Another month and another episode – 27.04.2020

The fifth in the Rise of Temujin series, named ‘Chinese Agent?’ tries to piece together the ten-year gap in the sources between Temujin’s defeat to Jamugha in the mid-1180s and his triumphant return and defeat of the Tatar tribe in 1196. This episode provides some historical context and tries to provide an answer to the question of what was he doing during this time. As the title suggests, I work on an idea based on a snippet provided by the Chinese source the Meng da Bei lu which suggests that Temujin was a slave of the Jin. The source is generally regarded as a piece of propaganda; however, I argue that we shouldn’t disregard it entirely and that it could offer an insight into Temujin’s movements and behaviour during this time.

I will admit that this hypothesis relies entirely on something that I haven’t directly read – the Meng da Bei lu has only been partially translated so my arguments could be entirely wrong. If there is any truth in it, then the events I put forward show a different side to Temujin. We are familiar with the conqueror, the man who ran a meritocracy, the man who established laws and encouraged his children to learn; however, we do not see too much in the way of the ambitious, conniving, I guess somewhat more ‘human’ side of him. Perhaps this is because the image of Chingis Khan was carefully cultivated by contemporary historians and any indication that he may have worked for the Jin or stabbed Toghoril in the back just didn’t fit with the Mongol world view. Anyway, here is the text from that section of the episode and I will be back with another episode and update next month!

‘The fluidity of the frontier zone is probably what Temujin took advantage of after his defeat. He could retreat to the relative safety of the zone, lick his wounds, regain strength and make connections with the tribes who called it home. There is the merest hint that he may also have got involved with the Jin. The Song diplomat Zhao Hong wrote in the Meng da Bei lu that Temujin spent ten years as a slave of the Jurchen. Now there is a lot of disagreement over the validity of the source with most scholars regarding it as a piece of Chinese propaganda and the majority of biographies follow the structure of the Secret History, ignoring these years entirely.

Having no ability to read the source, I’m not in the best position to offer support either way, but if we consider the events leading up to 1196 it could provide us with the source of Temujin’s restoration. If we consider that the term slave does not necessarily mean a slave in the manacled, palm frond waving sense and instead refers to vassalage or employment, then this changes the sentiment of the Meng da Bei lu. Instead of being thrust back into poverty, did Temujin regain his strength by working for a far more powerful and controversial overlord? It would certainly explain why, in 1196, the Secret History states that the Jurchen turned to Temujin for support against the Tatar.

Working with this, probably dodgy, hypothesis here is my reconstruction of events leading up to the defeat of the Tatars in 1196.

Whilst the Jin typically promoted inter-tribal warfare to maintain their influence over the steppe, they sometimes sent their own armies to carry out punitive raids. In the autumn of 1195 Jin commander Wanyen Xiang led his troops and their Tatar allies in campaign against the Ungirad tribe. This was successful; however, a disagreement rose over the division of the spoils, which led to the Tatar chief rebelling against the Jurchen. Wanyen Xiang launched a surprise attack against the rebels and secured a victory but at the cost of severely weakening his own army. Perhaps in response to this disloyalty and the general unreliability of the Tatar tribe, Wanyen Xiang may have looked around to find other potential nomad allies looking particularly at those groups who lived around the frontier zone and had established a relationship with the Jin. One of the men in this region had a legitimate claim over the most powerful tribe in Central Mongolia and also maintained a strong following. It seems likely that Jakha Gambu was well known to the commanders of the Jin frontier, as he appears to have spent his entire exile from the Kereyid tribe in the region. An alliance with the Kereyid would have been a no brainer for the Jin, as it would have given them the strength to counter the Tatar threat, but was the leadership of the Kereyid something that Jakha Gambu would have wanted? This is where agent Temujin comes in. If he had been working for the Jin for the best part of a decade it seems probable that the relationship between Jakha Gambu and Temujin would have been known. I should note here that this relationship is another grey area not covered in any detail by the sources, but it seems that they were close, perhaps even anda and the two were brought even closer with the marriage of a number of family members.

Continuing with my hypothesis, Temujin, a man of great ability but with limited power was then tasked by the Jin to bring Jakha Gambu and his part of the Kereyid into an alliance, with the longer-term goal of reuniting the entire Kereyid tribe under his banner. There was just one problem with this plan – out of all of Toghoril’s brothers, Jakha Gambu is one of the few that seems to have stayed loyal to him, so knowing that the deposed khan was still alive I would argue that he would have been reluctant to take the position. This is where Rashid al-Din’s note comes in. He states that in 1195 Temujin resorted to violence to reunite Jakha Gambu with his brother Toghoril khan. In my scenario the argument had nothing to do with Toghoril, but was Temujin spying an opportunity to gain power and influence back on the steppe and Jakha Gambu resisting it. Of course, we can’t know this for certain.

What is certain is that in 1196 Temujin took the opportunity to destroy the group of Tatars defeated by Wanyen Xiang. Rashid al-Din reports that the Tatars did not have the strength to offer resistance and that the previous defeat had forced them to take their women, children, flocks, and herds and move camp.

As a result, the fight was extremely one-sided, Temujin advanced quickly, and the opportunistic nature of the attack meant that the Tatar were unprepared for it. A large number of tribespeople were killed, including their leader, and Temujin’s soldiers obtained a lot of plunder. As a reward for this attack, Wanyen Xiang gave Temujin the title Ja’ud Khuri, which means something along the lines of pacifier, and gave him a promise to inform the Emperor of his actions, with the suggestion that a greater title might be available.

This was likely a carrot and stick situation, Wanyen Xiang was dangling the prospect of further rewards to ensure that Temujin continued to work for the Jin. The reality was that the Jurchen had no reason to grant him any grander titles. He may have been a useful tool for policing the frontier zone, but Temujin was still small potatoes in the pantheon of tribal leaders. If the Jin were seriously looking to replace their alliance with the Tatar for one with the Kereyid, they needed someone with a bigger reputation – hence going after Jakha Gambu.

Fortunately for everyone, the leader with the biggest reputation and ego was about to re-enter the steppe. After unsuccessfully trying to provoke a rebellion in the Qara Khitai and plundering his way back east, Toghoril found himself reduced to extreme poverty, living off the milk of some stolen sheep. Possibly after hearing about Temujin’s success and new title he went to the son of his former anda and begged for help. Toghoril was suddenly the most popular person in the frontier zone. Everyone’s prayers were answered – Jakha Gambu could refuse to be made Khan, the Jin had their puppet and Temujin had an opportunity to play puppet master and improve his own position. Toghoril was quickly invested with the royal title of Ong or Wang, meaning King or Prince, and found himself elevated back to the position of khan – ego soothed and reputation restored.’

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