Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Posted by nliakos on February 10, 2013

by Jack Weatherford (Crown, 2004)

Like many people, I guess my first association with the words Genghis Khan would probably be bloodthirsty… at least it would have been until I read Weatherford’s book. It’s full of adulation for the founder of the Mongol Empire. (In fact, it kind of reminded me of The Clan of the Cave Bear, where the character Ayla seems to have invented everything from pet dogs to horseback riding to funereal flowers to surgical sutures…. But that was fiction, and this isn’t.) Still, according to Weatherford, the man born with the name Temujin in the northern reaches of the Asian steppes grew up to bring to the known world a great many concepts and practices that to a reader seem indeed very modern: not only printing with movable type, paper currency, and chemical (or at least very smell) warfare, but also the rule of law, women’s rights, global trade, religious tolerance, a secular state, and much more.

The book covers not only the life and conquests of Genghis but follows his sons and grandsons (particularly Khubilai, who first unified and then ruled China) right up to the end of the Mongol Empire in the mid-14th century, and there is even a chapter that brings the lands of the empire right up to the present day.

According to Weatherford, the Mongols did not like blood and abhorred torture; they never burned living people. (But they did not shy away from killing, and they had some rather imaginative ways to do it.) Their usual practice was to annihilate the aristocracy and military forces of an enemy or target population, and often to raze the city they were attacking, but to absorb the peasantry into their ranks. They looked for skilled artisans, educated people, polyglots and scientists and builders, and sent them from one end of their realm to the other to serve the Mongols in various ways. (I wondered: were they sent with their families? Did they stay there and raise families? Are their descendants still there? Weatherford does mention that after the disintegration of the empire following the plague years in the 14th century, the Jews, Muslims, and Christians who had settled in China under the Mongol [Yuan] dynasty were killed or expelled.)

The “new” information about Genghis Khan, including really specific details about his life from childhood to burial, are mostly taken from a new translation of The Secret History of the Mongols, a document that had been unavailable to researchers for centuries. Weatherford does use many other sources as well (he includes a seven-page Selected Bibliography), but I am guessing that those personal details came from the Secret History, which causes me to think that they must have been written by people with an agenda (praising Genghis). So the book must be read with some skepticism, but it’s truly a fascinating journey through a period of history I think few people know much about, especially since the Mongols in general and Genghis Khan in particular have been vilified for centuries.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who would like to approach an old subject from a very fresh new perspective.

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One Response to “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”

  1. […] « Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World […]

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