Recording Türkic History: The Legitimation of an Empire

By Madilyn Clawson

The history of nomadic peoples is often lumped into the histories of neighboring sedentary empires, which frequently lack accuracy and detail in their depiction of individuals and events. Many nomadic peoples did not record their own history, because they often moved from one place to another and it simply would not have been practical to maintain an extensive history. The Türks were an exceptional nomadic group because they kept records of their empire; this has allowed modern scholars to better understand the Türks and their relationship with the Chinese Empire. History appears to have been an important tool for the Türks. The Türks utilized the recording of history as a source of legitimation for their empire and a source of unification among their people. Additionally, history was used to distribute collective ideas across Inner Asia and to document the important role of the Türks in Inner Asia for future generations.

The Türk Empire began slowly after the dissolution of the Juan-juan. The Juan-juan did not leave behind any written records of their own. Therefore, everything that is known about these people has been learned from Chinese records. Unfortunately, these transcriptions “contain little information of real interest” concerning the Turk’s predecessors.[1] Each Chinese dynasty would transcribe the history of the former dynasty in order to have a complete history of the empire but oftentimes these histories were criticized for their inaccuracies or rushed creation. It is possible that the Chinese records left out a great deal of history, especially that of certain people or events that may have seemed insignificant to the great Chinese Empire. The Chiu T’ang Shu gives the history of the T’ang dynasty which includes mention of the Türks; mainly the founding of the Second Türk Empire, which the writer refers to as a “rebellion”.[2] The founding of the Second Türk Empire is also included in the Kül Tigin inscription, the funerary stele of Kül Tigin, created by his brother, Bilgä Kagan.[3] However, rather than simply calling the actions of his father, İlteriš Kagan, a “rebellion,”[4] Bilgä Kagan gives a more extensive history of the founding of the Türk Empire and refers to his father’s campaigns as “organized” and “ordered,” which indicates that these military actions were not merely an impulsive rebellion, but rather an act that was facilitated by the Turkish god, so that “the Turkish people would not go to ruin”.[5] This difference in the conception of history may have inspired the Türks to record their own history so that their people would know the truth (or the accepted Türkic version) about the events that took place between the Chinese and the Türks. The Kül Tigin inscription warns about the “wily and deceitful” Chinese people, so it stands to reason that the Türks might not have trusted the Chinese to document their history and would have certainly wanted to produce their own for the people living at the time and in the future.[6]

The production of history by the Türks may have also been a strategy for nation-building. The author of the Kül Tigin repeatedly addresses the “Turkish people,” as though working to remind readers that they are Türks.[7] Beckwith writes about the separation between the Western Turkic realm and the Eastern Türk realm, saying that “the two halves of the empire became increasingly separate over time,” which might have contributed to the decline of the First Türk Empire around 630 CE.[8] The monument establishes the Türks as a people by instituting a collective history and giving them advice for the future. It instructs the Türkish people to “[h]ear these words of mine well, and listen hard!” because Bilgä Kagan wanted the Türkish people to not only learn the history, but learn from it.[9] Using history to project a certain idea or lesson would have been an effective governing technique, especially in a large area like the Türk empires of Inner Asia. The inscriptions on the stele were meant to be read aloud by passersby. This is why it was erected in a high traffic area where many people would be able to hear the words of Bilgä Kagan read aloud by literate Türks.[10] The formation of a common history would have helped to create a sense of unity among the people.

In their individual works, both Denis Sinor and Christopher Beckwith grapple with the question of what made these people Türks, which is a very difficult, if not impossible, question to attempt to answer completely. Today, scholars attempt to determine which groups in the past should be considered Türks. However, distinguishing Türks from non-Türks was a problem in the past as well. Sinor writes about “Türk splinter groups” that were “ethnically and linguistically similar to or identical with the Türks proper, but living either on the fringes or beyond the borders of the centrally governed Türk states,” who might not have identified as Türks even though they spoke the same language and lived near the edge of the state.[11] Monuments like the Kül Tigin inscription would have certainly influenced the way in which its readers viewed themselves. The inscription repeatedly addresses the reader saying, “O Turkish people” five times on the southern inscription alone, which I believe would have had an effect on its audience.[12] Hearing the words of Bilgä Kagan read aloud describing the history of the empire and chronicling the life of the great hero Kül Tigin might have inspired the listener or reader to want to identify as a member of this great Türk state, rather than be a member of a small group associated with the Türks.

According to Chinese sources like the Chiu T’ang Shu, the Türks were “barbarians” who were often engaged in fights with the Chinese empire.[13] However, according to Sinor, the Türks were regularly “fighting or forming short-lived alliances with other Inner Asian peoples.”[14] This constant fighting among the Inner Asian people may have been another reason for the Türks to record their own history in the form of public monuments. The Kül Tigin inscription repeatedly warns its reader about the dangers of the Chinese, which may have been another nation-building tactic by the Türk leaders. If the readers of the stone could collectively recognize the Chinese as their enemy, they might work together to defend against the Chinese rather than fighting amongst themselves. Also, this notion that the Chinese were the enemy of the Türks might have encouraged other groups of people to identify as Türks based solely on the fact that they lived in the same area, spoke similar languages, and were enemies of the Chinese as well. This would have helped to create a larger, stronger state full of people willing to call themselves Türks.

The writing of history could be seen as a legitimation strategy by the leaders of the Türks. The Chinese empires had an extensive history, so perhaps the Türks saw historical recordkeeping as an indication of power. After the fall of the Juan-juan, the only record of them was that of the Chinese empire, which described the people as “‘another kind of Hsiung-nu,’” or “barbarian.”[15] It is possible that the Türks observed this misrepresentation and realized the importance of recording their own history so that future generations would know the true history of the Türks. There are a number of discrepancies between the history of the Türks according to the Chinese compared to that of the Türks themselves. According to Beckwith, some differences between accounts concerning Türk invasions are due to the Chinese inventing stories in order to “justify the subsequent massive aggression by the T’ang against the Türk.”[16] Historians today have a good understanding of the complexity of the Türks, which would not be possible if the only documentation of the Türks came from Chinese imperial records.

The Türks were a very dynamic people whose history cannot be defined simply as a small part of the history of the Chinese Empire. To the people of Central Asia, history might have represented power. The Chinese employed historians to keep accurate records of their dynasties, so the Türks most likely viewed written history as an indication of authority. If you were able to write things down and create actual records, you had a sense of influence and prestige. Unlike the Juan-juan who came before them, the Türks are not described as simple barbarians. This is because they kept their own histories that brought into question the Chinese records considered by many to be accurate representations of other groups. Türk history cannot be accepted as completely accurate either, but it does allow historians to have a different perspective concerning the same events. The Türks seem to have understood the importance of history in all of its uses. The Türks utilized history as a way to legitimate their empire, inspire unity among the Türks, promulgate their collective ideas concerning other groups, and to keep an accurate record of their important role in Inner Asia.

 NOTES

[1] Denis Sinor, “The Establishment and Dissolution of the Türk Empire,” in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, ed. Denis Sinor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 291.

[2] Liu Mau-tsai, Die chinesischen Nachrichlen zur Geschichte der Ost-Türken (T’u-kiie), vol. 1 (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1958), 158.

[3] Daniel Prior, “Unit 5: Turk Empires ” (lecture, History 324: Eurasian Nomads and History, Upham Hall 289, Oxford, November 3, 2017).

[4] Liu Mau-tsai, Die chinesischen Nachrichlen zur Geschichte der Ost-Türken (T’u-kiie), vol. 1 (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1958), 158.

[5] Talat Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 265.

[6] Talat Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 264.

[7] Talat Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 262.

[8] Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 117.

[9] Talat Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 261.

[10] Daniel Prior, “Unit 5: Turk Empires ” (lecture, History 324: Eurasian Nomads and History, Upham Hall 289, Oxford, November 3, 2017).

[11] Denis Sinor, “The Establishment and Dissolution of the Türk Empire,” in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, ed. Denis Sinor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 289.

[12] Talat Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 262.

[13] Liu Mau-tsai, Die chinesischen Nachrichlen zur Geschichte der Ost-Türken (T’u-kiie), vol. 1 (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1958), 170-171.

[14] Denis Sinor, “The Establishment and Dissolution of the Türk Empire,” in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, ed. Denis Sinor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 312.

[15] Denis Sinor, “The Establishment and Dissolution of the Türk Empire,” in The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, ed. Denis Sinor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 293.

[16] Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 125.

Bibliography

Beckwith, Christopher I. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Mau-tsai, Liu. Die chinesischen Nachrichlen zur Geschichte der Ost-Türken (T’u-kiie). Vol. 1. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1958.

Prior, Daniel. “Unit 5: Turk Empires.” Lecture, History 324: Eurasian Nomads and History, Upham Hall 289, Oxford, November 3, 2017.

Sinor, Denis. “The Establishment and Dissolution of the Türk Empire.” In The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor, 285-316. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Tekin, Talat. A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

 

About Stephen Norris