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The Secret History of Sube’etei Bahadur – Master of the Mongol Military

  • Casey Ball

  • April 5, 2020

In the span of history no other nation or empire have come close to the total contiguous global hegemony of the Mongol Empire. The Mongols burst forth from the Asian Steppe in the 13th Century and conquered the Eurasian continent from Hungary to Korea, and from the Arctic Circle to the South China Sea within a span of 60 years. However, Chinggiz Khan did not step foot in either Hungary, Korea, or many of the other nations subjugated to Mongol rule. Sube’etei was the man who drove the Mongol ordu (“horde” in English) and defined the limits of the empire. More often than not, the success of the Mongol empire is attributed solely to the military and political prowess of Chinggiz Khan, however that is only a part of the whole story. Chinggiz Khan was reliant on his large network of advisors and generals, and his most successful and most famous general was Sube’etei Bahadur. Much has been written about Sube’etei ever since the completion of the Mongol conquests, however the sources have a hard time agreeing on many of the particulars of Sube’etei’s life, his appearance, his demeanor, how he had learned military tactics, and how he became allied with Chinggiz Khan. Much of these facts are simply taken for granted and not questioned with any depth. With a careful review of primary and secondary sources, a clear view of Sube’etei and his life can be obtained. 

    Who Was Sube’etei?

Despite the amount of historical research regarding the Mongol conquests, and historical works that reference the deeds of Sube’etei, there is only a single biography accounting for all of Sube’etei’s life in the English language. The elusive Yuan-Shih sheds much light on Sube’etei that is missing from the English, French, and American sources. Unfortunately there is no current full translation of the Yuan-Shih in English, despite its awesome importance to the study of both Mongol and Chinese History and the most complete primary source regarding Sube’etei. The sources present many contradictory particulars about Sube’etei’s early years, his family relationships, where he came from, many of the actual details of his life. All the sources unanimously agree that he was an unbeatable general with a preternatural gift for military command, something like a Mozart of warfare. 

Historians have attributed an impressive military record to Sube’etei, claiming him as the victor of sixty-five pitched battles and as the conqueror of thirty-two nations under the orders of three different Great Khans: Chinggiz Khan, Ogdedei Khan, and Guyuk Khan. Past historians have dubbed Sube’etei as one of the ‘great men of history,’ and he is viewed as one of the few men that caused such a splash in world events that subsequent history is simply the ripples left in the Great Man’s wake. In recent decades this school of thought has fallen out of favor for being too reductive, too ready to idolize famous men of history. The likes of Caesar, Napoleon, or Mohammed have their humanity and fallibility conveniently discarded to make the historian’s job easier. Instead of working through the ‘great man’ school of thought it will be important in this work to drop any pretense of hero worship and to maintain as grounded of a perspective as possible. History is not simply a recounting of glorious combat and the tribulations of heroes, military figures are often flawed and leave greater misery than progress in their wake. This type of hero worship clearly does not lend itself to valid and objective study. As a contrast of evolving historical research many historians will go to great pains to avoid any reference to ‘greatness’ when studying a monumental historic character, and as a result modern historians view Sube’etei simply as a gifted tactician. This aversion to addressing greatness also conveniently leaves out an incalculable number of details regarding who Sube’etei was, and the researcher stops asking questions in the vein of ‘who really was this man? Where did he come from? How was he so gifted?’

    When researching Sube’etei several basic questions begin to arise: Where did he come from, anyway? How did he achieve his rank within the Mongol army? Who were his family? After all, the culture of steppe tribes places an inordinate amount of emphasis on family lineage. In order to answer these questions it is imperative to examine Sube’etei in his early life, discern the tribe he hailed from, and how these facts fit into the structure of tribal steppe society. The prevailing belief among Western scholars is that Sube’etei hailed from the Uriankhai people, a sedentary tribe living within the forests near the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia. The Uriankhai provided valuable trade with the nomadic steppe tribes that the Mongols are associated with, specializing in the trade of furs and services such as blacksmithing. Sube’etei himself is characterized as the son of a blacksmith named Jarchigudai, who had been a close friend of Temujin’s father Yesugei. This begs the question: How had Yesugei become allied with a blacksmith from a remote tribe on the opposite end of the steppe? Once the primary sources are analyzed further, the provenance of this claim is called into question.

Uriankhai or Uriangqat? Forest Dweller or Steppe Nomad?

 There is some debate currently as to whether Sube’etei truly was an Urankhai or a member of a different, though similarly named, steppe tribe called the Uriangqat. The Uriangqat were a Turko-Mongol tribe from the steppe similar to the Mongols in culture, so this may provide a more reasonable explanation as to how Chinggiz Khan and Sube’etei had made contact and forged a potent alliance. It is indeed perplexing how a tribe like the Uriankhai that hailed from so far north of the steppe had been in such close contact to the Mongols that ranged near the southern edge of the steppe. In Broadbridge’s book Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire she notes that Sube’etei was in charge of a homogenous cohort of one thousand Uriangqats during Chinggiz Khan’s war of tribal unification. 

Yesugei and Sube’etei’s father Jarchigudai were apparently close allies, but the question of how this came to be is generally unexplained in the primary sources. The majority of sources either apply their own reasons or do not explore the idea, as evidenced by Richard A. Gabirel and Frank McLynn, both proponents of Sube’etei’s forest birth. Yisugei was the commander of a modest warband of Mongols, but he claimed a great lineage of important Mongol chiefs. That boast in itself deserves a closer inspection, and is supported by the Secret History, but the point stands that Yesugei ranged near the southern end of the Mongol steppe. The nomadic range of the Mongol tribe at the time of Temujin’s birth bordered the northern edge of the Gobi Desert, whereas Jarchigudai lived around 250+ miles away near the shores of Lake Baikal. Jarchigudai himself is not reputed to be a leader of any sort, so the connection between the two fathers becomes even more questionable. What business would a warrior chief and a sedentary blacksmith living so far away have with each other? The most pragmatic answer is that before the rise of Chinggiz Khan the Mongols and the other nomadic Turko-Mongol tribes that he incorporated into his empire did not practice blacksmithing or metalworking, and preferred to plunder rather than produce goods. Metal armor, arrowheads, swords, and spearheads were rare among the pre-Chinggisid Mongols, who used fire-hardened arrows (with a few scant metal arrowheads available,) boiled leather armor, lassoes, daggers, and looted swords and spears. So, it stands to reason that Mongols would engage in trade with friendly tribes for necessities of the nerge (a term for the ritualized Springtime hunt, where the tribesmen would encircle and exhaust all wildlife they could find, also their most common battle tactic) and warfare.

Rashid al-Din claims that there are two distinct Uriangqat peoples, the ‘Forest’ Uriangqat and a separate and distinct branch which will be referred to in this paper as the ‘Nomad’ Uriangqat. Rashid al-Din maintains that the ‘Forest’ tribe produced no people of note in his historical record, and states that Sube’etei and his family hailed from the ‘Nomad’ Uriangqats. At this point there must be some leeway given for the vast distinctions in transliteration between sources over time, and Rashid al-Din states that the ‘Forest’ and the ‘Nomad’ Uriangqat both hail from the region immediately to the east and northeast of Lake Baikal. There is credence given to both sides of the argument about which tribe Sube’etei hailed from in that Rashid al-Din quotes that the ‘Nomad’ Uriangqat “claim that they helped run the seventy bellows in Argana-qun.” This reference to bellows must have some relation to metalworking and keeping forges lit. Whether Rashid al-Din intended this to mean that the ‘Nomad’ Uriangqats practiced blacksmithing or metalworking is unclear, as the rest of the paragraph immediately segues into a description of how this tribe’s superstition regarding lightning differed from the more widespread Mongolian superstition that instilled deep fear of lighting and other weather phenomena. To contrast to Rashid al-Din, Carl Fredrik Sverdrup asserts that Sube’etei and the Uriangqats hailed from the northern steppe regions between the Onan and Kerulen rivers, further to the east of Lake Baikal than Rashid al-Din, Gabriel, Lane, and Morgan suggest. The boundaries of these regions are situated in a wide swath of the asian steppe stretching through modern Mongolia and northeastern China. The assertion altogether remains the same: That Sube’etei was ethnically and culturally distinct from the majority of Turko-Mongol tribesmen.

Mongol specialist Stephen Pow has spearheaded the argument that Sube’etei was a ‘Nomad’ Uriangqat, and definitively not an Uriankhai/Forest Uriangqat as other sources attest. Pow has exhaustively studied many of the underrepresented Chinese sources such as the Yuan-Shih with the help of his partner Jingjing Liao’s translation, which opens up a whole new view of Sube’etei. Instead of a plucky forest dweller that followed his own wistful sense of adventure, Pow characterizes Sube’etei as a bold steppe warrior who had been captured, and later granted clemency by Temujin. Pow and Liao both argue that much of the historical study of Sube’etei is flawed in that Western researchers only very rarely utilize the Chinese sources, and instead play fast and loose with fictional representations or rely wholly on Jean Pierre Abel-Remusat’s poetic style of interpreting Chinese depictions of Sube’etei, rather than making their own independent research or translations of Chinese sources.

Pow and Liao’s greatest revelation in the study of differentiating between the ‘Forest’ and ‘Nomad’ Uriangqat is the careful examination of the Chinese and Mongol written characters. They claim: “The choice of characters demonstrates that Uriyangqa[t] is intended, rather than Uriyangqai, since ‘qai’ in Mongolian is transcribed as 海, or perhaps 孩.” This is a clear demarcation between the two tribes, as the suffix differentiated the tribe and the usage of ‘Uriyangqat’ infers a belonging to the ‘Nomad’ branch in the most literal sense possible. Pow and Liao further bolstered their argument by referencing a passage in the Yuan-shih that recounts how Sube’etei had been captured in battle by Temujin and been set free, chose to side with Temujin, and was allowed to command a small regiment of one hundred men. Strangely this echoes almost perfectly the story of Jebe, who had also fought Temujin in his early career and then been granted a military command. Whether it was Temujin’s prerogative to only use fighters whose skill and bravery he had personally witnessed, or that the Chinese sources themselves also may have their own shortcomings.

Sube’etei and Temujin 

The relationship of Temujin and Sube’etei began long before their respective births. Gabriel maintains that Sube’etei ran away from his father’s forge and joined Temujin’s camp when he was fourteen years old, however Temujin had already been closely allied with Sube’etei’s older brother Jelme. Even before that point Jarchigudai was closely allied with Temujin’s father Yesugei. Jelme and Temujin were the same age, and in their infancy Jarchigudai had presented Jelme as a gift to Yesugei. The custom of the time was that Jelme would act as a servant for the Mongol chief Yesugei and his family, and be fostered by them until such time as he would be promoted to the rank of a warrior. Yesugei refused the responsibility of Jelme, as his family was not able to sustain the burden of another infant, and he requested that Jelme be brought back once he became an adult.

Jarchigudai kept his promise and returned to deliver Jelme when he had reached adulthood, yet by that point Temujin had already lost his father to an act of political murder and had lived an austere life of exile on the steppe. After several years of exile Temujin allied with his father’s anda (a blood brother, sworn ally, et al) Toghril and began leading his own small warband. At this point Jelme had become of age, and Sube’etei was taken along with the family for the delivery of Jelme, Sube’etei was ten years old at this time. According to Richard A. Gabriel the delivery of Jelme’s service was a complete surprise to Temujin, who either had not been told by either his father or mother, or he had simply forgotten that he would be receiving a much needed ally, two allies for that matter. This meeting of the family of Jarchigudai and Temujin came at an especially important junction to Temujin’s life, as his wife Borte had been recently kidnapped by the Merkit tribe. Temujin had also coincidentally been branded an outlaw with only a handful of loyal warriors left to take up his cause. 

After releasing Jelme into the service of Temujin, Jarchigudai returned to the forests of the Uriankhai people, and expected his youngest son Sube’etei to remain with him and take up the family trade of blacksmithing. For reasons we can not be sure of, Sube’etei left his father at the age of fourteen, the age when a Mongol boy reached the age of a warrior, and returned to the camp of Temujin to pledge his service. Perhaps it was Sube’etei’s adolescent sense of adventure awakening, or a preference for the wide expanses of the steppe to the dense Siberian forest, we can only guess at his motivation. Poor Jarchigudai was left all alone, with no family to take on his trade or to care for him as he aged, no record of what happened to Jarchigudai after Sube’etei’s departure remains.

In 1188 Sube’etei reached the lands of the Mongols and he pledged his service to Temujin, he was given the task of minding the hearth and watching the tent door as Jelme had done before him. Over the next ten years Sube’etei closely monitored everything that Temujin and his comrades did to prepare for the war that united all the tribes under the Mongol banner. Gabriel suggests that it was Jelme’s presence as a tent manager, his military prowess, and loyalty that instilled Temujin’s trust in giving Sube’etei the same role.

Over the next ten years Sube’etei had impressed Temujin with his sharp mind and unwavering loyalty, earning him a promotion to the status of a warrior and then later a commander. During the tribal wars Temujin elevated Sube’etei to the role of noyan (general) in charge of his own mingan (1,000 man regiment) of Uriankhai. During the war against the Xi-Xia Chinggiz Khan elevated Sube’etei to the rank of orlok (eagle), the highest rank in the Mongol army. From then on Sube’etei continued to wage war and dominated thirty-two nations over a career spanning sixty-five pitched battles, with many other uncredited skirmishes.

Amazingly, though Sube’etei had endured so much combat action he lived through all his campaigns and retired as a hero of the Mongol people. As late as the regency of Guyuk Khan the European papal spy Giovanni di Plano-Carpini had received word that Sube’etei was alive and well, living in retirement in 1247. Details of his retirement become foggy, as each source states that he went to a different river, some say the Danube, some say the Onon, some say the Tula River, perhaps he travelled between all of them and enjoyed his final years travelling to vacation spots as a modern retiree would.

Decoding the Link Between Chinggiz Khan and Sube’etei Bahadur

    How exactly the two disparate tribes of the Uriangqat and the Borjigin Mongols came together and established the exchange of sons like Jelme and Sube’etei requires a deep dive into the records of Mongol genealogy. Mongols all placed a special emphasis on their family lineage, and each Mongol was expected to be able to recite their ancestors at least five generations previous. Surprisingly, Temujin was unaware of his father Yisugei’s relationship with the Uriankhai and Jarchigudai, so when Jelme had been delivered to him it was quite a shock. While under the care of Ho’elun during a period of austere survival by the Onan River, Temujin certainly had to have been instructed in his genealogy as a proper Mongol would have. So why would he have been in the dark about a connection to the family of Jarchigudai and the Uriankhai peoples? 

Under inspection it becomes clear that the connection between the families extends far back beyond what was expected of Temujin. In the Secret History of the Mongols the familial lines of Temujin are explored in great detail, and when tracing the lineage back down to the roots of the family tree the relationship is made clear. Temujin was the son of Yisugei, who was the son of Bartan Bahadur, who was the son of Qabul Khan, son of Tumbinai Sechin, who was the son of Bai-Shingqor-Doqshin, the son of the founder of the Mongol tribe Qaidu, who was the son of Qachi-Kuluk, son of Menen-tudun, who was the son of Qabichi Bahadur. Once the family tree has gone back to Qabichi Bahadur the story of his father Bodonchar truly begins to set the stage for the family connection. Bodonchar and his four brothers were ranging near the Onan river when they came across a “half-pregnant” woman who identified herself as “a Greater Uriankhai woman of the Jarchi’ut tribe.” They captured this woman and other nearby people to act as concubines and servants, and after giving birth to the child she was carrying this woman bore another son to Bodonchar named Ba’aridai, who founded the Ba’arin clan. 

Though there are only some small hints given from this extrapolation of dynastic lines a picture does emerge: This Uriankhai Jarchi’ut woman must have been an ancestor of Jarchigudai, Sube’etei, and Jelme. The other evidence that presents itself is that Sube’etei’s family has a clear precedent of naming conventions that reference their tribal origins and ancestors. Sube’etei’s father Jarchigudai must have been named so for the Jarchi’ut tribe from the recounting of the family legacy, the similarity is too concise to abandon. Sube’etei also named one of his sons Uriankhadai, a clear reference to the tribe he hailed from.

Looking at the translation of the two biographies of Sube’etei Yuan-Shih there is a much more concise representation, that Sube’etei’s ancestor Nerbi became allied with the Mongol ancestor Tumbinai-sechin, exactly five generations prior. This explanation makes for a much tidier summation of the bonds between the two different tribes, and a much more concrete reasoning.

Depictions of Sube’etei Across History

    When researching Sube’etei’s life and attempting to piece together a picture of who he was as an individual, conflicting reports on Sube’etei’s stature and appearance arise. In R.P. Lister’s Genghis Khan he claims that Sube’etei “had grown swiftly to enormous stature and bulk; none of the steppe horses could carry him far, and he customarily travelled in an iron wagon.” However, in Richard A. Gabriel’s study of the sources surrounding Sube’etei, he finds that Lister does not provide a citation that justifies this claim about Sube’etei’s supposed massive physical presence. One possible source of this confusion is that in the Jami u’t Tawarikh during the passages noting the tribe that Jelme and Sube’etei hailed from, he makes a passing reference to Jelme’s son Yesü Buq Taishi “had grown extremely old in Ögödäi Qa’an’s time and had to be taken around in a cart.” Perhaps there had been a translation error in Lister’s version of the Compendium of Chronicles that had led to this question of stature. 

It was clear that Sube’etei had grown old and remained famous during the reign of Ogedei Khan. However, when we observe the travelogue of Giovanni di Plano-Carpini we see that he saw Sube’etei firsthand and had made an effort to point him out. Plano-Carpini was at the Mongol court during the coronation of Guyuk Khan, and listed Sube’etei amongst the people he saw. Carpini wrote that Sube’etei was “an old man who is known amongst them as ‘The Knight.’” There is no mention of his physical appearance in this instance. Neither Rashid al-Din nor The Secret History appear to make any claims about Sube’etei’s physical appearance, and even those two primary sources do not necessarily agree on his characterization. The few scant references to Sube’etei in The Secret History simply reference him as an ally of Temujin/Chinggiz Khan and surprisingly make even fewer references to his military ability. Rashid al-Din on the other hand, praises Sube’etei nondescriptly as a “great general”.

In the Chinese sources we see the only contemporary depiction of Sube’etei in a drawing that displays him in a “crouching tiger” posture which suggests intensity, fierceness, and significant martial prowess. When contrasting the drawing of Sube’etei to other Chinese depictions he does not stand any higher, or appear any broader, however the depiction clearly sinosizes Sube’etei with decidedly Chinese facial characteristics. The Chinese do have a record of reimagining the features of conquerors so that they appear more Chinese, as evidenced with the portraits made of Chinggiz Khan in the time of Qubilai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty. 

In Frank McLynn’s extensive biography Genghis Khan there are more significant depictions of Sube’etei’s personality. Sube’etei was apparently quite proud of his own military prowess, and had developed a significant ego due to his long and unbroken string of victories. McLynn even goes so far as to describe Sube’etei as a “prima donna” who had begun to butt heads with Genghis Khan and even the agreeable and open-handed Ogodei.

Sube’etei The Innovator

Aside from his impressive military career one of the most overlooked and important aspects of his involvement with the Mongols was his ability to adapt and redesign aspects of Mongol culture. He is said to have been instrumental in helping Chinggiz Khan with the reorganization of the Mongol military and establishment of the tuman (decimal regimentation) system of army structure. What does remain consistent is Sube’etei’s connection to iron and the repeated usage of ‘iron carts,’ whether these are some sort of chariot that he was transported in or whether they were something else is debatable entirely. Some sources believe that Sube’etei’s ‘iron carts’ must have actually been a system of mobile forges, others believe that Sube’etei’s knowledge of metallurgy and blacksmithing must have impacted the design of Mongol wagons, making the usage of ‘iron cart’ more of an issue with translation being either figurative or literal. The Secret History, for example, has several instances of the Mongols’ poetic use of language that lends itself to misinterpretation of this style. In particular, an example of colloquial speech that can confuse modern historians is “Qarandai’s sons had no leader to stir the millet porridge,” which instead of being a literal phrase about cooking, is actually a poetic way of saying that “they had physical strength but little intelligence” according to Urunge Onon’s translation. Perhaps the usage of ‘iron cart’ may not mean that the carts/wagons themselves were made of iron, but Gabriel suggests that their design was changed from solid wooden wheels to a more Chinese style spoked and metal treaded wagon wheel influenced by Sube’etei’s understanding of metalworking and inherent cleverness. This would directly help to explain how the Mongols were able to refine their system of logistical supply and increased campaign range after the rise of Chinggiz Khan. 


    Through thorough examination of a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, finally some light can be shed on the historical personage of Sube’etei. There is no question that he was a great general, as all historians studying the Mongols can attest. What truly set him apart from the other Mongols was his distinctly different upbringing, which influenced a separate way of thinking from the other Mongol raiders of the steppe. As with any figure who has not been studied, there have been exaggerations, contradictions, and confusion regarding him. Now that enough disparate works have been combed through finely, a much clearer picture of this world conquering general is brought upon the stage of history. He was not an obese giant who was carried around in a cart, he hailed from a forest tribe and not a similar steppe tribe, he refined the Mongol war machine by upgrading the logistical system, reinforced weapons and armor, and he held together the empire in the wake of Chinggiz Khan’s untimely passing.


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