A study on Mongol’s active engagement in trade through ortaqs



Transcontinental trade no doubt flourished under the unification of Asia under one Mongol Empire. Modern Mongol literature have focused on the Mongol’s favorable attitude towards merchants and trade, from Chingiz Khan’s readily-docuemented interest in commerce to the Ilkhan and Jochid settlement in territorial dispute purely because they desired trade to continue[1]. These literatures have constructed a distorted view that the Mongols themselves did not actively engage in trade but simply facilitated trade by protecting trade routes and reducing border tax. Although, contemporary literature has begun correct this view, I wish to construct a clearer image on how active Mongol engagements with ortaq merchants during the Mongol empire and early Yuan period improved transcontinental trade and connections. First, I preface my argument by outlining the unique symbiotic relationship shared between pastoral nomads and merchants. I will detail the role the ortaq merchants played. I will then describe how the active engagements between Chingissid princes began under Ogedëi’s rule. I will finally briefly go into detail the privileges granted to ortaq merchants and how they became entrenched in Yuan institutions.


Nomad-merchant relations:

The near-symbiotic relationship between pastoral nomads and merchants has been observed by early historian and encapsulated in Rubruck’s testimony on the bazaars that followed Batu’s campaign.[2] More recent historians like A.M. Khazanov have scrutinized the reasons behind this close relationship. Khazanov persuasively argues that these nomad’s economy is “non-autakric,” meaning they are so specialized in pastoral production that they lack many other essentials. Because their economy is not self-sufficient, these nomads are forced to trade to acquire essentials such as “winder fodder, textiles, and manufactured wares.”[3] The inability to produce all essentials domestically has sown a frame of maintaining close relationships with sedentary populations and their representative merchants. This attitude towards trade and commerce is in stark contrast of the Confucian Chinese who held disdain for trade and merchants. Merchants were placed on the bottom of the Han Chinese hierarchy. The Confucian Chinese viewed the merchants, traders, and bankers as a parasitic group that did not produce anything themselves, although attitudes had become the change with advancements in trade and transportation. (Mongol In World History) This paradigm shift with the rise of the Mongol empire introduced the local Chinese that excelled in the production of highly sought-after luxury goods to the realm of intercontinental trade and greatly increased the global economy. Enkhbold notes that nomads were not long-distance travelers and did not have a merchant class in their society, this was no different for the Mongols of the central Asian steppes, which might explain the reason behind the distorted view that the Mongols did not actively engage in trade. He explains that because of this missing class in Mongol society, the nomads learned to furnish protection and privilege to foster close relationships. (Enkhbold 2019) Similarly, the Mongols granted protection, privileges, and access to the yam network to their ortaq partners. I will argue that although the Mongols themselves were not merchants, they still directly and actively engaged with merchants through ‘ortaq’ partners.


Origin of the term ‘ortaq’ and their role:

The word ‘ortaq’ originates from the Turkish word for “partner.” The history of the word can be traced all the way to the eleventh century to all modern Turkic language and dialects that where it survives as ‘ortoq’ or ‘ortaq.’ (West 1989) In Chinese sources from the Yuan dynasty, we encounter the word wo-to (斡脱) which modern historian explains it as the loanword of the Mongol pronunciation for the Turkic word ortaq. Elizabeth West traces the definitions of ‘ortaq’ in Yuan dictionaries and found it to be used prevalently. She cites a Yuan vocabulary on governmental affairs which defines wo-to (ortaq) as “the name for [the practice whereby] government funds used for trade were distributed as capital to earn interest.” (West 1989)


The ortaq merchants were indeed given loans typically in the form of silver from the government and Mongol elite and either used the principle to conduct trade or money-lending business. (Enkhbold 2019) These Muslim or Uighur merchants, identified as hui-hui or hui-hu in Chinese sources, received capital from the imperial family and effectively functioned as its agents. As time went on, individual ortaq merchants that had personal connections with Mongol elites became associated as a collective and often times pooled capital together to sponsor trade caravans. The Mongol-ortaq relationship operated based on a scheduled predetermined payment plan that was monitored by state officials. Other times, the ortaq partnerships was tied to the exchange of goods, either as an investment from Mongol elites or specific foreign goods as a payment to Mongol capital investment. (Enkhbold 2019) The ortaq also learned to engage in money-lending business with the conquered Chinese population as a means to earn profit and repay interests. This practice was already largely unpopular in Chinese populations during Ogedëi’s reign because of the usurious rates ortaq merchants mandated. This is documented in as early as 1237 in the Hei-ta shih-lüeh 黑韃事略 (A Brief Description of the Black Tatars). The report was written by two southern Song envoys that were sent to Mongol under Ogedëi’s reign. Peng Ta-ya, one of the envoys, writes that “on one ingot of principal, turned over for ten years, their interest will be 1,024.[4]” Allsen notes that through the text we can formulate that the ortaq’s[5] demand was a 100 percent increase compounded annually. Although the account may not seem credible, Allsen noted that both the Yuan-shih and the biography of Yeh-lü Ch’u-ts’ai (耶律楚材), a prominent Chinese advisor to both Genghis Khan and Ogedëi, testifies to the usurious rate. It is evident that not only did ortaq merchants benefit from increased taxes on the local population, but in fact likely encouraged tax farming. Allsen notes that during the pre-Qubilai era there was even a practice of bidding (p’u-mai 撲買) for the right collect certain taxes. Ortaq merchants, with their large capitals and close association likely won these bids. When taxes are increased to unbearable levels, local population, in consequence, are forced to take out loans from ortaq merchants. The ortaq merchants are often portrayed by modern literature in a negative light as their rise in power came in the consequence of hardships from the local population.


Beginning of Mongol-ortaq relations:

Although during the latter days of Chingiz Khan’s reign, the Mongol empire had already seen a continuous growth in court sponsored trade that was driven by the Mongol’s newfound wealth, it was under Ogedëi’s reign where the apex of ortaq influence occurred. During this period, the practice of Chinggisid princes and princesses investing their silver and money into Muslim merchants was entrenched in the identity of post-nomad Mongol ruling class. The earliest mention of Mongol Yuan history of ortaq relations with the Mongol ruling class, is also observed by the Song envoy Peng Ta-ya in his report:


From the Tatar (Mongol) Emperor to the false princes of the blood, to the false heir apparent, to the false princesses, all entrust their silver to the Hui-hui. As for [the latter] some lend it out to the populace and earn high interest…and they buy [with the silver] sundry goods, and then sell them in other places.[6]


Enkhbold notes that Xu Ting, the second Song envoy, a year later confirms Peng’s account:


From the Tatar (Mongol) ruler to everyone, silver is simply entrusted to the Hui-hui, so that they trade with satisfaction and then pay interest [to the Mongols]. The Hui-hui either lend [the silver]to others or conduct trade themselves in many locales.[7]


Juvayni also wrote about Ogedëi’s ortaq partnerships, reciting a story of an elderly stranger that petitioned to Odegei for 200 gold ingots to form an ortaq with the Khan. It is said that the Khan eagerly accepted the partnership without spending time scrutinizing the details of the merchant.[8] He even delivered additional funds to another ortaq merchant that had already lost all of the 500 ingots principle that he was given by the Khan.[9] Juvayni states that, unsurprisingly, the word of the court’s largess “spread throughout the world” and “merchants began to come to his court from every side.” Juvayni also recounts that the Khan decreed to “raise [whatever the price amounted to] by 10 percent and pay money to the merchants” despite the merchants already asking for prices above the market value.[10] Juvayni’s account of the largess of Ogedëi portrayed him as quintessential of the nouveau riche and was willing to recklessly spend his large treasury. This constructed an image of the Mongol market as easily exploited by ortaq merchants whose “craftiness is exceedingly awe-inspiring.”[11] However, Allsen argues that Ogedëi’s largess may have been based on other calculations and the main one being the desire to attract goods to the newly established capital of Qara Qorum. The new capital was situated near the Orkhon River in the steppes of central Asia. As we have discussed before, the surrounding nomadic economy was simply not enough to needs the needs of the large city. Allsen states that the Mongol government[sj1] , the main consumer, was incentivized to “regularly offer inflated prices to attract sellers.” The Mongols, wanting the best of two worlds, living both in the steppe plains but also enjoying the luxuries of the sedentary world, actively engaged with ortaq merchants with lucrative business deals. The wealth of the Mongol government and demand for foreign luxury goods drove the initial influx of merchants and simultaneous transcontinental connections.


Privileges and entrenchment of ortaq institution:

As mentioned previously, pastoral nomads learned to grant privileges and protection to their merchant partners to foster firm relationships. One of the privileges offered by Mongol elites that attracted foreign merchants is the access to the Yam network. Ogedëi further expanded the empire’s extensive communication network established by Genghis Khan and considered it to be his “single greatest achievement.” (Allsen 1989) The famous communication network was not only provided for diplomats and messengers but merchants too. Marco Polo extensively praises the Yam network and its luxuries provided for messengers. The network was comprised of the erection of ‘horse posts’ according to Marco Polo in every about 25-30 miles interspersed throughout the empire.[12] These stations contained lodging, fodder, and horses for people with a tablet of authority or paiza. (Morgan Loc. 1149) It is confirmed by Juvayni who had private knowledge of the extensive communication network, that not only was the network used for provision of resources for traveling Mongol armies and dissemination of intelligence but also “necessary [for the] transport of goods from the far West to the East and from the far East to the West.”[13] The ortaq merchants were also granted tablets of authority in the form of clothing and imperial letters and exemption from taxes under the reign of Ogedëi. We are able to find evidence that during Qubilai and Möngke’s subsequent reigns, Chinese officials made progress in cutting back these privileges. The Yuan-shih cites that under Qubilai governmental agencies such as the Wo-t’o tsung-kuan-fu and its successor, the Ch’iian-fu-ssu were established for the purpose of overseeing foreign merchants with varying degrees of success. (West 133) Under Qubilai privileges such as access horses in the Yam network and tablets of authority were rescinded. (West 148) While under Möngke’s reign, it was decided that ortaq merchants must pay tax like other Chinese households. In one imperial decree directed to “sundry ortaq households” (chu wo-t’o hu 諸斡脱戶) dated at 1271:


to the respectfully received imperial decree of the Late emperor (Mongke), people engaged in trade in all locales [must pay] heir household tax in their temporary places of residence on an equal footing with the civilian population.[14]


The historical evidence offers proof that prior to the restrictions under Qubilai and Möngke’s reign, ortaq merchants enjoyed tax exemptions and treated as a higher class than the local Chinese population. During the middle ages, transportation and protection costs imposed the most significant barrier to long-distance travel. Through the privileged access to the Yam network and protection as a trader of the Mongol empire, ortaq merchants could securely travel and earn a handsome profit. As noted by Peter Jackson, the Mongol engagements in commerce did not necessarily create new trade routes but instead a “readiness[sj2] ” to travel the entire distance of the silk road, and in doing so, promote transcontinental connection between the east and west. (Jackson 222)


Among privileges such as access to the yam network and tax exemption, a peculiar attitude originating from the Mongol’s steppe lifestyle also benefited ortaq merchants. Allsen notes that the Mongols empire had institutionalized the practice that neighbors had to compensate for any lost items. In nomadic society, herd animals often wandered off and under rules of mutual aid and reciprocity, it was customary that neighbors return all strays. The prominence of such practice was even noticed by Marco Polo in his book Description of the world. Marco Polo retails that all lost items, horses, and birds are to be promptly given to a special officer called the “bularguci,” meaning the “keeper of things without a lord.”[15] Marco Polo emphasizes the severity Mongols placed on the keeping lost items stating “if whoever fount it does not bring [found items] in right away, he is considered a thief.”[16]Allsen notes that this nomadic convention was enforced in North China to protect traveling ortaqs. Yeh-lü Ch’u-ts’ai testifies to the existence of the practice writing, “a decree was issued that in all places where robbed and the true thieves were not captured in a year’s time, the populace (min-hu名户) of the circuit in question had to compensate for [the merchant’s] lost goods.”[17] Allsen argues that the merchants were likely prone to abusing this law and falsely claiming that their goods had been lost by “nighttime pilferage to demand restitution from the local populace.” (Allsen 98) Although this practice may seem absurd having to our contemporary lens, being forced to pay for something you didn’t even know was lost, in the view of the ruling Mongols, it made logical sense and the law supposes that the neighbor is a thief, or at least, complicit.


The inability to control the imperial family spending and the relationship between ortaq and imperial family became being treated as an “open secret.” (West 152) Despite Qubilai’s efforts to limit the privileges of the ortaq merchants through the establishments government agencies that overlook their activities, ortaq merchants found other means to retain power. Under the reign of Empreror T’ai-ting, ortaq merchants often times presented luxury goods as ‘gifts’ to members of the imperial family, who then would authorize large payments for these merchants. West notes that the term “中買寶物” used by Chang Kuei (張桂), a high ranking Yuan military official, in his criticism of the practice of luxurious ‘gifts’ given to imperial families and its use in the Yuan-shih[18] suggests that this practice has been institutionalized. Chang describes both the nobility and ortaq merchants as “worms eating away at the Dynasty’s wealth,” suggests that this practice has become very much entrenched. (West 150) Furthermore, Emperor T’ai-ting’s rejection of the advice given by Chang and returning tax exemptions for Muslims that were abolished under Möngke, demonstrated the political power that ortaq merchants were able to amass. (West 151) The entrenchment of the ortaq institution in the Yuan government continued to guarantee profits and protection to foreign merchants and the simultaneous transcontinental connections.



The Mongol empire actively engaged in commerce through ortaq merchants acting as agents. Initially, a desire to stimulate trade in the newly established Qara-Qorom capital and simply the abundance of wealth and taste for luxury goods drove the Mongol government in engaging with foreign ortaq merchants. Albeit, the practice was not anything unknown given their nomadic lifestyle and the lack of a merchant class in their society. The nomadic empire shared a symbiotic relationship with the merchants and was well-aware of incentives of these merchants. They actively pursued policies that foreign merchants desired such as the access to the Yam network, tax exemption, and protection. However, with these beneficial policies, ortaq merchants began to band together to promote a common interest without regards to the consequences to the local population with tax farming. Efforts to curb the ortaq merchant’s growing political and economic power did not withstand over time. With the prospect of political power and privileges in addition to lucrative profits, foreign merchants continued to pour into the Mongolian governments, and in doing so, promote transcontinental connections between the east and west.



[1] From Pax Mongolica and Transcontinental Traffic pp. 219-220. “In 712/1312 a letter from Özbeg to the Ilkhan Öljeitü stressed the desirability of settling their territorial dispute, so that merchants might once again begin to journey between their dominions.”

[2] Pax Mongolica and Transcontinental Traffic pp. 215

[3] A.M. Khazanov’s arguments in Nomads and the outside world are outlined in Allen’s article “Mongolian Princes

and Their Merchant Partners, 1200-126o,”


[4] Found in P’eng and Hsü, Hei-ta shi-lüeh, p. 493 Translation provided in Allsen’s article “Mongolian Princes

and Their Merchant Partners, 1200-1260,” pp. 99

[5] Although P’eng did not call them ortaqs and instead hui-hu, the evidence of their practices matches that of ortaqs

[6] Found in Peng, D. Y., and T. Xu. 2016. “Hei-ta shih-liuh.” pp. 35 translation provided by Enkhbold’s article “The role of the ortoq in the Mongol Empire in forming business partnerships”

[7] Found in Peng, D. Y., and T. Xu. 2016. “Hei-ta shih-liuh.” pp. 35 translation provided by Enkhbold’s article “The role of the ortoq in the Mongol Empire in forming business partnerships”

[8] Atä-Malik Juvaynī, The History of the World Conqueror, trans. John Boyle, pp. 208

[9] Atä-Malik Juvaynī, The History of the World Conqueror, trans. John Boyle, pp. 209

[10] Atä-Malik Juvaynī, The History of the World Conqueror, trans. John Boyle, pp. 214

[11] As described by Southern Envoy Pang in Hei-ta shih-liuh

[12] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 90). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[13] Atä-Malik Juvaynī, The History of the World Conqueror, trans. John Boyle, pp. 33

[14] Found in T’ung-chih t’iao-ko 2, pp. 12 Translation provided in Allsen’s article “Mongolian Princes

and Their Merchant Partners, 1200-1260,” pp. 107


[15] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 83). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[16] Polo, Marco. The Description of the World (p. 83). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[17] Found in Peng, D. Y., and T. Xu. “Hei-ta shih-liuh.” pp.494 Translation provided in Allsen’s article “Mongolian Princes and Their Merchant Partners, 1200-1260,” pp. 98

[18] 中買寶貨之制 appears in Yuan-shih 94 p.2403



[sj1]Ogedei payment






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