Writing and the Mongol Empire

By Jack Wilson

In 1204, the Mongolian warlord Temüjin adopted the Uighur script for his state and people. Two years later, he established the Mongol Empire and took the title of Chinggis Khan. What led an otherwise illiterate Mongol nomad to adopt a script, and how was it implemented in the new Mongol Empire? In this piece, we’ll look at the introduction and use of the written word in the early Mongol state.

Writing in Mongolia predates Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Empire by centuries. The most famous pieces of pre-Chinggisid writing in Mongolia are the Orkhon Inscriptions, stone monuments of the great Türk Empires (Göktürks) dating to the early eighth century. They were written in Old Turkic Runiform script and in the Old Turkic language. Recently, the Bugut inscription (c.580s) and Khüis Tolgoi inscription (c.early 600s) have been identified as the earliest known writing in a Mongolic language by Alexander Vovin, written in the Brāhmī script and Sogdian alphabet, and erected during the late Rouran Khaghanate and early first Türk Khaghanate. These scripts were also used in some administrative purposes as well, for the Sogdian script also appears on Türkic coinage.


Sporadic inscriptions from Chinese dynasties over the following centuries are also known in the Mongolian plateau (written in the Chinese, Khitan, and Jurchen languages). A well-known example is the Servan Khaalga Inscription, stands to mark the 1196 victory of the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) over the Tatars in eastern Mongolia.

The written language was thus not totally alien in the Mongolian plateau, though it was not particularly common. Where Chinggis Khan himself first encountered it, we cannot say. If he did indeed spend part of the 1180s seeking shelter in the Jin Dynasty of Northern China, he almost certainly would have come across Chinese characters, as well as learned of the Liao and Jin Dynasties’ creations of official scripts for the Khitan and Jurchen languages, respectively, used alongside Chinese for official purposes for these dynasties’ ruling ethnic groups. While there is no evidence that Chinggis ever learned to write Chinese (though some historians like Arthur Waley suggested he learned to speak it at a basic level), he would have seen its use in recording and in the administration of a large territory, while its complexity proved equally alienating. As he partook in the Jin Dynasty’s 1196 campaign against the Tatars, he may even have been present to see the initial carvings begin for the Servan Khaalga inscription that commemorates that victory.


From the late 1190s until 1204, Chinggis Khan was at war with, and finally overcame, the Naiman people, the most powerful group in western Mongolia. On their defeat, we are told in the Secret History of the Mongols and other imperial sources, the Mongols captured a Uighur scribe named Tata-Tongga. He was brought before Chinggis Khan, bearing with him the official seals of the Naiman Khan. On inquiry as to their purpose (as per Tata-Tongga’s official biography in the dynasty history of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, the Yuan shi 元史), Tata-Tongga explained to Chinggis that the royal seals were an official certification. When a representative of the Naiman Khan went out to collect taxes, he bore documents with this seal to show he was certified for the task. As it turned out, Tata-Tongga was no mere adviser to the Naiman rulers, but had served as an official scribe and tax collector, using the Uighur script to record important data and tax records. How long the Naiman had used such a system is unclear, and some suggest as early as the tenth century. Whatever official records the Naiman kept were unfortunately lost with the Mongol conquest.

But Chinggis Khan immediately took to the idea. Unlike the thousands of distinct Chinese characters, the Uighur script was an alphabet, providing only a short list of letters to learn. The Uighurs, speaking a Turkic language, had adopted it from the great traders of early medieval Central Asia, the Sogdians. The Sogdians (speaking an Iranic language) were important advisers and bureaucrats in the Türkic and Uighur Empires. In turn, the Sogdians had taken their script from the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which used Aramaic for its writing, a descendant of the Phoencian scripts.

When the Uighurs adopted the Sogdian script around the eighth-ninth centuries, they began writing it vertically, in columns, rather than horizontally. The Uighurs also began writing it in cursive, and both practices were continued by the Mongols. It was not perfect, for the script lacked enough letters to distinguish all the sounds of Middle Mongolian, leaving many ambiguities. Regardless, Chinggis Khan was adamant in its usage. Once Tata-Tongga had adapted it to Mongolian as best he could, he was instructed to begin teaching Chinggis’ sons and nephews in it. For his efforts, Tata-Tongga and his family remained privileged members of the elite until the end of Mongol rule in China. A number of other Uighurs joined the Mongols soon after, and the voluntary submission of the Uighur Kingdom in 1209 brought an entire cadre of officials already skilled in it, as well as a number of ambitious young men who threw themselves into the task of mastering it, in order to find employ with the Mongol Khan.

Kul tigin Monument of Orkhon Inscriptions – Orkhon Museum, Kharkhorin, Mongolia -photo by Vezirtonyukuk / Wikimedia Commons

Among the Mongols themselves, some took to it easily. Chinggis’ adopted-son (who was posthumously promoted to adopted-brother!) Shigi-Qutuqu became a master not just in reading, but writing. With the declaration of the Mongol Empire in 1206, Chinggis Khan could already establish a bureaucracy to go alongside it. Shiqi-Qutuqu was made chief-judge of the empire (yeke yarguchi). In the Uighur script, Shigi was to record legal decisions and maintain a population register. Much of this was to be recorded in the specifically made “blue books,” (kökö debtor). Members of the imperial keshig, the bodyguard, were selected for this, and were called bitikchi (bichigchi, bichechi), scribe.


It appears too that the decrees and declarations of Chinggis Khan were also to be written down. Eye-witness accounts, such as the biography of the Daoist master Qiu Chuji (Changchun) who visited Chinggis’ court in the early 1220s, attest to the presence of scribes who wrote down the Khan’s utterances. It is possible that the Jasagh (Yassa), or law-code, of Chinggis Khan was also written down at this point too, but this is a matter of debate. By the late thirteenth century, the descendants of Chinggis Khan certainly believed it had existed as a codified body of written law.

Though they do not survive in their original form, later sources such as the Secret History of the Mongols (1252), works of Rashīd al-Dīn (c.1300), and the Yuan Shi (1370) allow us to reconstruct or infer the earliest written Mongolian sources. Much of these consisted of genealogies of the ruling family and aristocracy. As Christopher Atwood and Hodong Kim have demonstrated, these were collected in the now-lost Altan Debter (Golden Books). Chapter eight, §202 of the Secret History of the Mongols lists the 95 commanders of 1,000 who were present at the establishment of the empire in 1206, as well as the peoples assigned to them. This likely reflects one of the early registers of the empire, a military list to record the who’s-who, and who they ruled.

During the reign of Ögedei Khaan (r.1229-1241), we see the first steps towards an official Mongol Imperial historiography. Christopher Atwood has reconstructed a set of documents which he dubs “the Indictment of Ong Khan,”  preserved in the writing of  Rashīd al-Dīn, the Yuan Shi and Shengwu Qinzheng lu 聖武親征錄 (c.1320). These are a series of speeches by Chinggis Khan critiquing his former ally Ong Khan of the Kereyid (which perhaps originally date even to the life of Chinggis himself) and an accompanying narrative which provides context to the Indictment (which shows greater use of Turkic words, which along with other indicators may mean it was written by a Kereyid).


In other articles, Christopher Atwood has demonstrated other now-lost narrative sources that emerged in the 1230s in the Uighur script, written for the Mongolian court and aristocracy. These included short biographies of military figures like Jürchedei and military reports of campaigns. Importantly, these were not replacements for oral history or intended for wide-audiences. They instead were for family purposes, glorifying relatives, or recording significant data for government use.

These disparate and distinct sources were ultimately condensed into more cohesive bodies. This was first in the reign of Möngke Khaan (r.1251-1259), in what became known as the Secret History of the Mongols, compiled on his order in 1252. This was an official chronicle written for the Mongolian royal family, setting out an approved narrative that fit Möngke’s needs: minimizing the role of non-Mongols in the state and undermining the reigns of Ögedei and Güyük Khaan (r.1246-48), from whose line Möngke had usurped the throne. Somewhat hypocritically perhaps, it also focused on a narrative that stresses the importance of fraternal unity.

During the reign of Khubilai Khaan (r.1260-1294), many of these same sources were also incorporated into a similar project, the Veritable Record, or Authentic Chronicle of Chinggis Khan. Though now lost, the Veritable Record can be reconstructed through its Chinese translations in the Yuan Shi and the Shengwu Qinzheng lu, and the account of Rashīd al-Dīn, who used the Mongolian original.

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

The Mongolian courts made good use of the Uighur script for recording their history, even if these original documents do not survive. The earliest surviving piece of Mongolian in the Uighur script is the so-called Chinggis stone, or “Stele of Genghis Khan.” It commemorates an extraordinarily long arrow-flight, shot by Chinggis’ nephew Yisüngge on the return from the Khwarezmian campaign to Mongolia in 1224. It is usually dated to 1224, though the late Igor de Rachewiltz suggested the possibility of the 1240s, when Yisüngge had more prominence.


But we also see many other uses for the government’s needs, especially with the creation of a proper bureaucracy in the 1230s and a chancellery in the imperial capital of Qaraqorum in Mongolia. Influenced by Chinese government design, the Mongols created a Secretariat system to govern their growing empire. Controlled by a Central Secretariat in Qaraqorum, whose head served as the effective Prime Minister of the Empire, these Secretariats had divisions first in North China and Central Asia, later growing to include Western Asia and Iran, and finally the Rus’ lands. Qaraqorum’s most important population was the large number of scribes and translators based there to man the Central Secretariat and its branch contacts.

The Genghis Stone – photo by Neleto / Wikimedia Commons

Not only were the Great Khan’s orders written down and stamped with official seals in the Mongolian script, but tax records, census data, legal decisions, privileges and records, and other government information was compiled there. And then, an army of translators were tasked with putting these statements into the major languages of the empire. Letters of submission to various monarchs around the world were sent in the Mongolian script, usually accompanied by a translation. One such original Persian translation of a letter from Güyük Khaan to Pope Innocent IV still survives in the Vatican archives. Certain Persian chroniclers complained of the continued prominence their Mongol rulers placed on the Uighur script, and how anyone who learned it could rise high in the government even without other qualities.

The Mongolian-Uighur script continued to hold a pride of place even after the division of the Mongol Empire in the 1260s. Khubilai Khaan ordered the creation of a new script, the ‘Phags-Pa, which was hoped to be a new universal script for the Empire. Completed by 1269, it was named for its designer, the great Buddhist leader, the ‘Phags-Pa Lama. Based on the Tibetan script, it was 41 square-shaped letters written vertically and designed to capture the sounds of both Chinese and Mongolian. A delighted Khubilai mandated the script be taught to his sons and all officials, and government documents were to be issued in it. Surviving stone inscriptions, paper money, porcelain and state gerge/paizas (passports) from the Yuan period all feature the characteristic blocks of the ‘Phags-pa script. But aside from official and decorative purposes, the script never caught on even within the government, despite repeated proclamations from Khubilai for his officials to learn it. It could not even replace the Uighur-Mongolian script; the two often appear together on Yuan-era monuments.

Güyük Khan demanding Pope Innocent IV’s submission, held at the Vatican Secret Archives

The Uighur-Mongolian script held on even in the western khanates of the empire for select government and ceremonial purposes. It appears periodically on coinage in the Chagatai Khanate, Ilkhanate and Golden Horde over the thirteenth and into the fourteenth centuries. Surviving in an Ottoman reproduction is a yarliq (decree) of the Golden Horde Khan Temür Qutlugh from the 1390s had Turkic written in both Arabic and the Uighur script. Also from the Golden Horde survive a few paiza and even a birch bark poem in Mongolian and Turkic in the Uighur script. Until the final days of the Ilkhanate, official seals and yarliqs continued to feature, or were written entirely, in Mongolian-Uighur script, and Il-Khans like Ghazan (r.1295-1304) are mentioned learning to read and write “both Mongolian and Uighur.”

At least one Ilkhanid successor state, the Jalāyirids, issued some coins with phrases in the Uighur script on them. For the Chagatai Khanate, the dry Turfan Basin has preserved a number of Mongolian-Uighur documents that indicate its internal use until late in the fourteenth century. And all indications are that Mongolian-Uighur documents were used for diplomacy between the khanates.

Though it received sporadic usage for Turkic, the Mongolian-Uighur script never became adopted outside of these select circles. Not surprisingly, as the Mongols never appear to have made any effort, or had interest, in using it as a lingua franca. The Mongolian language and the Uighur script were for the use of the Mongols and their government. If anyone else picked it up, this was incidental. Persian, Chinese and various forms of Turkic were the most common linguistic intermediaries outside of government circles (and over the fourteenth century, this too increasingly was less of an exception).

When the Yuan Dynasty was pushed from China in 1368, they kept the Uighur script with them (while the ‘Phas-Pa did not survive the journey). The Uighur script received a few improvements to better distinguish the sounds in Mongolian, and a renewed Mongolian chronicle tradition of the seventeenth century (which incorporated parts of the Secret History of the Mongols) saw the writing of new histories using the old script. Furthermore, when the Manchu established their Qing Dynasty (1636-1912), they took the Mongolian-Uighur alphabet as the basis for the official Manchu script.

The old script continued in use in Mongolia until its division between “Outer” Mongolia (today’s independent country of Mongolia) and “Inner” Mongolia (the province in north China, south of the Gobi desert) with the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911-12. Inner Mongolia to this day retains the old script, though both its use, and knowledge of the Mongolian language, are challenged by sinicization efforts. Across the Gobi in Mongolia, being brought into the Soviet sphere of influence saw the adoption of Cyrillic as the official alphabet, which is still used predominantly today. Since the Mongolian revolution of the 1990s, there has been increasing interest to readopt the old script. It is now taught in schools and used for certain government and ceremonial purposes, and there are dreams of its widespread usage across all spheres of Mongolian life. Whether that can be achieved remains to be seen. Regardless it stands as a remarkable legacy of continued use some 800 years after the capture of Tata-Tongga.

Jack Wilson 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. He returned to CEU in Fall 2022 for his PhD, focusing on the Golden Horde in the late thirteenth century. You can visit the educational videos he creates about the Mongol Empire on Youtube at The Jackmeister: Mongol History.

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Top Image: Chinggis Khan being shown a document in the Uighur Script, c.1206. Art by Jack Wilson