Linguistic wrestling in the Mongol court

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This post brings together current American politics with Victor's recent post on wrestling terminology, by quoting a passage from Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, about a debate staged by Mongke Khan in September of 1254.

The Mongols loved competitions of all sorts, and they organized debates among rival religions the same way they organized wrestling matches. It began on a specific date with a panel of judges to oversee it. In this case Mongke Khan ordered them to debate before three judges: a Christian, a Muslim, and a Buddhist. A large audience assembled to watch the affair, which began with great seriousness and formality. An official laid down the strict rules by which Mongke wanted the debate to proceed: on pain of death “no one shall dare to speak words of contention.”

Rubruck and the other Christians joined together in one team with the Muslims in an effort to refute the Buddhist doctrines. As these men gathered together in all their robes and regalia in the tents on the dusty plains of Mongolia, they were doing something that no other set of scholars or theologians had ever done in history. It is doubtful that representatives of so many types of Christianity had come to a single meeting, and certainly they had not debated, as equals, with representatives of the various Muslim and Buddhist faiths. The religious scholars had to compete on the basis of their beliefs and ideas, using no weapons or the authority of any ruler or army behind them. They could use only words and logic to test the ability of their ideas to persuade.

In the initial round, Rubruck faced a Buddhist from North China who began by asking how the world was made and what happened to the soul after death. Rubruck countered that the Buddhist monk was asking the wrong questions; the first issue should be about God from whom all things flow. The umpires awarded the first points to Rubruck.

Their debate ranged back and forth over the topics of evil versus good, God’s nature, what happens to the souls of animals, the existence of reincarnation, and whether God had created evil. As they debated, the clerics formed shifting coalitions among the various religions according to the topic. Between each round of wrestling, Mongol athletes would drink fermented mare’s milk; in keeping with that tradition, after each round of the debate, the learned men paused to drink deeply in preparation for the next match.

No side seemed to convince the other of anything. Finally, as the effects of the alcohol became stronger, the Christians gave up trying to persuade anyone with logical arguments, and resorted to singing. The Muslims, who did not sing, responded by loudly reciting the Koran in an effort to drown out the Christians, and the Buddhists retreated into silent meditation. At the end of the debate, unable to convert or kill one another, they concluded the way most Mongol celebrations concluded, with everyone simply too drunk to continue.


  1. Leo said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 9:51 am

    This is such a wonderful image, and it reminds me to wonder what it must have been like for Mongols to wrestle with making heads or tails of the Papal Bulls of Innocent IV to the 'Emperor of the Tatars' describing the fundamentals of Christianity:

    "God the Father, of His graciousness regarding with unutterable loving-kindness the unhappy lot of the human race, brought low by the guilt of the first man, and desiring of His exceeding great charity mercifully to restore him whom the devil's envy overthrew by a crafty suggestion, sent from the lofty throne of heaven down to the lowly region of the world His only-begotten Son, con- substantial with Himself, who was conceived by the operation of the Holy Ghost in the womb of a fore-chosen virgin and there clothed in the garb of human flesh, and afterwards proceeding thence by the closed door of His mother's virginity, He showed Himself in a form visible to all men…"

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 10:18 am

    Only slightly related (to the introductory paragraph): How did it happen that "Genghis Khan" is nowadays mostly pronounced with a hard g by English-speakers?

  3. Mr Punch said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 11:40 am

    Coby's question is a good one. I remember a soft g in my youth (US, '50s-'60s) but it's mostly (or always) hard now.

  4. Rube said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

    Interesting about the hard "g". I don't ever remember hearing it, always soft, but I may just have gone a long time without hearing the name pronounced. (I'm 57, Canadian, grew up on Bob Dylan and Omar Sharif movies for my pronunciation guide.)

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    From a scholar of Islam in China:

    That is a wonderful image! I wonder how the Muslim debaters persuaded themselves that kumis is excluded from the Qur'anic prohibition on intoxicating beverages. It would not be the last time–one of my favorite Huihui [Chinese Muslim] scholars in China regularly drinks beer, despite being a two-time hajji and a high official in the Islamic Association in Beijing. His explanation? Píjiǔ bùshì jiǔ 啤酒不是酒 ("beer-jiu isn't jiu [liquor; alcohol]").

  6. Gav said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 2:43 pm

    "they were doing something that no other set of scholars or theologians had ever done in history" .

    That rather depends on whether there's anything to the story of king Bulan of the Khazars.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

    Frankfurter Allgemeine called the foulest part of the debate a Schlammschlacht ("mud bath").

  8. maidhc said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 7:48 pm

    I believe that some people interpret the Qur'an as just forbidding the consumption of wine, i.e., fermented grape juice. Beer and similar products are not prohibited. I don't know enough about Arabic to go any further.

    Similarly there's a question about other substances such as hashish. I think there have been examples of Islamic societies that tolerate hashish but not alcohol.

  9. Levantine said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 10:43 pm

    Regarding the name Genghiz, I have the opposite sense: the hard-G pronunciation is the traditional one while the soft-G pronunciation, which is closer to the Mongol (Chingis), has gained ground more recently.

  10. D.O. said,

    March 3, 2016 @ 11:57 pm

    In spring if a houri-like sweetheart
    Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,
    Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,
    If I mentioned any other Paradise, I'd be worse than a dog.

  11. Matt_M said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 2:44 am

    I find the idea of Buddhist monks drinking alcohol even stranger than the idea of Muslims doing so.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 12:46 pm

    From David Dettmann:

    Even today, it's interesting how airag (and beer) is not considered "alcohol" in areas of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia. It's more like a "soft drink", more in the kvass category.

    You might find this interesting… the word "beer" in Mongolian is shar airag ["yellow airag"].

  13. Chris C. said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 4:38 pm

    @Matt — Different Buddhist lineages have different views on the subject. As they do about a great many other things.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 4:57 pm

    I don't remember whether I first heard "Genghis" with a hard g or assumed that was the pronunciation when I read it, but either way, I imagine my ignorant child self thought there was a rule that g in non-Romance languages was always hard. Gestalt, Mogen David, Kosygin, and so forth.

  15. C Murdock said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 3:57 pm

    @Leo – Mongke Khan's mother was a Christian, so I doubt he would've had THAT much trouble understanding the Papal bulls.

  16. Chris C. said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 11:13 pm

    @Murdock — Or lots of trouble. She was a Nestorian Christian, not too unexpected in that part of the world. So assuming the Latin of that bull could have been somehow rendered in Mongolian so as to make sense to her, she'd have disagreed with its description of the Incarnation.

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