Johan Elverskog is known not only for his impeccable scholarship, but also for his pugnacity for defeating ageing ideas which are received until now in a general purring of satisfaction. The 1835 “Pearl Rosary” (Subud erike) helps him to successfully refute the traditional opinion according to which Mongolian society with its civilisation, after a bright beginning under Chinggis Khan, faced a constant decay until communist time. The great source of the thirteenth century, the “Secret History”, is considered giving an invaluable view of the origins; and the seventeenth-century main works are still appreciated because they include passages of from it: It is commonly a received judgment that nineteenth century works are plain copies of earlier books and focus on a degenerated society manipulated by Manchu oppressors.
On the contrary, as J. Elverskog explains, the “Pearl Rosary”, though incorporating standard Buddhist accounts in its first pages (a prayer to the Buddha and to “the Holy Lord Chinggis Khan and all that belongs to him,” pp. 19-20 of the translation; Indian history, 20-26; Tibetan history, 26-32; the mythical origin of the Mongols, 32-34), is also a new interesting work derived from a wide variety of historical, administrative, and political sources. Thus it gives new interpretations of some episodes of Chinggisid history, for example a new dating (37 sq.), or the (wrong) attribution of the creation of the Uighur Mongolian script to Sa-skya Pandita (52), or the central role given to Köden (fl.1235-47, second son of Ögödei) in the establishment of Tibetan-Mongol relations (52), or a condemnation of the way Khabatu Khasar, Chinggis Khan’s younger brother, is depreciated in oral narratives (77). Occasionally it transmits a choice of several traditions surrounding a crucial event, for example concerning the apparition of the famous “jade seal which transfers the power” (69-70).
The historical account unfolds since the mythical times in succinct episodes around khans’ names: the pre-Chinggis times (pp. 33-36); the lion’s share for Chinggis Khan (1162-1227, pp. 36-47); the Chinggisids (from 1227 until 1260, pp. 47-54); the Yüan (from Qubilai’s accession in 1260 to Shundi / Toghan Temür’s death in 1370, pp. 54-61); the Mongol-Oirad wars (1371-1468, pp. 61-66); the important reign of Dayan Khan (who died in 1543 after seventy seven years of government, says the text) and of some of his nine surviving sons, pp. 66-70). With the beginning of the submission to the Manchus (1635) and the subsequent subordination to the Qing dynasty, pp. 70-75), the story reaches its main purpose: the history of the Ordos (a country set inside the great bent of the Yellow river) or, according to its administrative name, the Yeke Juu League, especially of its Üüshin Banner, and the cult of Chinggis Khan carried on there by five hundred Darkhad households.
Actually, as J. Elverskog brings to light, the “Pearl Rosary” conformed to two rather opposite tasks. First, it tended towards a unified history of the whole dharma, including Chinese, Tibetans and Manchus along with Mongols, in order to assert a multi-ethnic Buddhist Qing identity, whereas it was previously the habit of limiting the subject of historical works to the Mongol ulus. For him the boundary of otherness was religion (especially Islam) and not ethnicity. However, secondly, the book reflected a movement towards local concern, which, says J. Elverskog, is a characteristic of nineteenth century Mongolian historiography. Its specifications of Ordos and the cult of Chinggis Khan were announced at the end of the section on Qing times (pp. 74-75) and followed with the presentation of the Great Khan’s younger brother, Khabatu Khasar (75-8): If here the good name of Khabatu Khasar was restored, it was for claiming the legitimacy of his offspring (75-8). Then the fate of Dayan Khan’s descendants was asserted with much greater details than in its first occurrence for bringing us back to Ordos (79-85, cf. 66-70). The colophon (85-8) is firmly rooted in Ordos: The author, Gonchugjab, was a taiji, that is a noble of Chinggisid ancestry, from Ordos, the keeper of the seal of one of the most powerful officials in the League, the beise Badarakhu (d. 1883), leader of the Üüshin Banner; and the sponsors were the leader of the Darkhad, the taishi Biligündalai (1768-1854), and his son the bingtü jaisang Arbinsang (called “Arbinjai”, note 298). J. Elverskog explains, in his introduction, what was the obvious context of this process of localisation: the institution of the Qing system of the Banners; and what was the current historical context: a territorial dispute and a political struggle. Thus this book “does provide us with a fascinating perspective on an important chapter in Mongol history” (p.17).
Let us recognise it: The reading of the “Pearl Rosary” is not a very thrilling event for a non-specialist. However it takes its interest, first, from the introduction that deciphers the unsaid and hidden motives and influences at work; secondly, from the notes which amount to three or four times longer than the main text. Every name appearing in the text ― mainly those of rulers and of their councellors ― deserves a note which summarises the bulk of the concerned biography and its historical context. In such a way that its annotation transforms the “Pearl Rosary” into a precious chronological manual of Mongol history from the early thirteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, and makes it an unique manual for the non-specialist, and even for the specialist at odds with some peoples or some periods of time (here we find much more names than in the Encyclopaedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire, by Christopher Atwood, New York, 2004, distributed according to chronology). It leads to the conclusion that Mongol history was one of murders and rivalries, especially in Yüan times, when the issue at stake was the adoption of Confucianism.
The introduction (pp. 1-17) and the translation (19-88) are followed by the text in Roman script (89-136); an index of the text ― alas not of the so rich notes ― (personal names and titles, 139-49; words, 149-82); a bibliography with a good amount of recent Inner Mongolian publications (183-96); a schematic map of the Yeke juu League (p. 18).