Subedei. Chinese ink-drawing.

Subedei the Warrior

Subedei was Chingis Khan's incomparably most brilliant general. During the life of Chingis Khan, he was his master's chief of staff, and his high expertise impelled the military historian B.H. Liddel Hart to devote the first chapter of his "Great Captains Unveiled" to "Jenghiz Khan and Sabutai." The succesful execution of more than sixty Mongol campaigns can be attributed to his considerable talents.

Subedei was, although he lacked Temuchin's persuasive powers and psychosocial prowess, a man of great and highly disciplined intelligence. As mentioned elsewhere, Subedei and his collaborator, Yeh-lu Chu'tsai, played big roles in the continuation of the principles of statesmanship introduced by Chingis (and Yeh-lu).

It was during Chingis Khan's war in 1219-1222 against the Khwarezmian empire that Subedei was brought to the attention of the world at large. In the aftermath of this war he, together with his fellow "dog of war," Chepe, was head of a reconnaissance force numbering 20 000 men. The adventures of this small force is treated in greater detail elsewhere, but the decisive thing that happened was that the Russian prince Mstislav of Kiev heard about the Mongol incursion into the Caucasian states, whose armies were overrun by these mysterious horsemen. Mstislav rallied troops from Kiev, Smolensk, Kursk, Chernigov and other principalities, a force numbering 80 000 men or more.

Hostilities began after the Russian killing of ten envoys sent out by Subedei, who had no intention to wage war against Russia with such a small force. Subedei answered calmly with the portentous message: "You have killed our envoys. As you wish for war, so be it. But we have not attacked you. May the spirits be judge of all men." The rest is history. At the River Khalka, near the Azov Sea, Subedei had cleverly lured the overconfident Russians into overextending their lines. Even if the Russians outnumbered the Mongols with at least four to one, the battle ended with the annihilation of eight-tenths of the Russian army. This incursion into Europe had as its aim to reconnoiter for a coming campaign, which Chingis Khan with his advisors and generals had probably already prepared in his mind. This campaign would be postponed for many years due to the physical passing away of Chingis Khan in 1227. Not until 1235 would the kuriltai (general assembly) decide to march against the West again.

Subedei, the mastermind and real leader behind the illustrious European campaign of 1236-1242, laid waste the whole of Eastern Europe in the course of this theatre of operations. It has been assumed, by Liddell Hart for one, that the Mongols did not intend to conquer the whole of Europe. However, it is equally plausible that it was the death of Ogodai, the son and successor of Chingis, that saved Europe from the onslaught of the invincible Mongols, who had been superior to any army they met. The Mongol military successes in the years 1227-1242 can in large measure be attributed to Subedei. The Secret History of The Mongols describe all the descendants of Chingis as "succorers of Subedei," thereby clearly expressing Subedei's activities as continuations of the former campaigns of Chingis Khan. In the Secret History the relationship between Chingis and his foremost general is described in lyric terms. Subedei was a native of the Urianqai tribe, whose geographical homeland is situated east of the Bajkal sea, in what are the present-day republics of Tuva and Buryatia.

Whether or not it bears a complete physical resemblance to the actual historical person, the above Chinese drawing of Subedei is illustrative and truthful. He is shown in a typical Chinese Kung Fu warrior stance. His hands are open, and this shows his prowess as a fighter, because those who are very skilled in close combat typically fight with open hands. An open hand is flexible, it can in a split-second make a fist for a crushing blow, or it can with equal ease block, grapple and throw. We also see that his feet are positioned for sideways sliding movement, which is the way Kung Fu as well as Ju Jitsu practitioners move. A small detail with Subedei's hands: they are slightly curved inwards, a further mark of a very advanced martial artist, since this is a position that makes for even greater flexibility and suppleness.

Subedei was a warrior, and many modern-day people are expected to harbor prejudices against that role. Then bear in mind that the warrior is not only the perpetrator of war, but also the representative of archetypal forces which play their role in Universe and thus also in human society, a role that, paradoxically enough, is healthy when it serves non-destructive purposes. To come to grips with the difference between war and warrior is one of many realizations that it is imperatively necessary for humans to make if humanity is to maintain our animalistic fire and intensity, so deplorably often dismissed as unwanted passion by humans who would like to cleanse humanity of animal vigor. If we want to, we can create an alternative to diminution and elimination of our feral Life-Force.

Part of the Life-Force is the qualities of the warrior, whose role is, if it can be kept within boundaries that fall short of actual war, contrary to popular belief, a healthy one, though real and full-scale war is definitely something to be avoided. We ought to be able to distinguish between war and the warrior. That means to accept the warrior in ourselves and if need be, cultivate it without escalating it to purposeless destructive action. (I have deliberately avoided to identify the warrior with a "he." Let it in this context also be mentioned once more that the strongest and most militarily skilful Mongolian women rode alongside the male warriors in war, without losing their femininity and womanness.)

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Last updated May 31, 1998 by Per Inge Oestmoen