Something New Under the Sun: The Mongol Empire’s Innovations in Steppe Political Organization and Military Strategy


Thomas J. Barfield
Boston University


The 8th International Congress of Mongolists
Ulaan Baatar, August 5-12, 2002

At the time of Chinggis Khan’s birth in 1162 Mongolia had been weak and divided for more than three centuries.  Endemic fighting among the steppe nomadic peoples had made everyday life itself insecure and political unification appeared unachievable.  Yet by the time Chinggis Khan died in 1227, Mongolia was united, the center of the world’s largest land empire, and the dominant power in Eurasia.  How are we to understand this rapid transformation and its consequences?  The most common historical approach explains the emergence of the Mongol Empire as the product of long-term historical developments in Central Eurasia similar to those that had led to the emergence of previous steppe empires such as the Xiongnu (209 B.C.-A.D. 155) or the Turks and Uighurs (552-840).  From this perspective, the Mongol Empire was only a structurally larger version of its predecessors, its political and military organization derived from a common steppe heritage that was in no way unique to the Mongols.

In fact the Mongol Empire was striking different from earlier steppe empires and bore little resemblance to them. We can see this in three important areas.  First the Mongol Empire arose in opposition to the usual pattern of relationships between China and the steppe that facilitated the emergence of nomadic empires in Mongolia.  Second, the Mongol Empire radically transformed steppe nomadic society by breaking up the existing tribal system and replacing it with a centralized political system of rule that had never previously existed on the steppe. Third, the Mongols ended up ruling neighboring sedentary states directly rather than extorting them as earlier steppe empires had done.  Because the genesis of these differences all derive from the problems Chinggis Khan faced in uniting the steppe and then maintaining power, his personal contribution to the process was absolutely vital.

The Pattern of Relations between China and Mongolia

The interaction between China, the steppe nomads of Mongolia, and the mixed forest and steppe tribes of Manchuria produced two striking patterns of development that determined both the structure of political relations on the steppe and the pattern of foreign rule in China: 1) a bi-polar frontier with a unified China facing a unified Mongolia and 2) transborder states ruling north China and Mongolia fragmented.[1]

Tandem Unification: Native Chinese Dynasties and Unitary Nomadic Empires

Most successful empires in Mongolia appeared in tandem with native Chinese dynasties that ruled all of China.  This pattern is the reverse of the generally accepted premise that the nomads of Mongolia grew stronger as China grew weaker.  Instead, nomadic empires and important native Chinese dynasties rose and fell together, a pattern particularly apparent in the relationships between the Han and Xiongnu and the Tang and Turks/Uighurs.  These nomadic empires derived their stability from the extortion of direct subsidies and trading privileges from native Chinese dynasties.  Far from wishing to conquer China, steppe empires were structurally dependent on the existence of their counterparts to supply them with the wealth they redistributed to their followers in Mongolia.  While these relationships were initially established by force, over time they became more symbiotic.  Nomadic tribes even protected declining Chinese dynasties against internal rebellions by supplying them with troops.  When these dynasties finally collapsed in the face of internal rebellions within China, the steppe nomads lost the major source of revenue that had allowed them to maintain centralized rule.  Under these conditions Mongolia also became fragmented politically.  Local tribal leaders who had been subordinated within an imperial structure reemerged, but without a prosperous China to extort none were able to reestablish unity.  Power on the frontier then shifted to the formerly marginal peoples of Manchuria. 

Transborder States: Foreign Dynasties in China and Division in Mongolia

Four out of five of the most important foreign dynasties that ruled north China had their origins in Manchuria (Toba Wei, Liao, Jin, and Qing).  All emerged in the periods of disorder that followed the collapse of native dynasties that had ruled all of China of centuries. That so many foreign dynasties should come from the northeast appears to be an anomaly, since it was the tribes from Mongolia that were the major threats to China's frontier in the Han, Tang, and Ming periods.  Indeed, when both the steppe nomads and China were powerful it was impossible for independent regional states to arise anywhere along the frontier.  However, in times of anarchy after native Chinese dynasties had collapsed local tribal leaders from all sectors of the frontier attempted to create new trans-border kingdoms.  Of all these emerging regional states, the Manchurian dynasties proved the most effective because of their strategic location and their development of dual organizations for the administration of conquered territory.  Such dual organizations employed separate Chinese and tribal governmental structures, allowing Chinese areas to be ruled by their own officials employing native Chinese practices, while tribal peoples retained their own customary system.  Manchurian rulers maintained their power by manipulating these two groups, using Chinese officials and court practices to destroy tribal autonomy while keeping the Chinese under control through the use of elite tribal military units. 

In dealing with Mongolia, foreign dynasties employed a distinctive frontier policy of co-optation and disruption that actively impeded the emergence of political centralization there.  Normally it was only after these aggressive foreign dynasties were deposed and replaced by more isolationist native Chinese dynasties that the nomads in Mongolia were able to unify.  Unlike their foreign counterparts, native Chinese dynasties tended to ignore political events on the steppe and so leaders there needed to concern themselves only with other steppe nomad rivals.  Once a steppe empire was united and funded by subsidies from China, the Mongolian frontier became linear and its politics bi-polar.

The Mongols Break the Pattern

The alternation of powerful steppe empires and native Chinese dynasties with equally long periods of Manchurian rule in China and disorder in Mongolia was such a regular occurrence that the pattern was broken only once over a period of 2000 years, by the Mongol Empire of Chinggis Khan.  This was not because the nomadic leaders who were striving for power on the steppe during periods of disunion were any less ambitious or capable than the leaders who successfully unified Mongolia at other times.  Rather it was because the policies of foreign dynasties were designed first to thwart the unification of Mongolia or, if that policy failed, to prevent any unified state from threatening China. They did this by encouraging tribal rivalries and bloodfeuds to prevent any single group from becoming too powerful. And should one tribe become paramount they sent expeditionary forces deep into Mongolia to weaken them or at least prevent them from moving against the Chinese border.  For example, in the 5th century the Toba Wei campaigned extensively against the Joujan and captured large numbers of people and animals to keep them on the defensive.  In the 17-18th centuries, the Manchu Qing dynasty employed the “banner system” and land allocations to eastern Mongol princes to serve as a bulwark against the more aggressive Zunghars in western Mongolia. 

When Chinggis Khan was born Mongolia had been politically fragmented since the fall of the Uighur Empire in 840, a period of more than three centuries in which even the memory of earlier steppe nomadic empires had all but disappeared.  Such a long period of division in Mongolia was maintained, in part, by the interventionist policies of two successive Manchurian states that also ruled north China: the Khitan Liao (907-1125) and the Jurchen Jin (1115-1234).  These dynasties would ally themselves with weaker tribes against the stronger ones to create an effective coalition that would bring down any tribal leader on the steppe who threatened to become preeminent.  Of course by doing so they increased the power of their own allies, so it was only a matter of time before they turned against them too and switched their support to the tribes they had just defeated.  During the 12th century, for example, the Jurchen had regularly switched their support from the Tatars to the Mongols and back again to keep these tribes at each other’s throats and to bring about each tribe’s destruction in turn.

Any leader attempting to found a new steppe empire under these conditions therefore faced incredible odds. He not only had to worry about other rival tribal leaders on the steppe who would oppose him, but also the outside interference he could expect to receive from north China and Manchuria should he begin to succeed. As the Mongol Secret History makes clear, many Mongol, Tatar, Naiman and Kerait leaders had earlier attempted the task of unification but none had succeeded.  And given the difficulties Chinggis Khan faced just in mobilizing the support of even his own Mongol people, few contemporary observers would have picked him as a likely candidate for the job. Yet in the end Chinggis Khan not only unified Mongolia, he and his successors conquered all of China and created the Yuan dynasty, the only long-lived foreign dynasty that did not have its origins in the Manchurian northeast.

Political Organization of Steppe Empires

The Imperial Confederacy

The predecessors of the Mongol Empire (and indeed its successors in Mongolia following the end of the Yuan dynasty in 1368) were imperial confederations that used the principles of tribal organization and indigenous tribal leaders to rule at the local level while maintaining an imperial state structure with a monopoly on foreign and military affairs.  The top level of imperial leadership was drawn from the ruling lineage of the tribe that founded the state.  At a secondary level descendants and collateral relatives of the ruler were usually appointed as governors to supervise the indigenous tribal leadership in each region. These local tribal leaders constituted the third level of organization.[2]

What was distinctive about imperial confederacies was their incorporation of local level tribes without destroying them.  To outsiders an imperial confederacy might appear fully centralized and in complete command of its component parts because of its monopoly on foreign relations and its control of military affairs.  But at the local level component tribes operated much as they had before their incorporation into a unitary state. As members of the indigenous elite of each tribe, local leaders retained considerable autonomy because of their close ties to their own people.  And when the imperial structure collapsed they and their tribes were ready to reemerge as autonomous political actors. 

The Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire had quite a different structure. It was not an imperial confederacy but an autocratic state that from its inception broke up the existing tribes and redistributed their people into new military units from which they were not allowed to move.  This broke up the older steppe political organization based on lineage and clan leaders who were chieftains (tus) of their respective kinship groups regardless of who was running the top levels.  Their ability and willingness to transfer their political allegiance from one leader to another if they received a better offer had made it difficult for anyone to centralize power.  Chinggis put an end to this after uniting the steppe and from that point on power resided in him and his personal appointees.  With the exception of a small number of groups that had been long time supporters or with whom he had formed alliances, none of the leaders had strong kin ties with the people they led.  This change was not only unprecedented but remarkably rapid, too.  It appears to been accomplished in less than three years between the time he first gained control of the old Kerait confederation in 1203 and when he was proclaimed Great Khan in 1206. Indeed a treasured reward requested by outstanding commanders from Chinggis Khan at the1206 khurilitai was the right to reunite with their own kinsmen.[3]

Imperial appointment, not kinship, determined rank and authority at every level of the Mongol Empire.  Chinggis Khan’s relatives and the Mongol tribe in general were kept at the margins of power in favor of talented individuals.  In stark contrast to the founders of imperial confederacies who always installed their close relatives in top posts as a means to secure their power, Chinggis Khan looked on his own relatives with considerable suspicion and kept them out of power.  During his lifetime political appointments were given almost exclusively to men who owed him personal loyalty, such as his sworn companions (nökör), loyal household servants and adopted sons.  They held the all the tümen (units of 10,000) commands and had the most influence on political decision making.  Later Chinggis Khan also recruited heavily from the keshig, formerly his personal bodyguard that he had transformed into a special unit of 10,000 whose members were drawn from many different tribes.  Because their individual success was tied to their service to the Mongol Empire as a whole, no one tribe (not even the Mongols) was able to dominate the empire’s top level administration exclusively even after the descendants of Chinggis Khan later made the Great Khan position hereditary.

While the centralized and bureaucratic structure of the Mongol Empire was more effective than any previous steppe empire, it was also unique.  After the fall of the Yuan dynasty the nomads in Mongolia would revert to their older and less centralized imperial confederacy model of organization.  This demonstrates that while the Mongol Empire succeeded in breaking up the existing tribal structure, this change could not be made permanent.  Over the next 150 years tribal groups reemerged in Mongolia as central control weakened and by the time the Yuan dynasty was driven out of China decentralized tribal organization was once again the norm in Mongolia.  Although it should be noted that the changes wrought had been so great that there was practically no continuity between them and the tribes that had existed at the time of Chinggis Khan.

Mongol military organization and foreign policy

The Mongols created the largest empire the world has ever seen.  Unlike earlier nomadic empires that dominated only the steppelands, the Mongols conquered most of Eurasia, destroying powerful and well-armed sedentary states in the process.  This raises two questions: Why was the Mongol military so much more effective than previous steppe empires given that the most important weapon for both remained the mounted archer?  Why did the Mongol Empire conquer its neighbors rather than extort them as was the more common strategy of steppe empires based in Mongolia?

Military organization

In many ways the Mongol army was similar to its Xiongnu and Turkish predecessors.  It consisted almost exclusively of cavalry: mounted archers armed with short and long range arrows, sabers, lances, and maces.  They wore steel cap helmets and armor consisting either of lacquered hide or overlapping iron scales.  Organized around decimal units of 10, 100, 1000, the largest Mongol tactical division was the tümen of 10,000 men.  Although the decimal system had been employed by the Xiongnu, in an imperial confederacy unit commanders were also tribal chiefs in their own right and so often decided on their own what orders to accept.  The Mongol armies had no autonomous tribal base so its commanders could expect absolute obedience down the whole chain of command.  Like most nomad armies the total number of Mongol troops was surprisingly small.  At the time of Chinggis Khan's death in 1227 the it consisted of only about 138,000 effectives, and even at the height of the empire a generation later it had about twice that number.[4] 

What distinguished the Mongol military from its predecessors, however, was its iron discipline and central control, a model of organization first developed by the Manchurian Khitan who had conquered northeastern China three centuries earlier, but never previously employed in Mongolia.[5]  Xiongnu and Turkish cavalry armies had tended to be disorganized in battle, with each individual fighting for his own gain.  The Mongol army was trained to fight as a coordinated group following signals from flags or horns.  Those individuals who broke ranks either to advance or retreat, those who engaged in personal combat without regard to orders, or those who stopped to loot were severely punished.  Nobody, under pain of death, was allowed to move to another unit without permission.  Because his trusted military commanders were not rivals for political power, Chinggis Khan gave them a great deal of autonomy to carry out his overall strategy.  And he was a brilliant talent spotter, for out of the Mongol ranks rose a series of worldclass generals who led his armies to victory across Eurasia.

But perhaps Chinggis Khan’s unique innovation was his incorporation of military engineers, Chinese and later Muslim, into the Mongol army after his first campaigns in China.  These specialists provided the Mongols with thousands of siege engines that could be used to take fortified cities: catapults for hurling stones, ballistae for throwing javelins, and other machines for throwing fire.  They also provided him with the ability to bridge rivers or even divert them to wash away enemy fortifications.  All other steppe cavalry armies had been stymied by walled cities.  They could attack around them and lay waste to the countryside but they could not take them by direct assault.  Without this ability, no nomadic group could ever expect to conquer well-defended sedentary lands.  The Mongol army could and did.  It became so efficient that none of the great walled cities of Central Asia were able to withstand their power when Chinggis Khan launched his war there against the Khwarazm Khan in 1218.

These innovations gave Chinggis Khan a military machine that was completely under his control, that fought according to a coordinated plan, and that had the ability not only to strike deeply into enemy countries but (unlike any nomads before or since) to engage in effective siegecraft that rendered walled cities vulnerable to a steppe army.  It was an army of conquest, not a grand raiding force like those of the Huns in Europe or the Xiongnu against China.  And conquer it did.

The Mongol Conquests

Many scholars, citing the assertions of later Mongol rulers, have argued that Chinggis Khan swept out of Mongolia intent on conquering the world.  But initially he seems to have had the same more limited goals as leaders of previous imperial confederacies: to bring all the steppe tribes under his sway and then extort large subsidy payments and trading rights from the rich sedentary states that bordered Mongolia. However, because he was opposed by powerful sedentary states that preferred to fight the nomads rather than appease them, the result was wars of annihilation that led to the Mongols becoming rulers the territories they had only intended to extort.[6]

The Mongols initially launched wars against neighboring sedentary states to induce them to make tribute payments or trade agreements.  They had no interest in replacing the existing regimes if their demands were met, let alone conquering them.  At first it appeared that they, like the Xiongnu and Turks before them, would succeed in gaining what they wanted.  The Uighur ruled oases in eastern Turkestan immediately allied themselves with Chinggis Khan and participated in the 1206 khuriltai. The Mongols then attacked the Tangut Xixia kingdom in northwest China in 1207 and 1209, forcing them to sue for peace and send tribute.  Mongol campaigns against the Jurchen in north China began in 1211.  After suffering three increasingly devastating invasions, the Jurchen Jin dynasty also agreed to pay tribute to the Mongols in 1214.  The Mongols then withdrew and left the Jin still in control of most of north China.  That same year Chinggis Khan also received an embassy from the Khwarazm Khan in Central Asia to whom he proposed making a treaty that would facilitate trade and gain recognition of Mongol power in the east. 

With the exception of the Uighurs,[7] all these budding relationships quickly foundered.  The Jurchen had no intention of permanently appeasing the Mongols and before the year was out they and the Mongols were at war again.  It was a war that would last twenty years, ending only with the destruction of the Jin dynasty itself in 1234 that would leave the Mongols the masters of north China.  Equally troubling, the promising relations with Central Asia that had been secured by a treaty in 1218 soured when the Khwarazm Khan allowed a caravan under Mongol protection to be seized and then murdered a series of Mongol envoys who had been sent to address the matter.  Chinggis Khan mobilized the Mongol army to take revenge on the Khwarazm Khan.  Xixia used the opportunity to break its tributary obligations when asked to provide troops for this expedition.  Even without Xixia’s aid the Mongols overran all of Central Asia to the borders of India and western Iran in a series of campaigns between 1219 and 1223.  They utterly destroyed the region’s major cities and Khwarazm Khan’s kingdom collapsed.  However, Chinggis Khan did not even attempt to occupy more than a fraction of the territory his armies had overrun.  Instead he returned home and led a campaign against the Tanguts to punish their earlier break.  It was to be his last campaign: he died in 1227.  Soon thereafter the Tangut state was also destroyed and its cities leveled.[8]

At the death of Chinggis Khan the Mongol Empire was no longer just an empire of the steppe, but an empire that incorporated many sedentary kingdoms.  Even if Chinggis Khan had little interest in ruling them directly, his descendants did.  Therefore one the fundamental changes in Mongol foreign policy that followed Chinggis Khan’s death was his descendants’ decision to reoccupy all the territories their father had only overrun and rule them, as well as to extend Mongol power into new areas of China, Europe and the Middle East.  Mongol policy was now truly imperial in a way that the Xiongnu and Turks had never been: combining nomad and sedentary people into a universal empire than spanned a whole continent.  If this was not necessarily the vision of Chinggis Khan, it was he who had provided the tools that made it possible.

Chinggis Khan’s Personal Contributions

Many of the innovations described above can be attributed directly to Chinggis Khan, not because he invented them but because he insisted on employing them.  They were all solutions to the specific problems he faced in coming to power and then maintaining it.  Once instituted, however, they took root and became characteristic of the Mongol Empire until it fell. 

Chinggis Khan was forced to seek out new structural solutions because he rose to power from a marginal position.  He could not depend on the traditional political or military structures that had so well served the founders of earlier nomadic empires.  This insecurity also had a significant impact on his war making strategy, which was much more aggressive and risky than those of other rulers.  It also had a psychological component.  Chinggis Khan’s unyielding attacks on those who broke their treaty obligations seem rooted in his personal experiences of betrayal before he came to power.  In his mind, those broke their word or betrayed their sworn obligations deserved only absolute destruction, whether the offender was a single individual or an entire state.

Unlike the founders of imperial confederacies, who were the established leaders of their own tribes before they unified the steppe, Chinggis Khan had come to power without much help from the Mongols or even his own relatives.  A rival Mongol lineage had pushed him into exile as a boy after his father murdered and then tried to kill him. While he had been elected Mongol khan around 1190 he was never able consolidate his authority and often fought with his competitor for Mongol leadership, Jamukha.  And when his longstanding alliance with Ong Khan, the Kerait leader, fell apart, he found himself deserted by almost everyone.  At his low point in 1203 at Lake Baljuna, just before he was to kill Ong Khan and take control of the Kerait confederation himself, he had only 4600 troops at his disposal.  And these were with him because they were personally loyal, not because of tribal connections.[9] 

Chinggis Khan’s bitter experiences with steppe politics and the fickleness of tribal military units thus shaped his ideas about political organization and military strategy.  He had finally come to hold absolute power in a period of less than three years between 1203 and 1206, but then only when he was a middle-aged man of over forty years with too much experience of tribal politics behind him.  Having beaten his opponents on the battlefield, it is clear that he saw the destruction and reorganization of the traditional tribal structure as a necessary next step if he wished to stay in power.  His policy innovations all had at their core the transformation of the existing system, which encouraged disunity and parochialism, into a centralized and autocratic state that would direct its energies outward.  These changes included the division of people by military units instead of kinship groups, the creation of the pan-tribal institutions like the keshig, and favoring personal appointees over relatives.  Such innovations were not only designed to make the Mongol state and its leader more powerful but to eliminate any possibility that the old political order might reemergence.  It was a revolution, but not one based on class or ideology.  It was a practical revolution designed to stabilize Chinggis Khan’s own power.  Similarly the organization of the army into well-disciplined units that worked in a coordinated fashion under a centralized command reduced the possibility of rebellion.  He encouraged personal initiative but only in service to the Mongol state. 

Chinggis Khan also broke with a time honored nomad military strategy known from the time of the Scythians and Xiongnu: advance before weakness and retreat before strength.  Historically when the steppe nomads were outnumbered or confronted with a well-organized opponent, they would refuse to give battle and force their enemies to chase them.  Only after the enemy had exhausted himself chasing his illusive prey would the nomads turn to attack in earnest.  Similarly during their incursions into China, Xiongnu or Turkish commanders would almost always withdraw when confronted by a powerful Chinese army unless the odds were in their favor.  After all, the nomads reasoned, they could always retire to Mongolia and attack again when chances for victory were more certain.  By contrast, Chinggis Khan and the Mongol army under his commanders believed in fighting decisive battles even when the odds were against them.  They sought out the best tactical position and then attacked.  This penchant for fighting decisive battles was due in part to Chinggis Khan’s confidence in his troops and commanders.  But because at first he did not have a strong tribal base at home, such prudence could also have been interpreted as a weakness that would have emboldened enemies among the tribes he had only recently conquered.  In his career he had experienced first hand the tendency of troops to flock to the banners of victorious commanders and desert those who appeared to be failing.  Thus, though he often employed feigned retreats in battle to lure his enemies into traps, he never considered strategic retreats that would have forced him delay a campaign once it had begun even when this appeared to be the safer choice.  Chinggis Khan had won power by risking all, and would preserve it by doing the same.  Later, when his brilliant victories had solidified his base in Mongolia, his preference for fighting decisive battles ceased being driven by any political calculations.  By then the bias toward taking the offensive had simply become one the core military doctrines that were hallmarks of the Mongol army and its commanders.

Some Conclusions

Historians have commonly used the Mongol Empire as a template to understand steppe nomadic empires in Mongolia in general.  Since it was the best known and best documented, it seemed to make sense to use well described Mongol institutions to flesh out the organization of its less well-known predecessors.  This assumed that nothing the Mongols did was really very new or different, it was just a matter of adjusting for the matter of scale and evolution through time.  In fact we have seen the Mongols employed very different structures than their predecessors.  And it was not a matter of evolution: following the collapse of the Yuan dynasty the tribes in Mongolia that faced the new Ming dynasty in China had all reverted to the older imperial confederacy model of organization.  They had none of the centralizing characteristics of Chinggis Khan’s empire and never again attempted to hold Chinese territory even though they often overran it.  For this reason the Mongol Empire needs a fresh examination that would give due credit to its innovations.  Because no other empire in Eurasian history was as large or as powerful as the Mongols at their height, surely we should ask why this was so and why no other nomadic empire in Mongolia even partially approached its success.

While Chinggis Khan retains his preeminent stature in Mongol national history, elsewhere there has been a tendency to diminish his personal accomplishments.  As historical determinists most Marxist theorists, for example, denied any causal role to individual leaders.  They were considered interchangeable products of their social origins in a history that only evolved as material conditions changed.  Such theories attempted to explain the rise of the Mongol Empire in terms of class conflict and the rise of “nomadic feudalism.”[10]  But little in the pastoral economy had changed at the time Chinggis Khan rose to power and evidence for any permanent class divisions (as opposed to status distinctions) are hard to discern.  Worse, if such new structures within the Mongol Empire were the result of a permanent political evolution, why did they revert back to their older forms when the political structure of the empire weakened? 

Non-Marxist theorists, however, have been equally suspicious of “Great Man” theories that see history as the product of individuals such as Chinggis Khan.  The assumption among these scholars is that conditions for the unification of Mongolia and the spread of nomad power were already in place.  Just what such conditions might have been remains a matter of debate: climate change, trade opportunities, military technology, weakness in sedentary lands, are but a few suggestions.  But they do tend to agree that if Chinggis Khan had not unified Mongolia, some other leader (perhaps a Kerait or Naiman khan) would have and the nomads would have had a similar impact on history under another name. [11] 

My own analysis of the Xiongnu and Turks first predisposed me to this camp since it makes strong structural arguments about when and why steppe empires emerged.  But the more I examined the origins of the Mongol Empire, the more I was forced to conclude that Chinggis Khan had played a greater personal role than any other leader in Mongolia before or after.  I would go so far as to contend that had Chinggis Khan been permanently defeated or killed before 1206, no world conquering steppe empire in Mongolia would ever have emerged.  Once the empire was up and running the personal characteristics of its leaders became less important.  If a different son had inherited the khanship after Chinggis Khan, or if Güyüg had lived longer in the next generation, Mongol history would have taken some different turns but not been remarkably different.  A powerful structure was already in place.  But the establishment of unity in Mongolia under Chinggis Khan and his conquests of sedentary lands were far more contingent events.  When a great oak tree dominates the landscape it is easy to forget it began its existence as an acorn, an acorn any squirrel could have eaten.  And when Chinggis Khan was born there were very few acorns but many hungry squirrels.  Because more attention is generally paid to the great Mongol conquests after 1206, we have underestimated how great an achievement it was for Chinggis Khan to come to power, unify Mongolia and reorganize it into a potent force.


[1] Barfield, Thomas J. The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China (Cambridge, MA and Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

[2] Barfield, Thomas J. "The Hsiung-nu Imperial Confederacy: Organization and Foreign Policy," Journal of Asian Studies, 41 (1981), 45-61.

[3] The Secret History of the Mongols §213, 218 (Cleaves, Francis, trans., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982, pp. 154, 158).

[4] Martin, H. Desmond. The Rise of Chinggis Khan and his Conquest of North China. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1950.

[5] Wittfogel, Karl and Chia-sheng Feng, The History of Chinese Society: Liao (907-1125). Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1949: 553, 669.

[6] Barfield, Thomas J. "The Devil's Horsemen: Steppe Nomadic Warfare in Historical Perspective." In Studying War: Anthropological Perspectives, edited by S.P. Reyna and R.E. Downs. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1994, pp. 157-182.

[7] Allsen, Thomas. “The Yüan Dynasty and the Uigurs of Turfan in the 13th Century.” In China among Equals, Morris Rossabi (ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983, pp. 243-280.

[8] Martin, H. Desmond. The Rise of Chinggis Khan and his Conquest of North China. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1950; Barthold, V.V. Turkestan down to the Mongol Invasion. London: Gibb Memorial Series, 1968.

[9] Cleaves, Francis. “The historicity of the Baljuna covenant.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 18 (1955), 357-421.

[10] Vladimirtsov, Boris I. Le régime social des Mongols: Le féodalisme nomade. Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 1948.

[11] Cf. Togan, Isenbike. Flexibility and limitation in Steppe Formations: The Kerait Khanate and Chinggis Khan. Leiden: Brill, 1998.