Friday, June 3, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Jurchens | Jin Dynasty | Part III

The invasion began in May of 1211. This was no small move on Chingis’s part. The Jin Dynasty, despite the symptoms of dynastic decay which had been reported to Chingis by his various spies, was still one of the five or six great sedentary states of Eurasia. The Jin state had a population of perhaps 40,000,000, although only around 3,000,000 of the populace were Jurchens, descendants of the original Jurchen tribesmen from Manchuria, the rest being Han Chinese and other indigenous peoples. The Jin state could muster 150,000 or so cavalrymen, most of the Jurchens, and 300,000 to 400,000 infantrymen, most of them Chinese. The loyalty of these Chinese infantry was, of course, in question. Still, according to one modern historian, “the Jin army retained a reputation as the most powerful military state in the known world.” 

Chingis had under his overall commanded one army of perhaps 50,000 cavalry led by himself, and another army of 50,000 cavalrymen led by three of his sons. His ranks would soon be swollen with discontented tribesmen and deserters from the Jin. 

The Mongols first confronted the Onggut, a tribe of nomads which guarded the southern rim of the Mongolian Plateau on behalf of the Jin Dynasty. Their leader Alakush quickly defected to Chingis along with many of his troops, demonstrating just how tenuous a hold the Jurchens had over many of their subject peoples. Loyalists along the Onggut reacted by assassinating Alakush, but at the urging of his nephew and heir the rest of the Ongguts soon fell in line and joined the Chingis’s forces. Several towns near present day Zhangjiakhou (earlier known as Kalgan) on the very edge of the Mongolian Plateau, quickly fell to advancing nomads, and more border troops deserted. Liu Bailin, the Jin commander of the town of Weining defected, and would go on to play a leading role in the defeat the the dynasty. 

WIth the Mongols, their ranks now swelled with former Jin auxiliary troops, poised on the very edge of the great ramparts overlooking the farm lands northern China and within a couple days ride of the Central Capital of Zhongdu (Beijing), the Jurchen court panicked and put out peace feelers, apparently thinking that this was just a another Mongol raid in search of quick loot and that Chingis could be bought off with some suitable bribes. When this initial overture was rejected, an senior envoy, a Khitan man by the name of Shimo Mingan who knew the Mongolian language and had earlier met with Chingis in Mongolia, was sent north with more serious peace proposals. Shimo Mingan promptly defected to the Mongols and was made a commander of both Mongol detachments and of native Chinese troops who had now turned on the Jurchens  . . . Continued.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Jurchens | Jin Dynasty | Part II

During Chingis Khan’s rise to power he had sought of patronage of Tooril, the powerful ruler of the Kerait Tribe who was headquartered in the valley of the Tuul River not far from current-day Ulaanbaatar. Tooril had recognized the nominal suzerainty of the Jin and apparently paid tribute to to them. In return he was awarded the title of Wang (or Ong) Khan. As one of Tooril’s vassals Temûchin also received a minor title from Jin Dynasty and may have also paid tribute. There are also hints that Temüchin sought refuge among the Jurchen during the low points in his early career when he was being hounded by more powerful Mongol tribes. 

Chingis Khan and the Wang Khan would later fall out and the Keraits would be defeated, calling into question the Jin title Temüchin had received as one of the Kerait ruler’s vassals. The Jin, for their part, still believed that Chingis Khan owed loyalty and tribute to them, even after he had been confirmed as leader of all the Mongols at the 1206 convocation on the Onon River. The Jurchens were no doubt aware that having became the most powerful ruler on the Mongolian Plateau Chingis now posed a direct threat to themselves, but at the time they were embroiled in war with the Song Dynasty in the south of China and could not confront Chingis directly. 

In 1208 the Jin Dynasty finally sought to clarify their relationship with Chingis Khan. The Jin emperor Zhangzong sent his uncle Wanyan Yunji, the Prince of Wei, north to reaffirm their suzerainty and receive tribute from Chingis. 

The Mongol Khan met with the prince but refused to make the proper signs of obeisance. It soon became clear the Chingis no longer recognized the Jin as his overlords. No mention was made of tribute. The infuriated Prince returned to China and began mobilizing troops to attack the Mongols. In late 1208 Emperor Zhangzong died and Wanyan Yunji became the new ruler of the Jin Dynasty. The attack was postponed, and instead Wanyan Yunji sent ambassador to Chingis with the news that he was now the Altan Khan (Golden Khan), as the the Mongols called the Jin Emperor, and that Chingis should declare his loyalty to him. Chingis, however, apparently had not been to impressed by Wanyan Yunji at their previous meeting. According to one account, when Chingis was asked by the ambassador to make obeisance to the new emperor he “flew into a rage” and stormed: “‘Is an imbecile like [Wanyan Yunjii] worthy of the throne and am I to humble myself before him?‘” He answered his own question by turning to the south and spitting in the direction of China. The ambassador was dismissed and Chingis rode away to the north. The import of these actions was clear to the Jin Emperor; Chingis Khan had declared war on the Jin Dynasty . . . Continued.

Mongolia | Zaisan | Gaga Invasion

Yesterday was Children’s Day in Mongolia. I went downtown to get my mail (the kind lady at my branch post office now sends me a text message when I get mail) and noticed block parties for children, complete with balloons and loud music, everywhere. Then I returned to Zaisan. It turns out the apartment complex next to my hovel was having a big party in its courtyard, complete with hundreds, maybe thousands, of balloons (what’s with the balloon thing?), clowns in uniform, and a sound system that boomed music loud enough to be heard a half mile away. The music was—you know it’s coming—Lady Gaga’s latest album “Born This Way”.

It was on endless loop and played for at least three hours. Perhaps nine out of ten people listening do not understand English and thus do not know what she is singing about, but who cares? It is just a wall of sound. Now I am as big a Lady Gaga Fan as the next guy, but this was just too much. I tried to settle down with the book I had just received in the mail, A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet and the Destiny of the Western World, but it was a bit hard to concentrate with Lady Gaga music playing loud enough to rattle the windows of my hovel. 
Lady Gaga has invaded Zaisan. There is no escape. Now we are all just vassals in Lady Gaga’s world. 
 Zaisan goes Gaga

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Jurchens | Jin Dynasty | Part I

Earlier I wrote about the Uighurs and the Xi Xia. Now I must finally turn my attention to the Jin Dynasty, also known as the Jurchen Dynasty (1115–1234).

The people known as Jurchens who went on to found the Jurchen, or Jin Dynasty, originated around the timbered basins of the Amur, Ussuri, and Sungari rivers in Manchuria, in what is now northeast China. Their language was Tungusic, an eastern extension of the Altaic language family and closely related to Manchu, the language of the people what would later create the Qing Dynasty. 

Almost nothing is known of their history prior to the tenth century a.d. Apparently they began to use iron only in the early eleventh century. One tribe of the Jurchen, the Wanyan, began making farming tools and weapons from iron and on the basis of this new technology soon dominated their neighbors. Under the leadership of a chieftain known as Wugunai (1021–1074) the Wanyan soon assumed leadership of a loose confederation of the various Jurchen tribes. Wugunai, according to contemporary histories, “was addicted to wine and women and could outdrink anyone,” but he was also a warrior of legendary stature  . . . Continued.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mongolia | Töv Aimag | Baga Nuur | Zevgee’s Family

Wandered on out to Baga Nuur to visit the family of my friend Zevgee, who recently transmigrated. My last visit to Baga Nuur, to celebrate Women’s Day, was a happier occasion.
Saraa, Zevgee’s wife Tümen-Ölzii, Zevgee and Enkha  celebrating Women’s Day
This time Zevgee was no longer with us, but I did have the opportunity of meeting up once again with his family members, many of them from Bayankhongor Aimag, where Zevgee was born. 
 Five of Zevgee’s brothers, to the right, in Baga Nuur
A few years ago I did a camel trip from Amarbuyant Khiid in Bayankhongor to Shar Khuls Oasis with Zevgee, his wife, and two of his brothers, Davakhüü and Khaidav, following the Route Of The 13th Dalai Lama and The Roerich Expedition.  
Khaidav, Zevgee’s son Bira, his brother-in-law Shoovoi, and Davakhüü loading a camel at Amarbuyant Khiid
 Davakhüü and Khaidav with four of their magnificent camels at Amarbuyant Khiid
 Zevgee, Khaidav, and Davakhüü taking a rest break in the Gobi
Davakhüü, Zevgee, Khaidav, and Tümen-Ölzii (standing) at the ovoo of The Ja Lama at Ekhiin Gol Oasis. Assistant Camel Wrangler, Historical Consultant, and Fox Zolzaya is sitting front right. 
Khaidav with his grandchildren at his ger in Bayankhongor
 Zevgee’s sister in Baga Nuur. We stayed at her ger in Bayankhongor Aimag and she and her husband Shoovoi cooked a goat with hot rocks—a dish known as Khorkhog—for us in honor of our visit. 
Khorkhog. The entire goat (not including head and innards) is cut up and cooked with heated rocks in a big milk can. This is the serving dish. You should always juggle one of the hot rocks in your left hand while eating with the right hand. 
Zevgee’s sister with her husband Shoovoi in Bayankhongor
 Another one of Zevgee’s brothers
  Another one of Zevgee’s brothers
  Another one of Zevgee’s brothers. This man was once the mayor of Shinejinst, a village in Bayankhongor Aimag. We stayed at his ger at the beginning of our camel trip.  
Ger in Shinejinst where we stayed

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Uzbekistan | Khorezm | Khiva | al-Khwārizmī

After viewing the Summer Mosque in Khiva I wandered outside the city walls and soon found myself in front of the statue of Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (c. 780–c. 859). Sources vary on the birthplace of al-Khwārizmī, but at least one historian, Ibn al-Nadim, asserts that he was born in Khorezm (also known as Khwarizm), and local boosters insist that despite all the various nay-sayers he was born right here in Khiva, hence his statute here on the main drag in front of the city walls. Al-Khwārizmī was a celebrated geographer, astronomer and mathematician and is acknowledged as the inventor of Algebra, a dubious accomplishment which has earned him the well-deserved opprobrium of generations of high school students the world over.
Statue of Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (c. 780–c. 859)
Al-Khwarizmi's most famous (or perhaps most notorious) book, in which he formulated the basis principles of algebra, was entitled Hisab Al-Jabr W'al Mugabalah, translating roughly as "the science of reunion and reduction”.
A page from al-Khwārizmī's Hisab Al-Jabr W'al Mugabalah
Our current word algebra is indeed a corruption of the word “Al-Jabr in the title. This book is still in print for the benefit of those few interested in such folderol: The Book of Algebra.

I myself have no interest whatsoever in wasting any more of my time discussing anything so jejune as algebra; if you are really interesting in this subject and have nothing better to do see A History of Algebra: From Al-Khwarizmi to Emmy Noether and/or Al-Khwarizmi: The Inventor of Algebra.

On a more salubrious note, later translations into Latin of al-Khwārizmī's other books, notably On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals (c. 825), led to the introduction of the so-called Hindu-Arabic Numeral System (complete with a decimal point and the all-important value of zero), and “Arabic Numerals” (i.e., the numbers we now use), into the Occidental world. Otherwise we would probably still be hammering Roman numerals into granite with a chisel. So al-Khwārizmī did have his redeeming qualities. 

In any case, al-Khwārizmī eventually washed up in Baghdad, where he became an integral part of the so-called Bayt al-Hikmah, or House of Wisdom, an institute of advanced studies in various sciences which had sprung up during the time of Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, he of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights fame, and eventually flowered under the patronage of his son al-Mamun (r 813–833 AD).  

Indeed, I have just recently added The House of Wisdom to my Scriptorium and even more fortuitously a Review has just appeared in the New Year Times:
Abdullah ­al-­Mamun, caliph of Baghdad in the early 9th century, was indispensable to this intellectual flowering. The city was only four decades old but had already become the largest in the world. In this vibrant setting, al-Mamun established an institute, the House of Wisdom, the likes of which had not been seen since the great library at Alexandria. The author compares Baghdad in those days to Renaissance Florence or Athens in the age of Pericles. At first, the caliph followed his great-grandfather’s practice of pushing his savants for Arabic translations of Greek books in the country’s possession, a legacy of Hellenistic rule for several centuries after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Over the next two centuries, more works of Aristotle, Pythagoras, Archimedes and Hippocrates, as well as Persian and Indian thinkers, were rendered into Arabic. It became a lucrative business, abetted by advances in papermaking learned from captive Chinese soldiers. Other wealthy patrons, not only the caliph, supported the translation movement, al-Khalili points out, “in part for the practical benefits it brought them in finance, agriculture, engineering projects and medicine, and in part because this patronage quickly turned into a de rigueur cultural activity that defined their standing in society.” A modern budget proposal from a science-funding agency could not have put it better.
 The Bayt al-Hikmah has now been recreated in cyperspace. See The House of Wisdom, a blog about the latest developments in Arabic science.
Stamp commemorating al-Khwārizmī's 1200th birthday. Al-Khwārizmī also has An Area On The Moon named after him.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mongolia | Töv Aimag | Zevgee — 1938–2011

Zevgee (1938–2011)
My good friend Zevgee transmigrated on the Full Moon Day of May 17, which by coincidence (or maybe not) was the day of Vesak, the Buddhist holiday observing the Buddha's Birth, Enlightenment, and Death, and also, according to Some Interpretations, the anniversary of the day the Buddha first taught the Kalachakra Tantra.

I first met Zevgee in 1997, as described in Part Three of my book Travels in Northern Mongolia. I eventually did twelve Horse or Camel Tripwith him, including a horse trip last summer to Onon Hot Springs. He will be missed. 
 Zevgee last summer at Onon Hot Springs
Zevgee, with his wife and two brothers at Shar Khuls Oasis