Renxiao himself died in 1193, aged seventy; his son Weiming Chunyou now sat on the throne. He paid little attention to the Mongol raid into his territory. For his part, Ahai returned to Temujin with camels and livestock, and with reports that the Xia had fortified cities.

The Mongols had no experience fighting against cities. Temujin took note of the richness of the Western Xia land, but then turned away and returned to his homeland. There, in 1206, all of the Mongol tribes gathered together to acknowledge him as their khan. Jamuqa had held the title Great Khan, Gur Khan; to set his rival apart, the Mongols hailed him as Genghis Khan.

There is still no firm agreement as to what Genghis means: something like “Khan of All Oceans,” which is to say, Universal Khan. It was an invented title, a brand new label for a man who did not fit the Mongol mold. Already, Genghis Khan was evolving an idea of what a khan could be: much more than the leader of nomadic raiding parties. He had organized his personal bodyguard into ranks and offices; it was now ten thousand men strong and would become the center of his empire, traveling with him wherever he went as a nomadic center of government, the “state on horseback.” He had taken prisoner, in his wars against the Naimans, an educated man kidnapped by the Naimans themselves from the Turks; after a long conversation with this scholar, Genghis Khan ordered him to create an alphabet capable of reducing the Mongolian language to writing. This script would be used for the first Mongol state records, the first Mongol book of legal decisions.7

The Mongols were surrounded by undefeated peoples on three of the four points of the compass: Goryeo to the east, the Jin to the south, and the Xia to the west. Of the three, the Western Xia were the most vulnerable. They were less powerful than the Jin, reached across open land rather than a mountainous peninsula neck.

Weiming Chunyou had just been displaced on the throne by his more aggressive cousin Li Anchaun. When the Mongol invasion began in 1209, Li Anchaun assembled a sizable army to meet it and set up a defensive front at a mountain pass north of the Xia capital Chung-hsing. For a time, the Mongols were halted. Only when they resorted to their traditional mode of fighting—pretending to withdraw, drawing the Western Xia forces out of their entrenched position to follow, and then closing around them to fight in the open—were they able to drive the Xia army away from the pass. But their next task was equally unfamiliar: to lay siege to the fortified city of Chung-hsing itself.

Faced with this novel problem, Genghis Khan came up with an original solution. He ordered his soldiers to dam the nearby branch of the Yellow river, hoping to flood the capital out.

Seeing the dam take shape outside his walls, Li Anchaun sent a desperate appeal to the Jin for help. But the newly crowned Jin emperor, Weishaowang, was fighting off challenges to his legitimacy, and he shrugged off the request: “It is advantageous to my state if its enemies attack each other,” he told his councillors. “What grounds do we have for concern?”8

Genghis Khan’s experiment didn’t work; the inexpertly built dam broke and flooded the Mongol camp instead. But with no reinforcements coming from the Jin, Li Anchaun decided to make peace with the enemy. He bought Genghis Khan off with tribute and a royal marriage to one of his daughters.9

Genghis Khan accepted the truce—for the moment—and immediately turned to attack the Jin. He had learned from the unsuccessful campaign. He always learned.

It took the Mongols four years to battle their way to the northern capital of Zhongdu; four years of raids and retreats, advances and reorganizations, short rations and costly battles: hard lessons in how to conduct a war with a settled people. But the Mongol soldiers were accustomed to desperate discomfort. They had always lived on the move; they had never been at peace. The expertise gained in each sally, each siege, figured in the next battle plan. By 1214, Genghis Khan knew how to besiege a walled city, how to withstand an attack of heavily armed infantry, how to drive an entrenched force backward.

In the spring of 1214, Genghis Khan reached Zhongdu and laid siege to the capital. The Jin emperor retreated quickly to his southern headquarters, the old Song capital of Kaifeng, leaving a governor in charge of Zhongdu. This was not a popular move, and a scattering of the Jin troops, disgusted by what they saw as a cowardly retreat, deserted the Jin cause and went over to the enemy, bringing with them yet more knowledge in how to conduct a war against an empire.

The siege went on for more than a year. The people of Zhongdu began to starve. They ate horses, dogs, trash; eventually, the corpses of the dead. In the summer of 1215, the desperate governor took poison, and the city’s defenses collapsed.

The Mongol besiegers broke into Zhongdu and spread through its streets, murdering, looting, and burning. This is what they would have done to another conquered tribe; but Zhongdu was magnitudes larger, with more plunder and victims than they had ever seen before.

They had become skilled conductors of war, but they had no experience as victors over a sedentary people, and they destroyed Zhongdu. Much of the city burned. Thousands were killed, their corpses piled in huge heaps outside the walls. The contemporary history Tabakat-i-Nisiri says,

When a few years later Baha ad-Din, leader of a mission from Sultan Muhammad of Khwarazm, approached the capital he saw a white hill and in answer to his query was told by the guide that it consisted of bones of the massacred inhabitants. At another place the earth was, for a long stretch of road, greasy from human fat.10

The northern lands of the Jin had played host to the Mongol school of warfare, and in the process had been laid waste.


*The Western Xia are also known as the Xi Xia (Pinyin) or Hsi Hsia (Wade-Giles); they are often called the Tangut, after the dominant ethnic group within the kingdom.

*To be precise, the “earliest bilingual glossary with both source and target language explanations in the world.” See Heming Yong and Jing Peng, Chinese Lexicography: A History from 1046 BC to AD 1911 (2008), pp. 377–378.

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