De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Igor De Rachewiltz (editor and translator)

The Secret History of the Mongols

Inner Asian Library. V. 7. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2004) 2 vols.:cxxviii+644 and iv+708 pp.; 12 illus. €179/US$214. ISBN 90 04 13159 0

Between 1971 and 1985, Igor de Rachewiltz published his translation of The Secret History of the Mongols (henceforth SHM) in eleven volumes of Papers on Far Eastern History. In addition to being a much easier read than the King James English used in Francis W. Cleaves’ translation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), it was accompanied by extensive footnotes commenting not only on the translation but also various aspects of Mongolian culture. While several other translations of the Secret History have emerged, none equaled Rachewiltz’s translation in terms of annotation or in the quality of the translation, although some approached it.

Unfortunately, using Rachewiltz’s original translation was often unwieldy due to it being published in 11 installments over a span of 14 years. Even for those who copied it and kept it in one volume or a folder, there was still the problem of ensuring a correct citation of proper volume and year. Thus it is not only with great pleasure, but also great relief to announce the publication of Igor de Rachewiltz’s translation of The Secret History of the Mongolsin Brill’s Inner Asian Library series.

Rachewiltz’s new edition of The Secret History of the Mongols is a substantial addition to the scholarship of the Mongol Empire, not only in terms of finally being published in a book format, but also the improvements to the translation. Consisting of 1347 pages in addition to 127 pages of front matter, it is truly a monumental work.

This edition, begun in 1987, includes an even smoother translation than previous editions and made a few passages more lucid than previously had been the case. Thus, without question, this translation of The Secret History of the Mongols remains the best, not only in terms of quality of translation, but also in terms of readability for the non-specialist. Yet, the improved translation is only the tip of the iceberg.

The introduction alone is a boon to the historiography of the Mongol Empire. In addition to discussing the origins and history behind SHM, Rachewiltz discusses the sizeable scholarship which has emerged on SHM, including not only other translations but studies on the work and its role in folklore, historical studies, as well as literature. Indeed, the introduction alone would have been a worthy monograph and a substantial contribution to scholarship.

This edition of The Secret History of the Mongols includes a series of photographs as well as two maps and a genealogical table of Chinggis Khan. One map is of modern Mongolia with its present day boundaries. However, as it is meant to depict Mongolia in 1200, the names of the various tribes of Mongolia and the neighboring realms have also been included. This is particularly useful for illustrating the localities of the tribes as well as many of the locations mentioned in SHMin a modern context. The second map is one of Eurasia in the thirteenth century. In addition to the names of the various regions, Rachewiltz has also included geographic names and those of various ethnicities used by the Mongols. Hence for Tibet, Rachewiltz has included Töböt, Sarta’ul for Khwârazm, and Bolar for the Volga Bulgars, etc.

As SHM has been rather arbitrarily divided into chapters, Rachewiltz has included a summary of the chapters. The summary is particularly useful; in addition to being a summation of the events of the chapter, Rachewiltz also succinctly summarizes the paragraphs (or verses if one may) comprising that chapter. Thus one now has a quick reference to guide one’s research. Finally, a chapter and paragraph concordance has been provided listing the paragraphs included in each chapter. It should be noted that the SHM was translated from Chinese texts. These were used to teach Chinese to translate Mongolian during the Ming period, with the Mongolian language represented phonetically through Chinese characters. In some manuscripts, SHM was divided into 12 chapters with others with 15 chapters. Prof. Rachewiltz has used the 12 chapter division of the 177 paragraphs for his organization of The Secret History of the Mongols.

The translation itself consists of 220 pages. The commentary on the translation is much more expansive, spanning 823 pages. While the text of the translation alters slightly from his previous translation, the commentary is, as one would suspect, much more comprehensive than Rachewiltz’s prior translation. Indeed, his discussion of the chapters, Rachewiltz cites the arguments and thoughts of other scholars. While competent and confident in his own translation, Rachewiltz is realistic in that he brings forth other possible interpretations of vague or problematic paragraphs. As such, the commentary is not so much a commentary on SHM but rather a compendium of research of the work.

Finally, there are seven appendices. One discusses Chinggis Qan’s campaigns in Siberia and Central Asia between 1204-1219, on which the SHM provides less detail and often conflicting dates. Then there are two appendices on Altan Tobci, a seventeenth century Mongolian chronicle in which several passages of the SHM also appear, many of them slightly different from the Chinese versions. Other appendices include a paragraph-page reference list to A. Mostaert’s commentary on SHM as well as additions and corrections to Cleaves' translation of the SHMand to Rachewiltz’s own Index to the Secret History. The last appendix is useful conversion table for the Wade-Giles and Pinyin transliteration systems for Chinese. As one might suspect, the bibliography is exhaustive and again, in itself is a worthy contribution to study of the Mongol Empire.

For the readers of this journal, the value of SHM is clearly in the development of the Mongol military as well as the extension of power through conquest. While one must read the entire SHM to appropriate appreciate the later, the former is well-defined in several paragraphs. After obtaining the position of Chinggis Qan (a title; Temüjin was his real name), Temüjin organized the Mongols and those tribes he defeated along military lines. This first is discussed in paragraph 126 in which Temüjin constructs the basic military and civil administration of his empire prior to becoming the dominate power in the steppe. Here he appoints officers to their minggans or regiments of a thousand. In addition he organizes his bodyguard and assigns their duties. Then in 1206 as discussed in paragraphs 201 to 227, more commanders are appointed to their regiments. Some are instructed on how to recruit their regiments from the conquered tribes. In addition, Temüjin issues orders to some generals to pursue both fugitives and rivals or to invade neighboring realms, such as Xi-Xia to the south. Honors are also bestowed upon companions of Chinggis Qan. Finally, the bodyguard or keshik is increased and their duties and privileges are discussed in more detail.

De Rachewiltz’s commentary on this is particularly as it discusses not only the functions of the keshik but also many of the Mongolian terms used, thus rendering a lucid depiction of the institution. Furthermore, he provides background information on many of the commanders and their previous tribal ties.

In terms of scholarship, Igor de Rachewiltz’s work is a brilliant addition to the study of the Mongol Empire. However, I must say that while I appreciate the value of his appendix on the campaigns outside of Mongolia, I am reluctant to agree with his conclusions on the Mongols early encounters with the Khwârazmian forces. His timeline agrees with those proposed by V. V. Barthold, Paul Ratchnevsky, and Thomas Allsen whereas I agree with a shorter timeline as proposed by Paul Buell. However, he does note that it is a topic he plans to discuss in a forthcoming article. This however is a minor quibble that is unlikely to be resolved easily because of the conflicting information in the Mongolian, Chinese, and Persian sources as well as some actions by the participants of the events that occurred in 1204-1219.

The merits of Igor de Rachewiltz’s new translation of The Secret History of the Mongols are many. Indeed, it is hard to find fault with this work, so painstakingly undertaken. Unlike many editions recently published by Brill, I happy to say SHM is not replete with typographical errors that should have been caught by an editor. Hopefully this is a sign that Brill has corrected a rather annoying trend among their publications.

Timothy May

North Georgia College and State University <tmmay@ngcsu.edu>

Page Added: September 2004