The Secret History of the Mongols by Christopher P Atwood (Translated from Mongolian) - review by John Man

John Man

Genghis, By Those Who Knew Him Best

The Secret History of the Mongols


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This is an important book. A new translation of the only Mongolian account of the rise of Genghis Khan, written soon after his death in 1227, it is a contemporaneous record of one of the most astonishing and significant events in history: the creation by horse-borne herders in an obscure region of Central Asia of what would become the greatest contiguous land empire ever, running from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. It’s impossible to comprehend the history of a dozen of today’s nation-states, including China and Russia, without engaging with the Mongol Empire.

It is also a challenging book, with a lineage that scholars have wrestled with for over a century. The original was written for private use by Mongolian rulers (hence ‘secret’). It vanished, leaving behind a scattering of partial copies and many legends based on Buddhist mythology, Tibetan Buddhism being the major religion of the Mongol Empire. In the late 14th century, when Ming-dynasty China ruled Mongolia, the original was reconstituted and used to create a version transcribed in Chinese for Ming bureaucrats grappling with medieval Mongolian. All copies of this transcription, as well as linguistic and historical glossaries, also vanished, with the exception of one which was preserved as part of a Ming encyclopaedia consisting of more than eleven thousand volumes. In the early 19th century, two more copies of the transcription were made – luckily, because the only copy of the vast Ming encyclopaedia was destroyed when Anglo-French forces burned Beijing’s Summer Palace in 1860 during the Second Opium War. When interest in the text took off after about 1900, scholars worked for decades to reconstruct the original Mongolian.

Translations followed. There are now more than seventy overall and four in English. Why do we need another? Because in the case of this complex and demanding work, each translator becomes part of an enduring struggle to understand the rich language and unravel fact from fiction. Christopher Atwood, who teaches

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