6 January 2015

Some Thoughts on the Man and the Manga: Chinggis Khan

Happyscans and I finally bring you the last volume of Chinggis Khan, covering the brilliant, final two decades of his life. I meant to get this done by the end of December like I promised before, but what's life without a few bumps along the road? Now I know far more eloquent and well-learned people than me have already given their opinions on this controversial figure. Still, as a fan of history, there's no way I could pass up the opportunity to give my 2 cents on him, no matter how naive or poorly informed my ideas may be.

*Also, I'll be taking the rest of this month off to watch AGDQ2015 to be a more productive member to society.

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Chinggis Khan. A bloodthirsty tyrant who left despair and destruction in his wake? Or a progressive-minded unifier of peoples who bridged the East and the West? This is the question that comes up over and over again when it comes to discussions on Chinggis Khan, and it's something that has bugged me. Many of the arguments I often see given for either side are quite poor due to the lack of context. Just as Jesus remarks that the widow's donation of two mites is worth more than the amount put in by others, or a killer's circumstances can get him tried for either murder or manslaughter, context is everything when judging an individual. Our lack of context is a natural consequence from living in sedentary civilizations during the most peaceful era in human civilization as of yet. So before passing judgment on Chinggis Khan, I ask you to contextualize his extraordinary qualities (I use the term "extraordinary" here in a neutral sense, with neither positive nor negative connotations) in ways I'll demonstrate below.

Religious Tolerance: 
"Oooh, Chinggis was so progressive-minded that he tolerated all religions!" Certainly, this aspect is impressive when comparing him to the more religiously fanatical leaders waging the Crusades in the Levant during his time-period. But there's a difference in being religiously tolerant in religiously intolerant societies and being religiously tolerant in religiously tolerant societies (or being religiously intolerant in religiously intolerant societies). This is the same issue as the poor widow's offering in the Bible as I've already mentioned above. Those medieval rulers of Europe and the Middle East grew up in societies where their primary ethnicity belonged to a common religion and to think ill of foreign religions went hand-in-hand with the teachings of their religions. It took a special kind of person to see above that, and those people are indeed admirable.

Chinggis Khan, however, was a man born to the Mongolian steppe. There were no huge monotheistic blocs rooted in this region of the world at this time. Turkic traditionalists in the time of the Turkic khanate (6th~8th centuries) lamented the adoption of Buddhism or Taoism by their peers under the influence of Tang China. The popular adoption of Manichaeism in the time of the Uighur khanate (8th~9th centuries) may have contributed to the dissolution of their empire. The religious oppression of Muslims by Kuchlug (himself a Nestorian Christian who converted to Buddhism) in Western Liao (Kara-Khitai) led to its conquest at Mongol hands, but for most of Liao and Western Liao's history, all religions were tolerated even though Buddhism was the state religion. The steppe that Chinggis was born into already had adherents to Nestorian Christiantiy, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Taoism, Tengrism, and many other local shamanistic beliefs. For the polities that held control of this side of the world, religious tolerance was more the norm than religious intolerance. Thus, to single out Chinggis Khan's religious tolerance is to misattribute the man's environment for his character. To go off on a tangent, the same criticism applies for those who think Chinggis was the creator of an entirely different mode of warfare by practicing maneuver warfare and feigned withdrawal tactics, without realizing that all steppe armies functioned in basically the same manner (though few possessed the same level of discipline and organization)

"Chinggis Khan was as bad as Hitler/Stalin/Attila/Mao/[insert current US or Russian leader] by killing so many people." The standard response to such arguments is that the deaths of civilians are inevitable in war, so if we condemn Chinggis for this, then we might as well condemn every leader who took part in war. But then, you'll get people arguing that Chinggis was unnecessarily bloodthirsty by using terror as a tactic, that he went far above and beyond the accepted levels of brutality for even medieval standards of war. What jumps out at me about these claims of "standards of war" is the unspoken fact that these are the standards of sedentary civilizations. Steppe nomads and sedentary peoples live in societies with entirely different foundations, and these differences impact the way each side approaches war.

For sedentary polities, there is nothing more valuable than villages, towns, and cities. These are your economic centers and what fills a ruler's coffers. While a ruler has to concede some amount of looting to give his soldiers some extra incentive for risking their lives, capturing cities intact is best for wars waged for permanent conquest. This is why the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II ordered a cessation to all looting on the 3rd day since capturing Constantinople and why Sun Tzu said to destroy a state is inferior to capturing it whole. However, the economic centers of steppe societies aren't cities because they don't have cities (actually, there's a fair number of exceptions to this, but still generally true). Their wealth comes from the livestock they raise but unlike sedentary civilizations which can store their agrarian wealth in granaries, a particularly long winter can wipe out the wealth of steppe societies. The poverty inherent in steppe societies is what often compelled them to loot their more prosperous sedentary neighbours. Thus, the best way for sedentary societies to extract wealth was to hold land, while for nomadic societies, it was to extract it from the former. This was the criteria under which rulers of either society were judged by.

Consequently, a khan was elected on the premises that he could provide wealth for his people, even if that meant taking it by force from their sedentary neighbours. A khan that refused to do this would undermine his own legitimacy, thereby leading to internal dissent and fracture. Attila the Hun, the Xiongnu Modu, or the Yuezhi/Kushan Kujula, all of whom were rulers of a recently unified nomadic peoples, were thus compelled to adopt an aggressive foreign policy in order to maintain internal stability and enrich their subjects, not because they wanted to selfishly satisfy their bloodlust (although it's impossible to entirely discount this factor). "To lead a state to war for the benefit of its people," is hardly a unique nomadic concept. It underlies why most wars have been fought, and it's doubtful that humans would have learned to organize themselves into more and more advanced societies without it. To draw a modern example, even the much maligned Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had economic self-sufficiency as one of their driving causes for going to war. I'm not here to pass down self-righteous views on whether this motive for aggression should be considered good or evil, but we should remember that the desire to enrich one's ingroup at the cost of outgroups is a basic psychological drive that's been selected for by evolution.

And as for the raids that nomads conducted, it must be remembered that they are different from the typical wars of terrestrial conquest we're more familiar with. Sparing a city's populace is nonsensical when you can enslave or sell them for more wealth, the primary goal of raiding. Or if you want your armies to remain mobile and don't have time to escort a huge line of slaves, then it's best to kill them and move on to the next city, thereby weakening the victim's economic base and war-waging ability.

Another difference is that sedentary polities often have a sharp class division between the warrior and the farmer; thus to spare peasants who had little knowledge of how to properly fight hardly posed a serious military threat. On the other hand, every steppe nomad knew how to handle a bow and arrow on horseback. Even if some weren't knowledgeable about organizing large-scale warfare, they were well-accustomed to carrying out raids to steal women and livestock. In such an environment, there is little room allowed for leniency. The knowledge that "an enemy nomad spared is an existential threat ignored," is something that every khan heeded well, and why Chinggis Khan felt he had to massacre the Tartars, Merkits, and other tribes who had a vendetta against his tribe. This may not sit so well to our modern sensibilities, but hopefully you can sympathize a little when you read in this manga and The Secret History of the Mongols just how many times the Merkits and Tartars pop up over and over again to harass the Mongols despite their repeated exterminations. As a side note, this ruthless violence inseparable to the way steppe nomads waged war between each other has similarities to the idea that civilians are fair-game in modern total-wars because they fuel the industries, which is the most important determining factor to a state's war-waging capacity.

That being said, as violent as the warfare that Chinggis Khan was accustomed to, he was not inflexible in changing his tactics in different environments. Hence, his delight upon hearing the words of Taben, a Liaodong native who defected from Jin to join the Mongols: "The basis of the state is its people. If, when a country has been conquered, the populace is then murdered, what advantage does the state have?" In wars of terrestrial conquest, Chinggis Khan did not set entire massacres of peoples as a necessary objective. Cities that surrendered quickly were treated lightly while those that resisted fiercely were razed. This was not so different than their contemporary armies of sedentary societies. It was an understood rule of war in Europe and Asia that defenders of a city who resisted to the very end were given no quarter, whereas cities that negotiated a peace at the onset of a siege could expect leniency. His use of terror as a tactic was primarily chosen for its efficacy. If Chinggis Khan was the devil as many of his victims thought, then all cases in which he showed leniency to the surrendered foreign people of different cultures and religions when he could have just as easily slaughtered them is a baffling behaviour which escapes explanation. Just as his deep-seated belief in Tengrism did not stop him from assassinating the shaman Teb-tengri who posed a political threat, pragmatism was always central to Chinggis Khan's decisions. Although I don't mean to imply that Chinggis Khan disliked war (I'd bet my money that he enjoyed it), his pragmatic approach to violence is, in many ways, comparable to why the vehemently anti-war William Tecumseh Sherman decided to make Georgia howl during the American Civil War as he marched from Atlanta to the sea, burning homes and pillaging farms along the way. By using terror to weaken the enemy's morale, it counter-intuitively led to a shorter war and less violence in the long-run.

When looking through the historical records for Chinggis Khan's acts of violence, one can see two basic ideas underlying them. Pragmatism, as already discussed, is one. The other, is justice. Justice is easy to comprehend in its broad outlines. To punish wrong-doers and reward good-doers. However, its specifics are notoriously ambiguous. Hammurabi-esque codes of "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth," satisfied the moral values of many ancient societies, but is no longer in vogue today. Stoning was considered a just method of public execution for adultery in many societies, and still is by some today, but our news outlets roundly decry it time and time again. Death by guillotine was considered a modern and humane execution method by the enlightened thinkers of the French revolution, but its enthusiastic advocates have dwindled in numbers since then. For the steppe nomads accustomed to generational tribal vendetta, "justice" meant a Hammurabi-esque interpretation, but with the notch cranked up to 10. Chinggis Khan never forgot a good deed and rewarded it lavishly. But when he felt wronged, he punished without restraint. To blanket-cover this type of violence as "evil" is to ignore the importance of environments that give rise to a specific interpretation of justice. Cultural values are never purely arbitrary; they often represent a set of solutions cultures have come up with to thrive in their environments. Pacifism sounds nice and might even work in the sheltered societies we live in today, but a culture that harbours an interpretation of justice so far removed from violence would not likely have survived at all on the steppes of 12th century Mongolia.

Confusing byproducts for primary objectives:
Which statement(s) below feels off?
"Chinggis Khan joined the East and West, allowing ideas, people, and goods to travel freely."
"Alexander the Great spread Hellenism to the Middle East, Central Asia, and India, sparking artistic creativity all across Eurasia."
"Adolf Hitler's foreign policy in the '30s and '40s ushered in an era of rapid technological advances, which we benefit from today."

The answer is all of them and none of them. Do not misconstrue this point as me saying Chinggis Khan, Alexander the Great, and Adolf Hitler are all equally evil. My point is that in judging a man's character, we can look at their goals, but unintended byproducts are another matter. Adolf Hitler didn't wage war on the Allies so that future generations could reap the benefits of the resulting technological advances. Alexander the Great didn't wage a costly campaign through Anatolia, Persia, and India just so he could share the benefits of Hellenism. Yes, expanding trade relations was a motive for Chinggis Khan's Western conquests, but it was purely to enrich the Mongols. He did not have in mind how to best foster East-West relations so as to benefit both sides when he set out to build a world empire.

Having rambled long enough about what isn't all that extraordinary about Chinggis Khan upon contextualization, I'll move on to what is truly extraordinary about him. Many people characterize Chinggis Khan as a destroyer of societies but I disagree with this view. Yes, he conquered many kingdoms and razed even more cities, but the lands that he conquered didn't suddenly find themselves devoid of societies or governments. The Mongols often took over local institutions and carried on rule through influential locals. But this is a little outside the main point I want to make, which is his extraordinary ability to see all the flaws in the steppe society he was born into and actually provide solutions to them. Charismatic conquerors come and go in history, but leaders who revolutionize the very fabric of society are the true giants of history. Often, it takes a huge group of people to carry out such paradigmatic shifts in society (ex. French revolution, communist revolutions), but Chinggis Khan is a rare case in which a single individual was the primary, and dare I say, lone driving cause.

So what societal flaws and solutions am I referring to? Ever since his family was abandoned by his fellow tribesmen, Chinggis Khan undoubtedly noticed the weakness of tribal loyalty. His relationships with Jamuka and Toghrul Khan showed him that traditional forms of loyalty like the anda were largely useless. Even the ultimate oath of loyalty, to swear someone in as Khan, was shown unreliable by the rebellions of the Jurkin princes, Sacha-beki and Taichu-kuri, or the defection of his uncles Altan, Kuchar, and Da'aritai to Toghrul Khan. Meanwhile, his father's poisoning, Börte's abduction, and the looting of his livestock gave him reason to think that tribal identities often promoted long-lived vendettas, thereby spreading chaos and trapping them all in a cycle of violence and poverty. These must have been aspects to his society that he detested, because he devoted much energy into fixing them after he unified Mongolia. A passage from Ratchnevsky's Genghis Khan, His Life and Legacy reads thus:
The population was divided into units based on the military organization and general conscription was introduced for all males. According to the Yuanshi, conscription was initially from the age of fifteen to seventy, irrespective of the number of males in a household. [...] The ninety-five 'Thousands' thus created were placed under the command of Temuchin's old comrades-in-arms, selected not because of birth or position in the tribal hierarchy, but on account of the services which they had already rendered. The commanders included persons of humble origins: the shepherd Degei, the horse-herders Kishlik and Badai, the carpenter Kuchugur, the sons of blacksmiths, Jelme, Subodei, and Cha'urkan. Many were members of vassal clans (ötögus bo'ol): the Jalair, Sunit, and Baya'ut, and Genghis stressed the earlier status of such men when announcing their appointments and rewards, 'Sorkan-shira belonged to Tödöge of the Tayichi'ut and both Badai and Kishlik were horse-herders belonging to the Tseren, one of Wang-khan's nobles. But now, my supporters, you shall rejoice that I appoint you Quiver Bearers and Cup Bearers. [...] The 'Thousands' were not created on the basis of tribal affiliation and in distributing tribal members under the command of men from other tribes Genghis was obviously pursuing his aim of weakening the power of the tribal leaders.
As you can see, Chinggis Khan took direct action to weaken the traditional power of aristocrats and wash away old tribal identities (and the hatred attached to them) by giving his subjects a new name to identify themselves as: Mongols. The weak and divided tribes of Mongolia which were once hostile to one another and easy prey to Jin foreign policy of playing one tribe off another emerged as a meritocratic society, tightly united under their unshakable loyalty to Chinggis Khan. It was this dynamism that allowed the Mongols to break out on the world stage as conquerors instead of victims. For all its size, the Khwarazmid empire was highly heterogenous with differing, often conflicting, loyalties among its royal court and general populace. Sultan Muhammad's failed attempts at centralization had earned him the ire of feudal lords, and 22 of them were already imprisoned at the onset of the Mongol invasion. The Sultan chose not to concentrate his numerically superior forces to engage in a decisive battle with the Mongols, for he had no general he could trust enough to hand the command of such a large army. The same applies for the Kara-Khitai and the Jin. In the former, Chinggis Khan exploited religious divisions; in the latter, he exploited the ethnic divisions among Khitan, Jurchen, and Han peoples. The defection of many Khitan generals to the Mongols was arguably crucial to their conquest of Jin.

The reasoning behind Temuchin's actions
I chose to translate this manga not just because I like history and Yokoyama Mitsuteru, but because I think Yokoyama's views of Chinggis Khan largely align with my own views. Yes, there are a number of historical inaccuracies, particularly in the final volume. Could it have better art? I'm a fan of Yokoyama's simplistic style, but yes. Could its plot be more detailed? Of course. You could easily have a 20 volume biographical series about Chinggis Khan. But at the end of the day, it gets the basics right. The world conqueror is not depicted as the devil incarnate. His bloody path to becoming khan nor all the people killed and cities razed in his conquests aren't doubted nor glossed over. His legacy with all its unintended byproducts is not mentioned at all so as to not confuse it for the man's actual character. Instead of focusing on the question of his morality, which I think is ultimately pointless, Yokoyama gives us enough material to understand what made this conqueror stand out from so many other conquerors in history. Temuchin's dissatsifaction with the poverty, violence, and chaos seemingly inherent in his society and his reformation of it, his tendency to never forget a good or bad deed, the flexibility of his practices in conquest, and the circumstances of his environment that led him to violence... Aspects I've spent much time discussing in this post all show up in the manga, though not covered in exhaustive, academic detail. I also particularly enjoyed the extra attention given to Chinggis Khan's mother Hö'elun, giving credence to the quote, "Behind every great man is an even greater woman." In any case, I hope my translation of this manga can interest at least one more person in the inspirational life of Temuchin, a man who tossed aside the cards that fate had dealt him and shaped the entire world as he saw fit.


  1. Incredible. Thank you for the translation!

  2. So, what are going to do next, more Sangokushi?

  3. Woooo thanks Hox!

  4. Hox, how about this: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=110184 or https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=63914 or https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=54164?

    1. Or https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=2861?

    2. Already gonna do Nero, no to the rest of them. Plutarch's Parallel Lives is a maybe, and I can't give you a more definite answer unless you can show me raws.

    3. Good! I'm also could not find the raw-scan Plutarch, this is sad!

  5. Thank you very much for all the hard work to share this wonderful series, I'm really happy to be able to read!!

  6. Hox, do you have any book recommendation about Arab-Israeli conflict? You seem to have general interest in history, so I thought you might have a favorite.

  7. anyword on vinland saga?

  8. Actually, Hox, your history write-ups seem to be even more interesting than your scanlation work. I would like to see more of it.

  9. An excellent piece of writing thank you.

  10. Thanks for the boat release!

  11. Thank you for Vinland Saga release!

  12. Thank you for update on my favorite manga!

  13. Recent good TV show "Marco Polo" was quite enlightening about the mongol way of life as well. On that regard, I also enjoy the manga "Shut Hell" that deals directly with the great Khans time.
    Thanks for your hard work Hox!

  14. "Our lack of context is a natural consequence from living in sedentary civilizations during the most peaceful era in human civilization as of yet."

    Yeah...no. This is far from a peaceful era, even compared to any past age you could choose to name. Maybe it seems that way sitting comfy in the West and having world events filtered through corporate media (and often outright ignored. Six million dead in the Second Congo War, how much coverage has that ever gotten?) but to huge swathes of humanity peace is a distant dream.

    1. The fact that we even "have" areas of the globe where violent conflict is remote shows how far along we've come towards a more peaceful world. You want a comparison with any past age? Go look at the 17th century. Go look at all the large-scale wars fought in Europe, Middle East, and East Asia where most of the planet's people lived in. Even among the tribes in the Americas and Africa that we previously liked to think of as "noble savages" who shied away from needless violent conflict have been shown to be as just as violent, where raids and massacres were the norm.

      The statistics show both interstate and interpersonal violence is at an all-time low. Of course, with any statistical data, there are ongoing debates on how well representative they actually are but google "decline in global violence" to get an idea (here's a good one: http://www.hsrgroup.org/docs/Publications/HSR2013/HSR_2013_Press_Release.pdf). Regardless of how accurate the statistical claims are, most academics studying war and diplomacy have moved onto explaining why violence has dropped (see the debate on democratic or capitalist peace theory).

      If you believe that this current decade, or the past 50 years have been more violent than past eras, please show me some studies that claim to prove this. I would like to see them.

    2. Oh, and even in interstate conflict, casualty rates have declined significantly compared to previous eras due to change in weapons, tactics, and medicine.


    3. 'Capitalist peace theory'. That's a lark. That peace is based on economic exploitation of the third-world. And now it's come to the point where even first-world countries are cannibalizing themselves, most painfully visible in Greece but present throughout the entire EU periphery and the United States. And if you're going to expand the slice of time to the last 50 years, that has included, among many other things, the illegal American devastation of Indochina that left as many as 4 million dead, the illegal invasion of Iraq that left as many as 1.2 million dead, the illegal French led bombing of Libya that has left that country in a multiway civil war, not to mention the neo-liberal economic assault on Post-Soviet Russia that caused as many as 10 million premature deaths. And don't get me started on the Munroe Doctrine that treated the entirety of South America as a toy for US policy, and left behind a hell of a body-count.

      So like I said, things might seem great sitting in your cushy western home (just don't look to deeply into income inequality or who owns most of the stuff).

  15. Very Interesting write-up Hox, thank you for your hard work.