The Mongol Time-Lords & the West

by Johan Elverskog*

This week for Chinese New Year we bring you a scholastic paper from Medieval history Journal on the Chinese and Mongolian contributions to medieval astrology.  The original paper, in toto, is below.

 Astrology in pre-modern Eurasia, was fundamentally about orienting oneself—and one’s realm—in time and space and, as such, by bringing order to chaos, it functioned as a handmaiden of empire. The reality faced by all imperial systems was the competing universal claims of power that were based on radically different systems of astrology, astronomy and divination. In their effort to come to grips with this diversity, Eurasian empires usually adopted one of two contrasting attitudes, either a fundamentalist orthodoxy or an open syncretism.

In China, for example, some dynasties, such as the Qing (1644–1911), mandated conformity and outlawed heterodox astrological, calendrical or divination systems, many of which were invariably tied to rebellions.

 Other dynasties, such as the Tang (618–907), used a ‘doctrine of mixing together’ (混合說 hunheshou), which enabled diverse systems to thrive within the imperial order. And it was such a model that was followed by the Mongols’ predecessors, the Khitans of the Liao (907–1125) and Western Liao dynasties (1124–1211), both of which used a syncretistic model in order to maintain the indigenous, Buddhist, Chinese, Christian, Islamic and other traditions within their state.   The Mongols adopted this system also.

They  were the primary agents of commercial, technological and intellectual exchange across Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.3 Moreover, as much recent scholarship has shown, including the work of Azfar Moin and the papers in this forum by Matthew Melvin-Koushki and Audrey Truschke, The Mongol quest for knowledge—especially of state-of-the-art astrology and the power it entailed—knew no bounds.

The fruits of such endeavors (such as Liu Binzhong’s Shoushili,5 Pakpa Lama’s Kalacakra-reorientation6 and Nasīr al-Dīn Tūsi’s recension of Ptolemy’s Almagest and Persian translation of al-Sufii’s Description of Fixed Stars), and the drive to maintain such an ‘occultist arms race’, as Melvin-Koushki calls it, continued to shape the statecraft among their successor states. In many ways, the Mongols established a model that was readily emulated by their successors.

Yet, there are important discontinuities between what the Mongols achieved and what their successors. For one, none of the post-Mongol regimes controlled anywhere near the territory that the Mongols had. Clearly, they knew this, and thus any claims about ‘universal’ rule that they were bound to proclaim on account of imperial protocol were not the same as that of the Mongols, who not only had a religion-political theology that made all people and modes of thought subservient to Mongol power,7 but also actualised that reality.

They controlled time and space to a previously unprecedented degree. In thirteenth century Iran, for example, the New Year was not celebrated at the vernal equinox according to the Islamic calendar, but was celebrated six weeks before the spring equinox in keeping with the Chinese calendar and it such control  for astrological, astronomical and divinatory knowledge was meant to ensure. And to a certain extent, it is precisely this universal ethos and its actualisation that actually made the Mongol empire quite different from anything before or since.

Rather than simply allowing different traditions to coexist and cross-pollinate as had historically so often been the case, the Mongols as part of their imperial policy actually wove them all together into a new coherent whole. This synthetic wholeness is a marked feature of Mongol astrological works, which are neither simply composite texts, nor simply cutting and pasting of Tibetan, Chinese and Indian texts in order to create a new pastiche. Rather, these texts are a reworking of these disparate elements into a coherent whole.

Throughout the text there are continuous references to its own conceptual framework, that  it calls ‘Mongol’, in contradistinction to the other four traditions: Indian, Tibetan and the Chinese ‘peasant’ and ‘scholarly’ traditions. Baumann has shown in his recent work on the Manual of Astrology and Divination, that  the text is clearly aware of the late seventeenth-century White Beryl (Baidūrya dkar po)—the main astrological text of the Gelugpa school—but the Mongol almanac is strikingly different, since the Tibetan work focuses on elemental divination and the Mongolian text focuses on omens.

Also, the Mongolian text has neither the natal horoscopes or pebble divination that are central to the Tibetan White Beryl, nor follows the Tibetan eight-day week or even their nakshatra system. Rather its 28 Lunar Mansions system are influenced by Chinese traditions, and the Chinese influence in turn is seen in the Mongol use of the hundred-unit reckoning system, the 12 double-hour system, the 23 joints and breaths, as well as the Chinese method for fixing the intercalary month.

Yet, the Mongolian almanacs are not wholly Chinese; instead, they are a fusion of these diverse elements into a holistically coherent new one is found not only in Mongolian astrological texts, but also in medical texts as evidenced in the Handbook of Medicines (Bükün-e tusalaqu eldeb jüil em-yin nayirul?a kemekü orosiba),11 and translations of Chinese astrological works such as the Xuanze guangyu xia ji [Record of the Multi-Faceted Jade Box (IVV41匣記)].

Though this Tang dynasty text includes a vast array of Chinese divinatory practices including coin divination, physiognomy, weather divination and various Chinese star spirits and omens that became vastly popular among the Mongols, the Mongol version is not simply a translation. Rather, as Walther Heissig has pointed out, the extant Mongol versions are reworkings that create a new composite text much like the Manual of Astrology and Divination.1

Even so, is whether this vision of the Mongols, which influenced thinkers such as Tycho Brahe, played any role in the subsequent development of scientific thought. Or was it only the Europeans who followed in the universalising footsteps of the Mongols?

The original paper by johan elverskog


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