Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Tartars and Genghis Khan

In the northern section of the vast Mongolian plateau, that immense outreach of pasture-lands which forms the great abiding-place of the shepherd tribes of the earth, there long dwelt a warlike race which was destined to play an extraordinary part in the world's history. The original home of this people, who at an early date had won the significant name of Mongol, or the brave," was in the strip of territory between the Onon and the Kerulon, tributaries of the upper Amur River, the great water artery of East Siberia. In this retreat, strongly protected from attack, and with sufficient herbage for their flocks, the Mongols may have dwelt for ages unknown to history. We hear of them first in the ninth century, when they appeared as a section of the great horde of the Shiwei, attracting attention by their great strength and extraordinary courage, characteristics to which they owed their distinctive title. For two or three centuries they were among the tribes that paid tribute to China, and there was nothing in their career of special interest. Then they suddenly broke into startling prominence, and sent a wave of terror over the whole civilized world.

The history of China is so closely connected with that of the nomad tribes that one cannot be given without the other, and before telling the story of the Mongols a brief outline of the history of these tribes is desirable. China is on three sides abundantly defended from invasion, by the ocean on the east, and by mountains and desert on the south and west. Its only vulnerable quarter is in the north, where it joins on to the vast region of the steppes, a country whose scarcity of rain unfits it for agriculture, but which has sufficient herbage for the pasturage of immense herds. Here from time immemorial has dwelt a race of hardy wanderers, driving its flocks of sheep, cattle, and horses from pasture to pasture, and at frequent intervals descending in plundering raids upon the settled peoples of the south.

China in particular became the prey of these war-like horsemen. We hear little of them in the early days, when the Chinese realm was narrow and the original barbarians possessed most of the land. We hear much of them in later days, when the empire had widened and grown rich and prosperous, offering an alluring prize to the restless and daring inhabitants of the steppes.

The stories we have already told have much to say of the relations of China with the nomads of the north. Against these foes the Great Wall was built in vain, and ages of warfare passed before the armies of China succeeded in subduing and making tributary the people of the Steppes. We first hear of Tartar raids upon China in the reign of the emperor Muh Wang, in the tenth century B.C. As time went on, the tribes combined and fell in steadily greater numbers upon the southern realm. Of these alliances of tribes the first known was named by Chinese historians the Heung Nou, or "detestable slaves." Under its chief's, called the Tanjous, it became very formidable, and for a thousand years continued a thorn in the side of the Chinese empire.

The Tanjous were dominant in the steppes for some three hundred years, when they were overthrown by a revolt of the tribes, and were succeeded by the Sienpi, who under their chiefs, the Topas, or "masters of the earth," grew formidable, conquering the northern provinces of China, which they held for a century and a half. Finally a slave of one of the Topa chiefs, at the head of a hundred outlaws, broke into revolt, and gathered adherents until the power of the Sienpi was broken, and a new tribe, the Geougen, became predominant. Its leader, Cehelun by name, extended his power over a vast territory, assuming the title of Kagan, or Khan.

The next revolt took place in the sixth century A.D., when a tribe of slaves, which worked the iron forges of the Altai Mountains for the Great Khan, rebelled and won its freedom. Growing rapidly, it almost exterminated the Geougen in a great battle, and became dominant over the clans. Thus first came into history the great tribe of the Turks, whose later history was destined to be so momentous. The dominion of the Khan of the Turks grew so enormously that in time it extended from Central Siberia on the north to Persia on the south, while he made his power felt by China on the east and by Rome on the west. Ambassadors from the Khan reached Constantinople, and Roman envoys were received in return in his tent at the foot of the Altai range.

The Turks were the first of the nomad organizations who made their power felt throughout the civilized world. On the eastern steppes other tribes came into prominence. The Khitans were supreme in this region from 900 to 1100 A.D., and made serious inroads into China. They were followed by the Kins, or Golden Tartars, a tribe of Manchu origin, who proved a terrible foe, conquering and long holding a large section of Northern China. Then came the Mongols, the most powerful and terrible of all, who overthrew the Kins and became sole lords of the empire of the steppes. It is with the remarkable career of this Mongol tribe that we are here particularly concerned.

The first of the Mongol chiefs whose name is preserved was Budantsar, who conquered the district between the Onon and the Kerulon, the earliest known home of the Mongol race. His descendants ruled over the clan until about the year 1135, when the first step of rebellion of the Mongols from the power of the Kins took place. This was under Kabul, a descendant of Budantsar. The war with the Kins continued under later leaders, of whom Yissugei captured a powerful Tartar chief named Temujin. On returning home he learned that his wife had given birth to a son, to whom he gave his captive's name of Temujin. This child, horn probably in 1162 A.D., afterwards became the famous conqueror Genghis Khan.

The birthplace of the future hero was on the banks of the Onon. His father, chief over forty thousand families, died when he was still young, and many of the tribesmen, refusing to be governed by a boy, broke loose from his authority. His mother, a woman worthy of her race, succeeded in bringing numbers of them back to their allegiance, but the young chief found himself at the head of but half the warriors who had followed his father to victory.

The enemies of Temujin little knew with whom they had to deal. At first misfortune pursued the youth, and he was at length taken prisoner by his enemies, who treated him with great indignity. He soon escaped, however, and rallied his broken forces, shrewdly baffling his foes, who sought to recapture him by a treacherous invitation to a feast. In the end they attacked Temujin in his own country, where, standing on the defensive, he defeated them with great loss. This victory brought the young chief wide renown, and so many allies gathered under his banner that he became a power in the steppes. "Temujin alone is generous and worthy of ruling a great people," was the decision in the tents of the wandering tribes.

The subsequent career of the Mongol chief was one of striking vicissitudes. His power grew until the question of the dominion of the steppes rested upon a great battle between the Mongols and the powerful tribe of the Keraits. The latter won the victory, the Mongols were slain in thousands, and the power which Temujin had gained by years of effort was in a day overthrown. Nothing remained to him but a small band of followers, whose only strength lay in their fidelity and discipline.

Yet a man of the military ability of Temujin could not long remain at so low an ebb of fortune. In a brief time he had surprised and subdued the Keraits, and next met in battle the powerful confederacy of the Naimans, whom he defeated in a stubborn and long-contested battle. This victory made him the unquestioned lord of the steppes, over all whose inhabitants the Mongols had become supreme.

And now Temujin resolved to indicate his power by some title worthy of the great position he had gained. All the Mongol chiefs were summoned to the grand council or Kuriltai of the tribe, and around the national ensign, composed of nine white yak-tails, planted in the centre of the camp, the warriors gathered to hear the opinion of their chief. It was proclaimed to them that Temujin was not content with the title of Gur Khan, to which its former bearers had not given dignity, but would assume the title of Genghis Khan (Very Mighty Khan). It may be said here that there are almost as many spellings of this name as there are historians of the deeds of him that bore it.

Genghis made princes of his two principal generals, rewarded all other brave officers, and in every available way cemented to his fortunes the Mongol chiefs. He was now about forty-five years of age, yet, instead of being at the end, he was but little beyond the beginning of his career. The Kins, who had conquered Northern China, and whose ruler bore the proud title of emperor, were the next to feel the power of his arms. The dominions of the king of Hia, a vassal of the Kin emperor, were invaded and his power overthrown. Genghis married his daughter, made an alliance with him, and in 1210 invaded the territory so long held by the Kins.

The Great Wall, which had so often proved useless as a barrier of defence, failed to check the march of the great Mongol host, the chief who should have defended it being bribed to desert his charge. Through the opening thus offered the Mongols poured into the territory of the Kins, defeated them in every engagement in the field, overran the rich provinces held by them, and obtained a vast wealth in plunder. Yet the war was now waged against a settled and populous state, with strong walled cities and other fortified places, instead of against the scattered clans of the steppes, and, despite the many victories of the invading horde, it took twenty years of constant fighting to crush the Tartar emperor of Northern China.

In truth, the resistance of the emperor of the Kins was far more stubborn and effective than that of the nations of the south and west. In 1218 Genghis invaded Central Asia, conquered its oases, and destroyed Bukhara, Samarcand, and other cities. He next subjected the whole of Persia, while the westward march of the armies under his lieutenants was arrested only at the mountain barrier of Central Europe, all Russia failing subject to his rule. In four years the mighty conqueror, having established his rule from Armenia to the Indus, was back again and ready to resume his struggle with the Kins of China.

He found the kingdom of Hia in revolt, and in 1225 assembled against it the largest army he had ever employed in his Chinese wars. His success was rapid and complete. The cities, the fortresses, the centres of trade, fell in rapid succession into his hands, and in a final great battle, fought upon the frozen waters of the Hoang-ho, the army of Hia was practically exterminated. This was the last great event in the life of Genghis Khan. He died in 1227, having by his ruthless warfare sent five millions of victims to the grave. With his last words he deplored the wanton cruelty with which his wars had been fought, and advised his people to refrain in future from such sanguinary acts.

Thus died, at the age of about sixty-five years, one of the greatest conquerors the world has known, the area of whose conquests vastly exceeded those of Cesar and Napoleon, and added to the empire won by Alexander a still greater dominion in the north. The Chinese said of him that "he led his armies like a god;'' and in truth as a military genius he has had no superior in the history of the world. The sphere of no other conqueror ever embraced so vast a realm, and the wave of warfare which he set in motion did not come to rest until it had covered nearly the whole of Asia and the eastern half of the European continent. Beginning as chief of the fragment of a tribe, he ended as lord of nearly half the civilized world, and dozens of depopulated cities told the story of his terrible career. He had swept over the earth like a tornado of blood and death.