By Jack Wilson
You’ve likely heard the claim that the Mongols wore silk shirts as protection against arrows; the idea being that silk winds up around an arrowhead and thus prevents penetration. There is, however, little historical basis to this claim. No primary source can be found containing this statement: the earliest mention of it in relation to the Mongols comes from Michael Prawdin’s 1934 Dschingis Khan- der Sturm aus Asien. Prawdin, eager to give the Mongols every technological edge over their foes, appears to have assumed the Mongols as a ‘warrior race’ could only have worn silk for military purposes, and based his description off of contemporary bullet-resistant vests which had silk incorporated into them.
Let it not be said though, that this means the Mongols never wore or used silk. Far from it. In fact, the historical sources are very clear in that the Mongol upper classes absolutely loved it, and put it on everything they could. In this article, we will look at how the sources describe the Mongol utilization of silk, as clothing, currency and product.
It’s first necessary to highlight the importance of silk in the economy of east Asia. Silk was not just a prized commodity; it also served regularly as currency, used in both transactions and taxation in China for millennia. The Chinese dynasties used silk to pay for expenditures, such as government salaries, religious, ceremonial donations, and even as tribute. A common relationship of the dynasties with the nomadic and semi-nomadic horsemen on their northern borders, from the Xiongnu to the Mongols, was the payment of annual indemnities of often mammoth amounts of silk alongside grain and princesses, the heqin 和親 treaties.
While later efforts tried to justify these payments as ‘means to civilize the barbarians,’ there is generally little indication of it having such an effect. For nearly the first century of its existence, China’s illustrious Han Dynasty 漢 (202 BCE-220 CE) had to recognize the Xiongnu rulers in Mongolia as ‘equal brothers,’ who were owed annual tributes. Centuries later on the very eve of the Mongol invasion, the Song Dynasty 宋 (960-1279) likewise paid annual tributes to its Tangut, Khitan and Jurchen neighbours. Even when Mongol armies began to overrun the Jurchen-ruled Jin Dynasty 大金 (1115-1234), the Song continued to pay their tribute to the Jin court of 250,000 taels of silver and bolts of silk.
As Chinggis Khan and his heirs began to establish their trans-Asian empire, the Mongol imperial government quickly adopted the use of silk for government function and institutions. At the time of the first Mongol-Jin peace treaty in 1213, the Mongols received from the Jin, alongside a princess and numerous other valuable items, “3,000 items of clothing in multi-coloured silk-embroidery.” Silk was also gathered in huge quantities from fallen cities, and when the Khitan scholar Ila Chucai (Yelü Chucai) convinced the Mongols of the necessity for regular taxation in the early 1230s, silk began to be taken in as taxation in North China. In Chucai’s system, every adult male’s taxes were assessed in silk, though could be commuted to silver when it came to paying. Chucai’s system netted not only great income for the Mongol government, but also aimed to reduce the amount of ad hoc collection of goods that the Mongols carried out otherwise.
Not only used as currency, silk was also used to back currency. After an abortive attempt on the instigation of Ila Chucai to circulate paper money in the mid-1230s, in the first year of his reign Khubilai Khaan (r.1260-1294) issued proper paper money across his domains. In 1260 these came in three types; one of which was backed by silk, and the other two backed by the silver reserve. Khubilai aimed to replace the usage of bronze coins with his new paper currencies, and had some success in the matter.
Khubilai’s silk-backed paper money was soon phased out in preference for the money backed on the silver reserve. Though famed for their reputation as horse-borne warlords, the Mongols certainly had a keen interest in finance and trade. Once the conquests began, the Mongol elite hungered for fine goods, wares, textiles, ingredients, materials and information from the rest of the Eurasian landmass. Their agents in acquiring these products were merchants, most usually of Central Asian origin. In a relationship called by the Mongols ortoq, the Mongol princes financed these merchants with looted gold, silver and silk from China and other territories. In turn, the merchants were paid (and overpaid) to ‘invest’ this money in trade deals across the empire, and return to their Mongol prince with the proceeds.
The famous Mongol trade caravan massacred at the Khwarezmian city of Otrar in 1218 was carrying, among other things, considerable amounts of precious metals and silks. These merchant contacts were highly prized; some men who started as merchants, such as Jafar Khoja, Mahmud Yalavach, and Chinqai, rose to become some of the chief men of the Mongol administration and most powerful in Asia. From about 1230 until the early 1250s, Chinqai was effectively the prime minister (chengxiang 丞相, “Grand Councillor,” called by the Mongols bichi’echi) of the Mongol Empire, heading its Central Secretariat (zhongshu sheng 中書省) based in Qaraqorum, Mongolia. Of course, these merchants were quite happy to take silk with them to sell in the west; Ferdinand von Richthofen did not call it the “Silk Road,” ironically, after all.
Silk found its use in the payment of government employees and expenditures, in official religious ceremony or donations (i.e, in certain Confucian ceremonies, and in the many, and large, donations to Buddhist monasteries; such activities helped to appease and secure the heavenly mandate necessary to ruled China and the world) and in gifts and rewards to princes, officials, and soldiers. Much of the silk collected by the Mongols went to the various members of the Chinggisid family (the altan urag, the Golden lineage) and the military elite (the qarachu, “black bone commoners”). Song Dynasty envoys report how meritorious Mongol soldiers were rewarded with lengths of ramie or silk; Ila Chucai in a failed effort to prevent the division of North China into appanages for the Mongol princes, proposed paying them instead a yearly gift of silk; Törögene Khatun at the quriltai which elected her son Güyük as Khaan (r.1246-1248) handed out thousands of robes, girdles and belts of fine fabrics and silk for the attendees who participated in the vote, as well as silk garments for them to in turn give to their own followers; Marco Polo describes how on festivals Khubilai Khaan granted silk robes to the princes, his court and his bodyguard, the keshig.
During the Yuan Dynasty (the Mongol-ruled dynasty in China, 1270-1368), many of the Khaans drained the treasury in the expensive gift giving upon their accessions. Khubilai Khaan’s grandson and successor, Temür Öljeitü (Өлзийт Төмөр) (r.1294-1307) was forced to cut government expenditures by half, cancel campaigns and payout from the silver reserves in an effort to cover the costs of the prodigious gift giving to the imperial family. Until the end of Mongol rule in China (1368) this financial burden to the imperial family was never remedied. This standard of the Khaan and Khans bestowing ‘robes of honour’ was common throughout the Mongol khanates; Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century observed it firsthand in the Ilkhanate and Golden Horde.
The most esteemed of these silk robes handed out by the Mongol courts was the jisün (Chinese zhama 詐馬). In appearance it was of the same cut as the standard Mongol deel, but it was in material that it was substantially different. For it was made of nasij (its Arabic name; in Turkic nakh, Mongolian nashishi, Chinese 納失失, and the “Tatar cloth” of European sources), which was a silk weave [lampas] interwoven with gold and considered the most coveted of cloth. Numerous sources note the value in which Mongols held nasij; despite their reputation for a Spartan lifestyle, the Mongol rulers sought after it voraciously.
Communities of Chinese silk weavers were established across the Mongol Empire, through Mongolia proper (such as at Chinqai Balasaghun, “Chinqai’s city,” a new city established in western Mongolia solely for the outfitting of imperial needs) Central Asia and even into the Yenisei River valley, in order to more conveniently provide the altan urag their much-desired robes. Neither were the Chinese the only silk specialists the Mongols relied upon; craftsmen from across Asia were transported on Mongol order to serve their needs, either to regional Mongol princely courts or to the imperial capital of Qaraqorum. Surviving fabrics demonstrate the Mongols utilized silks woven in styles across Central and Western Asia. Richly and densely decorated, while also interwoven with gold, many of these bear design influences of both the Islamic world and China.
The anti-arrow silk shirt myth often describes every single Mongol dressed in a silk garment. However, what the primary sources indicate is that silk was a garment only regularly worn and handed out to the elite (Chinggisid princes and their families, the court, high officials and military commanders and their families) and the imperial bodyguard; outside of that, silk garments were awarded on an independent basis. Franciscan friars who travelled to Mongolia in the mid-thirteenth century, Giovanni de Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck, recorded obvious distinctions between the clothing of wealthy and poor Mongols, with silk and jewels the property of the wealthy. As Rubruck noted:
From pelts they also make breeches. The wealthy, moreover, line their garments with silk stuffing, which is extremely soft and light and warm; the poor line theirs with cotton cloth and with the softer wool which they can pick out from the coarser.
Rubruck also reported how, due to how the Mongols viewed him as an envoy and holy man, he was offered a tunic and breeches of silk to wear for his return journey west, which he declined.
Moreover, the sources generally depict that, at most, the only thing the Mongol imperial government provided soldiers was arrows; all other equipment, the average soldier was expected to supply himself. Only the princes, commanders and keshigtin (bodyguards) are only ever shown receiving armours, weapons and clothing in any regular capacity. While a random Mongol or his arban may perhaps have been awarded a silk robe on occasion, or taken it as loot from the sack of a city, this would not result in a substantial amount of Mongols all wearing silk coats.
It was not only their robes in which the Mongol elite spread silk. They quite literally put it on everything they could. The large royal gers (Turkic yurt, felt tents) were covered in silk curtains and lining; remaining exposed wooden surfaces could be covered in gold foil (hence, altan orda = golden court/palace/tent). References also abound to large tents for public gatherings (such as in feasts or elections) of gold cloth, described as ‘gold on gold.’ These would have consisted of a large overhead covering and movable panels and hangings to create ‘walls.’ Silken seat coverings and even carpets of nasij completed the coating of the interior of royal gers and these feast-tents.
Covers for their wagons and cords to hold down their loads are also mentioned made of silk. The tall womens’ headdress, the boqta was made of and decorated with silk and pearls, as well as their girdles and belts. Silk stuffing and lacing lined and decorated their boots and clothes. Saddles and horse tack of the Mongol elite were covered in silk and gold. The lacing holding together their lamellar and laminar armours would be made of brightly coloured silk. Each Mongol ger housed one (or several) ongghon, normally a felt figurine which represented (or housed) the spirit of a deceased person, which was continually fed and appeased in order to bring good fortune. While they could be made of any material, silk became a popular product for constructing them.
One of the most unique surviving examples of how the Mongol elite adorned themselves comes from the Tsagaan Khad site, a cave in Mongolia which contained the undisturbed grave of a young Mongol man dating to the late thirteenth-fourteenth century. Among other things, it held an exceptionally well-preserved bow. It’s so well preserved that its bowstring is still extant; made out of silk, it has maintained its tension so well for c.800 years that it has actually warped the side of the bow which had a repair done to it during the owner’s lifetime. The bow itself was richly decorated; as the entombed was a relatively young man and did not show signs of injury, it’s unlikely these were items he had looted in battle but were instead reflections of his high-status background. These were rich gifts his grieving family left with him to mark a life cut suddenly short.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather an illustrative look at how the Mongols used silk in their empire. It is easy to fall into stereotypes of Mongols as mindless brutes interested only in violence, stealing and looting whatever they pleased. But the primary sources reveal the great desire the Mongols had for the fine wares and goods of the sedentary world, and willingness to trade —or conquer— for them. While a writer like Michael Prawdin in 1930s Germany might look for a military purpose for all things for a ‘warrior-race’ like the Mongols, it’s rather more accurate to demonstrate that the Mongols, like all peoples, simply enjoyed nice things while seeking to wear and display their great wealth and power. Silk, as a light, comfortable yet expensive fabric, was among the most prestigious of garments an individual could own in thirteenth century Asia. And to show their might, the Mongol rulers covered everything they had with silk, and put it to use however they could imagine; though stopping arrows does not seem to be one of those uses.
You can learn more about the history of the claim about anti-arrow silk in my video exploring the topic:
Jack Wilson recently completed his MA thesis at Central European University, where he offered a reassessment of the life and career of Nogai and his role in the late thirteenth century Golden Horde. You can visit the educational videos he creates about the Mongol Empire on Youtube at The Jackmeister: Mongol History.
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Peter Jackson (trans.), The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck: His Journey to the Court of the Great Khan Möngke, 1253–1255 (Hackett Publishing, 2009)
Eiren Shea, “The Spread of Gold Thread Production in the Mongol Period: A Study of Golde Textiles in the China National Silk Museum, Hangzhou,” Journal of Song-Yuan Studies 50 (2021): 381-415.
Li Xinchuan, “Selections from Random Notes from Court and Country since the Jianyan Years, vol. 2.,” in The Rise of the Mongols: Five Chinese Sources, trans. and ed. Christopher P. Atwood (Hackett Publishing, 2021)
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