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Invasion in Chinese Voices

Invasion in Chinese Voices

A Review of Christopher Atwood's The Rise of the Mongols: Five Chinese Sources



The Rise of the Mongols: Five Chinese Sources

Edited and Translated by Christopher P. Atwood

Hackett Publishing Company

248 pages

ISBN (cloth) 978-1-64792-002-9  $48.00

ISBN (paper) 978-1-62466-990-3  $16.00

eBook $13.50



The Mongol Empire has been the subject of a flood of new scholarship in recent years, work that is changing our understanding of the early modern world and of global history. Christopher Atwood's Rise of the Mongols: Five Chinese Sources will become an instant classic, filling a void in the literature that is as vast as the empire itself.


It is difficult to believe that the invasion and conquest of North China is the least known of Chinggis Khan's campaigns. Yet this is true. The silence of Chinese historians on the subject is striking because China was always the main object of Mongol arms. It was the richest and most advanced civilization on earth.


In the space of twenty years, with his army, the most disciplined and highly trained fighting force in the thirteenth century, Chinggis Khan built an empire which extended from the volcanic mountains of Manchuria on the Pacific Coast to the Muslim lands on the Mediterranean Sea; from the arctic wastes of the Siberian taiga to the jungles of Burma.


The invasion did not happen all of a sudden, as a bolt out of the blue. As Atwood points out, China was much closer to the steppes of Mongolia than Russia or Europe where the sudden appearance of the Mongol Army sent ripples of terror through rulers and populace alike.



China was always the main object of Mongol arms. The warfare in North China continued for three generations, from the time of the grandfather to the time of the grandsons, from Chinggis Khan (misrecorded in Western sources as Genghis Khan); Ogodei Khan, his successor; and Mongke Khan and his brother Khubilai Khan.


Chinggis Khan wanted the prestige of being the greatest political power in Asia. He was a legalist in his approach to war and he had a personal grudge against the Chinese. They had been meddline in the affairs of the steppes for generations, switching allegiance to suit Chinese power. This was a principle of Chinese statecraft, Use Barbarians to Check Barbarians. They switched their allegiance from the Mongols and backed the Tatar, a rival tribe. The Tatar were responsible for the murder of Chinggis Khan's father, a powerful khan of the steppes. The Jin Emperor had been responsible for the murder of a Mongol king. Once he unified the warring tribes of the steppes, the young Chinggis Khan turned against the Chinese and turned their crimes into a war of national revenge. His crossing of the Gobi Desert with three armies remains one of the most stunning achievements in the annals of military history.


It does not make sense that there was a silence in the sources. After all, the Chinese were the great historians.


Why, the reader may ask. A small number of translations of the Song response  to the Mongol invasion existed in scholarly journals. A few texts had been translated into German. These were not available to the non-specialist. Until now, there had been no book with an overview explaining the reactio of the Chinese literati to the invasion of the horsemen from the steppes, the nomad cavalrymen who were the greatest warrior in the medieval world.


In Rise of the Mongols, Christopher Atwood has created the book that fills the void. No one is better equipped to write such a work. (Atwood is widely published and is the editor of The Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire. Timothy May, author of The Mongol Art of War, calls the Encyclopedia "an essential text for the study of the Mongolian Empire, its only fault being that it is too short.")


For Rise of the Mongols, Atwood has exercised his considerable skills as a historian and translator to give the reader the response of Chinese officials and generals who witnessed this world-changing conquest first-hand. Why world-changing?


Atwood has included in his introductory materials am excellent summary of the complex history of North China between the fall of the Tang Dynasty and the Mongol invasion.  This is a good read, simplifying a complex set of shifting states and balances of power, and it will be of immense value to teachers and students of global history.


The Mongol invasion of North China was a traumatic event that lasted for twenty-five years. It began in the time of Chinggis Khan and continued under his successor, Ogodei Khan. To document the Chinese response, Atwood has given us three voices, from Southern Song and two from North China.


Why go to the Southern Song for a response? Aftr all, it was far away from the Great Wall and the Gobi Desert, south of the Yangzi River. Even at a distance, the Southern Song writers knew they were facing a formidable enemy. Where is the response of the officials and military men of the Jin Dynasty, in the North?


Atwood provides the answer. The writing about Mongol history from generals and officials along the border, reports filed over the centuries describing developments in the Mongol Empire, were stricken from the historical record by historians working on the official history of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. One can only lament the loss of the historical record. 


In South China, the archives were preserved. As Atwood says, "Officials of the Southern Song observed the Mongol conquest of their Jurchen rivals, the Jin dynasty in North China, with a mixture of schadenfreude, astonishment, and increasing apprehension."


The first three translations of texts (by Li Xinchuan; Zhao Gong; and Peng Daya and Xu Ting) are from authors who observed at a distance the battles between the Jin Dynasty (who had previously driven the Song from the North), and the Mongols (whom the Song had considered an ally against the Jin). Such were the politics of the states in a divided China.


Atwood describes, in a dramatic retelling, a severe miscalculation. The Song tried to ally with the Jin to oust the Mongols, to disastrous effect. Li's "Random Notes", written in 1216, is the earliest account of the Mongol conquests in any language.


Zhao's piece is about the policies of governing once the generals did their work. In this piece is a discussion of the different categories of barbarians, "raw" and "cooked." The terms describe those who assimilated Chinese rituals and those who did not.


Peng and Xu wrote in Ogodei's time—their text contains the earliest description of the Mongol administration in the newly conquered North. This is an important source because Southern Song officials were trying to figure out whether or not the Mongols were a threat, even at a distance.



The Mongol campaign in the North took place from 1211 to 1234, beginning under Chinggis Khan and continuing under his designated successor, his third son Ogodei Khan.


These five selections are well-chosen. They paint a vivid picture of the personalities, political maneuvering and governance of the time. It is far more complex a view than the popular cliche of a barbarian raid.


As the campaign progressed, Jin generals began to defect to the Mongol side because they thought that Chinggis Khan had the Mandate of Heaven. They thought he was destined to be the next emperor of China. They were men of the world and they could read the handwriting on the wall. Chinggis Khan promised the defectors good treatment and commands under Mongol generals. He was as good as his word.



The two pieces from North China by Song Zizhen and Zhong Dehui, were written at the time when Chinggis Khan's grandson Khubilai Khan was not yet emperor, but was the imperial family's expert on China.


One of the sources is an important biography of Ilu Chucai, Chinggis Khan's chancellor, a recruit from the Jin government. Ilu was a descendant of the royal family of the Khitan dynasty. A high official in the Secretariat, the highest agency in the Jin government, Ilu was in possession of the seal of state. He was ordered to bring it to Chinggis Khan.


The Supreme Khan had summoned Ilu from the Buddhist monastery where Ilu had gone to seek enlightenment. After all, Ilu had born witness to the fall of a dynasty. His world had disappeared. Little did he know that he was to become the most important statesman in the Mongol Empire. He decided to remain behind and influence the new ruler of China. Many of his fellow scholar-officials fled to the South to serve the Han Chinese Emperor of Southern Song.


North China was in chaos and it had to be pacified. The policy debate formed an important part of Ogodei's reign and continued into the reign of his widow Dorajin's regency.


Ilu advocated Chinese taxation policies for war-torn North China, as against the taxation policies of Muslim administrators from Central Asia. This was high drama during the reign of Ogodei. The Mongol traditionalists, nobilities and generals, opposed the policies of a man who belonged to the elite of the defeated Jin. Many Confucian officials had been enslaved by the generals or put in jail. They resented a Han official limiting their action in regard to a conquered population whom they could tax at will.


Then there was the matter of the slaughter of the enemy after a battle. Ilu famously suggested that it would be more profitable to tax the population rather than annihilate it.


The final work translated in this book is the account of how a minor North Chinese official, Zhang Dehui, went to visit Khubilai Khan in Mongolia. At the time of his visit, the young Khubilai Khan was one of the several hundreds of Chinggis Khan's grandsons who were wondering what to do with the world their grandfather's conquests had put in their hands. Zhang described the prince's nomadic life in Mongolia and recorded their conversation about Confucius, Mongol administration and the nature of ritual and good government.


This is a handsome book with solid essays as introductory materials. The use of original sources in translation is an excellent way of teaching history because it gives the reader the thrill of the immediate. One is plunged into the action and the emotion.


To translate these sources, Atwood worked with Lynn Struve to master classical Chinese. This is one reason that his scholarly labor took two decades. He was also teaching the materials and recognized the need for good maps, genealogies and charts.  The book is a comprehensive source for the teacher of global history.


 A Little Backstory


How would a nomad khan conceive the idea that he could conquer the most advanced civilization on earth? The answer lies in the historical moment:


At the time that Chinggis Khan rose to power in the steppes, China was divided into three major kingdoms: Xi Xia in the west, Jin in the northeast and Song in the south. During the years of peace that followed his unification of the steppes under his banner, the Supreme Khan had the leisure to reflect.


Long before the time his armies would ride, Chinggis Khan decided that neither the Xi Xia king nor the Jin Emperor would feel secure with himself, a formidable military power, on their northern border.


Chinggis Khan was a superior strategist. He wanted to avoid giving either Xi Xia or Jin a pretext for invading Mongolia. Nor did he want to give them a reason for forming a military alliance against him. Together they would be strong enough to destroy his newly founded state and he wanted time to consolidate his power. He intended to be first in the field.


The Supreme Khan's motive was not the acquisition of territory—he had no intention of occupying China. He intended to rule it from the steppes The Horde did not count territory as wealth. Households in felt tents that could pay the khan's tithe, animals, revenue from trade for the products of pastoral society—these were wealth. Chinggis Khan desired prestige. He saw himself as becoming the most important political and military power in Asia.


The conquest of China had been the dream of nomad khans for thousand years. How was it possible for a man who had waged cavalry warfare in the steppes to dream of waging war iagainst a civilized state? The steppes were wide open spaces as far as the eye could see. His unique system of cavalry warfare was developed from the Grand Hunt, the greatest spectacle in Asia. To invade China, he would have to master siege warfare, the sustained attack upon walled cities and fortresses.


Chinggis Khan was prudent. He had unified the warring tribes of the steppes and he had to give them booty and occupy their skills. He had ended the tribal warfare in the steppes and he did not want an unoccupied army resuming local warfare.


The Jin Dynasty, a conquest dynasty occupying northeast China, had been meddling in the affairs of the steppes for generations. For the Jin, interference in steppe politics was a matter of self-preservation. If the steppe tribes were making war on each other, they could not make war on Jin. 


The planning of the campaign took years. The Mongol Army rode to the Chinese frontier, 450 miles over the eastern tracks of the Gobi Desert, flying Chinggis Khan's battle standard, drums rolling to the heavens. The Supreme Khan chose the spring of 1211, the time of melting snows, when water and grass for the horses was available even in the vast wasteland of the Gobi.


The army moved tumen by tumen, division by division, in timed advance to avoid exhausting the water supply. The last 200 miles, the Mongols, horsemen, famed for their endurance, ate only what they could carry.


Chinggis Khan rode at the head of the Army of the Center together with his youngest son and chief of staff Tolui. This was one of the greatest feats in military history. With Atwood's new book, we have the contemporary response: the story of the Mongols from the Chinese point of view. This is a first. Rise of the Mongols: Five Chinese Sources ends the silence.





Diane Wolff is the author of Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde: The Mongol Khans Conquer Russia, the first book in her Silk Road Series: The Heirs of Chinggis Khan. An Offer He Couldn't Refuse: A Man of Letters in a Military Government is the second book, about the conquest of North China and the creation of the goverenment. Diane is the author of three books about Chinese history and culture and is a widely published reviewer. She is the winner of the American Library Association's Most Notable Book Award for her book Chinese Writing. She is the author of a new serialized story about Chinggis Khan The Khan's Mistake: The Fight for the Throne, on Kindle Vella, a digital story platform. The story is suitable for classroom assignment for classes in world history for middle school, secondary school and undergraduates.




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