Tartary (Latin: Tartaria, French: Tartarie, German: Tartarei) was a blanket term used in Western European literature and cartography for a vast part of Asia bounded by the Caspian Sea, the Ural Mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and the northern borders of China and India at a time when this region was largely unknown to European geographers. The active use of the toponym can be traced from the 13th to the 19th century. In European sources, Tartary became the most common name for Central Asia in a series of negatively colored names that had no connection with the real polities or ethnic groups of the region; until the 19th century, European knowledge of the area remained extremely scarce and fragmentary. In modern English-speaking tradition, the region formerly known as Tartary is usually called Inner or Central Eurasia. Much of this area consists of arid plains, the main population of which in the past was engaged in animal husbandry.[1]

Map of independent Tartary (in yellow) and Chinese Tartary (in violet), in 1806.

Geography and historyEdit

Tartaria map and description by Giovanni Botero from his "Relationi universali" (Brescia, 1599).

Knowledge of Manchuria, Siberia and Central Asia in Europe prior to the 18th century was limited. The entire area was known simply as "Tartary" and its inhabitants "Tartars".[2] In the Early modern period, as understanding of the geography increased, Europeans began to subdivide Tartary into sections with prefixes denoting the name of the ruling power or the geographical location. Thus, Siberia was Great Tartary or Russian Tartary, the Crimean Khanate was Little Tartary, Manchuria was Chinese Tartary, and western Central Asia (prior to becoming Russian Central Asia) was known as Independent Tartary.[3][4][5] By the seventeenth century, however, largely under the influence of Catholic missionary writings, the word "Tartar" came to refer to the Manchus and the lands they ruled as "Tartary."[6]

European opinions of the area were often negative, and reflected the legacy of the Mongol invasions that originated from this region. The term originated in the wake of the widespread devastation spread by the Mongol Empire. The adding of an extra "r" to "Tatar" was suggestive of Tartarus, a Hell-like realm in Greek mythology.[2] In the 18th century, conceptions of Siberia or Tartary and its inhabitants as "barbarous" by Enlightenment-era writers tied into contemporary concepts of civilization, savagery and racism.[7]

More positive opinions were also expressed by Europeans. Some saw Tartary as a possible source of spiritual knowledge lacking in contemporary European society. In Five Years of Theosophy, edited by Theosophist and scholar G.R.S. Mead, polymath and "seer" Emanuel Swedenborg is quoted as having advised: "Seek for the Lost Word among the hierophants of Tartary, China, and Tibet".[8]


The usage of "Tartary" declined as the region became more known to European geographers; however, the term was still used long into the 19th century.[9] Ethnographical data collected by Jesuit missionaries in China contributed to the replacement of "Chinese Tartary" with Manchuria in European geography by the early 18th century.[2] The voyages of Egor Meyendorff [ru] and Alexander von Humboldt into this region gave rise to the term Central Asia in the early 19th century as well as supplementary terms such as Inner Asia,[10] and Russian expansionism led to the term "Siberia" being coined for the Asian half of the Russian Empire.[11]

By the 20th century, Tartary as a term for Siberia and Central Asia was obsolete. However, it lent the title to Peter Fleming's book News from Tartary, which detailed his travels in Central Asia.

Tartary in artEdit

In the novel Ada by Vladimir Nabokov, Tartary is the name of a large country on the fictional planet of Antiterra. Russia is Tartary's approximate geographic counterpart on Terra, Antiterra's twin world apparently identical to "our" Earth, but doubly fictional in the context of the novel.

"The Squire's Tale" from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is set in the royal court of Tartary.

In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the eponymous hero refers to his travels in Tartary on two occasions, and suggests that the then modern geographers of Europe were "in a great error, by supposing nothing but sea between Japan and California; for it was ever my opinion, that there must be a balance of earth to counterpoise the great continent of Tartary".

A main character, Calaf, in the opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini is the Prince of Tartary.

L. Frank Baum's origin story of Santa Claus, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, features mythical antagonists from Tartary who oppose Santa's compassionate gift giving practices. They are described as the Three-Eyed Giants of Tartary.

In Walter de la Mare's poem "If I were lord of Tartary", Tartary is a land full of happiness.

Priest Évariste Régis Huc wrote several books chronicling his journeys the region, collectively known as Remembrances of a Journey in Tartary, Tibet, and China during the Years 1844, 1845, and 1846.

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Connell, Charles W. (2016). Ryan, James D. (ed.). "Western Views of the Origin of the 'Tartars': An Example of the Influence of Myth in the Second Half of the Thirteenth Century". The Spiritual Expansion of Medieval Latin Christendom: The Asian Missions. The Expansion of Latin Europe, 1000–1500. New York: Routledge: 103–25. ISBN 978-0754659570.
  2. ^ a b c Elliott, "The Limits of Tartary", 625–26
  3. ^ Ibid., 626
  4. ^ Vermeulen, "Before Boas", 88
  5. ^ Sela, "L'invention", 542
  6. ^ Dong, Shaoxin (2020), "The Tartars in European Missionary Writings of the Seventeenth Century", in Weststeijn, Thijs (ed.), Foreign Devils and Philosophers Cultural Encounters between the Chinese, the Dutch, and Other Europeans, 1590-1800, Leiden: Brill, pp. 82–83, ISBN 9789004418929
  7. ^ Wolff, "Global Perspective", 448
  8. ^ Mead, G.R.S. (2004). Five Years of Theosophy. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14378: Project Gutenberg.CS1 maint: location (link)
  9. ^ Seal, Op. Cit.
  10. ^ Sela, Op. Cit, 543
  11. ^ Vermeulen, Op. Cit., 89


  • Elliott, Mark C. "The Limits of Tartary: Manchuria in Imperial and National Geographies." The Journal of Asian Studies 59, no. 3 (August 2000): 603–46. doi:10.2307/2658945.
  • Sela, Ron. "Svetlana Gorshenina. L’invention de l’Asie centrale: Histoire du concept de la Tartarie a` l’Eurasie. (Rayon histoire de la librairie Droz, no. 4.) Geneva: Droz, 2014. pp. 702." American Historical Review 2016 (April 2016): 542–43. doi:10.1353/imp.2015.0005.
  • Wolff, Larry. "The Global Perspective of Enlightened Travelers: Philosophic Geography from Siberia to the Pacific Ocean." European Review of History: Revue Europeenne Dhistoire 13, no. 3 (September 2006): 437–53. doi:10.1080/13507480600893148.
  • Vermeulen, Han F. Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment. Albany, NY: University of Nebraska, 2018.

External linksEdit

  Media related to Tartary at Wikimedia Commons