...2. 3. GenghisKhan rose to power through his determination and his refusal to be looked down at. Mongols viewed warfare as, not a battle for honor, but for winning. The Mongols did not fight to lose with honor; they fought to win with power. (8-9 & 91) 4. When Temujin (GenghisKhan) was born, he held a blood clot in his hand. Nobody knew what this meant, if it was a sign, or just pure coincidence. Nevertheless, Temujin’s childhood proved his strength. Temujin shot Behter, his older half brother, with a bow, because of how he was treating him. (Explained in #7) This proved Temujin’s strength and refusal to be treated and viewed as an insignificant speck in his family, as well as in the Mongol population. (13-14 & 24-25) 5. GenghisKhan has made many mistakes, and seen many errors in society, but he has also fixed these mistakes. Examples: When GenghisKhan was known as Temujin, when he was a part of Jamuka’s band, he was classified as part of the distant, black-boned kin, whereas Jamuka’s family was ranked as a white bone. Later on in his life, GenghisKhan decided that, whilst assembling his army, he realized that separating everyone by their rank made no sense, so he separated them without acknowledgement of their lineage, thus abolishing the distinction between black bone and white bone (37-38 & 52-53); Genghis...
By Patricia H. Kushlis
Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
"Genghis Khan was a doer." - Washington Post, 1989
I woke up to flashes of lightening, crashes of thunder and pellet-sized rain drops hammering away at the roof. I could say that this is what inspired me to shift gears and write the book review that I had been putting off for the past couple of weeks. Maybe so; maybe not. Regardless, the book in question is Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Random House, 2004) and it’s terrific.
I found Weatherford’s Genghis Khan not through the New York Times bestseller list – although apparently it appeared on it at one time – but on a table at Page One, an independent bookstore in Albuquerque, New Mexico on Easter Sunday. It took me a couple of weeks to open the book’s front cover, but once I did, I found it impossible to put down. This incredible story is masterfully told. Here, Weatherford presents in 271 paperback pages a sweep of medieval history expressed in human terms.
Genghis Khan’s (1162 CE-1227 CE) history as a warrior is all too well known in the West. In fact, that’s the sum total of what is remembered here. Genghis Khan and his descendants are normally painted in grisly terms. What Weatherford shows us, however, is that this Hollywood-set theme of horror on the warpath was often not so. And he explains that Genghis Khan and his descendants brought about Pax Mongolica, a century or more of peace among the fiercely battling tribes that inhabited the trade routes between Europe and eastern China known as the fabled Silk Road.
Maybe Genghis Khan didn’t plan to be the world’s first economic globalizer. But what one learns from Weatherford, is that the Mongol pacification of the lands between Constantinople and Beijing was not only imperative for Mongol prosperity but also for the prosperity of the known world at the time.
The Mongols lived off trade – they came to plunder, to exact tribute. These magnificent riders did not produce goods themselves, but they certainly learned how to use them in both war and peace. And just as today, China is the world’s largest manufacturing center – it was in Mongol times as well.
Once Genghis Khan’s army conquered a city, he moved on leaving very few of his ranks behind – just enough to extract the requisite tribute but usually allowing those local leaders who agreed to the deal, to continue to rule.
Historians know all too well about Genghis Khan’s military genius – but how many of us are cognizant of his use of propaganda as a scare tactic and pacification technique? Weatherford details how.
Or how about his near 21st century approach to administration? Genghis Khan and his men rode into battle light. They were nomads and “Charge of the Light Brigade” horsemen who carried almost everything they needed in their saddlebags or on the backs of spare horses. Their only imperative was sufficient grazing land for their animals. Genghis Khan and his people shunned an ostentatious capital back home with all its expensive trappings in deference to the nomad’s life.
Genghis Khan’s was perhaps the first networked government – what administrative support the great khan needed, rode along, too. Decision-making was quick because it was flexible and non-hierarchical. In many ways these Mongol horsemen attracted the best and the brightest. They gathered expertise like a snowball rolling downhill as they moved out of their mountain enclave south of Siberia’s Lake Baikal and galloped across the steppe to the west, east and south. And an individual’s tribal, religious or ethnic origin was immaterial: skills and quick intelligence were the keys.
Genghis Khan learned early the need to rely on skills, talents and brains – in fact, orphaned by his father at an early age and child of a minor tribe – he knew far better than most the paramount importance of an individual’s talents, experience and loyalty to the success of running an empire. He may have been the first leader to rely primarily on individuals with skills – not kith and kin. And as his empire grew, foreign language interpreters and translators ranked near the very top in Genghis Khan’s court.
Too many of his four sons – to whom he bequeathed his empire – failed to understand his pragmatic genius. Yet somehow, most of the empire stayed more or less together for years – operating through a paper financial transaction system that Genghis Khan learned from the Chinese combined with an early version of the hawala – or international credit transfer - system that still operates in Muslim lands.
Genius skipped a generation or more. It first reappeared in the great Khubilai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson who overturned the Sung Emperor to found the Yuan dynasty – the first of China’s many dynasties to unify the country. It was Khuhilai Khan who also established China’s capital at what is now known as Beijing and to erect the Forbidden City,
the Mongols’ true capitol. Outside the walls, Khubilai Khan Sinofied his rule – speaking Chinese, adopting Chinese customs and taking on the Chinese religious belief system which placed the Emperor between heaven and earth.
Inside the Forbidden City, however, the emperor and his court lived a Mongolian tribal life. This attribute – the ability to adapt to the local culture – was part of the genius of Genghis Khan and his more successful descendants.
As the years passed, and the Empire fragmented into four major groups – each led by a descendant of Genghis Khan, this ability to blend into the local landscape became increasingly important.
These nomads were vastly outnumbered by the people they had conquered so this was a major way they retained control as the power of the whole dissipated. The Mongolian conquerors adopted their subjects’ cultures and belief systems and worked through the indigenous leaders of the Khan’s far flung empires. In short, they lived off the land and blended in.
Over time, this included religion. Although tolerant of other beliefs, Genghis Khan himself remained true to the traditional Mongolian ones to the end. Many of Genghis Khan’s descendants, however, abandoned their ancestors’ worship of the Eternal Blue Sky from Mount Burkhan Kaldun, the region from whence the tribe is thought to have come. Weatherford also tells us that a number of the wives were Christians. Over the years, however, the hordes that went west, into the Middle East, Central and South Asia largely converted to Sunni Islam – whereas the followers of Khubilai Khan came under the sway of Tibetan Buddhism.
Over the centuries, Pax Mongolica disintegrated. But not in the way you might think. The East-West trade route Genghis Khan had opened also became a primary corridor for transmission of the plague – a rodent carried disease of death that originated somewhere in southern China and worked its way westward with the Silk Road caravans. Open cities all across Asia and the Middle East isolated themselves – refusing to let traders in for fear of catching this dread disease.
But even if this little known sweep of medieval history is not your cup of tea, Weatherford has something for everyone. Because he also wraps the Mongol story in human terms, he regales us with tales of love, romance, birth, death, jealousy, rituals, kidnappings, heroic rescues, fratricide, faith and fulfillment as well as the final days of Genghis Khan’s most recent descendants – who survived until Stalin’s revenge in the twentieth century.
Perhaps best of all, Weatherford describes the impressive scope of his extensive research into the hidden history of the Mongols – an adventure within an adventure – spurred on and assisted by a small group of tenacious Mongolian scholars dedicated to the discovery and preservation of their own long, lost past.
Photos of China and Tibet by PHK (2004); maps from the PCL Map Collection.