Mongolia Collection: The Secret History of the Mongols

This subject research guide provides information on Western Libraries' Mongolia and Inner Asia Collection.

Igor de Rachewiltz (1929-2016)

Translator of The Secret History of the Mongols

INTRODUCTION TO THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE MONGOLS

The book known as the "Secret History of the Mongols" (Mongqol-un niuča tobča’an; in Chinese, Yüan ch’ao pi shih 元朝秘史) is the earliest and most important literary monument of the Mongol-speaking people.  It was probably composed in 1228-29, and presented at a Great Assembly in north-eastern Mongolia that had been convened to elect a successor to Chinggis Qa’an (our “Genghis Khan”), who had died just a year earlier.  The man elected was Ögödei, third son of Chinggis, who then ruled the Mongol empire for twelve years.  The original text, no longer extant, was written in the Uighur script; we know the text primarily from a much later version – extended and much altered – that was first printed in an elaborate Chinese edition sometime between 1403 and 1405. 

The original first line of the text translates as The origin of Chinggis Qa’an, and in effect the work was initially a biography of Chinggis Qa’an by those who had knew him since childhood.  But it is much more than that: while often wrong or misleading in historical detail, the text is really “a clever mélange of historico-narrative prose and epic poetry constantly and unexpectedly blending fact and fiction”; hence an “epic story (or account) of Činggis Qan”, i.e., an epic chronicle.  It seems unlikely that any other nomadic or semi-nomadic people has ever created a literary masterpiece to equal this. 

Linguistically, the text is fascinating as the best example of the Mongolian language of the 13th century.  It is lengthy enough to give one a real feel for the language: in English translation (the best being that by Igor de Rachewiltz (April 11, 1929-July 30, 2016), first published by Brill in 2004 – which is quoted just above), the text occupies no less than 218 pages.  And with its vivid and faithful description of Mongol tribal life in the 12th and 13th centuries, it supplies encyclopedic information on Mongol culture of that early period.  It was for this reason that after the fall of the Yüan dynasty in 1368, the new Chinese government, wanting to teach Mongolian to those of its bureaucrats who would be dealing with these troublesome neighbors, chose the Secret History as one of the documents to be published for that purpose.  The text was then also included (in 15 rather than 12 chapters) in the monumental Ming encyclopedia Yung-lo ta-tien 永樂大典 compiled in 1403-08. 

Below are listed a few of the more important publications dealing with the Secret History, and my own tentative romanization of the text -- which presently seems the only digital version available.  (The two formats here allow different types of searches.)

                                                                                                                                              By John C. Street

 

PUBLICATIONS

SOME IMPORTANT WORKS

THE TEXT

JOHN C. STREET's Version 24v of the Secret History text 

The Secret of the Mongols - THE TEXT, a transcription by John C. Street

The Secret  History of the Mongols (in HTML format)

The Secret of the Mongols - THE TEXT, a transcription by John C. Street

The Secret  History of the Mongols (in PDF format)

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