Chinggis Khan’s Missing Ten Years, 1186-1196

By Jack Wilson

There is a stretch of ten years in Chinggis Khan’s early life where we have little information about his whereabouts. What was the future ruler of the Mongol Empire doing at this point?

One of the most interesting of all surviving inscriptions of the Jurchen-ruled Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) is the Servan Khaalga Inscription, located in Bayankhutag, Khentii Aimag, Mongolia. Discovered in the 1980s and carved into a granite mountainside, the inscription is weathered and difficult to read. It consists of several lines of Jurchen text, accompanied by a translation into Chinese. They glorify a successful campaign in May/June 1196 by the Jin commander Wanyan Xiang against the Tatars of eastern Mongolia (here called Zubu, 阻䪁). It’s a brief victory marker over “barbarian tribesmen,” which is hardly uncommon in the history of Chinese dynastic monuments.


It also happens to be the earliest record of an event in the life of Chinggis Khan, then known as Temüjin. Though Chinggis is not named on the monument, we know of his participation in the campaign from a number of Mongol imperial sources, such as the Jāmi’ al-Tawārīkh by the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashīd al-Dīn (c.1305), the Chinese translation of the Veritable Records of Chinggis Khan 實錄 (c.1287), the Shengwu Qinzheng lu 聖武親征錄 (c.1320), the Yuan Shi 元史 (1370), and of course, the famous Secret History of the Mongols (c.1252). The campaign is also referred to in the Jin Dynasty’s own dynastic history, the Jin Shi 金史 (1343), though from the point of view of the commander, Wanyan Xiang. Again, Chinggis Khan is unnamed.

Collectively, these sources allow us to firmly date Wanyan Xiang’s campaign against the Tatars to summer 1196, with Xiang returning to the Jin capital of Zhongdu 中都 by the autumn. This makes it the earliest concrete date we have for an event in the life of Temüjin Khan. Dating the early life of Chinggis Khan is notoriously difficult. For events before 1196, the main sources (the Secret History of the Mongols, Rashīd al-Dīn, the Veritable Records, Yuan Shi) generally agree in the general flow, but often differ in the actual year or order of events. The most famous of these, and the earliest surviving Mongolian history, the Secret History of the Mongols, plays particularly loose with dating, often condensing years for dramatic purposes or simply offering no dating at all.


Lineage and transmission of the main “imperial” sources for the life of Chinggis Khan. Chart by Jack Wilson.

Scholarship of the last decades has come to a rough guideline for Temüjin’s life. 1162 is the most widely given year for his birth (though supporters remain for 1155 and 1167). Around 1180 (give or take a year or two) saw the capture of Temüjin’s wife Börte by the Merkit, and soon-after birth of their first son, Jochi (they already had a daughter: Qojin Beki). The only date of birth given for any of his sons in a medieval source is 1186 for Ögedei, Temüjin’s third son.

A few years after the rescue of Börte and the birth of Jochi (c.1180-1182), Temüjin and his sworn ally Jamuqa fell out and came to blows. The ensuing battle at Dalan Baljut (seventy marshes) was not only the first time where the future Chinggis Khan held his own independent command, but was also a major defeat for him, despite efforts of later writers like Rashīd al-Dīn to gloss over this. Jamuqa was victorious and in the Secret History of the Mongols boiled seventy captive princes alive after the battle, while Temüjin slinked away to lick his wounds.

The most usual dating for the Battle of Dalan Baljut falls between 1186-1190. While a minority of researchers like Carl Sverdrup propose a date as late as early 1194, most scholarship prefers a date in the mid-1180s, which seems to align better with the chronology within the sources. 1186-7 is perhaps the most popular suggestion. By assigning Temüjin’s defeat at Dalan Baljut to 1186, a new issue emerges, for the next recorded event in Temüjin’s life comes with the aforementioned Tatar campaign of 1196 with the Jin. Paul Ratchnevsky shed light on this in his Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy (1991), identifying this as the “ten-year gap” in Temüjin’s life.

Assuming, first of all, this chronologic reconstruction is accurate, and that there is indeed a ten-year gap from 1186-1196, a number of suggestions have been proposed to account for the silence. A simple explanation is that Temüjin underwent a rather uncharacteristic quiet period, slowly rebuilding his support or fighting minor skirmishes with his rivals while raising his new family. More or less, nothing interesting happened from 1186-1196.


However, as Ratchnevsky noted, there is evidence that Temüjin spent his “dark years” in China. It was not uncommon for defeated steppe leaders to seek shelter with neighbouring sedentary powers, such as the Jin Dynasty, Tangut Kingdom, Uighurs or Qara-Khitai. Temüjin’s ally, To’oril of the Kereyit, did so several times. Shortly after Dalan Baljut, To’oril was chased out of power by a relative named Erke-Qara. To’oril fled to Qara-Khitai, then made his way through Uighur and Tangut lands before rejoining Temüjin for the 1196 campaign. After To’oril’s death his son Ilqa-Senggüm fled through the Tangut lands, while the Naiman prince Küchülüg, upon being defeated by Temüjin, fled with his retainers to Qara-Khitai, where he eventually usurped power. The neighbouring powers were often happy to receive these nomadic lords, for they could be useful auxiliaries for their own campaigns, while installing a friendly khan back on his throne could be protection against future raids.

Furthermore, several historical sources actually directly state that Temüjin spent years in China as a captive. A Franciscan friar who travelled through the Mongol Empire in the 1250s, William of Rubruck, recorded Temüjin being held captive by the Tangut Kingdom, while a Song Dynasty emissary in 1221, Zhao Gong, stated that Temüjin spent 10 years as a slave of the Jin. Zhao Gong states that Temüjin was young when this occurred, but the time there gave him great knowledge of Jin affairs, which he later put to use in his war against them.

Temüjin Khan. Art by Jack Wilson

Based on the surviving evidence, that Temüjin spent some or all of these years in the Jin state seems likely— while also embarrassing enough that official Mongol imperial historiography felt it too shameful to comment upon, but Song envoys like Zhao Gong would have no taboos over mentioning. As Temüjin’s defeat at Dalan Baljut occurred in northeastern Mongolia, a flight across the entire steppe to Qara-Khitai or the Tangut Kingdom seems a difficult venture; the Jin were considerably closer. While Temüjin had reasons to dislike the Jin, namely their role in the murder of his relation Ambaghai, such feeling could have been put aside in the face of the immediate material and political need for shelter from his rivals in Mongolia. This juxtaposition of taking shelter, or vassalage, with a hated enemy would certainly explain why official Mongol histories glossed over it. Contemporary sources outside of the Mongol historical tradition, such as the Song border official Li Xinchuan and the envoy Zhao Gong, both indicate that Temüjin had been a vassal of the Jin, paying them yearly tribute until the very eve of the Mongol invasion.


Such a relationship was also well-within Jin Dynastic border policy. Unlike their predecessors, the Khitan Liao Dynasty, the Jin Dynasty did not rule over the Mongolian plateau directly. Aside from sending a few armies into the steppe, by and large the Jin’s preferred policy was to operate through jüyin peoples. That is, nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples along the frontier between the steppe and the Jin Dynasty, who paid tribute to the Jin and patrolled the border. The most well-known of these were the Önggut, who also manned the Jin’s border fortifications in Inner Mongolia. The Tatars themselves were the Jin’s regular allies in the steppes from the 1160s until the 1190s. In exchange for this allegiance, these nomadic polities received gifts, trade privileges and official titles that enhanced the prestige of their leaders in the steppe. And when one of these groups grew too powerful or rambunctious, the Jin would back a different group and overthrow it to maintain the balance of power, as they did when they supported Temüjin against the Tatars in 1196.

A few sporadic mentions within Mongol imperial sources support Temüjin spending time in the Jin Empire. In Rashīd al-Dīn’s account, Temüjin recalls bringing To’oril Khan’s uncle, Ja’a Gambu, back from the Jin Dynasty with him. Numerous official Mongolian sources refer to the 1196 campaign, and are very open about Temüjin and To’oril’s cooperation with the Jin commander Wanyan Xiang. In the Secret History of the Mongols, Wanyan Xiang sent messages to Temüjin requesting his aid, and Temüjin and To’oril both met him in person. For their services in the battle, To’oril was given the Chinese title of Wang 汪, “king, prince” which became in Mongolian Ong, and hence the epithet by which he is better known, Ong Khan. Temüjin meanwhile was granted the title of ja’ut quri, of uncertain etymological origin but the general meaning is thought to be akin to centurion. The granting of both titles is recorded even in the Secret History of the Mongols. This was no minor thing; the prestige of such titles was important to the reputation of steppe leaders. The name of To’oril own son, Ilqa-Senggüm is a Mongolized form of a Chinese title, xianggong 相公 meaning Lord Minister or Chancellor. It was no coincidence that To’oril is better known by the title of Ong Khan than his own name. The Secret History of the Mongols even includes the detail that Wanyan Xiang was going to ask the Jin Emperor about granting an even more prestigious title on Temüjin, in an episode meant to enhance Temüjins’ importance to the reader, indicating a connection beyond momentary allies.

Rock inscription in Jurchen dated 1196 at Serven Khaalga, Bayankhutag, Mongolia. Photo by Yastanovog / Wikimedia Commons

Other indirect support comes from how effective Chinggis’ actual invasion of the Jin was. Chinggis showed a marked familiarity with individuals of the Jin state, such as Emperor Wei Shao Wang, and before the invasion there were dissidents against Jurchen rule, especially Khitans, defecting to Temüjin, demonstrating he was a known figure within the Jin realm. As Zhao Gong stated, when Temüjin attacked the Jin, he was no stranger to them, but had familiarized himself with their strengths and weaknesses, particularly their military. Some of this can be accounted for by Mongol spies, such as the Muslim merchant Ja’far Khoja, who travelled through Jin lands and brought back valuable intel. But it seems Temüjin had his own eye-witness knowledge which he incorporated into his planning, and allowed him to overwhelm the Jin defenses.

Other evidence may come from Börte continuing to bear children continually over the 1180s and 90s. There is no indication of miscarriage, and all of Temüjin and Börte’s nine known children lived to adulthood. Whatever Temüjin was doing, Börte was still at his side, and in a safe enough position to bear and raise their children. No matter what, Temüjin was not reduced to nothing after Dalan Baljut. He was able to keep his family secure in a way he’d never been able to beforehand; something unlikely if his power was broken and he was hunted by his rivals in the steppes.


Assuming Temüjin did indeed flee to the Jin Dynasty after 1186, then his life probably looked something like this. With his retinue, perhaps even a small army, he came to the Jin border, meeting with the jüyin border guards and sending messages to seek permission to enter the Jin Dynasty. During this time he may have waited at the court of the Önggud rulers and, with his natural charisma, made a good impression; it would explain why the Önggud were later so willing to side with Temüjin against his rivals and betray the Jin. Presumably Temüjin was brought to the capital of Zhongdu to make an official show of submission, a humiliating but valuable necessity.

We cannot track his movements over the intervening years, but it seems he likely received military training or accompanied the Jin army on campaign. Up to Dalan Baljut in 1186, Temüjin’s military performance was mediocre, having lost the only major battle he led himself. By 1196, Temüjin appears a much more confident and capable commander, able to coordinate effectively with the Jurchen army. His military actions during his stay may have ranged from bandit suppression, to joining Jin armies in punitive raids in Mongolia, as the Jin did in 1195 against the Onggirat. At the same time, he made connections and spoke of uprising with disaffected members of the military, particularly Khitans.

Likely, Temüjin spent these years hungry for news from the steppe, looking for an opportunity to rush back and claim his title. Perhaps other former allies of his steadily flocked to him when they learned he was in the Jin lands. When the Tatars rose in revolt in 1195, Temüjin jumped at the chance, if the Jin court didn’t already have him in mind as their new “man-on-the-ground.” Once victory was achieved and the Tatars humbled, the Jin hoped to keep Temüjin playing nice, delivering tribute and stopping any other nomadic power from growing too strong. Hence, the Song sources’ description of Temüjin paying tribute and recognizing the Jin Emperor as overlord until his invasion. But as Mongol sources recognized no legitimate power on Earth other than the one established by Chinggis Khan, it was simply inappropriate to suggest any tributary relations whatsoever.

The Jin’s plan might have worked too, but the ailing emperor Zhangzong failed to pay proper heed to steppe affairs in his final years, despite the cries of concerned members of the court, like that of his uncle Wanyan Yungji. In 1206, a massive war broke out with the Song Dynasty which demanded the Jin court’s full attention; the very same year that Temüjin established the Mongol Empire and took the title of Chinggis Khan. A large uprising of Khitans in the Jin Dynasty, continued ecological and financial crises greatly diminished the political will of the Jin state.

In late 1208 Zhangzong of Jin died, and was succeeded by Wanyan Yungji (Weishao Wang, r. 1208-1213). Chinggis had little respect for the man, but initially continued tribute payments. According to Li Xinchuan, when a Mongol party (perhaps including Chinggis himself) came to bring their yearly tribute to the border, Wanyan Yungji, concerned over the Mongol unification (as well as Chinggis’ attacks on the Tangut Kingdom to the west), attempted to ambush Chinggis. Unfortunately for the Jin, the plan was discovered, leading Chinggis to officially cut off the tribute in 1210, and invade the Jin Empire in 1211. Inadvertently, the Jin Dynasty may have sheltered, and given power, to the force which ultimately wiped them from the map.

Jack Wilson recently completed his MA thesis at Central European University, where he offered a reassessment of the life and career of Nogai and his role in the late thirteenth century Golden Horde. You can visit the educational videos he creates about the Mongol Empire on Youtube at The Jackmeister: Mongol History.

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