Chinese official histories, Jesuit missionaries and Western Mongol literature by Carl Fredrik Sverdrup

the-mongol-conquestsThe Mongols of Genghis Khan and his successors conquered much of the known world, creating the largest empire the world had ever seen. It was very much a military achievement with the Mongols prevailing again and again against a long list of differing opponents. The Mongols even made an appearance in Central Europe in 1241, operating 8,000 km away from their homeland. Naturally, the Mongols have attracted much interest in the West, but study of the subject faces some challenges.

In China, it became tradition for the succeeding dynasty to compile an official history of the dynasty it replaced. When the Qing (1644-1912) finalized the history of the Ming (1368-1644) in 1774, there were in total 24 official histories. The Jin (1115-1234), Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties – making up three of the 24 – are relevant for the era of Genghis Khan. They are important sources, reporting in great detail many of the Mongol military operations.

During the 18th century, French Jesuit missionaries living in Beijing made summarized translations of the dynastic histories. Joseph-Anne-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla covered the whole sweep of Chinese history in Histoire générale de la Chine (1708). Antoine Gaubil focused more narrowly on Genghis Khan and the Mongols in Histoire De Gentchiscan Et De Toute La Dinastie Des Mongous Ses Successeurs Conquerans De La Chine: Tirée De L’histoire Chinoise (1739). The French aristocrat Charles de Harlez made a summarized translation of the Jin dynastic history a century and a half later, Histoire de l’empire de Kin ou empire d’or : Aisin Gurun-I Suduri Bithe (1887). Also a Jesuit, de Harlez opted on an academic career in a more modern sense. He was professor at a European university where he taught Asian languages.

Genghis Khan as portrayed in a 14th-century Yuan era album.

Genghis Khan as portrayed in a 14th-century Yuan era album.

None of these early translations were complete. Further, names, titles, and geographic locations are very different from the standards of modern translation conventions. The works provide, however, the foundation for the Western historians who wrote about the Mongols and their military successes. For that reason, there are many mistakes and often lack of detail – in particular for events in China. The body of secondary mainstream literature published during the first half of the 20th century was used as a source for subsequent authors. Scholars able to read and use the Chinese material have tended to have a specific focus and have not offered a broad based military narrative.

The Jin dynastic history in particular offers a lot of rich detail on Mongol military operations. Modern accounts will always laud the Mongols for their skill at taking places by siege. However, the sources do not always support this view. Take the example of the siege of Guide in 1232:

Temutai [= Doqolqu Cerbi], senior general of the Great Mongol Army, attacked [Guide]… The Great Mongol Army attacked the city day and night. They camped outside the southern suburb of the city, a place with a higher ground … Somebody in the Great Mongol Army advised them to breach the river, and the commander accepted the idea. Once the river was breached, the water flew downwards from the north-west to the south-west of the city and then entered the original watercourse of Suishui River. The city, however, became more secure because of the water. [The Mongol commander] tried to find the adviser and kill him, but they could find him nowhere.

In my book The Mongols Conquests. The Military Operations of Genghis Khan and Sübe’etei, I make use of the Chinese primary sources to describe military events in as much detail as possible. This will help readers to understand how Mongolia with a population of a million or two could conquer the Chinese world with 80 million people and also make extensive conquests in the Near East and Europe.

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