It is a good thing that two major contributors to Mongol-era scholarship – Ruth W. Dunnell and Michal Biran – have produced handy biographies of ChingIt is a good thing that two major contributors to Mongol-era scholarship – Ruth W. Dunnell and Michal Biran – have produced handy biographies of Chinggis Khan – handy for student use, as this one is intended: neither seem distributed more widely, although Biran and Dunnell are certainly the most informed and trustworthy of Chinggis biographers, and both are readable (made to be readable by students). Student-use books on the Mongols seem to be in a healthy state: George Lane turns them out, on the side from his forefront academic books.
It pains me that outside of set texts for courses, I suppose, people are more likely to pick up a mass-marketed biography. I’ll try not to be heavy-handed on this, but can I just say: take these excerpts from 2014-15 bios for the popular market –
In Europe, the Romans left vast amounts of hardware — roads, building, aqueducts, stadia — but they also rewrote Europe’s software: language, art, literature, law ... Alexander flashed across the skies of history like a comet, yet he left a lasting light. The British were in India for 200 years and the cultures are still interfused... the Romans, the Greeks and the British had something to say... The Mongols didn’t. – John Man, The Mongol Empire
(I haven’t recovered from that last sentence. I have a lot to say about it, too much for this venue)
While the Mongols’ military achievements were stupendous, they were otherwise totally parasitic. They were unoriginal, founded no new religions, produced no worthwhile cultural artefacts, developed no new crops or technologies (though they transmitted existing ones), created no worthwhile painting, pottery, architecture or literature and did not even bake bread; they essentially relied on the captive craftsmen and experts for everything. – Frank McLynn, Genghis Khan
You see that these guys are judging against the world’s sedentary empires? These nomads did not even bake bread – a pathetic performance from them. I bet the Greeks didn’t even make ayrag, though the Scythians were there to teach them.
Whereas Ruth Dunnell says this:
Thus, in our global understanding, the historical identity of Eurasia’s nomads has advanced from ‘natural catastrophes’ to facilitators of intercultural or interregional exchange… Understanding how and why all of this happened requires deeper explanations, ones which may show that nomads did not simply ‘facilitate’ exchange between sedentary peoples by transporting goods across inhospitable terrain, but indeed created and shaped the very terms of exchange in the course of building states, for example, to solve their own internal historical dilemmas.
Ruth Dunnell also says, endearingly, in her author’s preface: It also reflects my belief that the history of those peoples, Eurasian steppe nomads and Mongols among them, operated according to principles that we are only beginning to understand, and that the more we try to uncover their dynamics, the better we will understand our own histories.
The above quote examples the strength of Dunnell’s book, too: it is aimed at World History courses, and that world-historical setting does nothing but profit Mongol study – the best way to meet the Mongols these days is through World History texts or websites or courses (= hope for the future). Dunnell explains that the world history approach has changed how we look at Mongols (i.e. we no longer look for and see the lack of monuments and other sedentary-empire signifiers from this nomad people – we look at communications and exchange and see what sedentary empires have not prepared us to understand). The series in which this is an entry, world biography (interesting list of other entries), the individual as interpreter of his/her times, points to another strength: the historical issues that his life throws up or expresses. In short, context, contextual analysis, is the strength of this biography.
Its weakness? For me, Chinggis the person. It is not as if we don’t have raw material on Chinggis the person – we have The Secret History of the Mongols, but this has not been exploited to its full value and is not here. Such is my conviction, anyway. It doesn’t help, for me, that she uses the Igor de Rachewiltz translation as ‘authoritative’: I find his translation over-interpretive (not literal enough) and the interpretations rough and ready. That may be blasphemy in Mongol studies but I can’t help it. Our raw sources on Chinggis remain underutilized – that isn’t a blasphemy but can be asserted as a truth. I don’t feel the sources (the Secret History, specifically) are as sensitively used, either here or in IdR’s extensive commentary, as they might be, to yield us a picture of Chinggis; but the background work hasn’t been done, to support such books as this; I hope it’s the next thing to take off in Mongol studies. ...more
I have two main reasons for my harsh allotment of one star – a rating to be read as a ‘cannot recommend’ from me; not exactly ‘I hated it’, although II have two main reasons for my harsh allotment of one star – a rating to be read as a ‘cannot recommend’ from me; not exactly ‘I hated it’, although I did become emotional on going through 8-10 newspaper reviews: these were written by book critics, not experts or fans of Mongol history, and they had nothing to judge by except their general impressions of the Mongols, impressions which the book, more or less, confirmed. Only one I saw, in the Asian Review of Books, asked a few of the right questions.
My first reason is that it pays little attention to what David Morgan has called ‘the cultural turn’ in Mongol scholarship of the last twenty years (he reported on this in: Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change). Even though McLynn has the begetter of the cultural turn, Thomas Allsen, in his extensive bibliography, this area, that is spoken of as a revolution in how we look at Mongols, doesn’t figure in his assessment of them in conclusion, and I feel that assessment is severely afflicted by its absence.
My second reason is that he comes to opinions about things and presents them as if they are matters of fact. I’ll use an example that did the circuit of the web, one he cites in interviews: that the Taoist master Qiu Chuji was a fraudster and Temujin, late in life, his gullible victim. That Qiu Chuji was a fraud is an opinion (you can find an alternate opinion in Wang Ping’s 2013 movie, An End to Killing or Kingdom of Conquerors – decent movie and even educational, to offset McLynn). The guy is known for his frankness in the face of Genghis Khan, for dropping the bad news that he doesn’t have or know of a magic elixir, and contrary to rumour he is not 300 years old. Let’s not hear about gullible Mongols, either, because it’s a few of Temujin’s more educated Chinese advisers who recommended Qiu Chuji to him. That leads me to the observation that this Taoist adept behaved and believed no differently to others, and to call him a big fraud is to tarnish the lot of them, isn’t it? I think we need to accept more the strangenesses of medieval religions. Addendum: on Mongol religion he says, ‘shamanism was a classic instance of the mystifying and obfuscating role of religion’, which is rather judgemental too.
On the personality of Genghis, he is very negative; probably as negative a description as I’ve read. I admit that doesn’t endear the book to me, but as long as people understand they are reading opinion… The book is told as story, and at every turn he has to make decisions and judgements on the material. I wish this process were more transparent to the reader – that it was written with less certainty, that there were alternate views on offer. ...more
Brilliant. He should make this available again. It's from 1997, but it's well-written (witty, as the Mongolian Studies blurb promises), incisively thoBrilliant. He should make this available again. It's from 1997, but it's well-written (witty, as the Mongolian Studies blurb promises), incisively thought-out, and I've read nothing quite like it. Besides, unfortunately, although he must be happy with the upturn since his date, you don't escape this amount of fucked-upness so quickly. ...more