Legal Ambiguity and the Power of Great Khans in the Mongol Empire

Seol Paehwan

Legal Ambiguity and the Power of Great Khans in the Mongol Empire

(63rd Annual Meeting Ulaanbaatar, 2021)

This paper analyzes the ambiguity of the legal application and its impact on judicial and social authority, paying attention to linguistic and behavior ambiguity in the Mongol Empire.

Recently, legal debates over justice and fairness are heated in South Korean society. There is also strong voices demanding severe punishment on offenders or even suspects. Some citizens and legal circles expect fairness in trials from artificial intelligence (A.I.) as judges and lawyers equipped with high technology and big data. These disputes are controversy over the interpretation and application of laws and suspicions about the professionalism, abstraction, fixity, and systematicity of laws.

Problematic interpretation and application of laws can also be found in the politics and society of the Mongol Empire. This vast territorial empire housed Eurasian tribes of various religions, beliefs, political and economic systems, customs and habits. The Mongol rulers preserved their old system to consolidate the regime, while absorbing Chinese traditional legal system and Islamic law. This resulted in the dualization or pluralization of Mongol imperial legislation. Plural legislation played an important role in the social stability and economic development of the empire.

However, the features of the Mongol imperial legislation were often estimated as the division and confusion of governance. For example, the Treatise on Law and Punishment of the Yuanshi 元史, or the History of the Yuan, claims, saying “The systems of the North and the South, or, Mongolia and China, were different and legal cases and their categorization were complicated and tiny.” It is also estimated by modern scholarship that there have been [nearly] clear legal standards or fixed rules in legal affairs and lawsuits in the Yuan dynasty.

If there is imperfection, confusion, or vastness in the legal system of the Mongol empire, how did imperial subjects and societies involve with the system? This paper sheds light on legal ambiguity and elusiveness in the Mongol Yuan dynasty and its hermeneutic authority by Great Khans.