Did the Mongols call themselves Tatar?

Around a year ago I released my most popular
video, a look at why the Mongols are so often known as Tatars in historical sources, and
their relation to both 12th century and modern Tatars. The general argument was that the
name of the Tatar tribe of eastern Mongolia, destroyed by Temujin in 1202, was confused
by Chinese, Islamic and Europeans as the name of the Mongols. After the fall of the Golden
Horde, the descendents of the Mongols mixed with local Turkic populations, adopted the
name and still today call themselves Tatars. Overall, in that video I emphasized a distinction
between Mongol and Tatar. Since then, there have been developments:
for one thing, the use of Tatar is far more widespread than I knew. Not only European,
Russian, Arabic, Persian and Chinese sources, but Korean, Armenian, Georgian, Vietnamese and Indonesian
materials all used Tatar just as, or more often, than Mongol, even when recording letters
or quotes from the Great Khans. When almost every single people the Mongol Empire interacted
with called them Tatars, we have to wonder how they could all have confused them with
an exterminated steppe tribe. Yet, some sources do insist upon the usage of Mongol, perhaps
none more significant than their very own Secret History of the Mongols. How do we corroborate
these two seemingly inconsistent trends? An intriguing solution to this issue has been
proposed by historian Stephen Pow. Essentially that the Mongols before Chinggis Khan called
themselves, as a general term for their people, Tatars, with Mongol being a designation for
their empire founded in 1206, which is how the relationship is depicted in missionary
and envoy accounts from the early 13th century. Then around the 1240s, the Great Khans began
urging the use of Mongol over Tatar. Especially after 1250, this is apparent in official histories
compiled by the imperial government where Tatar was eventually restricted to the tribe
destroyed in 1202. Obviously, this interpretation doesn’t fit
well with the Secret History of the Mongols, where Chinggis Khan is only ever called a
Mongol. Yet even this ties into Pow’s argument, and for that we need to discuss sources. First
is the matter of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ sources. Official sources were written on
the orders of the Mongol imperial family, or compiled from imperial documents for an
official history. These also happen to be the most commonly used sources and have strongly
influenced views of the Empire: Although written in Mongolian, Chinese and
Persian decades apart, their depictions align closely, all having used the Secret History
and the same now-lost Mongolian sources. Here, Mongol is almost always used over Tatar, and
in the Secret History, Tatar is only used for the eastern Mongolian group. Part of Pow’s
argument is that these official sources were written after 1250, a period which, especially
under Kublai Khan, saw the creation of official histories to justify the ascension of the
Toluids and reflect the interests of these later Khans, and don’t necessarily reflect
how Tatar was used earlier in the century. In comparison, we have ‘unofficial sources,’
works written outside the empire or not on imperial order, such as the reports of envoys
and missionaries to the Mongols. These writers record statements which are difficult to align
with the old theory, such as quotes from Mongols identifying themselves as Tatars. They also
have the name of the Mongol Empire being taken from the earlier Khamag Mongol union. One
of the earliest is Li Xinchuan, a Jin Dynasty official who in 1216 reported that the Tatar
ruler, Chinggis Khan, had adopted the name Mongol and declared the ‘Great Mongol State,’
with Jin frontier officials calling them Mongol-Tatars. Song envoys to the general Mukhali in 1220
recorded this description: “[the Tatars] admire the Mongol as a heroic
state. Therefore, they’ve called their dynastic name the Great Mongol State… I personally
witnessed that their Acting Emperor, Muqali, Prince of State every time he referred to
himself he said: “I am a Tatar.’ All of these great ministers and field marshals call
themselves saying, ‘we are Tatars,’ and they do not know what type of name is this
‘Mongol’ that they use, neither the name they use for their kingdom, nor the name of
the year.’” That earlier Mongol state is often called
the Khamag Mongol Confederation, a poorly known entity of the early 12th century destroyed
by the Jin Dynasty in the 1150s. We do know Chinggis Mongols went to some effort to connect
himself to this earlier union for reasons of legitimacy: in the Secret History of the
Mongols Chinggis Khan is shown as a descendant of the Khamag Mongol Khans, and the invasion
of the Jin Empire as avenging earlier Jin atrocities towards the Khamag Mongol. Chinggis
Khan may have borrowed the name of this state to confer greater legitimacy upon himself.
Song embassies to Ogedai’s court in the 1230s, likewise record the rulers were Tatars
of the Great Mongol State. On the subject of Ogedei, we have his own words recorded
in a letter to the Koreans in late 1231: “If you want to do battle, you shall know
this: in the great nation of the Qa’an, we Tatars have gathered all of the nations
surrounding us in the four directions. The letter’s English translator, G. Ledyard,
noted this letter is in very poor Chinese, reading like a very direct, hurried translation
of Mongolian into Chinese by someone not totally fluent in the latter. Certainly, not the work
of educated scholar-officials, and suggests the Koreans did little to tamper with it:
if they had, they would have tried to fix the grammar. But it is in line with the quality
of Chinese often found in letters associated with the Mongols. It’s likely that this
letter is a good approximation of Ogedei’s words, and would be rather doubtful that a
translator would have snuck Tatar in there if Ogedei hadn’t used it himself. These are far from the only examples, but
are among the most intriguing. Across Asia, the earliest materials from interactions with
the Mongols follow this pattern, using Tatar heavily and when Mongol does appear, it is
usually in reference to the state itself. Early western works, such as the those of
ibn al-Athir (1220s), Friar Julian (1237), and al-Nasawi, (c. 1240), all call them Tatars.
An Armenian gospel from 1236 calls them Black Tatars: the Chinese classified the Tatars
as White, Black or Wild Tatars, and in this system, Chinggis Khan was a Black Tatar. Queen
Rusudan of Georgia in a 1223 letter to the Pope described how her Kingdom had been ravaged
by the Tatars, while the Rus’, on their defeat at the Kalka River the same year, called
the invaders Tatars. The Rus’ seemingly got the name from the Qipchaq, who since the
1210s had had dealings with refugees fleeing Chinggis’ unification of Mongolia, so they
likely learned the name right from the source. In these early sources, Tatar was the most
common means to refer to the Mongols. The few times Mongol is mentioned in these sources,
it is usually the name of their state. These were written across the breadth of Asia, not
making this confusion based off one single author’s misunderstanding. How could so
many writers be confusing the Mongols with a tribe no longer extant? Were the Mongols
too polite to correct everyone calling them the wrong name? It seems likely that Tatar
was not a name forced on them, but something of a general term used by the nomads of Mongolia. Around 1240 we start to see a shift, though
why is unclear. Essentially, Mongol starts to replace Tatar as the preferred ethnonym.
This is seen in the reports of European missionaries and diplomats to the Mongols in the 1240s
and 50s. Travellers to the Great Khans found that they were actually averse to the use
of Tatar. The Francsican Friar John de Plano Carpini,
uses the awkward phrase, “ the Mongols whom we call Tartars,” repeated several times
throughout. A similar phrase is in the Dominican Simon of Saint-Quentin’s work, an envoy
sent to the general Baiju in 1247. They indicate the Mongol leaders were specifically calling
themselves Mongol rather than Tatar, a distinction never emphasized in earlier works. William of Rubruck travelled the empire in
the 1250s, visiting the courts of Batu, his son Sartaq and Mongke. In his account Sartaq’s
officials instructed him not to call Sartaq a Tatar, and after describing Chinggis Khan’s
unification of Mongolia, wherein he indicates the Mongols and Tatars as separate tribes,
he provides this statement: “But now on account of their frequent wars
[the Tartars] have almost all been wiped out, and so the Mongols wish to abolish [the Tartar’s]
name and bring their own to the fore.” Past about 1250, we frequently find Mongol
instead of Tatar, or even Mongol-Tatar. Not only is this the period when the aforementioned
official sources were beginning to be produced, but we now have sources by writers born after
the initial Mongol invasions. In the late 1250s, we have two major Persian writers,
Juvaini, a high official in the Mongol administration, and Juzjani, a refugee who fled the Mongols
to seek refuge in the Delhi Sultanate and was famous for his hatred of them. Both writers
overwhelming use Mongol instead of Tatar, which makes only a few appearances. Interestingly,
Juvaini always uses it for the Mongol peoples as a whole, never for a specific tribe. We do not see a total disappearance of Tatar,
but its use often seems to be as an insult. An obvious example is in Europe, where the
very word was mutated into a reflection of the Greek hell, Tartarus, suggesting the Mongols
came from hell. Juvaini at one point calls them Tatar Devils. When the Yuan Dynasty invaded
Vietnam in the 1280s, they were angered to find the forces of Dai Viet had ‘kill the
Tatars,’ tattooed on their bodies, which led the Mongols to kill everyone they found
with such tattoos. The Chinese certainly had rude characters to refer to the Mongols, essentially
meaning ‘stinky Tatars,’ but these aren’t so readily apparent until the Ming Dynasty. So what do we make of all this? Did the Mongols
change their name because their subjects were being rude to them? That’s unlikely- subjects
angry at Mongol rule would find a way to turn whatever name the Mongols used into a slur.
More significant was a matter of timing and legitimacy. Timewise, the shift could have
occurred with the final defeat of their longtime enemy, the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in 1234. The
destruction of their ancestral foe may have brought on a new sense of legitimacy and identity
as a state. By then, an entire generation had grown since the founding of the empire,
with an increasing sense it was Heaven’s will for them to rule the world. Basically
they were adopting the state’s name, Mongol, as a name for the people who had emerged since
1206. And once we get to the 1250s when the Toluids began writing official histories to
justify their usurpation of power, Mongol was retroactively forced back, as if it had
always been used, with Tatar increasing restricted to just select tribes. The fact that these
are our most commonly used sources for the period and that Mongol became the name of
the homeland and the people still living there reinforced this division. Another possible influence is that a variety
of sources from the time of Ogedei to Kublai refer to ‘Water Tatars’ in Eastern Mongolia
being rebellious and armies being needed to suppress them. It might be then, that as Mongol
was coming to be seen as referring to the people of the empire, that the older term
came to be used for those unwilling to accept the Khan’s rule. Of course, that is speculation.
It is hardly uncommon for dynasties to ‘fudge’ their histories for a preferred narrative.
Genealogies and naming are even easier to edit when there is no pre-existing literature
to combat. And who is there to challenge your claim when you are Heaven’s appointed rulers
of Eurasia? Tatar as a word does predate the Mongol Empire
by centuries, showing up as early as the Orkhon Inscriptions of the 700s. In contrast, the
appearances of Mongol before 1200 are speculative, and based on reconstructions which could indicate
other peoples. For the Tatars of western Russia, their use
of the name was not an adoption of a European term, but a continuation. The official histories
described earlier originated in Persia and China, quite outside the Golden Horde. A prisoner
of Batu in 1241, Rogerius, never uses the name Mongol, while in 1245 Batu told a Rus’
prince to drink airag as he was “already one of them, a Tatar.” The children of Jochi
were outside of Mongolia since the time of the Khwarezmian campaign, rarely returning.
Sartaq, a son of Batu, did spend time in Karakorum, and not coincidentally, he is the only one
specifically designated as a ‘Mongol’ in the sources. Outside of the internal dealings
of the imperial court and the later affairs of the Toluids and their need to rewrite history,
perhaps Mongol never had a chance to replace Tatar within the Qipchaq Khanate, Tatar becoming
too well established as local tribes were forced to adopt it. So there we have Pow’s argument and evidence.
Tatar was the original endonym of the tribes north of China over the 12th century, with
Mongol perhaps a name of a minor clan, associated with the Borjigon and the brief Khamag Mongol.
Not much more than a military alliance, the Khamag Mongol had neither the power nor the
will to change the name of the tribes. Yet, their leadership remained a source of legitimacy
on the steppe, and when Temujin united the tribes in 1206 he presented himself as a continuation
of his ancestor’s state, only declaring that his new state was the Great Mongol Empire,
Mongol being the state while Tatars were the people. Overtime, as its leadership grew up
within the Mongol Empire and found themselves answering Heaven’s call for domination,
they began identifying themselves by the name of that state, and Mongol slowly and imperfectly
replaced Tatar, at least in the imperial court and Mongol homeland. The official histories
written after this therefore over-exaggerate the presence of ‘Mongol,’ in the early
part of the century. Meanwhile, they were still Tatars to the people they encountered,
and continuing to use Tatar instead of Mongol was a small form of defiance against Chinggisid
pretensions. The branches of the family outside of the imperial court, or often ostracized
from it such as the house of Jochi, never really adopted it and continued to use Tatar,
as their descendants such as the Tatars of Crimea and the Volga, still do today. Pow’s argument is hot off the press, so
there hasn’t been time for response to it, but it does offer an explanation to a problem
which has long plagued scholars, and similar ideas have been proposed before, though not
as radical. Does this mean that this channel and everyone interested in the topic should
replace the use of Mongol with Tatar? Well, no. For one thing, that would complicate standard
practice. Further, if Mongol was the word associated with the state founded in 1206
and eventually adopted, then it is perfectly fine to remark that they were Mongols: thus,
demonstrating the all encompassing effects of Chinggis Khan’s transformation of Mongolia,
and his creation of the Mongols.

17 thoughts on “Did the Mongols call themselves Tatar?”

  1. About a year ago, I released my most popular video,a look at why the Mongols are so often called Tatars in our historical sources, and their relations to the Tatars of 12th century Mongolia, and the Tatars of western Russia in the modern period. The explanation provided in that video didn’t sit well with all examples, however, and left me unsatisfied come new information. In a recent article uploaded only two weeks ago, historian Stephen Pow has provided an explanation which, though radical, does solve the problem. In this video, we examine Pow’s argument, presenting his evidence and letting you in on some brand-new historiography. It will be the most exciting 18 minutes of your life!

    Pow’s article can be found here. You may need to make an account first, but it’s free and the historian can find many, may great references there.

    Pow, Stephen. “Nationes que se Tartaros appellant”: An Exploration of the Historical Problem of the Usage of the Ethnonyms Tatar and Mongol in Medieval Sources.” Golden Horde Review 7 no. 3 (2019): 545-567



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  2. A new video! Sometimes I do those. Here, we look at an argument recently suggested by Stephen Pow, offering a solution to the problem of the naming of Mongols and Tatars in our medieval sources. 18 minutes of pure entertainment.

  3. That makes Genghis Khan a Turk which makes sense, since mongols now have a lot of chinese genes while kazakhstan have more Genghis khans genes

  4. The people that called tatar nowadays is not tatar,they are turkic peaople that used to live in golden horde and named tatar.

  5. A heads up: I was able to add proper closed captioning to this video, and will do so for future videos too. Older ones will be slowly updated

  6. I’d love to see a origins of the Huns also I don’t think tartar is a term for Turks I think it refers to all central Asian Nomads

  7. Inside of Russia there are beautiful republic – Tatarstan. Capital – Kazan . The flag of Kazan is the same as Golden Horde. They are white tatars.

  8. A bit more in support of Pow's argument on the usage of Tatar: Indonesian sources on the Yuan Invasion of Java refer to them as Tatars!


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