A (Re)introduction to the Mongols

By Jack Wilson

How was Mongol society organized during the Middle Ages? The answer lies in their numerical system of 10s, 100s, 1000s, and 10,000s. 

For anyone learning about the origins of the Mongol Empire and the rise of Chinggis Khan, they will often be met with the following description: the region today known as Mongolia was divided among a number of Turko-Mongolian tribes (Naiman, Kereyid, Merkit, Mongol); each tribe was made up of clans (I.e, Borjigon Mongols); all the members of the tribes traced descent from a common ancestor (either real or fictive) which served as the primary means of social organization in the steppe; and it was the great innovation of Chinggis Khan to break up these tribal ties when he established the Mongol Empire in 1206.

No longer were these people organized into descent-based tribes, but were now divided into a strict decimal organization (that is, into units of 10, 100, 1,000 and 10,000). And when the Mongol Empire broke up over the fourteenth century, there was a reassertion of these tribal powers (for instance, when a Jalayirid state emerged after the fall of the Ilkhanate). The underlying assumption is that these tribal divisions are the natural form of societal organization in the absence of a centralized state, and that these are genealogical, rather than territorial units, and ones with relatively little social stratification.

It’s a familiar refrain for anyone who has done any amount of reading on the Mongol Empire in English. And it’s one which, as recent scholarship has demonstrated, has little basis in historical fact. Here, I’m going to share with you the new ‘model’ for inner Asian steppe societies, which better reflects what is presented in the historical sources.

Mongol Clans

First is a matter of terminology. While tribe and clan have taken on a major connotation in common usage. That is, to be a member of each unit (clan or tribe), each member must bear some sort of relationship to the founder of the unit. In other words, if person X is a member of clan Y, then either themselves or an ancestor claimed relation to clan Y’s founder. However, this understanding is in fact, rarely applicable to the social units we categorize as clans and tribes.

Take for instance, the most well-known clan system in the English-speaking world; the Scottish clans (which provided the original term, clann). Though popularly presented as if everyone in a given clan is a descendant of the clan’s founder, this is a gross mischaracterization. In fact, relatively few members of the clan had blood ties to the founder. Those that did were the elite within the clan; the rest of the clansmen were subjects to the clan’s elite, and lived in the territory ruled by the clan. Notably, these clans do not predate the existence of a Scottish monarchy; the Kingdom of Scotland is traditionally dated to the mid-ninth century, while the oldest Scottish clans are traced to the thirteenth century.

This map shows the empire of Genghis Khan after his death in 1227 AD. – Wikimedia Commons

This is the central idea in which recent scholarship has re-interpreted the Mongolian tribes; and indeed, one which is strongly supported by historical sources. In short, it’s a much more “feudal” organization than popularly portrayed. Perhaps the key underpinning to explain this can be demonstrated with the following. Rather than a genealogical tree in which every member of the steppe fits into, the lengthy genealogies preserved by the likes of the Secret History of the Mongols (c.1252) and the Jāmi’ al-Tāwarīkh (c.1300) are not an origin of the Mongolian people as a whole, but the ruling elite and aristocracy. Those descended from the blue-grey Wolf and the fallow deer in the Secret History were not the Mongol people as a whole, but the altan urag; the Golden Lineage of Chinggis Khan.

In fact, counter to the idea of any sort of egalitarian steppe society, Mongolian and Turkic steppe nomads had a very strict social stratification: an aristocracy called in the White Bone (Mongolian, chaghan yasu) and the commoners called the Black Bone (qara yasu). The two groups did not have a shared ancestry, and the only genealogies that mattered, and indeed that have survived, were of the aristocracy. For Chinggis Khan, his ‘clan’ (obog) was the Borjigon. He and his family (the ruling members) were the Borjigon obog; the rest of the people in the community (the subjects; retainers, common herders) were the Borjigon irgen, or people who belonged to the Borjigon. To put in another term; the Habsburg Empire referred to the ruling lineage (the Habsburgs) but that did not make the peoples of the empire part of the Habsburg family.

One of many good examples to illustrate this distinction comes from the Secret History of the Mongols, as per the translation by the late Igor de Rachewiltz:

Činggis Qa’an subjugated such a proud people and destroyed all those who were of the Jürkin clan [obog]. He made the tribe [irgen, “people”] and its people his personal subjects [irgen-i ulus-i, or patrimonial people]. 

The Jürkin obog in this case refers not to the entire unit, but just the ruling lineage; the rest of its subjects were then incorporated into the possessions of Chinggis Khan. This is the pattern borne out by other contemporary accounts as well.

To the Mongols, what we call tribes would be understood as bodies of commoners in service of a ruling lineage. Rather than each member being the master of his own herd, many of the common herders, lacking their own animals, actually worked the great herds of sheep, goats, cattle, camel and horses belonging to the elite. It was not dissimilar in idea to a serf working the lands of his feudal overlord.

Minggan – the 1000

And how did these elites come to power then? Well, the famous decimal organization so commonly associated with Chinggis Khan was the key. Chinggis did not invent this system; writers from China’s Han Dynasty indicated it was present among Xiongnu (3rd Century BCE – 1st century CE), well over a thousand years before Chinggis Khan. As is well known, Inner Asian nomad armies organized themselves in multiples of ten: for the Mongols, this ranged from the arban, 10 men; ja’un, 100; minggan, 1,000; tümen, 10,000. However, a minggan was not merely the military unit itself. A minggan included not just the one thousand men who fought on the battlefield, but their families as well. A minggan (or its equivalent for other nomadic peoples) served as a military and administrative unit, the families providing and maintaining much of the gear and supplies of the warriors, while serving as the basis for taxation outside of warfare.

What researchers like David Sneath, Christopher Atwood and Lhamsuren Munkh-Erdene have demonstrated is that these divisional units formed the basis of what we today associate as tribes. The ruling elite identified earlier (the White Bone aristocracy) were originally the commanders appointed to head each of these divisional units. Important to understand is that the command of such units (especially during the Mongol Empire) was hereditary: part of the means to secure a given individual’s loyalty was to ensure his sons and descendants essentially had their own ‘fiefdom’ of subject peoples. We can see this comparison in a more literal sense as each minggan was provided an allotted territory of pastures and natural resources for its members. Access to these resources was forbidden to outsiders, except for a fee— an important revenue source for many a steppe ruler.

A Cycle of Reorganizations

The idea of Mongolia and the Steppe as a no man’s land of empty grasslands, of nomadic families aimlessly wandering, must be forgotten. Mongolia before, after and during the Mongol Empire was divided into lands allotted to specific minggad, made up of commoners (irgen) and each one led by a hereditary aristocracy (the obog). The aristocracy alone traced themselves to a shared ancestor, real or fictive. Each minggad was then further subdivided into units of 100 and 10, like neighbourhoods within the minggan community.

The sense of ‘ownership’ over a given land claim, enhanced by the fact that transfer between the minggad was forbidden (both the Mongol Empire and Qing Dynasty enforced laws on this matter), helped these units over time develop their own identities and approach something like the ‘tribes’ we associate them as. But how did these units interact with the state? And how do these tie into the supposed revolution of Chinggis Khan? Well, we can compare Chinggis’ unification of the Mongols in 1206 to two other reorganizations which happened in the succeeding 800 years. In 1510, a descendant of Chinggis named Dayan Khan reunified the Mongols, and in the mid-1600s the Manchu of the Qing Dynasty conquered and reorganized the Steppe. In the thirteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we see the same process carried out, albeit with different names.

In the early 1200s Chinggis redistributed the population of the Mongolian plateau among the minggad. The older obog, and those leaders which resisted him, were removed from the scene, and loyal commanders appointed in their place as a reward. Thanks to the Secret History of the Mongols, we know the names of the 95 commanders assigned. With the weakening of central governmental authority after the expulsion of the Mongols from China in 1368, the descendants of the minggad commanders (the noyad, or qarachu; the military elite) had grown in power and ruled like individual lords.

This decentralization continued until the reign of Dayan Khan (1479–1517), who renewed the authority of the Great Khan. He appointed his sons and commanders to head new administrative units; removed the lords who stood against him, reconfirmed those who supported him, and divided the existing minggad into 6 tümens and 54 otogs, with each tümen made up of a number of otogs (Not to be confused with the similar sounding obog. Otog comes from Sogdian and means a district). The result was a new military/princely elite and new administrative units built on the backs of the old.

Over the next century, the tümens and otogs grew in autonomy and identity until the Manchu Qing Dynasty conquered Mongolia. Once again the various divisions were redivided, the tümens into the khoshuu, banners, made up of aimags, with new hereditary princes, the jasaq. These were always administrative units, appropriating the units of the previous period and replacing the existing leaders, and dividing then the minggan or tümen into new, smaller units. The supporters of the new regime, generally the military leaders, the noyad or qarachu, were rewarded with hereditary command of the new divisions, and thus became the new generations of aristocrats.

Since 1200 we can see the same process happen three times, always based around the same principles. The removal of rivals to power to the central government; the vacuum of leadership of the decimal units filled with supporters of the new authority to become the new aristocracy; this new hereditary elite become entrenched in their lands and peoples; overtime as they grow in power and wealth, the new aristocracy become rivals to the central government; once a new power conquered the region, whichever lords did not align were removed and the process repeated.

Thus, we should not see these ‘tribes’ as natural ‘bottom-up’ social organizations, but in fact creations of the state to assert authority and administer the realm. Each decimal unit then becomes its own ‘mini-government,’ responsible for local taxes, peoples and resources. When there is a strong central authority, the lords of the decimal units answer to it, and pass the fruits of these taxes and resources onwards; when there isn’t, then they can ‘pocket’ it themselves.

Where then, did the “tribes” of twelfth-century Mongolia, like the Naiman, Kereyid and Merkit come from? The answer may be found in the rule of the Khitan Liao Dynasty, which controlled parts of north China and Mongolia from the early tenth century until the 1110s.  The “tribes” of twelfth-century Mongolia that fought Chinggis Khan were military-administrative divisions with hereditary leadership, likely created by the Liao Dynasty as part of their divide and rule efforts; the Liao maintained garrisons across eastern Mongolia, and in the Liaoshi are recorded creating 54 “imperial tribes.” A Liao-created system explains why so much of the twelfth-century Mongol leadership had titles or names derived from Chinese titles, such as Ilqa-Senggüm, from Khitan senggüm, originally from Chinese xianggong, lord chancellor.

By the time of Chinggis Khan, each of these groups had become independent with their own well-established hereditary leadership. We can’t know for certain what they called themselves, but it seems likely that they considered themselves each to be an ulus, a state, with their own house, obog, ruling over a subject population, the irgen. Rather than the Naiman or Kereyid tribes, we can refer to Naiman or Kereyid uluses, or indeed, just as khanates; and as a whole not Mongol tribes, but perhaps, Mongol states or principalities.

It seems then, that this system of hereditary, military-administrative decimal units, not only predated Chinggis Khan; it in fact stretched ever back in time, to the Liao, to the earlier Uighur and Göktürk Empires which were based in Mongolia, and back at least to the Xiongnu, as implied by descriptions of their decimal organization. Thus, there never were Mongol tribes, but instead always a strict, hierarchical system based on control of land and resources. Mongol principalities, may even be a more illustrative term, than the connotations brought to mind by tribes.

Jack Wilson recently completed his MA thesis at Central European University, where he offered a reassessment of the life and career of Nogai and his role in the late thirteenth century Golden Horde. You can visit the education videos he creates about the Mongol Empire on Youtube at The Jackmeister: Mongol History. He did a longer discussion on the matter of the Mongolian tribes here:

Further Reading:

The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century. 2 Volumes. Translated by Igor de Rachewiltz, Boston: Brill, 2004.

Rashiduddin Fazlullah. Jami’ u’t-tawarikh: Compendium of Chronicles: A History of the Mongols. Translated by W. M. Thackston. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1998.

Atwood, Christopher. “The Administrative Origins of Mongolia’s ‘Tribal’ Vocabulary.” Eurasia: Statum et Legem. Vol. 1 no. 4 (2015): 7-43.

Atwood, Christopher. “Historiography and transformation of ethnic identity in the Mongol Empire: the Öng’üt case.” Asian Ethnicity Vol, 5 no. 4 (2014): 514-534.

Atwood, Christopher. “Mongols, Arabs, Kurds, and Franks: Rashīd al-Dīn’s Comparative Ethnography of Tribal Society.” in Rashīd al-Dīn. Agent and Mediator of Cultural Exchanges in Ilkhanid Iran. Warburg Institute Colloquia Np. 24 (2013): 223-250.

Atwood, Christopher. “Banner, Otog, Thousand: Appanage Communities as the Basic Unit of Traditional Mongolian Society.” Mongolian Studies Vol. 34 (2012): 1-76.

Atwood, Christopher. “Six Pre-Chinggisid Genealogies in the Mongol Empire.” Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi. Edited by Th. T. Allsen, P.B. Golden, R.K. Kovalev, and A.P. Martinez. Vol. 19 (2012): 5-58.

Lhamsuren Munkh-Erdene. “Political Order in Pre-Modern Eurasia: Imperial Incorporation and the Hereditary Divisional System.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Series 3. Vol. 26 no. 4 (2016): 633-655.

Lhamsuren Munkh-Erdene. “Where did the Mongol Empire come from? Medieval Mongol Ideas of People, State, and Empire.” Inner Asia Vol. 13 no. 2 (2011): 211-37.

Pow, Stephen. “Nationes que se Tartaros appellant”: An Exploration of the Historical Problem of the Usage of the Ethnonyms Tatar and Mongol in Medieval Sources.” Golden Horde Review Vol. 7 no. 3 (2019): 545-567.

Sneath, David. The Headless State: Aristocratic Orders, Kinship Society, and Misrepresentations of Nomadic Inner Asia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Top Image: A Figure of Mongol from the 14th century – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Medievalists.net February 19, 2022 at 11:02AM

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