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Bağatur Darğa and the Legend of Oğuz Qağan

The life and legend of the first Hunnic emperor



The Shiji records the name of Tümän’s son as Mao-dun. Schuessler (2014) reconstructs this as LH mək-tuən, what many consider a transcription of Turkic *bagatur "hero." Bağatur was also a title frequently used by the qağans of the Kök Türük (Gokturks), and from there, it spread to many other Turko-Mongol peoples.


Early History


After the Qin destroyed the six kingdoms, Shi Huangdi sent General Meng Tian to lead 100,000 soldiers north to attack the Xuŋa and recover the territory of Henan around the year 215 B.C.E. Meanwhile, the Särbi (Donghu) and the Agŋe (Yuezhi) achieved par in strength with the Xuŋa. At this time, the Xuŋa were led by Tümän. And since Tümän could not overcome the Qin, he moved his people further north. But in 210 B.C.E., Meng Tian died and soon after, the Qin collapsed. As a result, all those whom the Qin had left as garrison troops at the border fled their posts. Thus, the Xuŋa then were able to cross south of the He river, occupying their former border with the Central States. It was during this time that Bağatur served as Tümän's heir.

However, prior to recovering their former lands, one of Tümän’s favorite consorts gave birth to a son. Wishing to supplant Bağatur as heir, Tümän had his elder son sent to the Agŋe as a hostage. This practice by itself was not unordinary for weaker states during this time. Yet, it does not seem that Tümän feared the Agŋe all that much, given that his very next move was a series of aggressive assaults on the Agŋe in the hope that they would kill their hostage in retaliation. Predictably, this is exactly what they attempted to do, and they might have succeeded had Bağatur not escaped. Returning to his father with what was described as a fine Agŋe horse, Bağatur displayed great courage before the Xuŋa warriors. Consequently, his father was forced to reward him with the title of a tümän or “lord over ten thousand.”

Bağatur immediately began training his new forces. Having made whistling arrows, he commanded them:

All those who do not shoot at the place the whistling arrow [lands] will lose their head.

Thereafter, he took them hunting. Anyone who failed to shoot at the target was immediately executed. His next arrow found one of his prized horses. Some hesitated. They were all executed. Taking it a step further, he shot at one of his consorts. Once more, those who failed to heed his command were executed. After some time had passed, he took them hunting a final time. There, he shot at one of his father’s prized horses. To his approval, all his men promptly shot at the horse.

Deciding they were ready, he put his plan into action. Bağatur joined his father on a hunt. And after some time, he turned his bow on his father and shot him with a whistling arrow. His men followed his command, killing Tümän with a barrage of arrows. Wasting no time, Bağatur returned from the hunt and executed his stepmother, half brother, and all the ministers who did not yield. Thus, in 209 B.C.E., he enthroned himself as darğa, establishing the Hunnic Empire.


Conqueror of the Steppe


By the time Bağatur was enthroned, the Särbi had reached their peak of strength and wealth. When they heard that Bağatur had killed his father and enthroned himself, they may have been worried that a more competent leader had emerged among the Xuŋa. To test Bağatur's resolve, they dispatched envoys requesting Tümän’s 1,000-li horse. Bağatur brought this matter to his advisors, who unanimously responded:

The 1,000-li horse is a Xuŋa treasure, you cannot give it away!

In turn, Bağatur asked them how they could cherish a single horse more than their neighbor. The advisors relented and sent the horse away. The Särbi were naturally pleased. They then asked Bağatur for one of his consorts. Once more, the advisors objected. However, upon hearing the same speech from Bağatur, they relented. Determining that Bağatur was weak, the Särbi finally asked for land. This land, the Ordu, was located between the borders of the two Northern peoples. The Särbi sent envoys reminding the Xuŋa that they had not settled the land, nor were they able to do so. Bağatur approached his advisors one last time, asking them what he should do. Have grown complacent to his demands, some of them responded that it did not matter, that giving it away was as permissible as keeping it. Bağatur became enraged, exclaiming:

Land is the foundation of a state. How can you approve giving it away?!

As a result, all those who said the territory could be given away were beheaded. Afterward, Bağatur mounted his horse and decreed that anyone who remained behind in the country would be executed. Thereupon, he went east, launching a surprise attack on the Särbi in 206 B.C.E. Since the Särbi had underestimated Bağatur, they were unprepared for his attack. When Bağatur arrived with his troops, he destroyed the Särbi, killed their king, enslaved their people, and confiscated their livestock.

Upon his return in 203 B.C.E., Bağatur immediately set out West, attacking and driving away the Agŋe. He then went South to annex the Ordos tribes. Next, he recovered the entirety of the territory that the Qin had sent Meng Tian to capture. As for the Han, he reestablished the old border with them that ran from south of the He to Chao-na and Fu-shi. He went on to invade Yan and Dai. At the time, the Han army and Xiangyu were at war, and the rest of the Central States had exhausted their supply of armor and weaponry. Bağatur took advantage of his enemy's weaknesses, raising an army of 30 tümäns, or 300,000 cavalries. With this army, he became the supreme power in Inner-Asia.

At this point, the Shiji notes that the Chinese were only able to obtain records concerning the Xuŋa’s genealogy and institutions beginning with the reign of Bağatur. This acknowledges the Xuŋa’s power and status as a rival. Sima Qian implies as much, noting that not a single chieftain from Chun-wei to Tümän was as powerful and accomplished as Bağatur.

With the Agŋe broken and the Särbi wiped out, Bağatur turned North. He wanted to achieve what no other tribe could before him, the unification of the steppe tribes. Just as he had subjugated the Ordos tribes who had resisted his rule, so did he subjugate the Hun-ye, Qıpçaq, Tägäräk, Qırğır, and Sır. Thereupon, the entirety of the Xuŋa nobility and great generals submitted to Bağatur, whom they now considered worthy.


Imperial Reorganization




Primary Sources on His Life and Legends


Taishigong Shu by Sima Qian and its various commentaries:

  1. Xu Guang’s Shiji Yinyi

  2. Pei Yin’s fifth century Shiji Jijie

  3. Sima Zhen’s eighth century Shiji Suoyin

  4. Zhang Shoujie’s eighth century Shiji Zhengyi

Hanshu by Ban Zhao

Weishu by Wei Shou

Oğuz Bitig


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