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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 2, 2020

Rain. The constant, incessant rains of autumn.  A wide brown river, its water swirling and churning, now overflowing its banks due to the rain. A great inconvenience and threat to the local farmer, but to the commander on horseback, his piercing eyes see a weapon. Men are sent with buckets of earth, stones and trees, and a makeshift dyke soon rises. The water is now unable to travel its standard route, and is now diverted, towards the great city and proud defenders who  have dared to resist the Mongols. Lacking tools to take down the city’s walls, Chinggis Khan will now use the very landscape itself to strike his foe. 


    This was the tactic Chinggis Khan would use in his first conquest of sedentary power, a campaign against the Tangut Kingdom, known also as the Xi Xia Dynasty, in what is now northwestern China. His armies having never even seen walled cities before, this campaign would be the first true test of the army of the newly established Mongol Empire, the prelude to the fearsome conquests which would soon grip Asia. I’m your host David and welcome to Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast.  This is the Mongol Conquests.


Before we get to the first Mongol invasion of the Tangut, we must step back a few 

years. When we last left off with Chinggis Khan, he had finally unified the Mongol tribes and proclaimed the Mongol Empire in 1206. A little over 50 years of age, Chinggis had spent his life fighting for every inch of ground. He had known victory as keenly as defeat, and learned from not only every mistake he himself had made, but all that his enemies had made as well. The new Mongol state had been hard won: yet, it was a brittle entity. Tribal confederations were not known for their longevity, and Chinggis Khan had to ensure that the animosity of the tribes would not rear its head and tear his new empire apart. 


He developed several strategies to prevent this. First, was breaking down the powers of the traditional chiefs and Khans: loyalties were now to be to the Great Khan. Old leaders who had resisted were removed from power entirely, extinguishing them as possible beacons of resistance. The majority of these tribes were broken up, their families mixed among Chinggis’ own people, which was then cemented by the extension of the army’s decimal system to the entire nation, totally reorganizing Mongol society. 


But what was the decimal system that we have now made reference to several times? Organized into units of 10, 100, 1000 and 10,000, or in Mongolian, arban, jaghun, minghaan and tumen, peoples from various tribes were placed into the same minghaan, replacing the tribal social organization with the decimal one. Just as there was the military unit of the minghaan, now families were placed into their own ‘units,’ which were used as basis for taxation. Each military Minghaan was supported by the ‘civilian’ minghaans, which supplied, produced and maintained equipment and utensils used by the warriors, and in the absence of the fighting men, were responsible for managing the various herds of the Mongols. "No longer were they Taychiud, Tatar, Kereyit or Naiman, but Mongols. A few select tribes who had shown themselves loyal were allowed to maintain their integrity and their rulers, but had to recognize the absolute authority of Chinggis Khan himself. There was to be no Khan but the Khan himself.


The individual law codes and customs of each tribe were now overruled by a single code set out by Chinggis- the great yassa. The yassa standardized tribal customs, forbidding acts which would antagonize the spirits and bring misfortune upon the young nation. Acts seemingly as innocuous as washing dirty things in running water, putting a knife into a fire or urinating in ashes were all punishable by death, as they offended the spirits within and could bring calamity.  Such prohibitions mattered when Heaven’s support was crucial for success. Death seems to have been a common punishment in the yassa, and none doubted that the Khan was willing to carry it out. It also ordained the proper way to slaughter animals, via crushing the heart and not spilling any blood. All religions were to be respected, and religious figures exempt from taxation- though how far this religious tolerance went, when the yassa expressly forbid the Islamic method of slaughter which mandated draining the blood, is a part of the strong debate around the code. Was the yassa intended to apply to sedentary peoples?  When it was, how thoroughly was it enforced upon them? The answers to this vary over time and place, and we will discuss these in due course.


To aid in the management of the Mongols,Chinggis Khan needed to establish an administration for his new empire. Now, this should not be conflated with the hulking bureaucracies of China, in comparison to which the Mongol 'administration’ would have been a laughably simple thing. But it was necessary for managing a state of about one million people and the roughly 100,000 strong army. With the defeat of the Naiman, Chinggis had acquired their Uighur scribes. Mongolian at that time had no written form, and Chinggis Khan quickly saw the use of a script. Thus, Mongolian gained its first alphabet, still in use today in Inner Mongolia. One of Chinggis’ adopted sons, a Tatar named Shigi Qutuqu (Koo-too-koo), was appointed yeke jarghuchi,(Yayk-eh jarg-hoochi) the chief judge of the empire, given great power settling legal matters, preserving justice and recording the edicts of Chinggis Khan and judicial decisions in their new alphabet.


    To assist the burgeoning administration was the expansion of the keshig to 10,000 men. The keshig had been established only in 1204, essentially as a bodyguard for the Khan. Aside from guarding the Khan, they acted as grooms, preparing his meals, maintaining his ger, his herds, weapons and even musical instruments. Made up of trusted men, sons of commanders or sons of vassal chiefs and Khans, it also served as a sort of military college. It provided first hand learning experience at army leadership and administration, to see who was fit to ‘graduate’ to command armies, govern peoples or in time, territories. Richly rewarded and trusted, when those of keshig who were sons of vassals were sent back to their homelands, they acted as agents for the Khan to ensure the loyalty of their people, and were an important instrument of control for Chinggis Khan and his successors. 


    These actions helped strengthen what the Mongols valued most in their armies: loyalty, and discipline. Great trust would be placed in the commanders of not just armies, but of each level of the decimal system. In order for their maneuverability in warfare to succeed, where Mongol armies could literally be operating hundreds of kilometres apart, it was absolutely necessary that commanders could trust each other to meet timetables, objectives, stay in contact and meet up to surround enemy armies. It is to the credit of the Mongol military that the Khan could be operating on the far side of Asia, and he could trust his commanders to remain loyal, carry out his duties and expand the empire. By removing possible allegiances that could challenge loyalty to the Khan, rewarding those who showed ability and skill while supporting and protecting the soldiers’ families, the Great Khans were rewarded by a hardy, adaptable and reliable army. Individual soldiers went to great lengths to prove their worth and carry out orders: abandoning their arbans would bring strict punishment, or even death, to their comrades and families. Defections of Mongol soldiers, officers or commanders during the height of Mongol unity was extremely rare, and almost every contemporary foreign author commented on that loyalty, how the average Mongol stoically, even happily, endured the fiercest hardship for the Khan. 


    The few possible rivals for power who emerged from within the early empire were quickly dealt with. An ambitious shaman, Chinggis’ step-brother Kokochu, also known by the title of Teb-Tenggeri, grew greedy and bold. Already famous for his strong connection with the spirits, and supposed ability to walk naked through even the fiercest of snow storms, it was he, we are told in one source, who gave the title of Chinggis Khan to the warlord Temujin in 1206. Having in his view, appointed the Great Khan, he was  soon bold enough that he assaulted Chinggis’ brothers. When he overstepped, Chinggis allowed his youngest brother to break the shaman’s back and leave him to die. It served as a stark message: the Khan was stronger than even the mightiest of shamans. No religious authority would be able to claim power over the Great Khan of the Mongols.


    These methods provided internal control to his new state, but its footing was not entirely stable yet. Various enemy leaders or their sons had survived the wars of unification- Toqto’a Beki of the Merkit and his sons, Buiruk Khan of the Naiman and his nephew Kuchlug, and the son of the late Ong Khan, Senggum Ilkha of the Kereyit. The Naiman and Kereyit sons were a particular concern, as the Jin Dynasty in the south could choose to support them as candidates against Chinggis, a beacon for those extant disaffected elements to gather around. In the years immediately following unification in 1206, it was against these potential sparks that Chinggis Khan had to stamp down. Buiruk was crushed first in the later part of 1206, leading the surviving Naiman under Kuchlug to move west, joining the Merkit under Toqto’a on the Irtysh River, where they were defeated in 1208. Toqto’a was killed in battle, his sons fleeing to the far west to the Qipchaq tribes, and Kuchlug would in time end up in the Qara-Khitai, where he would usurp power in 1211. We’ll pick up with him in a later episode for his final fate.


    To the north, a number of the tribes of the Siberian forests around Lake Baikal were forced to submit in 1207. This included the Kirghiz, the Tumed and the Oirat, among others. By 1208, Chinggis had secured his northern and western borders, and with his eastern borders bounded by the Khingan mountains, that left the south, the kingdoms of China. 


    While these other actions to establish an administration and destroy potential rivals helped secure his power, he knew that without a common enemy to throw the whole of his people against, if left idle, the Mongol would begin to fight each other in due time. Reminiscent of Otto von Bismarck’s ploy to unify the German states against their French foe, Chinggis Khan needed ample loot and warfare to burn off their excess energies and keep them united towards a shared goal. It served other aspects as well- we noted already the danger from the potential of the Jin Dynasty giving support to a rival chief and churning up the internal rivalries of the new empire. The late 12th century seems to have been a drier period with an increase in desertification, accentuating the decrease in herds brought on by years of continuous warfare in Mongolia. Attacking China would replenish their herds, and by providing the Mongols with loot, Chinggis Khan would be undertaking part of his duties as the steppe warchief par excellence


Ideologically it buttressed his new state as well. Part of Chinggis Khan’s legitimacy was based on his connection to the Khamag Mongol union of the early 12th century. The Khamag was destroyed by the Jurchen Jin, the Khan Ambaghai tortured and murdered by them. By attacking the Jin, Chinggis would also be performing another duty of the Khan, that is, avenging past wrongs. Finally, while in the first years of the 1200s the Jin Dynasty was distracted by internal revolts, flooding and renewed warfare with the Chinese Song Dynasty to their south, they would not sit idly by for long while the steppes to the north were unified under a single power. The Jin considered Chinggis Khan their vassal, and confrontation would be inevitable. It was to the advantage of the Mongols to make the first move.


    It should be noted that no evidence suggests at this point that the Mongols believed in dominating the world or any such thing. At the outset, even an actual conquest of China doesn’t seem to have been considered.


    In a previous episode, we discussed the states of 13th century China, so we won’t repeat that at length here. The two kingdoms the Mongols faced at the outset was the Jurchen Jin empire, its capital at Zhongdu, modern day Beijing, which controlled a huge stretch of territory from the Ordos loop to the far east of Manchuria. Ruled by the Jurchen, a semi-nomadic people originally from Manchuria, it was certainly the strongest single military force in the world at this point, with a population of about 40 million, mainly Chinese but a notable Jurchen and Khitan minority. Chinggis Khan would have considered them the single greatest foe he faced. To the west of the Jin Dynasty, in the Gansu corridor, was the ‘backdoor’ to north China. The Xi Xia Dynasty, or the Tangut Kingdom. Considerably smaller in both population, geographic size and in its military, it was a stout kingdom ruled by a people of Tibetan heritage, with a mixed population of Turkic nomads, sedentary Chinese and Uighurs. Much of it was covered by desert and mountain, its major cities huddled along the Yellow River west of the Ordos desert. Controlling the Gansu corridor, the narrow strip between the Gobi desert and Mongolia in the north, and the offshoots of the Himalayas to the south, most of the overland trade routes, the Silk routes, were funnelled through here, increasing the wealth of the kingdom substantially.  It was here the hammer would fall first.


    The first Mongol raids into the Tangut realm were in 1205, pursuing the fleeing Kereyit prince Senggum Ilka. The Senggum evaded them, as he had been chased out by the Tangut and was then murdered shortly afterwards in the Tarim basin. The Mongols made due with captured animals and goods before withdrawing. In 1207, the Mongols returned to the Tangut, a more serious probe this time, taking advantage of the first coup d’etat in the Xi Xia’s history, and the ascension of the new King Weiming Anquan (an-quan). Tangut garrisons were sent out to meet the raiders, and were destroyed, and the border fort of Wu-la-hai was sacked and occupied until early 1208.


    The new Tangut King looked to the Jin, their nominal overlords, for aid, but in the winter of 1208 the Jin emperor had died and was succeeded by his uncle, Wanyan Yongji. History does not look kindly on him. So poor was his reign that his successor posthumously demoted him from Emperor to Prince, and hence, instead of emperor, sources call him the Wei Shao Wang, the Prince of Wei. To give you an idea of his character, his helpful response to the Mongol attacks on the Tangut was allegedly to say “it is to our advantage when our enemies attack one another. Wherein lies the danger to us?” How could a man who tempts fate so willingly have been a poor emperor?


    By autumn 1209, Chinggis Khan was ready for more serious actions. His flanks now secured with the defeat of the Naiman-Merkit force on the Irtysh in the west, the submission of the forest tribes to his north, and the voluntary submission of the Uighurs, the neighbours of the Tangut in 1209, the Mongol conquests were to begin. The Mongols marched in spring 1209, when there would be sufficient water and sparse grasses to allow the perhaps 60,000 man army to cross the Gobi desert. The Tangut armies, generally Turkic and Tangut horse archers and lancers, supported by Chinese infantry, fared poorly against Chinggis, who personally led the invasion. 


His disciplined army in the open proved itself almost immediately. Made strong by their hard lifes, at a strategic level the army moved swiftly, effectively and without complaint. Honed and sharpened by decades of continuous war, at the tactical level they were a storm, out maneuvering and surrounding their enemies on the field, their arrows flying far, hitting hard and striking true. Thousands of arrows would rise into the sky like a cloud, dropping like rain and suddenly releasing cries of anguish from an army of dying men and horses.  Wings of the Mongol army, separated by kilometres but kept in touch through messengers, signal arrows, flags and drums, seemed to move as one to envelope their foe. Or, in their units of 10, 100 or 1,000, sent to run against the enemy, appearing like an undisciplined horde before suddenly forming into a wall of unyielding cavalry, or swiftly wheeling about, turning in their saddles to send arrows behind them, tempting the foe to pursue. Often, they took the bait, charging the Mongol archers, who parted, the impetus of the enemy charge leading into nothing. Isolated, these horsemen were quickly surrounded, filled with arrows or crushed by the Mongols’ own lancers. The enemy infantry without cavalry support could be then almost contemptuously picked off, like a wolf among a flock of sheep.


Chinggis Khan marched first to Wu-la-hai, where he destroyed a Tangut army sent against him. The fort fell once more shortly afterwards. Marching south along the Yellow River, they had to cross the Helan mountains, which formed a shield from west to north in which the Tangut capital, Zhongxing, modern Yinchuan, lay huddled in its fertile valley. On its eastern approach it was guarded by the Yellow River, which watered the irrigation canals that sustained life and crops in this beating heart of the Tangut realm. The approach through the Helan Shan was marked by the fort of Kei-min, reinforced in the aftermath of Wu-lai-hai’s fall, and led by an imperial prince. The Mongol vanguard was initially repulsed, but with the arrival of the main Mongol army the Tangut garrison remained on the defensive, hiding behind their walls. For two months, the Mongols waited before the fort, lacking the means to force Kei-min and the garrison refusing to sally forth. Frustrated in the summer heat, Chinggis Khan was not outplayed.  Feigning a retreat, the Tangut garrison was tricked into pursuing their fleeing foe- only to find themselves met by the full Mongol army far from the protection of their walls. Kei-min surrendered shortly afterwards.


    Descending from the Helan Shan, Chinggis Khan was now before the walls of the Tangut capital, and it was these walls which threatened to halt his invasion. Thick walls of stamped earth, dotted by sturdy towers and well armed defenders and surrounded by irrigation canals, without siege equipment the Mongols could barely advance to the city. They looted the surrounding countryside and villages, but Zhongxing itself stood defiant, unassailable. So Chinggis sat before the walls, wasting away until the autumn of 1209, when a solution seemed to present itself. The rains of the fall swelled the nearby Yellow River, and Chinggis had an idea. His horsemen were sent forth with looted tools, and built an impromptu dyke, diverting the water which now was forced into the city. The stamped earthen walls were undermined, homes were washed away and the standing water threatened disease in Zhongxing, all while the usual rigours of the siege and blockade, starvation and illness, sapped away at Tangut moral. Somewhat embarrassingly, the makeshift dyke broke and flooded the Mongol camp, but by then it could not change the outcome, and finally in January 1210 the Tangut agreed to peace talks. 


    Humiliated, the Tangut became vassals of the Mongols, providing a princess in marriage for Chinggis and extensive tribute, including falcons, camels and textiles. Chinggis Khan returned to Mongolia in early 1210, vindicated- the Tangut King, Weiming Anquan, died under suspicious circumstances the next year. Thus ended the first Mongol conquest. 


Cities and walls had proved an issue, but in the field the Mongols had performed spectacularly, and proved highly adaptable. No reliable method for forcing cities had yet been determined, but garrisons could be tricked out into the field by thoughts of easy victory. Compared to later Mongol conquest, the Tangut got off relatively light in 1210. The tribute was costly, but not prohibitively so, and cost less than the damage which continued Mongol attacks would cause. Neither did the Mongols leave a garrison in the country, and aside from demands for troops and tribute, the Mongols would interfere little in the internal autonomy the Tanguts so dearly prized. The submission was not popular within the Kingdom, and a notable faction in the court would develop urging the Tangut King to break with the Mongols at every opportunity. Despite the fact the Tanguts had survived the Mongol conquest more or less intact, this element in the court would ultimately lead to the destruction of the Tangut Kingdom. 


    Not long after his return, Chinggis Khan received messengers from the Jin court, informing him of the ascension of Wanyan Yongji and to reaffirm Chinggis’ tribute obligations. You may recall that Chinggis had fought against the Tatar tribes with Jin assistance in 1196. The Jin would have considered him a vassal after that, and he likely sent gifts, or tribute, to the Jin for a few years. It seems around 1206, he had stopped this, and in 1208 Emperor Zhangzong of Jin had sent his uncle Wanyan Yongji as embassy to get Chinggis to supply that tribute and reaffirm his vassalage. Chinggis had found Yongji utterly unthreatening, and had disrespected him. Now in 1210, learning that Yongji was the new emperor, Chinggis could only laugh. According to protocol, he was supposed to kowtow to the news. Instead, he spat on the ground towards the south, the direction of the Jin Emperor, and said, “I thought that the ruler of the Middle Kingdom must be from Heaven. Can he be a person of such weakness as Wei Shao Wang? Why should I kowtow for him?” before riding away. War had been declared, the start of a 20 year struggle that would outlast both Chinggis Khan and Wei Shao Wang.


This has been the start of our discussion on the Mongol conquests, and the next one is going to be even bigger, so be sure to hit subscribe to Ages of Conquest: A Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!