Category Archives: Mongolia

Persia Under the Mongols

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2008-32:

Khorasan suffered terribly again as the Mongols moved in to punish those who continued to resist, and to set up their occupation regime. In Tus, which they made their base, the Mongols initially found only fifty houses still standing. The golden age of Khorasan was over, and in some parts of the region agriculture never really recovered. Where there had been towns and irrigated fields, the war horses of the conquerors and their confederates now were turned out to graze. Wide expanses of Iran reverted to nomad pastoralism, but these nomads were more dangerous, ruthless mounted warriors of a different kind. Peasants were subjected to taxes that were ruinously high and were collected after the fashion of a military campaign. Many fled the land or were forced into slavery, while those artisan city dwellers who had survived the massacres were forced to labor in workhouses for their conquerors. Minorities suffered, too. In the 1280s a Jew was appointed as vizier by the Mongols, but his appointment grew unpopular, he fell from office, and Jews were attacked by Muslims in the cities, establishing a dismal pattern for later centuries: “[They] fell upon the Jews in every city of the empire, to wreak their vengeance upon them for the degradation which they had suffered from the Mongols.” It was a grim time indeed. Khorasan was more affected than other parts, but the general collapse of the economy hit the entire region.

The Mongols, who made Tabriz their capital, spent the next few decades consolidating their conquests and destroying the Ismaili Assassins in the Alborz mountains, just as the Seljuks had tried and failed to do for many years before 1220. Some smaller rulers who had submitted to the Mongols were allowed to continue as vassals, and in the west the rump of the Seljuk Empire survived in Anatolia on the same basis as the Sultanate of Rum. In 1258 the Mongols took Baghdad. They killed the last Abbasid caliph by wrapping him in a carpet and trampling him to death with horses.

Yet within a few decades, astoundingly, or perhaps predictably, the Persian class of scholars and administrators had pulled off their trick of conquering the conquerors—for the third time. Before long they made themselves indispensable. A Shi‘a astrologer, Naser od-Din Tusi, captured by the Mongols at the end of the campaign against the Ismailis, had taken service with the Mongol prince Hulagu, and served as his adviser in the campaign against Baghdad. Naser od-Din Tusi then set up an astronomical observatory for Hulagu in Azerbaijan. One member of the Persian Juvayni family became governor of Baghdad and wrote the history of the Mongols; another became the vizier of a later Mongol Il-Khan, or king. Within a couple of generations Persian officials were as firmly in place at the court of the Il-Khans as they had been with the Seljuks, the Ghaznavids, and earlier dynasties. The Mongols initially retained their paganism, but in 1295 their Buddhist ruler converted to Islam along with his army. In 1316 his son Oljeitu died and was buried in a mausoleum that still stands in Soltaniyeh—one of the grandest monuments of Iranian Islamic architecture and a monument also to the resilience and assimilating power of Iranian culture.

Leave a comment

Filed under Central Asia, Iran, migration, military, Mongolia, nationalism, religion, scholarship, Turkey

How Yunnan Became Chinese, and Muslim

From Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, by Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Kindle Loc. 2475-2501:

Seven hundred years before the present wave of tourists was an altogether different wave, of Mongols, Turks and Islam. The Mongol conquest of Yunnan in the thirteenth century brought this hitherto independent kingdom for the first time under Beijing’s control and began a process of integration into ‘China proper’ that has continued to today. The Mongol conquest also brought an astonishingly diverse influx of mainly Muslim peoples, from across their Eurasian domains.

Though the invasion forces were ultimately under Mongol command, many of the officers and most of the soldiers were Turks or people from further west. The force that invaded Burma for example is said to have included no fewer than 14,000 men of the erstwhile Persian Khwarezmid empire, under their own commander Yalu Beg. Others came to garrison the new possession. They included Turks from Samarkand, Bokhara, Merv and Nishpur. They also included tribal peoples like the Kipchaks and even Bulgars from the lower Volga. Yunnan itself had been conquered by the Mongol Prince Uriyangkadai who had also conquered Baghdad, and his forces most likely included captive soldiers from the Abbasid caliphate as well as southern Russia and the Ukraine.

There were even more exotic immigrants. They included the Alans–a Sarmatian tribe today known as the Ossetians–who had submitted to the Mongols and had provided a thousand warriors for the personal body guard of the Great Khan. A son of the Alan chief, Nicholas, took part in the conquest of Yunnan, and men from the North Caucasus were posted along the Burmese borderland.

A member of the Mongol imperial clan, Prince Hugeshi, was appointed ‘prince of Yunnan’ whilst the old ruling family, the Duans, were allowed to stay in Dali and keep the title of ‘maharaja’. The Muslim newcomers, based at Dali, became extremely powerful and the most powerful of them all was a native of Bokhara named Sayyid Ajall Shams al-Din Omar. He claimed descent from the emir of Bokhara (though some say his family were originally from Cairo) and by the late 1250s he was a rising star in the Mongol establishment. He served in Baghdad and in China and was appointed as the top administrator in Yunnan in the 1270s. Today the Muslims of Yunnan regard him as the founder of their community, a wise and benevolent ruler who ‘pacified and comforted’ the peoples of Yunnan.

Sayyid Ajall was officially the Director of Political Affairs of the Regional Secretariat of Yunnan, about as bureaucratic a title as one can imagine in medieval times. According to Chinese records, he introduced new agricultural technologies, constructed irrigation systems, and tried to raise living standards. Though a Muslim, he built or rebuilt Confucian temples and created a Confucian education system. His contemporary, He Hongzuo, the Regional Superintendent of Confucian Studies, wrote that through his efforts ‘the orang-utans and butcherbirds became unicorns and phoenixes and their felts and furs were exchanged for gowns and caps’. There were many other civilizing missions on China’s periphery but only in Yunnan was one conducted under Muslim (and essentially Turkish Muslim) leadership.

In this way, Yunnan became known to the Islamic world. When Sayyid Ajall died in 1279 he was succeeded by his son Nasir al-Din who governed for five years and led the invasion of Burma. His younger brother became the Transport Commissioner and the entire family entrenched their influence. There were still very few Han Chinese in Yunnan and the growing Muslim community began to excel as long-distance traders as well. In the early fourteenth century, the great Persian Jewish historian Rashid al-Din Hamadani stated that the Dali region had become exclusively Muslim.

Leave a comment

Filed under Burma, Central Asia, China, Islam, migration, Mongolia, Turkey

Stalin’s Fears of Japan and Poland, 1937-1939

From Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books, 2010), Kindle Locs. 2094-2112, 2285-2321 (pp. 105, 116-117):

In 1937 Japan seemed to be the immediate threat. Japanese activity in east Asia had been the justification for the kulak operation. The Japanese threat was the pretext for actions against the Chinese minority in the Soviet Union, and against Soviet railway workers who had returned from Manchuria. Japanese espionage was also the justification for the deportation of the entire Soviet Korean population, about 170,000 people, from the Far East to Kazakhstan. Korea itself was then under Japanese occupation, so the Soviet Koreans became a kind of diaspora nationality by association with Japan. Stalin’s client in the western Chinese district of Xinjiang, Sheng Shicai, carried out a terror of his own, in which thousands of people were killed. The People’s Republic of Mongolia, to the north of China, had been a Soviet satellite since its creation in 1924. Soviet troops entered allied Mongolia in 1937, and Mongolian authorities carried out their own terror in 1937-1938, in which 20,474 people were killed. All of this was directed at Japan.

None of these killings served much of a strategic purpose. The Japanese leadership had decided upon a southern strategy, toward China and then the Pacific. Japan intervened in China in July 1937, right when the Great Terror began, and would move further southward only thereafter. The rationale of both the kulak action and these eastern national actions was thus false. It is possible that Stalin feared Japan, and he had good reason for concern. Japanese intentions were certainly aggressive in the 1930s, and the only question was about the direction of expansion: north or south. Japanese governments were unstable and prone to rapid changes in policy. In the end, however, mass killings could not preserve the Soviet Union from an attack that was not coming.

Perhaps, as with the Poles, Stalin reasoned that mass killing had no costs. If Japan meant to attack, it would find less support inside the Soviet Union. If it did not, then no harm to Soviet interests had been done by preemptive mass murder and deportation. Again, such reasoning coheres only when the interests of the Soviet state are seen as distinct from the lives and well-being of its population. And again, the use of the NKVD against internal enemies (and against itself) prevented a more systematic approach to the actual threat that the Soviet Union faced: a German attack without Japanese or Polish assistance and without the help of internal opponents of Soviet rule.

Officially, the agreement signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939 was nothing more than a nonaggression pact. In fact, Ribbentrop and Molotov also agreed to a secret protocol, designating areas of influence for Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union within eastern Europe: in what were still the independent states of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. The irony was that Stalin had very recently justified the murder of more than one hundred thousand of his own citizens by the false claim that Poland had signed just such a secret codicil with Germany under the cover of a nonaggression pact. The Polish operation had been presented as preparation for a German-Polish attack; now the Soviet Union had agreed to attack Poland along with Germany.

On 1 September 1939, the Wehrmacht attacked Poland from the north, west, and south, using men and arms from annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia. Hitler had begun his war.

In August and September 1939, Stalin was reading maps not just of east Europe but of east Asia. He had found an opportunity to improve the Soviet position in the Far East. Stalin could now be confident that no German-Polish attack was coming from the west. If the Soviet Union moved against Japan in east Asia, there would be no fear of a second front. The Soviets (and their Mongolian allies) attacked Japanese (and puppet Manchukuo) forces at a contested border area (between Mongolia and Manchukuo) on 20 August 1939. Stalin’s policy of rapprochement with Berlin of 23 August 1939 was also directed against Tokyo. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, signed three days after the Soviet offensive, nullified the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan. Even more than the battlefield defeat, the Nazi-Soviet alliance brought a political earthquake in Tokyo. The Japanese government fell, as would several more in the coming months.

Once Germany seemed to have chosen the Soviet Union rather than Japan as its ally, the Japanese government found itself in an unexpected and confusing situation. The consensus among Japanese leaders was already to expand southward rather than northward, into China and the Pacific rather than into Soviet Siberia. Yet if the union between Moscow and Berlin held, the Red Army would be able to concentrate its forces in Asia rather than in Europe. Japan would then be forced to keep its best troops in the north, in Manchukuo, in simple self-defense, which would make the advance into the south much more difficult. Hitler had given Stalin a free hand in east Asia, and the Japanese could only hope that Hitler would soon betray his new friend. Japan established a consulate in Lithuania as an observation point for German and Soviet military preparations. The consul there was the russophone spy Chiune Sugihara.

When the Red Army defeated the Japanese, on 15 September 1939, Stalin had achieved exactly the result that he wanted. The national actions of the Great Terror had been aimed against Japan, Poland, and Germany, in that order, and against the possibility of encirclement by these three states working together. The 681,692 killings of the Great Terror did nothing to make encirclement less likely, but diplomacy and military force did. By 15 September Germany had practically destroyed the Polish Army as a fighting force. A German-Polish attack on the Soviet Union was obviously out of the question, and a German-Japanese attack on the Soviet Union also looked very unlikely. Stalin had replaced the phantom of a German-Polish-Japanese encirclement of the Soviet Union with a very real German-Soviet encirclement of Poland, an alliance that isolated Japan. Two days after the Soviet military victory over Japan, on 17 September 1939, the Red Army invaded Poland from the east. The Red Army and the Wehrmacht met in the middle of the country and organized a joint victory parade. On 28 September, Berlin and Moscow came to a second agreement over Poland, a treaty on borders and friendship.

So began a new stage in the history of the bloodlands. By opening half of Poland to the Soviet Union, Hitler would allow Stalin’s Terror, so murderous in the Polish operation, to recommence within Poland itself. Thanks to Stalin, Hitler was able, in occupied Poland, to undertake his first policies of mass killing. In the twenty-one months that followed the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland, the Germans and the Soviets would kill Polish civilians in comparable numbers for similar reasons, as each ally mastered its half of occupied Poland.

The organs of destruction of each country would be concentrated on the territory of a third. Hitler, like Stalin, would choose Poles as the target of his first major national shooting campaign.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Germany, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Poland, USSR, war

Baruto the Giant Baltic Cowboy Ozeki

I imagine even regular readers don’t often see the giants of Japan’s sumo world profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and I’ve never, ever seen anyone compare any rikishi to Leonardo DiCaprio—until now. (Either the Titanic or the iceberg that sunk it is a more likely comparison, but I wouldn’t want to jinx anyone, especially not the genial giant featured in this WSJ vignette.)

As the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament gets underway in Tokyo, the spotlight shines on Baruto, the rising star aficionados hope can give a lift to the scandal-plagued national sport.

This is the first time for the Estonian-born wrestler to compete as an ozeki, sumo’s second-highest title. Having gotten off to a strong 4-0 start, his fans hope he could soon vault into the top ranks of yokozuna, making him the first European to reach that exalted status.

The 25-year-old’s relatively trim (for a sumo star) figure, and glamorous looks have drawn comparisons in the Japanese press to Leonardo DiCaprio. His inspiring story, including a rise from hard labor on a rural Estonian cattle farm, is well-known. “Baruto” means “Baltic” in Japanese.

The rapid climb of the clean-cut Baruto — nee [sic] Kaido Höövelson — comes at a moment of need for the struggling sport. Earlier this year, grand champion Asashoryu resigned suddenly after tabloid reports of a bar fight, just the latest in a string of embarrassing reports about the Mongolian in recent years.

Before that, other wrestlers were arrested for dope-smoking, and there was a hazing death. The fan base has been shrinking, and fewer young Japanese are taking up the sport, with its extreme discipline and hierarchy at odds with the comforts of modern Japan.

Here are a few more details from Japan’s Daily Yomiuri, which profiled the newly promoted ozeki before the May tournament got underway.

“When he first came here he had problems with the food,” the stablemaster said. “One of the wrestlers told him that as a foreigner he wouldn’t like natto. Baruto simply filled a huge bowl and ate the lot. It didn’t do him much good but I was impressed that he didn’t like to lose or give up.”

A former nightclub bouncer and judo champion, Baruto has more than repaid the faith shown in him since arriving from Estonia.

After making his debut in May 2004, he became the first wrestler in 43 years to win the juryo division with a perfect 15-0 record when he triumphed at the 2006 Spring Basho.

On March 31 of this year, he was promoted to the sport’s second-highest rank, having won 35 bouts in the previous three tournaments.

UPDATE: Baruto started strong but lost several bouts during the second week of the tournament. On Day 13, the sole yokozuna, Hakuho from Mongolia, clinched victory with a record of 13-0. Behind him, at 10-3, is the Russian Aran. Behind him, at 9-4, are the giant Estonian ozeki Baruto, the diminutive Mongolian ozeki Harumafuji, the lanky Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu, and the Mongolian Hakuba, who made his debut in the highest division in January. Not one Japanese among the leaders!

Leave a comment

Filed under Baltics, Bulgaria, Japan, Mongolia, Russia, sumo

A Eurasian Crossroads Now in China

The latest issue (a year late!) of China Review International (Project MUSE subscription required) contains a review by Thomas Barfield of a book that sounds interesting: James A. Millward’s Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). Here are a few excerpts from the review.

As befits a key link in the international Silk Route in premodern times, the region’s people proved historically open to new ideas and opportunities. Some of these opportunities were thrust upon them. The territory constituting today’s Xinjiang appears never to have been unified politically except under the rule of outsiders. These outsiders were strikingly diverse, coming as they did at different times from every surrounding territory. From the east, the Han and Tang dynasties vied with the northern Mongolian steppe-based Xiongnu, Turk, and Uighur nomad empires for influence and political control. The Tibetan Empire on its southern flank also extended its rule over the region at various times during the seventh through the ninth centuries. The west was not entirely absent in these struggles either. The Sogdian city-states of Central Asia had great influence over their eastern cousins in the Tang dynasty, and during the eleventh century the Turkish Qara Khanids, based in Bukhara, became the dominant regional power. They were displaced at the beginning of the twelfth century by royal Manchurian refugees of the Liao dynasty from North China who reestablished themselves there as the Qara Khitai. Although neither Turks nor Muslims, the Qara Khitai proved successful rulers until they were finally ousted by the Mongols in 1218. Chinese influence (even if by way of a Manchurian people) was then notably absent from the region for the next five hundred years. The oases and neighboring steppe zones fell under different post-Mongol successor states until the Qing dynasty captured the area in 1757….

Despite local complaints about unfair taxation, the court bureaucrats in Beijing were well aware that the Qing colonial administration and military garrisons in Xinjiang constituted a money pit that swallowed up revenue from other parts of China.

The structural fragility of China’s position in Central Asia became clear in 1864, when a series of successful local rebellions spread from one oasis to another so rapidly that Qing control vanished entirely in a matter of months. Yaqub Beg, an adventurer from Kokand (recently annexed by Czarist Russia) took advantage of the situation to establish an independent emirate and opened diplomatic ties with British India, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. The Qing court was divided about whether Xinjiang merited the huge expense required to recover it. There was established precedent in China for writing off the remote western region a dead loss: both the Han and Tang dynasties had done so when their power waned and the Ming dynasty never went there in the first place. There were also other demands on the treasury made by officials who saw the modernization of China’s military as a higher priority than funding a risky colonial war. Millward’s analysis of how the Qing dynasty’s preoccupation with maintaining its inner Asian frontier intact demonstrates that Xinjiang loomed far larger in importance for them than for dynasties of Han Chinese origin. In the event, after deciding to fund a military campaign, the Qing struck it lucky. Yaqub Beg died unexpectedly in 1877, and his emirate collapsed. Qing forces quickly reoccupied Xinjiang without facing a serious battle.

It is at this point that the Qing incorporated Xinjiang directly into China as a province. Millward shows that the resulting reorganization of the local government along Chinese lines, plus the cost of garrison troops, made its continued occupation of the region even more costly, asserting it to be an underestimated factor in China’s failure to compete effectively with the Western powers and Japan at the turn of the century. The reorganization also placed ethnic Han Chinese influenced by anti-Manchu nationalism in provincial leadership positions. This had negative consequences for the Qing since they fomented rebellion against the dynasty, but a long-term positive consequences for China. Such officials, small minorities in a distant land, were keen to ensure that the province remained a part of China after the Qing was replaced by a republic in 1911. These Chinese governors (“warlords,” more pejoratively) gave lip service to the Republic of China in Nanking and did as they pleased in Xinjiang. Millward’s descriptions of their political machinations and murders show them as strikingly ruthless and practical, unhindered by any set of Confucian values. What the republic got in return was the continued right to claim Xinjiang as a Chinese province—no small prize since other inner-Asian territories eventually broke their ties with China: Mongolia under Russian protection, Manchuria by Japanese annexation, and Tibet through de facto self-rule.

Leave a comment

Filed under Central Asia, China, Mongolia, nationalism, religion, Russia, Tibet, Turkey

Wordcatcher Tales: Kawaigaru = Itaburu

In most contexts, Japanese 可愛がる kawaigaru means ‘to dote on, to fondle, to caress’, but for novices in a sumo stable, kawaigaru is a synonym of いたぶる itaburu ‘to torment, to harass, to tease’, as Mongolian ozeki Harumafuji explains in an interview that appeared in the Taipei Times.

Harumafuji, who last month won Japan’s major tournament, recalled the pain and tears that toughened him up in the nine years since he arrived from his native Mongolia with no money and not a word of Japanese….

In sumo, kawaigari means “crying, then being forced to stand, then being beaten again. It’s not simple to express with words because it’s a physical experience,” he said.

But it’s not just the beatings that steel the wrestlers in the quasi-monastic life of the sumo stable, where the fighters forfeit much of their personal liberty and embark on a grueling daily routine.

The younger wrestlers start the day at 3am cleaning the stable, washing their seniors’ loincloths and preparing meals. They are banned from watching television and using cellphones, and receive only modest pocket money.

Harumafuji said he found it toughest to get used to a diet heavy on fish — which has sent some of his mutton-eating compatriots running to the Mongolian embassy to escape Japan — served in huge quantities of 10,000 calories a day.

“Everyone says going on a diet is hard, but I think gaining weight is so many times more difficult,” he said. “Eating was the scariest, and my most painful experience.”

“I’m thin by nature, so I really had a hard time to eat in the beginning. I ate and I vomited. Ate and vomited. Your stomach expands when you do that, so I was forced to eat until I vomited,” Harumafuji said. “When I vomited, there would be someone already waiting with food, and I was forced to eat again.”

The force-feeding helped boost the 1.85m athlete’s weight to 126kg from 86kg — still about 30kg lighter than the average top division wrestler….

As fewer young Japanese sign up for the harsh life of the sumo stable, the sport’s 700-strong elite now include men from China, South Korea, Eastern Europe and as far away as Brazil and the Pacific island state of Tonga.

Geez. That seems to shed new light on the after-sumo career of another diminutive rikishi, Mainoumi, which included a stint as a traveling gourmet as well as general TV personality.

(I hope the Brazilian and the Tongan make it to the upper ranks soon! Surely the Tongan won’t have to get used to eating fish.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan, language, Mongolia, sumo

Harumafuji Wins Emperor’s Cup!

The Summer Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo was shaping up to be just another predictable romp by the two Mongolian yokozuna, Hakuho and Asashoryu, until the 14th day, when the Bulgarian ozeki, Kotooshu, toppled Hakuho, knocking him out of the lead and into a tie with the recently promoted Mongolian ozeki, Harumafuji (formerly Ama), at 13-1 going into the last day.

On the final day, the diminutive Harumafuji returned the favor by defeating Kotooshu, while Hakuho defeated his fellow yokozuna Asashoryu, leaving both leaders tied with records of 14-1. Harumafuji then defeated Hakuho in the final playoff bout to win his first Emperor’s Cup.

Mongolians now dominate Japan’s ancient sport, and Harumafuji is the latest to win a tournament. Hakuho has won 10 and Asashoryu has won 23. No Japanese rikishi has won the Emperor’s Cup since veteran ozeki Tochiazuma took it in January 2006. There are now nine Mongolian rikishi in the top Makuuchi division and four more in the Juryo division, plus six more foreign rikishi in the top division: one each from Bulgaria, Estonia, Russia, and South Korea; and two from Georgia.

2 Comments

Filed under Japan, Mongolia, sumo