Reviews

With these two impressive volumes, the sinologist and specialist of Mongolian medieval history and philology Igor de Rachewiltz offers the scientific community a remarkable tool for understanding, exploring and making the best use of the Mongol chronicle which came to be known as the Secret History of the Mongols.  This unparalleled source for Mongolian history, the “only genuine (not to be confused with reliable) native account of the life and deeds of Chinggis Qan”, as Igor de Rachewiltz describes it, nurtured on epic poetry, tribal history and scribe tradition, rich of some 900 proper and geographical names requiring, raise many questions and has been the subject of an extensive literature.  Although the original manuscript has been lost it could be reconstructed thanks to a later (Ming-dynasty) phonetic rendering into Chinese characters prepared for the training of interpreters.  In 1926, an important part of the text in Uighuro-Mongolian script was discovered in a noble family in Eastern Mongolia:  It was incorporated into a later Mongolian chronicle (Lubsangdanzin’s Altan tobci).

After thirty-five years spent in company of the Secret History, during which I. de R. provided students and specialists alike with regular instalments of his “translation in progress” (twelve articles published in Papers of far Eastern History at the Australian National University between 1971 and 1986), already the most up-to-date and erudite one widely used as the reference work on the subject, the author presents here, in the more durable and prestigious edition that it deserved, a revised edition of his masterwork.  The translation (pp. 1-218) is preceded by a detailed summary of the contents of the 12 chapters (cvx-cxxvi) and followed by an extensive and continuous commentary of each of the 282 paragraphs (pp. 221-1044).  The vast bibliography covers the pages 1081 to 1194.  This new edition has been completed with 1) an introduction (pp. xxv-cxiii), telling the history of the singular transmission of the Mongol text, discussing its problematic authorship and date of composition, as well as its historical and literary value; 2) a series of seven appendices, in particular a chronological summary of Genghis Khan’s campaigns from 1204 to 1219, lists of correspondences between the paragraphs of the Secret History and the folios of Lubsangdanzin’s Altan tobci in the facsimile edition published in Ulan Bator in 1990 (app. 2), and the pages of A. Mosatert’s Sur quelques passages de l’Histoire secrète des Mongols (app. 4), additions and corrections to F.W. Cleaves’ translation (app. 5), twelve pages of additions and corrections to the author’s own Index to the Secret History (app. 6); 3) three separate indices concerned with proper and place names (pp. 1195-1245), subjects (pp. 1246-1314), Mongolian grammar and vocabulary (pp. 1315-1314).  The user of this mare magnum of knowledge on the Secret History will also find two clear and legible maps (Mongolia, Eurasia) on which I. de R. has located, alongside modern geographical names, toponyms and ethnonyms found in the Secret History.

In the translation, based on the author’s 1972 transcription duly revised, I. de R. sticks to his initial choice of a readable English, yet faithful to the original.  Anxious to render it precisely, he uses italic type to signal his own additions.  Great attention is paid to render in an agreeable and rhythmic language the alliteration and parallelism of the Mongolian poetic passages.  While the translation does not present major transformation, the updated commentary has doubled in size in order to accommodate, on top of the references to contributions made by earlier investigators, more recent documents and data.  As an indication, the introduction by itself comprises no less than 374 footnotes!  An impressive number of sources and publications relevant for the understanding of the text have been consulted here and used in a rigorous comparative approach.  Numerous abbreviations have been used for limiting when possible the size of the book and this sometimes induces difficulties in identifying them in the bibliography, especially when they do not follow the expected alphabetical order.  For example, one would not guess that the reference to C. R. Bawden’s translation of the Altan Tobci is placed under the abbreviation MCAT (for The Mongol Chronicle Altan Tobci) and does not appear with this author’s other references.  Similarly, it is disturbing not to find references to Igor de Rachewiltz’ Index or to his previous translations of The Secret History put together, with his other references under ‘de Rachewiltz’: they have to be looked for under their respective abbreviations R and RA.  

On the debated question of the author of the Secret History, Igor de Rachewiltz favours as the most likely “compiler and author” Shigi Qutuqu, the Tatar boy adopted by Genghis Khan and his wife Börte, who became one of their most trusted men (p. xxxvi), rather than Tatatonga, the Uighur seal-keeper of the Nayman khan who became Genghis’ seal-keeper, or than the Nestorian Karait dignitary Chingqai (maybe a Uighur, writes Rachelwitz).  As far as the date of composition of the text is concerned, the author—in agreement with Cleaves, Clauson, Murakami, Ozawa, Zhinggin, Gaadamba, Cerensodnomù and U. Onon—is still of the opinion that the original part of the Secret History, to which the colophon belongs, was written in 1228, the year following Genghis Khan’s death, whereas the section on Ögödei was written before 1251, maybe even before 1246 (pp. xxxiii-xxxiv).  Igor de Rachewiltz, in the steps of Paul Pelliot, qualifies the Secret History as an “epic chronicle.”  The real interest of the text does not lie, he writes (p. lxii), in its historical aspect, due to folk elements inserted in the text by the compiler and to the almost impossible task to separate facts from fictional accounts.  It is for the Mongolian culture and society of the times that the Secret History is “a source of the first magnitude” (pp. lxii-lxiii).  The grateful user of this new revised and completed edition could apply the same compliment to its author: Igor de Rachewiltz’ translation and commentary is a source of the first magnitude on the Secret History of the Mongols.

Marie-Dominique Even, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris
CER: I-3.1.B-179