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The Scholar As Intrepid Traveler

The Scholar as Intrepid Adventurer

A New Translation of The Secret History of the Mongols by Christopher Atwood


Paperback | $19.00
Published by Penguin Classics
Sep 26, 2023 | 480 Pages | ISBN 9780241197912



During the Victorian era, scholar-adventurers went out to the Silk Road to explore and discovered a new Buddhist civilization. The names have gone down in history and in infamy: Sven Hedin, Sir Aurel Stein. The discovery caused a sensation in London, and elsewhere in Europe. The Qing Dynasty was faltering. the center was weak and could not enforce the borders. Cartloads of antiquities were shipped out. Tons of art went into the British Museum where it is still the subject of a discussion about repatriation. An archetype was born, the archetype of Indiana Jones.


Audiences will remember that at the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy is in a classroom. lecturing his students when a colleague arrives and Indy is summoned to an adventure in search of the Holy Grail.


Before having his career destroyed by the McCarthy hearings, the American scholar Owen Lattimore traveled and wrote of the Inner Asian frontiers of China. This was important work as it illustrated the mindset of traditional Chinese foreign policy toward Central Asia. Lattimore roughed it to get his story, but his life and career were destroyed.


Filmmaker Rachid Nougmanov is the director of a documentary about Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde. Batu, a grandson of Chinggis Khan, iinvaded Russia, defeated the Kipchak nomads and the Russian princes. On a second invasion, he fought in the battle of Kyiv, burned the Church of the Virgin to the ground and created the Russian Khanate. Moscow was a backwater. Kyiv was the Mother of Russian Cities.


Before attending the Moscow Film Institute, Nougmanov was a young architecture graduate. He traveled all over Kazakhstan documenting the historical architecture of the Central Asian Khanate, originally conquered by Chinggis Khan. He photographed what is believed to be Jochi's mausoleum. (Jochi was Chinggis Khan's firstborn son, the father of Batu Khan. Because his mother was kidnapped, his paternity was questioned by some, but not by the young Temujin, as Chinggis Khan was known in his youth.) The architecture included the jewels of Islamic architecture in Samarkand and Bukhara, centers of Islamic culture and learning. The director reminded me that Kazakhstan is five times the size of France.


The eye-witness accounts of the world-changing Mongol Empire exist in many languages: some of these medieval travelers were sent by Europeann rulers who were shocked by the appearance of the Mongol Armies in Eastern Europe. Europe knew nothing of the rise of a new power in Asia. Europe was still recovering from the fall of the Roman Empire. Local markets had collapsed. The memory of Attila the Hun was not so distant. Europe needed to know if the Mongols were a threat, and if so, how much of a threat. Could they be converted to Christianity. There were tales of a Christian King in Asia. Could the Europeans find an ally against the Saracens in the Middle East who had captured the Holy Land?


Rulers, the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, King Louis IX, sent envoys on missions of information-gethering. The envoys were literate men capable of reporting--the Franciscan friar John of Plano Carpini, a papal envoy; William of Rubruck, the envoy of the king. The disciple of a Daoist sage wrote Travels of an Alchemist  the record of the sage's summons to visit Chinggis Khan and instruct him in the Elixir of Immortality. Rabban Sauma and Ibn Battuta left accounts. The heroic historian Rachid al-Din produced a global history, the world's first, under the patronage of the Ilkhan. Marco Polo wrote the most famous travel book of all time, and for his effortm, the citizens of Venice called him a liar. They could not believe the fantastic stories of the court of Khubilai Khan, a grandson of Chinggis Khan. The medieval world was a world in motion, not static civilizations separated by vast empty spaces filled with nomads who traveled back and forth between fixed entities.


The reactions of the besieged and invaded exist in many languages, all of them expressing horror and fear: from The Chronicles of Novgorod to the writings of scribes from Armenia, Georgia and Eastern Europe. In the past, scholars of the Mongol Empire specialized in one area or another. The Persian scholars stuck to Persia. The China scholars stuck to China. The Russian scholars stuck to Russia. No one read everything in original languages because even for people who are used to working in a multilingual environment, no one could master all of the languages in a lifetime. All of them rely upon good translations of the basic texts. Many texts have come into English and European languages. 


The Secret History is unique as a work of literature in that it combines epic poetry and history. It is part oral poetry tradition and part historical narrative exploding into magical realism. The empire was vast; the story is unique. The only source written from the Mongol point of view, the Mongol view of themselves is The Secret History of the Mongols. Previous translations had problems. One was too stylistically antique. Another was contemporary but grounded in scholarly minutiae. The world was ready for a new and updated translation. The Atwood translation was a long time coming because the work on a big important text takes time. 



Christopher Atwood is a scholar of the first rank. He is Professor of Mongolian and Chinese Frontier and Ethnic History, and Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent two years in Inner Mongolia, and two decades at Indiana University. He served as the editor of the Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire. As the eminent scholar of Mongol warfare, Timothy May quipped in a review, "The only failing of the Encyclopedia is that it is too short." 


Atwood next published a groundbreaking work of scholarship called The Rise of the Mongols: Five Chinese Sources. For the project, Atwood mastered classical Chinese, a twenty-year undertaking. This author knows from her experience in studying classical Chinese long ago. (Disclosure: I reviewed Rise of the Mongols for my blog.)


Atwood defies the stereotype of the bookworm translator isolated in an ivory tower, the nerd immersed in texts and dictionaries. He has traveled widely in Mongolia and that travel is rough. There are few modern amenities in a steppe hotel: no running water, no room service. 


The Secret History of the Mongols is a thirteenth century work that is a collection of storytellers' tales, the literary masterpiece of a nomadic people, in which epic poetry and narrative are blended with history. The history is reliable in places and not reliable in others.


In the words of the sinologist Arthur Waley, who translated from a Chinese version of the text the Secret History contains 'some of the most vivid primitive literature that exists anywhere in the world."


Why did Atwood give this generation of readers and scholars a new translation? As he tells it, he reviewed two of the translations in use and besides, he had also taught the text in class. "I realized that just to get a translation in an affordable paperback edition would be an enormous advance over what I had to deal with previously. I'd been teaching it for many years and all that time I was thinking it would be nice to have a translation I could work with instead of working against."


(What Atwood means is that he had to teach against the scholarly paraphernalia marking the road map for future scholars. The text was loaded with words in foreign languages, foreign scripts such as Chinese characters, and notes about editions and translations. These intellectual bumps in the road take away the experience of discovery. Students could not simply read for the pleasure of the story. The driftwood has crowded the beach. 


For Atwood, the translation presented tge question of style, It was the central issue for him and for this, generations of readers will thank him. Teaching students in the classroom is an immediate experience that made Atwood aware of the needs of readers. To explain his resolution, Atwood includes a chapter devotes to his search to findi an English style free of jargon, a contemporary style. His quest paid off. His attempt has been successful. The translations is a monumental event, a publishing landmark.


Simon Winder, the Penguin Classics UK editor called him, suggested the idea and Atwood signed on. Why did Winder call? He told me by email, "We are expanding Penguin Classics so that it gives better representation to cultures beyond the ones we have concentrated in the past and this is a famous example."


Bravo! This is is the global history point of view. It is the rage in scholarly circles.



The Mongol Empire rose out of East Asia to encompass the Old World, from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean, from Siberia to Burma. Because the rise of a new power was so quick, the rise was perceived as a bolt out of the blue. One man was the master of East Asia, one Code of Laws kept the peace. A set of roads and post-stations connected the world. The man who achieved this feat was Chinggis Khan, a military genius and the father of the Mongol state. The Mongol Empire was the lone superpower of the Middle Ages.


Chinggis Khan began his career with the invasion of Siberia, a rear guard campaign before he attempted an invasion of North China. Then he unified the warring tribes of the vast steppe country northh of the Great Wall. His war against China was a war of national revenge and it showed audacity. North China had been governed by foreign dynasties for centuries. Southern China was ruled by a Han Chinese dynasty, the Southern Song. The Song had a brilliant new mercantile culture and was too weak to take back the North.


North China was the immediate target, because South China was too far away. The North was divided between two alien states: Jin and Xi Xia, the former was Manchu and the latter was the remnant of the old Tibetan empire. The next campaign came because a foreign power violated his Code of Laws. He invaded Central Asia and for the first time, a Muslim power was ruled by a non-Muslim conqueror. He knew his limits. It was a hallmark of his warfare. He avoided invading India because of the heat. Next, Subudei, his top general invaded Russia. His grandson Hulegu invaded Iran and Iraq before there were modern states. The invasion of Eastern Europe took place under Subudei and the grandson, Btu. The least known campaign, the invasion of Korea, took place under another grandson, Mongke. Southern China was taken and China was unified under a grandson, Khubilai. The creation of the empire took place over generations. Chinggis Khan believed that he was Beloved of Heaven and that he was destined to govern all peoples. His descendants believed the same.


Chinggis Khan had the worst press of any world leader in history because his record was left in the many languages of his enemies, from the European languages, to Armenian, Russian, Arabic, Persian and Chinese to name a few. He was called a barbarian, and his conquests were a slaughterhouse from one end of the world to another. This is the narrative from the point of view of the conquered peoples and those about to be conquered or threatened with conquest. The warfare was brutal but it is only part of the story. Trade soon followed. The Mongol Peace lasted for a century.



What makes a barbarian a barbarian? Chinggis Khan was unwashed and unlettered and he was outside the circle of court ritual prescribed by the Chinese or the Russians or the Europeans or the Muslims. He was a nomad and did not live in sedentary society. He hated fixed buildings and the peasants who were rooted to the land. He barely understood agricultural society, those who lived in towns and villages, with the year divided into the seasons of planting and harvest. The nomad was a herder of animals and his society was on the move.


Chinggis Khan's world was the world of mobility. It is easy to believe that mobile society does not have institutions, but the flood of new scholarship in the past two decades has informed the reading public that the institutions are different and mobile. (See my review of Marie Favereau's The Horde.)


Scholars of global history are redefining the early modern period, the Mongol Peace. This was the period of the Mongol Exchange when goods, technology, ideas, science, food, music and art, traveled the world, and spreading influence throughout the world's greatest land-based empire, and beyond, to Europe and North Africa, to the Byzantine Empire and to the East.


One literary work, The Secret History of the Mongols, recorded the life and times of Chinggis Khan as the Mongols saw themselves. This is the story of the mythic beginning of the clan of Chinggis Khan, "the oceanic ruler", and his life and times: his rise to power through overcoming betrayal, abandonment and hardships; the portraits of his talented commanders; his founding of the Mongol nation; and his development of the greatest military strategy and military practice of the greatest army of the Middle Ages.


A point worth noting: Atwood, following a previous translator Igor de Rachewiltz, puts forward a case for the identity of the author of The Secret History. The reader will have to investigate personally because your reviewer does not wish to be a spoiler. Bear in mind that the author of the Secret History had to be a family intimate and trusted, and had to be literate.


A further surprise and a clue: Atwood's translation offers a new portrait of Okudei Khan, Chinggis Khan's third son and successor. This is important for it illuminates Chinggis Khan's greatest mistake: his failure to provide for an orderly succession to the throne.



The Secret History of the Mongols has had two major translations. The best early translation in English was a scholarly work by Francis Woodman Cleaves, the renowned Harvard scholar. There was only one problem. It was written in King James English to mimic the feel of the antique style.


The Australian scholar Igor de Rachewiltz completed a second translation, taking seventeen years and filling three volumes.


Cleaves has given the world a dense scholarly translation. The De Rachewiltz translation is the modern ans1wer to the antique language in the Cleaves translation. He divided the text into chapters, following the original text. (Atwood has corrected this for the narrative flow of the story. This is a major improvement.)


Christopher Atwood has given the reader a translation for contemporary times. It is like a caravanserai, providing the materials needed for both scholar and general reader, maps, genealogies, scholarly documentation, organized for one's private trek through the empire.


Atwood has a good ear. His translation captures the feel of the language as it ,ist have been recited in the oral tradition, for an illiterate Mongol audience on public occasions. The translation has an intimate tone, not the distanced formal tone of scholarship. Some translations lay dead on the page, like a stuffed animal head mounted on the wall. This translation leaps off the wall, a stag in flight.


Here is a quote from his plea to his adopted father, who has betrayed him:


"Ruler-Father, did you talk to me in person before you broke with me? If a snake with fangs should slander the other By slanderous thoughts we will not be swindled, But speaking in person we'll sincerely believe. "Was this not what we said to each other?"


Of special note, Chinggis Khan's world is the world of the tent and the tent encampment. The present translation includes a chapter on the tent, an inspired inclusion because it illuminates the character of nomad life. This is borne of Atwood's own sojourn in the tent, the intrepid scholar on the steppes.


The portrait of Chinggis Khan is the focus of The Secret History. This is the man known as The Conqueror, the Man of Iron, as seen by his own people. This is a portrait that gains the sympathy of the reader, for the rise of the boy Temujin, as he was known in his youth, is difficult and challenging in the extreme.


Chinggis Khan was a title bestowed upon the young khan Temujin after he unified the warring tribes of the Mongolian steppes. The portrait follows the life: the reader sees the domestic life, the famed warrior and brilliant strategist as the head of a family. The reader sees his relationships with his principal wife, Bortai and his three junior wives; with the four sons who inherit the empire; with his brilliant companions, his council of generals.


The author of the SHOM recounts the founding the empire and estabblishing its Code of Laws, the Yasaq.  The reader eavesdrops on the recruiting of a former official in the defeated Jin dynasty, a Confucian scholar who created the structure of the government of the empire, the great statesman of the Mongol Empire, Ilu Chucai. Ilu was recalled from a Buddhist monastery and told to appear in Chinggis Khan's camp in the steppes, where he was to deliver the Jin seal of state. This is an example of the Supreme Khan's way of utilizing all the talent in the empire to his own purpose.


The major critique of Chinggis Khan as a world-renowned leader is that he failed to provide for an orderly succession to the throne. He did not believe in hereditary rule. He had defeated too many enemies who had inherited their thrones. He left the matter to the deliberation of the Mongol nobility by means of the Great Assembly, the khuriltai. This election of peers system left the throne empty, with a regent in place, until the nobility could gather tp vote. The time-honored system adhered to tradition, but it also led to wars of succession among the branches of the heirs.


Afater the death of the Supreme Khan, rhe nobility ratified Chinggis Khan's choice and Okudei took the throne, not without some wrangling and suggestion of another candidate, the youngest son Tolui and chief of staff, the military expert. The traditional portrait of the third son is that of the pleasure-seeking aristocrat for whom the business of state was a bore, a ruler who was rarely in the capital, a man who spent his time visiting his harem and traveling from one hunting lodge to another. moving with the seasons, partying with the locals and throwing feasts.


The Okudei of the older translations is an alcoholic who prefers the company of his concubines and mistresses to the creation of policy for the empire. The Okudei of old was a spendthrift who emptied the treasury, a fool for paying the merchants twice what they asked, so that his reputation might live forever in the hearts of men. The portrait of Okudei that emerges in the Atwood translation is that of the heir who carries out his father's expansionist policies, ordering the Mongol Army to complete the conquest of North China and to invade Russia a second time.


Why a secret history? It is possible that the Supreme Khan wanted to keep the explanation of his military organization and strategy a secret from enemies.


In his introduction, Atwood remarks that histories of conquistadors are out of fashion; that is, the history of great men. He need not have apologized. The point of view of The Secret History is modern in this respect: it includes the stories of the common people, the nobility, and the great man. This approach, a point of view representing different classes, was the method of my study of Chinese classical painting with a student of Wen Fong at Princeton. Professor William D. Y. Wu broke down Chinese art history into peasant art, scholar's art, and imperial art.


In rhe Secret History, we have portraits of the common people going about their tasks for the feasts and migrations. Often commoners are elevated to the ranks of nobility for services performed and loyalty demonstrated. The text contains portraits of the commanders who rose from humble beginnings to high command in the Mongol meritocracy. There are portraits of the important Mongol nobility and portraits of family members, including sons and wives; daughters not so much. The portrait of The Conqueror in military life and domestic life is the main focus of the work.


The Mongols had only had a written language for half a century when The Secret History was created. Previously Chinggis Khan had asked for his Maxims or Biligs to be put down and to be read on the occasions of Great Assemblies of the imperial family and the Mongol nobility. He had created a Code of Laws, the Yasaq, and this too was to be read on important occasions. One law, for one empire, under one man.


The Supreme Khan's motive was simple: he did not wish his origins and his rule to be forgotten. He is quoted as saying that his sons would hold the loveliest of women in their arms, they would ride great steeds, they would eat greasy food not good Mongol broth, and they would forget that they owed everything to him. This text was the man's way of being remembered.




Diane Wolff is the author of The Silk Road Series: The Heirs of Chinggis Khan. For several decades she has utilized the previous translations of The Secret History in writing her own narrative histories. The first book in the series is Taifun: Khubilai Khan Invades Japan by Sea. For the panel discussion on the Batu Khan documentary with Rachid Nougmanov, Stephen Pow and Timorthy May, please see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FVFXwzygaA

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