The Impact of the Mongols
- What was the social, political, economic and cultural impact of Genghis Khan's reign?
- How should we evaluate Genghis Khan's legacy given the totality of the sources we have?
Note: It is important that you are aware of the wider impact and legacy of Genghis Khan. When you explore and examine this legacy, you will see that the European secondary literature documents and surveys how his successors took his achievements to further heights in the latter part of the 13th century and early part of the 14th century by extending his initial total vision of global domination and prosperity. This makes it hard just to evaluate Genghis Khan's reign up to his death in 1227 without acknowledging this later context. This is why some historians argue that the extent of his achievement really lay in forging a pan-Mongolian steppe unity of the various nomadic tribes and setting the foundations for a Eurasian imperial force.
Indeed, he played a major role in five significant achievements in the development of Mongolian society. The first was that he united the tribes of Mongolia into one nation. The second was that he introduced a writing system into Mongolian society and forced the Mongolian nobility to become literate. The last three were institutions that he imposed on the Mongols that lasted well beyond his death. The first of these three was the Yasa (law code), which he imposed over the empire. The second was creation of an army with absolute discipline out of the unruly tribes. With this army, he was able to forge an empire that stretched from the coast of china to the shores of the Caspian Sea in his lifetime. The empire continued to grow after his death, a phenomenon in nomadic empires. The third cultural achievement was an administration to govern his empire.
[See May, "Genghis Khan", Encyclopedia of Leadership, ed. by Goethals et al, London: Sage Publications, 2004, 1:569 (A-E)].
- The major social unit of Mongol society remained the family whether nuclear, reconstituted or polygamous as marriage was the institution that marked adulthood . The next major social unit was the clan or sub-clan (i.e. kinship) where groups claimed patrilineal descent from a common ancestor (known as obogh).
- Society remained largely patriarchal, patrilineal and patrilocal. Women generally remained within the domestic structure as well as social etiquettes and customs of the steppe region. However, Genghis Khan did permit remarriages for widows which was considered taboo.
- In the Secret History of the Mongols, the mythical matrilineal heritage of Genghis Khan was presented as a new order with a heavenly mandate. Therefore, through the Yasa law code, value was given to women according to their lineage and status. This made women more esteemed and allowed a more egalitarian-resembling social structure.
- There was a move under Genghis Khan towards a more limited meritocracy where an individual could earn recognition and upward mobility through their skills and knowledge and not necessarily due to their tribe, clan and nobility.
The word "Yasa" is alternatively written as "yasser", "yassa", "yasaq", "zasag", and "yasag". George Lane, professor in Middle Eastern and Central Asian studies at SOAS comments on the Yasa:
The common assumption that a new steppe conqueror will ‘mark the foundation of his polity by the promulgation of laws’ has often been applied to Chinggis Khan and the belief that the so-called ‘Great Yasa’ is just such an example, has been held by many since within a few decades of the great conqueror’s death. The term yasa is a Mongol word meaning law, order, decree, judgement. As a verb it implied the death sentence as in ‘some were delivered to the yasa’ usually meaning that an official execution was carried out.
[Lane, Genghis Khan and Mongol Rule, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004, p.35].
The Yasa is thought to be written in the Uighur Mongolian script (although see below for an alternative account) and scribed on dried scrolls or parchments. It was said to have been preserved in secret archives and known only to and read only by the royal family. Beyond being a catalogue of codified of laws, the Yasa may have included philosophical, spiritual, and mystical elements, and thus may have been thought of as a quasi-sacred or magic text. This, however, remains entirely speculative.
The Yasa is said to be a hidden (or secret) set of laws to govern the empire established by Genghis Khan. The initial decrees or ordinances are said to have been declared by Genghis Khan during war time but later codification includes social, political and cultural life. Genghis Khan's step-brother Shihihutag (Shigi-Qutuqu) - appointed as a quasi judge to ensure the adjudicated cases were registered - is also said to have supervised the formulation of the yasa whereas the execution of it was entrusted to Genghis's second son Chagatai.
The general account is that the composition of the Yasa was not initially settled at the kuriltai of 1206. It was developed and revised from 1206 to 1218 and then again from 1218 until Genghis Khan's death in 1227. This linear account however has been increasingly challenged over the last fifty years of scholarship due to the lack of any real primary evidence.
Aims and foundations:
The Yasa law aimed at primarily three things:
- absolute obedience to Genghis Khan,
- a unification of the disparate nomad clans under a common law,
- the merciless punishment of any wrongdoing.
- Everything is belonged to the Khan.
- Ancestral worship. Genghis Khan's lineage was of quasi-supernatural origin and so his laws were to be held in high esteem and were binding on the people.
- Unquestioning submission to Genghis Khan's sovereignty because he was conferred a heavenly mandate (möngke Tengri), i.e. he was heaven's counterpart on earth.
- Following a nomadic pattern of life in preference to a sedentary one.
- Genghis Khan controlled his newly emerging empire with fear and force.
- There was a single code that governed tribal/clan behaviour.
- Genghis Khan prevented any internal factor or cause to destabailise or undermine the new Mongolian polity.
According to the various historical sources and deductions of scholars on Genghis Khan, the sources and contents of the Yasa law are said to include the following areas:
- Ancestral traditions.
- Mongol precepts.
- Steppe law.
1. International Law.
2. Public Law:
a. The Supreme Power (The Khan).
c. The statute of Bound Service.
d. Immunity privileges.
e. Military statutes.
f. Hunting statues.
g. Administration and administrative ordinances.
3. Criminal Law.
4. Private Law.
5. Commercial Law.
7. Codification and Enforcement of Law.
[Taken from Vernadsky, “The Scope and Content of Chingiz Khan’s Yasa,” History of the Journal of Asiatic Studies 3 (1938), pp.342-343 reproduced in Minhaji, "The Great Yasa", Islamic Law and Local Tradition: A Sociological Approach, Indonesia: Akh. Minhaji, 2008, p.86].
Some of the laws of the Yasa are reproduced below adapted from the list taken from Arabic, Persian and Latin sources compiled by Harold Lamb in Genghis Khan - Conqueror of all Men, New York: Garden City Publishing, 1927:
- He [Chingis-Khan] ordered that all religions were to be respected and that no preference was to be shown to any of them. All this he commanded in order that it might be agreeable to Heaven. [al-Maqrizi].
- Leaders of a religion, lawyers, physicians, scholars, preachers, monks, persons who are dedicated to religious practice, the Muezzin, physicians and those who bathe the bodies of the dead are to be freed from public charges. [al-Maqrizi].
- The ruling that divides men of the army into tens, hundreds, thousands, and ten thousands is to be maintained [al-Maqrizi].
- The man in whose possession a stolen horse is found must return it to its owner and add nine horses of the same kind: if he is unable to pay this fine, his children must be taken instead of the horses, and if he have no children, he himself shall be slaughtered like a sheep [al-Maqrizi].
- Whoever gives food or clothing to a captive without the permission of his captor is to be put to death. [al-Maqrizi].
- Whoever finds a runaway slave or captive and does not return him to the person to whom he belongs is to be put to death [al-Maqrizi].
- An adulterer is to be put to death without any regard as to whether he is married or not [al-Maqrizi]..
- Whoever intentionally lies, or practices sorcery, or spies upon the behavior of others, or intervenes between the two parties in a quarrel to help the one against the other is also to be put to death [al-Maqrizi].
- Whoever is guilty of sodomy is also to be put to death [al-Maqrizi].
- Urinating in water or ashes is punishable by death [al-Maqrizi].
- It was forbidden to wash clothing until completely worn out [al-Maqrizi].
- When the wayfarer passes by a group of people eating, he must eat with them without asking for permission, and they must not forbid him in this [al-Maqrizi].
- At the beginning of each year, all the people must present their daughters to the Khan so he may choose some of them for himself and his children [al-Maqrizi].
Genghis Khan's conquests is said to have linked the east (China) and west (Meditereanean) in an unprecedented way through the famous "Silk Route". He was well aware of the myriad of emerging needs that came with running an empire and sought to secure any trade route or networks and to protect it for the unhindered passage of trade. Genghis Khan undertook a number of actions to ensure there was trade links established even though during his lifetime the full horizon of the commercial success was not witnessed:
- Harsh laws: he decreed death as a law for anyone who inhibits and hinders traders and merchants from freely moving between areas and cities - whether these were armies, clans or tribes.
- Treaties: he extended international peace and friendship treaties with neighbouring rival powers, e.g. the Shah of Khwarizm in order to not only maintain border calm but to open up trade links.
- Invasion: he invading cities for trade possibilities. Some historians suggest that that one of the pretext for invading Islamic cities like Samarqand and Bukhara was due to the Shah of Khwarizm's inability to control banditry along the trade routes. The same includes trade cities like Rus'.
- Taxes: he instituted taxes for trade routes with Mongolian tax collectors.
- Yam system: was a kind of supply point route messenger system extensively used and upgraded by Genghis Khan and subsequent Mongol Khans. There were stations between 20-40 miles apart used to give food, shelter and spare horses to the messenger relaying intelligence and communication information. This system was made effective and efficient due to the strict implementation of the Yasa decrees that applied the death penalties on bandits and highway robbers. This enabled merchants to freely pass and travle. This led to what came to be known as the pax mongolica('Mongol peace').
It is difficult to [re]-construct the Mongol taxation system pre-Genghis Khan but post-Genghis the picture emerges clearer (but complex) through Chinese, Persian and Russian sources.
[On Mongol taxation, see the extensive article "Mongol and Nomadic Taxation" by J. M. Smith Jr. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 30 (1970), pp.46-85. Cf. as well, Rasianovsky, Fundamental Principles of Mongol Law, p.83].
Under Genghis Khan, in keeping with the nomadic practice and custom, taxation was in the form of occasional charges in order to finance the expenditure of the Mongol imperial vision set out by Genghis. These taxes were collectively called "qubchur". As the Mongols extended their conquests gaining new territories, these qubchur were formally levied on both conquered and converted peoples as well as nomadic and sedentary peoples.
Genghis saw the pragmatic use of taxes. He was aware that merely expropriating property as a means of financing his imperial ambitions was not always wise or beneficial. When Northern China was capitulating to the Mongol onslaught, the great perspicacious Chinese advisor and administrator under the Mongols Yelü Chucai (d.1244) instituted several administrative reforms, like separating civil and military powers and introducing numerous taxes and levies. In response to the tough resistance the Mongol army faced while trying to conquer the Jurchen Jin's southern capital of Kaifeng, some Mongol officers in high command recommended the complete razing of Kaifeng and the deaths of all its occupants and to confiscate the land for pasture. But Yelü Chucai convinced Genghis Khan to rule and annually tax the people, and make use of their extraordinary talents instead of killing all of them in order to further their own riches. Genghis Khan agreed and spared the peasants their life.
[Below: a statue of Yelü Chucai (耶律楚材) in Guta Park, Jinzhou]:
Genghis also made tax exemptions to those under his rule. In the Yasa decrees for example, it has:
- Those providing essential services were exempt from taxation including religious leaders, doctors and undertakers, lawyers, teachers and scholars.
Genghis Khan was the greatest conqueror the world has ever known. He is a legendary figure, perhaps second in fame only to Jesus Christ, and in popular imagery is the very avatar of savagery and barbarism. And what could be more damning for the modern reactionary politician than to be accused of being to the 'right of Genghis Khan'?