THE INFLUENCE OF THE
GREAT CODE “YASA”
JAMES F. ALBRECHT
NYPD Captain (ret.)
Professor, St. John’s University
THE INFLUENCE OF THE GREAT CODE “YASA”
ON THE MONGOLIAN EMPIRE
James F. Albrecht
During the twelfth through the fourteenth
centuries, the Mongolian empire extended west and east from the Mediterranean
Sea to the Pacific Ocean and north and south from Siberia to
The history of the Yasa and it application within their expansive empire will be outlined in detail.
History of the Mongols
unification of the Mongol tribes under Temuchin led
to a successful incursion into northern
The nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols proved to be a challenge in governing these foreign domains since language and cultural barriers existed that often made regulation and communication amongst the assorted peoples most difficult. What made this task even more trying was the fact that the Mongols did not have an official written language until Chenggis Khan came to power in the early 13th Century, and decided upon the local Uighur script as their choice (Morgan, 1990). The Mongols were at a strong disadvantage since many conquered regions had complex languages, libraries with documented histories, and widely acknowledged and practiced religious and governing principles. The major issue thus became what guiding ideology could be developed to insure compliance and peaceful rule within the Mongolian empire.
The Great Code (“Yasa”) of the Mongols
While the initial development of the “Yeke Jasay” or Great Code of Chenggis Khan has come into question, the important matter is that the traditional law code of the Mongols was documented some time within the early 13th Century. This “Yasa” (or decree) outlined the general living practices of the nomadic and militaristic Mongols, with appropriate punishments noted. Some of the more notable regulations include:
1. An adulterer is to be put to death without any regard as to whether he is married or not.
2. Whoever is guilty of sodomy is also to be put to death.
3. Whoever intentionally lies, or practices sorcery, or spies upon the behavior of others, or intervenes between the two parties in a quarrel to help the one against the other is also to be put to death.
4. Whoever urinates into water or ashes is also to be put to death.
5. Whoever takes goods (on credit) and becomes bankrupt, then again takes goods and again becomes bankrupt, then takes goods again and yet again becomes bankrupt is to be put to death after the third time.
6. Whoever gives food or clothing to a captive without the permission of his captor is to be put to death.
7. Whoever finds a runaway slave or captive and does not return him to the person to whom he belongs is to be put to death.
8. When an animal is to be eaten, its feet must be tied, its belly ripped open and its heart squeezed in the hand until the animal dies; then its meat may be eaten; but if anyone slaughter an animal after the Mohammedan fashion, he is to be himself slaughtered.
9. If in battle, during an attack or a retreat, anyone let fall his pack, or bow, or any luggage, the man behind him must alight and return the thing fallen to its owner; if he does not so alight and return the thing fallen, he is to be put to death.
10. No taxes or duties should be imposed upon fakirs, religious devotees, lawyers, physicians, scholars, people who devote themselves to prayer and asceticism, muezzins and those who wash the bodies of the dead.
11. All religions were to be respected and that no preference was to be shown to any of them. All this is commanded in order that it might be agreeable to Heaven.
12. People are forbidden to eat food offered by another until the one offering the food tasted of it himself, even though one be a prince and the other a captive; they are forbidden to eat anything in the presence of another without having invited him to partake of the food; No man may eat more than his comrades, and to step over a fire on which food was being cooked or a dish from which people were eating.
13. When a wayfarer passes by people eating, he must alight and eat with them without asking for permission, and they must not forbid him this.
14. All are forbidden to dip their hands into water and are ordered to use some vessel for the drawing of water.
15. All are forbidden to wash their clothes until they were completely worn out.
16. All are forbidden to say of anything that it was unclean, and it must be clear that all things are clean with no distinction between the clean and unclean.
17. All are forbidden to show preference for any sect, to pronounce words with emphasis, to use honorary titles; when speaking to the Khan or anyone else simply his name was to be used.
18. All Khans must personally examine the troops and their armament before going to battle, to supply the troops with everything they needed for the campaign and to survey everything even to needle and thread, and if any of the soldiers lacked a necessary thing that soldier was to be punished.
19. Women accompanying the troops must do the work and perform the duties of the men while the latter were absent fighting.
20. All warriors on their return from the campaign (battle) must carry out certain duties in the service of the Khan.
21. All must present all their daughters to the Khan at the beginning of each year that he might choose some of them for himself and his children.
22. Leaders will be placed at the head of the troops and appointed commanders of thousands, hundreds, and tens.
23. The oldest of the leaders, if he had committed some offence, was to give himself up to the messenger sent by the sovereign to punish him, even if he was the lowest of his servants; and prostrate himself before him until he had carried out the punishment prescribed by the sovereign, even if it be to put him to death.
24. All military leaders are forbidden to address themselves to anyone except the sovereign. Whoever addressed himself to anyone but the sovereign was to be put to death, and anyone changing his post without permission was also to be put to death.
25. Permanent postal communications must be established in order that the Khan might be informed in good time of all the events of the country.
26. Chenggis’s son Chagatai was ordered to see that the Yasa was observed.
27. Soldiers were to be punished for negligence; and hunters who let an animal escape during a community hunt were to be beaten with sticks and in some cases to be put to death.
28. In cases of murder (punishment for murder) one could ransom himself by paying fines which were: for a Mohammedan - 40 golden coins (Balysh); and for a Chinese - one donkey.
29. The man in whose possession a stolen horse is found must return it to its owner and add nine horses of the same kind: if he is unable to pay this fine, his children must be taken instead of the horses, and if he have no children, he himself shall be slaughtered like a sheep.
30. The Yasa of Chinggis Khan forbids lies, theft and adultery and prescribes love of one's neighbor as one's self; it orders men not to hurt each other and to forget offences completely, to spare countries and cities which submit voluntarily, to free from taxes temples consecrated to God, and to respect old people and beggars. Whoever violates these commands is to be put to death.
31. The Yasa of Chinggis Khan prescribes that a man who chokes on food must be driven out of the camp and immediately killed; and whosoever puts his foot on the threshold of the tent of the commander of an army shall also be put to death.
32. If unable to abstain from drinking, a man may get drunk three times a month; if he does it more than three times he is culpable; if he gets drunk twice a month it is better; if once a month, this is still more laudable; and if one does not drink at all what can be better? But where can I find such a man? If such a man were found he would be worthy of the highest esteem.
33. Children born of a concubine are to be considered as legitimate, and receive their share of the heritage according to the disposition of it made by the father. The distribution of property is to be carried out on the basis of the senior son receiving more than the junior, the younger son inheriting the household of the father. The seniority of children depends upon the rank of their mother; one of the wives must always be the senior, this being determined chiefly by the time of her marriage.
34. After the death of his father, a son may dispose of the father's wives, all except his mother; he may marry them or give them in marriage to others.
35. All except the legal heirs are strictly forbidden to make use of any of the property of the deceased.
There are no original copies of the Yasa in existence and historians have been left to rely on foreign (mainly Persian and Chinese) sources in order to summarize the basic principles of this customary law code (Oestmoen, 2003). The code is clearly quite comprehensive and addresses a plethora of issues including family, trade, hunting, military, tax, property, criminal and administrative matters (Ganzorig, 2000), but it is apparent that the majority of the Khan’s code was addressing military and livestock concerns, reflective of the traditional Mongolian lifestyle.
There is also a debate on when the Great Code was actually promulgated. There are two conflicting schools, with one granting its origins directly to Chenggis Khan at the Khuriltai of 1206 (Riasanovsky, 1965) and others placing the code’s genesis to a later Khuriltai in 1229 (Chen, 1979). The main evidence for the Yasa being attributed directly to the verbal decrees of Chenggis Khan in 1206 A.D. rely mainly on Persian and Mamluk documents, while others rely on the examination of the Secret History of the Mongols, believed to be written in 1230 A.D., which makes no mention of this important legal code. However, Chinese historical documents highlighting the Mongolian Yuan dynasty do credit the Great Code to Ogedai in 1229 (McChesney, 1997). Ultimately, most historians do acknowledge the Yasa as a directive of Chenggis Khan, who may have been verbally conveying traditional Mongolian tenets to his subordinates, and which later led to the documenting of these ideals so that they could be conveyed by his descendents to all the tribes of his troops and throughout the spreading Mongolian empire. While these issues have been hotly debated, the more relevant issue was the application of the Yasa’s principles to the laws governing the conquered peoples.
Mongolian Rule of the Conquered in the East:
first challenge for the Mongols was developing a system in which they could
ensure compliance by the foreign speaking populations they now ruled. The first civilization to be dealt with was
the northern Chinese. The Yasa was clearly designed for pastoral
nomadic peoples, but once the Mongols gained control of
Throughout the Yuan dynasty, revisions were made until the final version, the Ta Yuan Tung-Chih was promulgated in 1321, which was oriented toward traditional Chinese law codes. The major Mongolian influence was in the punishment stage, where capital punishment was routinely replaced with exile to work farms and labor camps, and fines became more popular, often with the family of the murder suspect responsible for paying the funeral costs of the deceased victim (Chen, 1979).
When justice was administered, the Yuan
administrators acknowledged the four main cultures present within that dynastic
kingdom, namely the northern Chinese, the Central Asians, the Mongols and the
southern Chinese, allowing representatives from each group to be present when
legal disputes arose (Chen, 1979). These
joint conferences ensured that each ethnic group was not silenced and reflected
the tolerance of the Mongolian regime.
Many of the legal and justice practices introduced by the Mongols
throughout the Yuan dynasty remained in effect in
Mongolian Rule to the West: The Muslims
There is some dispute whether the Yasa of Chenggis Khan had an impact on the western regions of the Mongolian empire. While little use of the Great Code was mentioned within Egyptian and Syrian historical records, there are two references that reveal that the Yasa was extremely influential within the Mamluk sultanate (McChesney, 1997). However, eventual conversion to Islam by members of the Golden Horde and by descendents of Tamerlane led to the abandonment of the Mongolian court and Yasa regulations and its replacement with the Sharia and the Islamic religious court (McChesney, 1997).
On the other hand, Babur in Central Asia, as late as 1411 A.D., honored his Chinggisid ancestry by promoting the content of the Yasa as a means of emphasizing “good rules of conduct” and this coincided with a resurgence of its (partial) utilization in Central Asia into the 17th Century, most notably in Balkh (McChesney, 1997).
Many Muslims, particularly the fundamentalists, however, found certain practices of the Mongols, as noted within the Yasa, in conflict with the Sharia and it therefore met with condemnation. In the early 14th Century, even though the Mongols had fostered Islam by building mosques and schools, a fatwa was issued against them by at least one of the Muslim sects. Although many of the Mongols had converted to Islam, and regardless of the fact that they promoted religious tolerance, a tenet of the Great Code, the Muslims considered them apostates and polytheists and consequently opted for jihad against them (Palmer, 2003).
It would appear that the traditional and religious tolerance advocated by the Yasa resulted in peace throughout most of the Mongolian empire, but religious conservatives within the western regions of the kingdom never accepted the assimilation of the Great Code into the daily practices of devout Muslims.
Mention of the use of the Great Code within the western regions of the Mongol empire often relied upon the proximity of an official historian to a Chinggisid ruler. In addition, very few documents remain in their original form, and contemporary historians must rely on later historical records that reference earlier works to draw their conclusions. This practice has resulted in competing interpretations of the relevance of the Yasa within the conquered lands to the west. It would appear that as time passed, the reliance on the principles delineated in the Great Code would diminish, as the Mongol rulers acclimated to the cultures and practices within their new realm. When the precepts, customs, and traditions contained within the Yasa were practiced, they were usually undertaken by the Mongols themselves. Some assimilation appeared to occur, but it would seem that when conflicts with local religious rituals existed, many comparable edicts from the Great Code were eliminated from common practice.
The Yasa in Contemporary
Since the authoritarian communist government
took hold in
The nomadic pastoral lifestyle of the Mongols was preferred by Chenggis and his peers. The unrestrained existence of the nomads was viewed as a better alternative to life in cities (Oestmoen, 2003). Proximity and understanding of nature would improve the person. The Mongols believe that it was the move from the feral countryside to the sedentary metropolis that weakened man and thus brought an end to the reign of the Mongols.
Unfortunately the contemporary
However, the most significant factor in
the Great Code of Chenggis Khan, has affected and influenced legal and justice
practices across the greater regions of
H.C. (1979) Chinese Legal Tradition
under the Mongols: The Code of 1291 as Reconstructed.
Ganzorig, G. (2000) “The Constitutional and Supreme Courts of
McChesney, R.D. (1997) “The Legacy of Chinggis Khan
in Law and Politics” presented at the 1997 Conference of the Indo-Mongolian
D. (1990) The Peoples of
Oestmoen, P.I. (2003) The Yasa of Chingis Khan: A Code of Honor, Dignity and Excellence. www.coldsiberia.org/webdoc9.htm
Palmer, J. (2003) Islamic Law and Genghis Khan’s Code. www.nthposition.com/islamiclaw.php
Riasanovsky, V.A. (1965) Fundamental
Principles of Mongol Law.
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Vernadsky, G. (1953) The Mongols and