Monday, March 1, 2010


A friend of mine is a high school teacher who has been obsessed with the Mongols for a couple months (she has to teach the Mongol Empire as part of her Regents Test prep). I thought she was being a little silly, but grudgingly agreed to read this book. Now, comprehension dawns. The Mongol Empire was really frickin' cool.

The thing I hadn't realized was that just about every feature of the modern world is somehow connected to Genghis Khan, who lived from 1160 to 1222. One example I'd heard before I read the book was weaponry: the Chinese empire used explosives (what we'd call gunpowder) for firecrackers; the Muslim empires in Persia and Baghdad had long used flame-throwers and other kinds of hurling artillery in warfare; the Christian empires had churches with bells in them. But it was only Genghis who connected the three different kinds of technology to yield a cannon, and later a gun.

But that was hardly the only or the most important way the Mongol Empire changed the world. They created a well-staffed and safely regulated chain of post offices over their entire empire to facilitate trade. They transplanted native vegetables from China to Hungary to India and everywhere in between, changing the global diet. They synthesized the most advanced mathematics from India and Persia to use across the entire empire for taxes and mercantile accounting. They hyper-evolved Chinese printing technology to create paper currency to be used across country borders, not to mention for printing reading materials, which became much more common. They created tax-free public schools, so literacy was no longer so much of a luxury. And then, accidentally, their excellent systems of trade facilitated the spread of the bubonic plague, which would destroy the short-lived glory of the Mongol Empire and kill off between a third and a half of its constituent nations between China and the Mediterranean.

Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan is divided into three sections: the first tells the story of the great conqueror's childhood; the second, the expansion of his empire; the third, the growth and evolution of the Mongol Empire after Genghis's death. The conqueror's life story is a crazy one: he started out as a bastard orphan in the wooded areas of Mongolia, part of a marauding tribe with no holdings of its own. He was captured in a raid as a child, and may have spent as many as ten years in slavery. But then he began to wrest control of his fate for himself, first of his own family (by killing his own half-brother, who was oppressing him), then a neighboring tribe (who kidnapped and "ravished" his wife), then all the other neighboring tribes, then all of Mongolia, then Mongolia's neighbors, then their neighbors. What's perhaps even more incredible is this illiterate, uneducated warrior's switch to progressive administrator, his undying commitment to his own ethical principles, and his unlimited trust in underlings who proved their loyalty. (Also, his grandson Khubilai's similar accomplishments are darn cool, too.)

Weatherford is a groundbreaker in that he uses as the core of his biography a book called the Secret History, a Mongolian language history of the Great Khan that was suppressed, first by the Mongols because of death taboos, then by circumstance, then by the Soviets, who actively opposed any reference to Genghis lest he inspire nationalist fervor. Weatherford and his team of academics and Mongols spent years in the steppe connecting the history to the places it happened, translating and interpreting the text for the first time for the world. In some ways, the account is a little rosy-cheeked. Yes, Weatherford acknowledges Genghis's kill-all invasion policy, but he argues that Genghis was more enlightened than other contemporaries because he was firmly against terror (true? Perhaps; a sanguine take regardless). Never in the book is the word "rape" used, either, although I think it would have been useful of him to at least address the rumor that X very high percent (the rumors vary) of modern Central and East Asians are descended from Genghis and his immediate family. But there is plenty of the negative to be read elsewhere, and Weatherford's account is quite satisfying in many other ways.

I could talk about this for days, so I'll stop myself here. But let's just say I think this book has sparked a new obsession.


Jane Steen said...

I had already added this to my reading list after the discussion on your other blog (never, by the way, have I seen a better list of book recommendations. What a community.)

Your review may have moved this one up the list somewhat! Sounds fascinating, and a great antidote to the way I was brought up to believe that the English invented everything.

moonrat said...

i love how the list everyone came up with is totally cross-genre, too. it's fantastic. obviously you'll be seeing other reviews on some of those books soon, too :)

let me know how the Weatherford goes for you. i'm used to slogging through pretty dry history, but i didn't find him terribly dry at all (in fact i found it pretty readable! although my tolerance is high--so do let me know :)

Ben-M said...

Sounds like a great read - this one's definitely going on my shopping list.

Leigh Russell said...

This sounds really interesting.

stacy said...

This is on my wish list. Can't wait to read it after I finish the . . . um, seven books I'm reading right now.