Friday, April 8, 2011

The History of Mongolia (3 Vols.) Edited by David Sneath and Christopher Kaplonski

"The History of Mongolia" (3 Vols.)
Edited by David Sneath and Christopher Kaplonski

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“The History of Mongolia” edited by David Sneath and Christopher Kaplonski is of great historical and scholarly importance for Mongol history specialists as well as the generalist student of history.

Published in three volumes by Global Oriental in 2010, totaling 1100 pages and weighing in at a hefty six pounds, this remarkable anthology of articles lays the foundation for the understanding of Mongol history with studies of the pre-Chinggisid period, Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Empire, the Yuan and late medieval period, the Qing period and finally twentieth century Mongolia.

David Sneath’s introduction to Inner Asian history sets the stage with an early citation in Chinese chronicles regarding the military threat posed by steppe-born mounted archers being so worrisome that “…in 307 B.C. the Zhau emperor Wuling demanded that his subjects learn the ‘barbarian’ art of horse-archery…”

Sneath's chronology of steppe imperial history beginning with the Xiongnu emperor's adversarial relationship with Han dynasty rulers clearly illuminates the political dynamics between people living behind the Great Wall and nomads inhabiting the steppe regions beyond it. The author's succinct summary of the pre-Mongol period introduces us to the Khazars, Uighurs, Khitan, Liao, and the Rouran (Juan-juan), "...their empire “stretched from Korea in the east to the Tarim Basin in the west.” The tumultuous history of this region produced several dynasties that comprised the Turkish empire whose remarkable inscribed stone monuments can still be seen in Mongolia’s Orkhon valley.

Inner Asia's historical precedents as outlined by Sneath delineate a blueprint for the political, social and military infrastructure that provided fertile ground for the rise and fall of many steppe dynasties in the Mongol homeland.

The first essay in this volume titled, “Ancient Inner Asian Nomads; Their Economic Basis and Its Significance in Chinese History” by Nicola Di Cosmo addresses the established perspective about the economic dichotomy between steppe nomads and sedentary society and challenges long-held beliefs about these relationships.

Di Cosmo disputes the views of some prominent scholars that “the creation of a steppe empire by the Inner Asian nomads is seen as the result of a conscious search for a more efficient means to extract from China the resources they could not produce.” The author offers an opposing theory which holds “that farming was carried out as a supplementary activity in various areas within the economic zones dominated by mounted nomads..” Di Cosmo cites several archeological discoveries that buttress his thesis including the mention of the Xiongnu sending four thousand cavalrymen during Emperor Zhao’s reign (86 – 74 B.C.) to “work the land at Jushi.” Taken as a whole the author provides compelling evidence of ancient steppes nomads involvement with crop cultivation.

Burton Watson’s translation of Sima Qian’s “The Account of the Xiongnu” written in 109 B.C. provides a great deal of detail about Xiongnu customs and relations with the Chinese court. His observation about Xiongnu spiritual practices --“At dawn the Shanyu leaves his camp and makes obeisance to the sun as it rises, and in the evening he makes similar obeisance to the moon”-- illustrates parallels with Chinggisid Mongol traditions. Quian's text is rife with caricatures of threatening unstable Xiongnu nomads; typical of this outlook he says that, “their only concern is self-advantage, and they know nothing of propriety or righteousness.” Included in Qian’s account is the intriguing story of a eunuch named Zhonhuang Yue who became an important adviser to the Xiongnu emperor and staunch defender of Xiongnu practises.

Included in Volume 1, Part 1 are several other important articles that provide deeper understanding of the period that preceded the rise of Chinggis Khan and the Mongol empire, including Peter B. Golden’s “The Türk Imperial Tradition in the Pre-Chinggisid Era” which is an essential primer on early Turkic history,and Owen Lattimore’s, “The Geography of Chinggis Khan.”

Part 2 of the first volume provides us with wide-ranging insights about the Mongol empire period beginning with excerpted translations of “The Secret History of the Mongols” by Urgunge Onon and Igor De Rachewiltz, another Igor De Rachewiltz articles “Some Remarks on the Ideological Foundations of Chingis Khan’s Empire” & “Some Reflections on Cinggis Qan’s Jasat”, H.F. Schurmann’s “Mongolian Tributary Practices of the Thirteenth Century.”

Other article in this volume are “From Ulus to Khanate: The Making of the Mongol States c. 1220 – c. 1290”, an excerpt of John of Plano Carpini’s first-hand account, “The Mongol Mission”,Thomas T. Allsen’s “Guard and Government in the Reign of the Grand Qan Möngke, 1251-59”, “The Dissolution of the Mongol Empire” by Peter Jackson, and “From Mongol Empire to Yuan Dynasty: Changing Forms of Imperial Rule in Mongolia and Central Asia” by Johan W. Dardess

“The History of Mongolia” Volume 2 is titled “Yuan and Late Medieval Period” begins with Ronald Latham’s translation of chapter three of “The Travels of Marco Polo” which quite appropriately is the section on Khubilai Khan. Marco Polo's colorful eyewitness account of Khubilai Khan's daily life provides some critical details about how the emperor spent his time.

This excerpt from Marco Polo's observations about Khubilai Khan's hunting practices tells us where he spent more than three months of his daily life: " You may take it for a fact that during three months which the Great Khan spends in the city of Khan-balik, that is December, January, and February, he has ordered that within a distance of sixty days' journey from where he is staying everybody must devote himself to hunting and to hunting and hawking...... When the Khan has spent the three months of December, January and February in the city of which I have spoken, he sets off in March and travels southward to within two days' journey of the Ocean. He is accompanied by fully 10,000 falconers and takes with him fully 5,000 gerfalcons and peregrine falcons and sakers in great abundance, besides a quantity of goshawks for hawking along the riversides."

Following Polo’s account is Morris Rossabi’s first-rate study, “Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times”, David M. Farquhar’s succinct “Structure and Function in the Yuan Imperial Government” explains the nuts and bolts of Yuan dynasty administrative mechanisms of imperial rule. In a similar vein, Elizabeth Endicott West’s “Imperial Governance in Yüan Times” highlights signs of sinicization with the obsolescence of the Mongol customary ‘quriltai.’ However West counter-balances this trend with evidence of Mongol indifference to traditional Chinese court customs, “Ignoring prescribed ritual was one way for the Mongolian rulers to maintain a liberating distance from Chinese court ministers.”

L. Jamsran’s article, “The Crisis of the Forty and the Four” illuminates Oirat tribal politics and relations with the Ming court in the post-Yuan epoch. The Oirot-Ming relationship is elucidated by Jamsran’s quotation of the Ming emperor’s declaration “that the number of Oirot ‘must not exceed three hundred…let only the permitted number (of envoys) pass the border, and keep the rest outside…”

The after effects of the breakup of the Yuan dynasty and its impact on the Khalkha tribal polity is pointedly analyzed in Gongor’s study of “The Twelve Tumen of Alag Khüree Khalkha Mongols.” Other articles in this volume that elucidate post-Yuan Mongol tribal internecine war and politics are “Six Tumen” by Sh. Natsagdorj and A. Ochir, Christopher Atwood’s deftly articulated “Titles, Appanages, Marriages, and Officials: A Comparison of Political Forms in the Zünghar and Thirteenth-Century Mongol Empires.”

Three important articles addressing Mongolian spirituality are included in this volume; Johan Elverskog’s translation of “The Jewel Translucent Sutra, Altan Khan and the Mongols in the Sixteenth Century”, Henry Serruys’ “Early Lamaism in Mongolia”, “A Mongolian Source to the Lamaist Suppression of Shamanism in the 17th Century” by Walter Heissig.

Volume 3 of “The History of Mongolia” titled “The Qing Period, Twentieth-century Mongolia” aptly begins with Peter C. Perdue’s broad-ranging analysis of the outcome of the Qing dynasty emperor Kangxi’s military expeditions into the Mongolian heartland to vanquish the Zunghar king, Galdan. Perdue assesses Russian expansionism and it’s role in the destruction and subjugation of the western Mongols by the Manchu. This stage of history led to nomads of Inner Asia being “reduced to a subordinate status as internal colonies of the Russian and Chinese empires.” The role of language as a tool for resisting cultural domination in Inner Asian nomadic societies provides a thoughtful, tangential measure of the success and failure of ambitions would-be conquerors in this lively multi-tiered analysis by Perdue.

In S. Ichinnorov’s “The Biography of Öndör Gegeen” that author illuminates the life of the First Bogd Javzandamba Khutagt Luvsandambiijantsan who is known to most as the greatest Mongolian artist, Zanabazar. A mythic figure whose artworks are seen as being imbued with the essence of living spirits, Zanbazar’s extraordinary life story as told by S. Ichinnorov, conveys the immense power that his legacy still commands in Mongol cultural history.

“The Khalkha Djirum” is V. Riasonvsky translation of “the Great Statute of the the Three Hoshuns” (1709) is vital for correlating traditions of Mongol customary law and cultural edicts of this period.

The role of the peasant class in the mid-to-late 1800’s Mongolia is examined by D. Tsedev in “The Social and Economic Situation of the Shav.” D. Dashbadrah and J. Gerelbadrah’s “The Economy of the Monasteries” gives a brief summary of the subject.

Other articles that provide useful insights on Mongolian traditional cultural practices in this volume are, Sh. Natsagdorj’s “The Economic Basis of Feudalism in Mongolia” which chronicles Mongolian feudalism from a Marxist perspective, “The Social and Economic Situation of the Shav” by D. Tsedev, “The Spread of Trade to the Countryside” by M. Sanjdor.

John Elverskog’s “Things and the Qing, Mongol Culture in the Visual Narrative” provides a quirky take on the perception of Lamaism’s corrosive effects, Mongolian perception of Qing dynasty oppression and the evolution of Mongolian dress. A.M. Pozdneye’s extensive article on “Urga or Da Khuree” written in 1892 -1893 provides a colorful guide to the boisterous Mongolian capitol.

Manchu-Mongol relations are examined in C.R. Bawden’s inquiry about “The Mongol Rebellion of 1756-1757”, “Document 23: Petitions of Grievances Submitted by the People”, and “Thomas E Ewing’s “Ch’ing Policies in Outer Mongolia, 1900-1911 ”, all of which chronicle events that led to the breakdown of Manchu authority and Mongolia’s declaration of independence in 1911.

Part 5 of Volume 3 begins with an early 20th century first-hand account of lamas of Ikh Khuree titled “Tales of an Old Lama, Jambal” translated by C. R. Bawden which provides an earthy, candid glimpse of the lama’s life. Frans August Larson’s “The Lamas of Mongolia” is a remarkable portrait of the Bogdo Gegen the Living Buddha of Mongolia. In this section Ferdinand Ossendowski’s classic “Beast, Men and Gods” regales us with tales of the notorious Mad Baron Ungern-Strenberg.

A series of articles of political development in Mongolia herald the post-Qing period beginning with Fujiko Isono’s “Soviet Russia and the Mongolian Revolution of 1921”, Horoshi Futaki’s “A Re-examination of the Mongolian People’s Party, Centering on Dogsom’s Memoir”, “The Buriat Intelligentsia” by Robert A. Rupen, “The Autobiography of the Diluv Khutagt”, Baabar’s “The Great Purge”, “Democracy Comes to Mongolia” by Chris Kaplonksi and finally, David Sneath’s “Producer Group and the Collectivization of the Mongolian Pastoral Economy.

The three volumes of “The History of Mongolia” contain an anthology of judiciously selected articles that reflect recent revaluations of long-held scholarly interpretations of Mongol historiography. The works contained in these volumes are well-balanced in that they include key period accounts translated from Mongolian, Russian and Chinese of critically important primary source material as well as contemporary historical writings that address wide-ranging and highly relevant topics. The articles in this compendium contain a copious amounts of historical details to help the reader better fathom the depth of Mongolia’s eventful continuum.

Sneath and Kaplonski have provided us with a very valuable resource that includes material from many disparate sources which collectively allows the reader to enjoy the dynamic intricacies that embody the study of Mongol history.

The editor’s well versed knowledge of steppe nomadic culture, tribal relations, traditions and politics has helped to produce a well informed, highly detailed systematic overview of Mongolia from its birth as a nation to modern statehood.

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