Book Review: “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford

February 3, 2010

Out of nowhere in the early 1200s, Genghis Khan and his Mongol “Horde” swept out of central Asia and in a sort of proto-blitzkrieg overwhelmed cultures from Korea to the Ukraine, acting as a catalyst in the development of cultural elements that we take for granted. Genghis’ horseback steppe nomads didn’t excel at traditional (infantry-focused) warfare, nor did they possess skilled artisans or tradesmen. They had neither prestige nor mercantile supremacy. What they had was the ability to start afresh, without being constrained by convention, and by thinking up new things were able to change the course of world history.

Jack Weatherford’s biography-cum-history of the Mongolian Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries focuses on the life of Genghis Khan but also the inventiveness, openness, innovation and legacy of his leadership. The Mongols vanquished, and then they built a framework. Instead of imposing a way of life on the conquered, they formed more of a cardiovascular system for the world’s nascent trading geography: their core contribution was not defining cultural concepts, but in putting an empire together that could move ideas, people, and technology around. Their network of roads, stations, and government institutions spread and disseminated change. Medicines, printing, gunpowder flowed west out of China. Maths, crops, and raw goods flowed east out of Europe and the Middle East.

Strikingly, perhaps almost stunningly, Genghis Khan was supportive of all religions. Whereas the grudging tolerance for “People of the Book” (Muslims, Christians or Jews) in Muslim Iberia or the relative cosmopolitanism of medieval Italian city states are often touted as shining examples of open-mindedness, these European examples were more of a tenuous situational reality than a philosophical intention. However, the idea of religious persecution was actually foreign to the Mongols. Genghis’ court had Christians, Muslims, Buddists, Taoists, Shamanists, Animists—he granted universal religious freedom to his subjects in a way that wasn’t just a nod to keeping things calm. Genghis elevated those who practiced education, medicine, religion, law to a respected position. He practiced equanimity in filling positions of power: instead of exclusively selecting leaders from his line of kinship—the established, unwavering Mongolian tradition—he sought out the competent, regardless of rank or breeding.

If this all sounds a bit pat and charming, it is. The Mongol campaigns were brutal war. Cities were given one option to surrender—if they did not, it was quite likely that most or all of its inhabitants would be enslaved, at best, or slaughtered, quite often. Life was hard, short, and painful. Revenge often punished those merely related to the original offender.

Genghis Khan himself is a fascinating personage, and it is in the biographical segments of the book—the first third or half—that Weatherford’s story sparkles. The introduction is actually the pinnacle of the book; it gave me academic shivers to hear about the cryptic “Secret History” (a lost, then found, then lost, then found, then finally translated document detailing Genghis Khan’s personal life and rise to power) and the Mongolian’s sacred homeland core, closed for centuries and centuries to any outsiders. The Soviet occupation of the territory in the 20th century, and the concomitant wretchedness and secrecy just serves to increase the appeal of the mystique.

The last third of the book makes it sound like Weatherford got tired or distracted. The information presented here is interesting, but not creatively organized. We learn of the intriguing lifestyle choices of Kubilai Khan in Xanadu (hey, now I know more about the Forbidden City in Beijing!), the provincial management of China, the vassal and transit system of Persia, the financial customs of Siberians. We hear of some brutal Tibetan Buddhists, a woman chief named Big and Fierce. But the latter portions of book lack enthusiasm and it’s not until the last chapter, outlining the empire’s point of demise, that things perk up again.

3.0 stars

One Comment

  1. Mikeymike says:

    I remember hearing about that closed off homeland place and it blew my mind. That sounds like something that someone would think of doing, but nobody would actually maintain. But no, for eight centuries that place was closed off, it’s crazy, the sheer willpower, it’s like a real-life version of that old knight in “The Last Crusade” guarding the grail. Also, they ruled at shooting arrows from horseback, ruled, ruled, and ruled some more. Did I mention that they could also ride horses and shoot arrows from those horses? Well, they could, and they ruled at it.

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