Though some of the text on Temujin’s early life seems too much like a story book to be true to life, The Secret History provides some of the only accounts of Temujin before Chinggis Khan.
He was born to a mother, Hoelun, just recently kidnapped from her husband and married forcibly to Yesugei, who did not always treat Temujin well. At the age of nine Temujin became engaged to Borte, a girl from a different tribe, and entered into bride-service, a period of years in which he was to serve her family before marrying. But when Yesugei died — possibly poisoned — Temujin was forced to return home to look after his father’s two wives and seven children.
The Tayichiud tribe of which they were a part had to be practical. The many families that made up the tribe could not afford to feed another family out of charity. Yesugei, Temujin’s father, would normally have provided food for his wives and children. The Tayichiud abandoned the family, taking their animals with them (Weatherford 19).
Hoelun foraged on the steppe and Temujin hunted rats and fished until he got old enough to hunt bigger game, and the family survived. But Temujin could not tolerate his older brother, Begter, a son of Yesugei and his first wife, because as the oldest son Begter had the right to command the rest of the family, as well as to marry Temujin’s mother. Temujin, with the help of his brother Khasar, shot Begter, and his mother’s rage and admonishment are recorded at length in The Secret History.
The Tayichiud tribe, to whom he was related, enslaved Temujin for a time after this as punishment, but he was able to escape with the help of a family of strangers. Weatherford postulates this experience eroded any reverence the boy may have had for kinship ties.
“In later life, he would judge others primarily by their actions toward him and not according to their kinship bonds, a revolutionary concept in steppe society,” Weatherford says (26). Denise Aigle, in contrast to Weatherford’s hypothesis that the tribes were forced to live practically, characterizes tribal Mongolian society as a vindictive system based on vengeance and matrimonial exchange. The experiences of young Temujin determined his attitude toward those around them, Aigle says, stating he turned the vindictive system to his profit with vigor (50).
Weatherford agreed the desire to defeat and dominate was crystallized in the moment Temujin killed his brother. “Already, at this young age, Temujin played the game of life, not merely for honor or prestige, but to win,” Weatherford writes. “In order to achieve his primacy of place, he proved himself willing to violate custom, defy his mother, and kill whoever blocked his path, even if it was his own family member.”
Such traits would eventually lead him to the ends of the known world, but first, it would take every skill he had learned to dominate all the tribes of Mongolia.
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