“Man is the Slave of Kindness” ― A Gift (Sauqa)-giving Culture and Social, Economic, Political Network in the Mongol Empire

Visiting Scholar Talks

Nov 9, 2023 | 11:30 AM - 1:00 PM

Common Room (#136), 2 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA,


Paehwan Seol | Associate Professor, Department of History, Chonnam National University; HYI Visiting Scholar, 2023-24


Christopher P. Atwood | Professor, Mongolian and Chinese Frontier and Ethnic History, University of Pennsylvania

Co-sponsored by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

This talk examines the culture of the sauqa in the Mongol empire and the apparently new type of individual and society it created, which spawned political networks focused on securing political and economic gain from the Mongols.

Meaning “gift” in Mongolian, the sauqa functioned as a medium of exchange serving the networks of politics, economy, and culture that integrated the society of the Mongol empire. Having long favored gift-giving, a practice that dates back to the traditional nomadic culture of the steppe, the Mongols preserved the custom as a political tactic under the Great Qans.

Consequently, gifts and bribes served the function of connecting the many diverse people of the Qa’an ulus. Literati, for example, bestowed gifts on officials and other people in power from whom they wished to obtain a governmental post, gain commercial profits, win help in lawsuits, and secure assistance in controlling officials and their governmental offices. Through such means, they could even influence a Great Qan.

A number of historical sources reveal how observers of rulers and their officials “accurately” sensed the ways in which their subjects brazenly offered “[bribe-like] gifts” and “washed hands for flattery” for personal gain, often satirizing them. Many Great Qans developed anti-corruption policies in order to defend imperial wealth and interest; however, in the end, they could never relinquish both gifts and anti-corruption policies as useful political instruments.