How Genghis Khan Reformed Looting on the Steppe

In [his] campaign against the Tatars, Temujin [later Genghis Khan] would institute yet another set of radical changes to the rules that had long governed steppe life, and these changes would both antagonize some of his followers, those of the aristocratic lineages, and deepen the loyalty felt for him by many others, those of the lower lineages whose lives he enriched with his reforms and distribution of goods. While conducting raid after raid, Temujin had realized that the rush to loot the gers of the defeated served as an impediment to more complete victory. Rather than chasing down the warriors of the raided camps, attackers generally allowed them to flee and focused instead on immediately looting their camps. This system allowed many defeated warriors to escape and eventually return for a counterattack. So on this raid, his second conquest of the Tatars, Temujin decided to order that all looting would wait until after a complete victory had been won over the Tatar forces; the looting could then be carried out in a more organized fashion, with all the goods being brought under his central control and then redistributed among his followers as he determined fit. He distributed the goods along the same lines by which the hunting men of the forest traditionally distributed the kill at the end of a group hunt.

In another innovation, he ordered that a soldier’s share be allocated to each widow and to each orphan of every soldier killed in the raid. Whether he did this because of the memory of his own mother’s predicament when the Tatars killed his father, or for more political purposes, it had a profound effect. This policy not only ensured him of the support of the poorest people in the tribe, but it also inspired loyalty among his soldiers, who knew that even if they died, he would take care of their surviving families.

After routing the Tatars, some of Temujin’s followers ignored his order against individual looting, and he demonstrated how serious he was about this reform by exacting a tough but appropriate punishment. He stripped those men of all their possessions and deprived them of the goods seized in the campaign. By controlling the distribution of all the looted goods, he had again violated the traditional rights of the aristocratic lineages under him to disperse the goods among their followers. The radical nature of his reforms angered many of them, and some deserted him to join the forces of [his blood brother and principal rival] Jamuka at this point, further drawing a line between the higher-prestige lineages and the common herders. Again, he had shown that rather than relying on the bonds of kinship and tradition, members of his tribe could now look to Temujin for direct support; with this move, he greatly centralized the power of his rule while at the same time strengthening the commitment of his followers.

Despite the minority discontent from within the Mongol ranks, Temujin’s new system proved immediately effective. By postponing the looting until the end of the campaign, Temujin’s army amassed more goods and animals than ever before. But the new wealth system also posed a new problem; the Mongols had not only defeated the Tatars, they had also captured almost the entire army and all the civilians.

SOURCE: Genghis Khan and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford (Three Rivers Press, 2004), pp. 50-51

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