Tata-tonga, Scribe of Genghis Khan, 1204
In 1204, Genghis Khan (1162-1227) conquered the Naiman tribe to the west of the Mongols and made Tata-tonga (Tatar-tonga), an Uyghur, his scribe.
Tata-tonga had been the chancellor and keeper of the seals for Taibuqa, the Tayang Khan of the Naiman, who was killed by the Mongols. Tradition says the Naiman tribe descended from the Magi, the Three Kings of the Orient, who traversed afar, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
In The Secret History of the Mongols, one soldier from Tayang Khan’s troops escaped but was later captured. He was hiding a state seal under his clothing. When questioned, he identified himself as Tata-tonga, in charge of the granary.
His khan had given him a duty to protect the seal until his death. The seal was used to issue orders and documents. For his loyalty to his khan, Tata-tonga was made the keeper of the imperial seals for Genghis Khan. It is believed there were both scarlet and blue seals.
Uyghur Script Used to Record Mongolian Language
Genghis Khan and most Mongols were illiterate, but to organize the government of his growing Mongol Empire, and to preserve records, he introduced the Uyghur script as the official alphabet. The Mongols did not have their own script. Contracts were made orally or using wooden carvings.
Uyghur script is written from top to bottom, in columns going from left to right. It is the only vertical script that is written from left to right.
The Uyghurs, an ancient Turkic people, obtained their script from the Sogdians, an Iranian people, who used an Aramaic script. Uyghur script is still used today in Inner Mongolia. Since the 1940s, the official writing system of Mongolia has used Cyrillic script, based on the Russian alphabet, with a few additional letters.
Marco Polo wrote about the use of Uyghur script in his notes when he traveled through the Mongol Empire in the 13th century.
Temujin Proclaimed Genghis Khan
In 1206, Temujin was proclaimed Genghis Khan, meaning universal ruler, of the unified tribes of the Mongol Empire. He was considered the divine representative of the Eternal Blue Sky, the supreme god of the Mongols.
Tata-tonga showed the imperial seal on white jade or ivory to the public. It was engraved with the words: “There was god in heaven and there was khan on earth blessed by god. The imperial jade seal of the lord of the whole world.”
Tata-tonga as Scribe, Notary, Co-signer, Teacher
Tata-tonga was in charge of preparing and co-signing official documents. Genghis Khan realized the importance of reading and writing for his sons and top officials. Tata-tonga was also appointed as the tutor for the khan’s sons and officials. One of the students was Shigi Qutuqu, a captured Tatar, who became Genghis Khan’s adopted step-brother and supreme judge of the empire.
Tata-tonga taught and advised Genghis Khan on the principles of government organization. He demonstrated the importance of adding the imperial seal to written acts as evidence of authority and authenticity.
Reed pens were used for writing until the 18th century when brushes replaced pens. Pens were also made of wood, bamboo, bone, bronze or iron. Black or cinnabar red ink was used, written on birch bark, paper, silk or cotton cloths, and wooden or silver plates.
The red seal shown is the Imperial Seal of Güyük Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, using the classical Mongolian script, as found in a letter sent to the Roman Pope Innocent IV in 1246. English translation: “Under the Power of the Eternal Heaven, if the Decree of the Oceanic Khan of the Great Mongol Nation reaches people both subject or belligerent, let them revere, let them fear“.
Tata-tonga recruited other scribes for the empire. Scribes also kept written inventories, including the spoils of war taken from conquered tribes.
Bronze Tablet Paizas
Engraved bronze tablet paizas, or gerege, were issued by rulers to certain government and church officials, nobles, diplomats, messengers, and foreign merchants.
The paiza served as a passport and credit card to guarantee safe passage and access to food, lodging (yams), horses, tax exemptions, immunity charters, and other benefits and different levels of authority while traveling across the empire. This aided travel, administration, and trade along the Silk Road.
The Great Yasa, Law Code
Before Genghis Khan, the Mongol tribes followed unwritten common law, with variations between tribes. Under his rule, he directed Tata-tonga to compile a code of laws, the Great Yasa, to be written in Mongolian with Uyghur script, for use across the empire.
The Yasa was comprised of customs, traditions, laws, and ideas of the tribes and new laws devised by Genghis Khan. The first edition appeared around 1206, but it continued to be updated during the life of Genghis Khan and his descendant successors.
Strict obedience to the Yasa was required, with harsh penalties, including death for many offenses. To unite the empire, stealing from and fighting with fellow neighbors was prohibited.
No copy of the Yasa has survived, but parts are described by Persian, Arabian and Syrian historians. The Yasa was written on scrolls, secretly kept by members of the royal family. Scribes read the laws to the public and answered questions.
One law stated that those providing certain essential services, including religious leaders, doctors, undertakers, lawyers, teachers, and scholars, were exempt from taxes.
Supreme Judge Shigi Qutuqu was instructed to record his court rulings into a book with a blue cover using a blue script on white paper as a collection of case law history, referred to as the Blue Book, available to all Mongols. Blue represented the sacred color of the sky and the blessing of heaven.
Tata-tonga in Genghis Khan TV Series
In the 2004 Chinese TV series, episodes 16 and 17, Tata-tonga is portrayed by actor Nijiati Aikebai’er as a Naiman scholar recruited by Genghis Khan to create a writing system for the Mongol language.
Ba Sen, who plays the leading role, is an actor from Inner Mongolia and a descendant of Genghis Khan’s second son, Chagatai. Shigi Qutuqu is played by Xiao Xiaohua, as the step-brother and premier.
There are 30 episodes, each 45 minutes long. It is available on Amazon and YouTube with English-language subtitles.
In 1965, Columbia Pictures released the movie Genghis Khan, Prince of Conquerors, starring Omar Sharif.
In October 2019, the Tata-tonga Museum opened in Naiman Banner, Tongliao City, in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The museum features 500 historical artifacts, books and rock paintings showing the evolution of five writing systems used for recording Mongolian languages. It also serves as a Mongolian language research center.
1. The Secret History of the Mongols, English translation, Francis Woodman Cleaves, Professor Emeritus of Far Eastern Languages, Harvard University, 1982
2. Images, Wikipedia