Grace Tjan's Reviews > Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
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's review
Jan 16, 12

bookshelves: 2012, ebook, history, medieval
Read from January 06 to 09, 2012

Genghis Khan and his Mongol Horde were good news for the world. Really. Not convinced? Consider the following:

1. Genghis Khan was an advocate of human rights, specifically freedom of religion, freedom from torture and free trade (he got two of the Four Freedoms right, which is pretty impressive by medieval standards, especially when they still, like, burned heretics and unbelievers in Europe and elsewhere). GK forbade the use of torture in trials and as punishment. He also granted religious freedom within his realm, though he demanded total loyalty from conquered subjects of all religions. His own immediate family was religiously diverse: besides those who were Shamanists or Buddhists, a significant number were Monophysite Christians --- and later also Muslim converts. As for the free trade thing, it was more of a byproduct of the commercial opportunities that developed along the Silk Road (“history’s largest free-trade zone”), once the interior of the Eurasian landmass became safe enough to travel under the Pax Mongolica. Free trade as human right is still a pretty iffy concept, anyway.

2. GK created a hitherto unprecedented egalitarian society where men and some women (more on this later) advanced through “individual merit, loyalty and achievement”, instead through birth and aristocratic privilege. This egalitarian society was also incredibly diverse, comprising of people of different religions and nations. The Mongols hired European artisans to decorate their HQ in Xanadu, Chinese engineers to man their siege engines, and Muslim astronomers to chart their horoscopes. And they might have hired an Italian guy called Marco Polo to govern the city of Hangzhou --- who knows? But there’s no independent proof of it whatsoever.

3. GK was a proto-feminist --- well, he was sort of pro-woman, in the context of his era. He made it law that women are not to be kidnapped, sold or traded. Through marital alliances, he installed his daughters as de facto rulers over conquered nations. In Mongol culture, when the men went off to war, the women ruled the roost. And since Mongol men in the time of GK went really far away to conquer distant nations and did not return for years, the wives and daughters were the real boss at home (and also at the various Mongol courts, when many of GK’s male descendants turned out to be drunken incompetents). A successful queen like Sorkhothani, the wife of GK’s youngest son, was able to rule in her dead husband’s stead and made all of her sons Great Khans. Failure, however, could doom such women into cruel and unusual punishments, such as being sewed up naked into a rug and then pummeled to death (Mongols abhorred the sight of blood, thus the rug).

4. The Mongols promoted pragmatic, non-dogmatic intellectual development in the countries that they ruled. Although himself an illiterate, GK and his family recognized the value of learning and actively encouraged the development of the sciences. Under the Mongols, learned men did not have to “worry whether their astronomy agreed with the precepts of the Bible, that their standards of writing followed the classical principles taught by the mandarins of China, or that Muslim imams disapproved of their printing and painting.” New technology, such as paper and printing, gunpowder and the compass were transmitted through the Mongol realm to the West and sparked the Renaissance a few generations later.

5. The Mongols were for low taxes. GK lowered taxes for everyone, and abolished them altogether for professionals such as doctors, teachers and priests, and educational institutions.

6. The Mongols established a regular census and created the first international postal system.

7. The Mongols invented paper money (it was soon abandoned because of hyper-inflation, but they got the right idea) and elevated the status of merchants ahead of all religions and professions, second only to government officials (this is in contrast to Confucian culture, which ranked merchants as merely a step above robbers). They also widely distributed loot acquired in combat and thus promoted healthy commercial circulation of goods.

8. The Mongols improved agriculture by encouraging farmers to adopt more efficient planting methods and tools, as well as transplanting different varieties of edible plants from country to country and developed new varieties and hybrids.

Okay. So Pax Mongolica was basically good for the world. But wait, how about all of those terrible massacres, rapine and wholesale destruction of cities? Didn’t Genghis Khan famously stated that “the greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms?”

Actually, Muslim chroniclers attributed that quote to him and it is highly unlikely that he ever uttered it. Muslims writers of the era often exaggerated Mongol atrocities for Jihad purposes.* The Mongols were very aware of the value of propaganda as a weapon of war and actively encouraged scary stories about themselves.The Mongols decimated cities that resisted them, such as Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, but they generally let those that surrendered remain unmolested. At the end of the fourteenth century, Tamerlane piled up pyramids of heads outside the cities that he conquered, and as he (flimsily) claimed to be a Mongol, “his practices were anachronistically assigned back to Genghis Khan.” Three centuries later, Voltaire adopted a Mongol dynasty play to fit his own personal political and social agenda by portraying GK, whom he used as a substitute for the French king, as an ignorant and cruel villain. So basically, GK got an undeservedly bad rap.

Yay for Genghis Khan!

* “…more conservative scholars place the number of dead from Genghis Khan’s invasion of central Asia at 15 million within five years. Even this more modest total, however, would require that each Mongol kill more than a hundred people; the inflated tallies for other cities required a slaughter of 350 people by every Mongol soldier. Had so many people lived in the cities of central Asia at the time, they could have easily overwhelmed the invading Mongols. Although accepted as fact and repeated through the generations, the (inflated) numbers have no basis in reality.”
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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Kim (new)

Kim Great review! However, I have Iranian friends who would find it very difficult to accept that the Mongols killed fewer folks than they are reputed to have killed in defeating the Abbasids. It's almost a race memory thing!

Grace Tjan Kim wrote: "Great review! However, I have Iranian friends who would find it very difficult to accept that the Mongols killed fewer folks than they are reputed to have killed in defeating the Abbasids. It's alm..."

Thanks. I'm wondering about that too, as I've read in other books that what GK did to the Muslim world was practically a genocide. I guess we'll never know the real number of victims. There are some historians who argue that the Mongols permanently put an end to the technologically advanced Muslim civilization, as well as to Song China. This is revisonist history, but a well written one.

message 3: by David (new) - added it

David Hilton In 800 years there will be crackpots and nationalists like you lot arguing that Hitler was a progressive force in world history. Nuts!

message 4: by Thorfinn (new)

Thorfinn You could make a very similar list about the rise and fall of nazi Germany. The only problem as Dan Carlin puts it is, we are still connected with the dead. It's easy to say Ghengis khan was a proactive force because the tens of millions of lost lives have been dead for Century's. To go back and speak to the Chinese they would describe this pro action as apocalyptic.

message 5: by Laurie (new)

Laurie Yet the Christian and Muslim kingdoms still remain and GK's is long gone.

message 6: by Laurie (new)

Laurie LOL! Good one.

message 7: by Ian (new)

Ian Connel Orgio wrote: He is looking down us from the eternal blue sky, and when the time comes, he'll come back and retain his power. ..."

And rape millions more women! And slaughter millions more men, women and children! Sorry, Orgio, but although I'm part German, I'm not proud of Hitler; although I am English, I am not proud of King Richard slaughtering thousands of civilians in the crusades, and so on.

Things may have been different back then but it does not excuse evil.

message 8: by Laurie (new)

Laurie Great comments and well said Ian!

message 9: by Laurie (new)

Laurie Of course Orgio, all Westerners really want is to be superior Mongols.

message 10: by Ian (new)

Ian Connel Laurie wrote: "Of course Orgio, all Westerners really want is to be superior Mongols."


message 11: by Ian (new)

Ian Connel Orgio wrote: "Read first, and talk you arrogant "

Orgio, we're not supposed to be PROUD of the horrible things in our nations' past. The whole point of judging our ancestors is to avoid repeating their mistakes. Similarly, I want my little guy to become a better man than me.

But yes, I am so "arrogant" as to say that America is better than Genghis Khan's murderous empire. When somebody betrays us after we ask for all of their resources, we don't rape and murder every man, woman and child. You're comparing an empire that values individual freedom with one that values whatever one brutal sociopath decrees. No comparison.

message 12: by Ian (new)

Ian Connel Orgio wrote: "Did you even read this book by Jack Weatherford!"

No sir, I did not read this revisionist history. It is the equivalent of "All the Nice Things Stalin and Hitler Did" or "How the Spanish Inquisition started as a tickle fight and just got a little confused."

Americans can be dumb. We have no clear objective in the middle east. But we are not raping and looting the civilians, certainly not by order or objective. Were it Genghis' forces, the women would be dragged out of their homes and raped in front of their men before everybody was put to death. Genghis' objectives were control, subservience, and to take whatever he wanted. Our objective is to protect the people who want a government that is tolerant and peaceful. No really, no matter what your jealous media tells you, that's what Americans from all political walks would like to see. Low oil prices are nice, but supporting governments that do not wage murder whoever they feel like - just like Genghis' forces - is the goal.

I want you to recognize that Ogedai has a famous quote that he said to Yelu Chucai. "Are you going to weep for the people again?" He said this as his forces were about to murder an entire city. Genghis himself said, "The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies,to chase them before you,to rob them of their wealth,to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters."

Something I learned from different jobs is that if it's rotten at the top of an organization, it's rotten at the bottom. Therefore I reserve the right to judge all of the Mongol forces of Genghis era. They were the worst human beings. Nice things may have come from their clever ways, but to justify their evil is absurd, unjust, and utterly irrational.

Also you are welcome to criticize America's mistakes. That's another thing that makes our country great. We won't behead you and gang-rape your mother for saying those things. Revenge is not a value here.

Orgio Dorgio "The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies,to chase them before you,to rob them of their wealth,to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters." I can assure you that Genghis Khan did not quote something like that. It is just one of the Western propaganda to make us look like the worst human beings ever. I repeat again, you have no right to insult my ancestors for what they did, what they have accomplished. I don't know where you read those stuff. As a Mongolian. I believe I know our history better than you!!!

message 14: by Ian (new)

Ian Connel Orgio wrote: "As a Mongolian. I believe I know our history better than you!!!"

I am not judging you or Mongolians of today. You are a much nicer people now, and I would love to visit Mongolia. But my opinion of Genghis won't change easily. From both the callousness of commentary in "The Secret History of the Mongols" to the documents written by the popes' emissaries to the accounts from the Muslims, there is too much evidence that he was a terrible person. Brilliant, but truly evil.

On an interesting side note, my mother once told me that I may have Mongolian blood from way back in the day. The Mongols raped and pillaged their way through Poland, and I'm half Polish. Anything is possible, but I'm so pasty white that only a genetic diagnostic could tell for sure.

Orgio Dorgio I just hope you change your perspective on Mongols. In the beginning of WW2 (1939). Nazi Germans invaded western Poland, and on the other side Russians Socialists invaded eastern Poland. They have invaded your country and butchered, killed, and raped a lot of Poles, and yet you blame on us the worst. Americans had killed too many Native Americans who were originated from Tuva, Altai, Siberia (in other words Mongol territories). This is an endless topic and I'll not let you call my people like that!!!

message 16: by Ian (new)

Ian Connel Orgio wrote: "I just hope you change your perspective on Mongols. In the beginning of WW2 (1939). Nazi Germans invaded western Poland, and on the other side Russians Socialists invaded eastern Poland. They have ..."

I'm pretty loyal to the Poles but even they're not perfect. I also have German, English, Scottish and Irish ancestors, and they are certainly guilty of conquest and evil. If I also have Mongol ancestors, then I renounce what they did to other people too.

It is important to recognize the horrible things our ancestors did. That's what I am asking of you. Don't sugar-coat the past with "look at all the nice things that happened because of this!" I think that's what Weatherford's book does, and that is why I commented.

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