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Genghis Khan: A Book Review

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This is a book review of Jack Weatherford's book Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan Book Cover

It could be said that Jack Weatherford was born to write a biography on Genghis Khan and his legacies. Having studied and lived in Mongolia, he writes this book with immersive and vivid proses that a reader cannot help but feel as if they were in those scenes with the young, low-born Temüjin who turned into the mature and renowned Genghis Khan.

On the surface, this book can be read as an epic story of real history, warfares, empire building, and royal family struggles. Weatherford does not shy from relying on The Secret History of the Mongols as a (un)reliable source for Genghis Khan's earlier struggles as a teenager and young adult. There was fratricide, kidnapping, love, blood, drama, all the elements that make a great fiction and which keep a casual reader entertained.

However, such a shallow reading misses the point that Weatherford emphasized throughout the book: Not only did Genghis Khan surpass many renowned Western figures, such as Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, in the raw square meter of territory conquered, but his legacies to the entire world have often been ignored by the Western narrative of world history.

This unfortunate ignorance traces itself all the way back to medieval Europe being relatively poor and economically unattractive to its potential Mongolian conquerers who deliberately retreated from Poland and settled around modern-day Ukraine, known as the Golden Horde. Having been prevented from warfare and instability like its neighboring Middle Eastern caliphs, Europe would end up benefiting from all the accomplishments and legacies that emerged from the flourishing trade and economic gains that came from Mongolian conquest without having been sacked like their eastern counterparts. Thereafter, the subsequent rise of European culture via the Renaissance and Enlightenment deemed Mongols and Genghis Khan as savages since there wasn't enough documents on this mysterious Asian people.

Weatherford argues that, in contrast to the savagery description how some Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire, Genghis Khan's rule of his conquered territory was focused on law and order, fairness, stability, and economic prosperity. The Mongols secured previously dangerous trade routes that linked China via the Middle East and Africa all the way to Europe.

Mongol rule was so strict and effective that a "global" economy of commerce and trade emerged in Genghis Khan's empire. His descendants, who ruled over different regions, would grow up enjoying collecting goods and items from their relatives's territories. In Khanbaliq, which would later become Beijing, Chinese, Arabs, Jews, Persians, Mongols, Genoese, and other people would trade. It was truly a scene of "globalization" never seen before, all united under one big blue sky.

While the European rulers of Genghis Khan's time enjoyed torture as a technique on innocent and guilty prisoners alike, the Mongols detested such treatment of their fellow humans. In some sense, the barbaric Mongols were more enlightened than their civil European counterparts. When reading Weatherford's account of this history, one cannot help but wonder how twisted the history from a Christian perspective can be when it turned a civilized group of nomads into inhuman savages.

All religions were tolerated by the Khan of Khans so long as the believers put the Khan, or in modern terms, the state, before their Gods. Rebellions under the name of a specific God would be brutally crushed but in the court of the Mongol Khan, people of different cultures and religious backgrounds thrived on their merits and competence, not their race or ethnicity.

As the Mongols fought and conquered, they improved not only military tactics but led the spread of technology. For instance, they brought Chinese herbalists to Persia and Persian physicians to China. They improved gun powder warfare and spread it westward. Moreover, the Mongols unified regions that still share roughly the same territories today: Song dynasty merged with the north as well as Tibet and the land of Uighurs, which roughly resembles modern day China; Persian culture saw a resurgence under Mongol rule; the self-claimed descendants of the Mongols ruled India as the Moghuls; the Golden Horde influenced Russians both culturally and politically. Interestingly, "hurrah", a popular bravado commonly seen across European and Anglo-Saxon countries, was originally borrowed from the Mongols. The negative term "mogul" also carries its origin from "Mongol".

While Genghis Khan constantly reminded himself that he should not forget the way of the Mongols, he was not particularly a good father, whose prolonged absence from home led to disunity among his sons. His sons and grandchildren, in turn, not only enjoyed in-fight over territories and titles, but also gradually forgot the way of the Mongols and became sedentary and assimilated into the cultures from the territories they ruled. It was known that the great Khublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis, was overweight, could not ride a horse for hunting, and enjoyed the Chinese way of life more than a Mongol should.

While the divided Mongol Empire continued after Genghis's death and functioned for another century or so, what finally brought the Mongols down was a deadly disease called Black Death that, ironically like the Covid, originated in southern China. Empires, regions, provinces, cities all suffered population loss or locked themselves in to manage the spread of the disease. Global trade suffered and stopped, and the Mongol rulers had to gradually adopt the religions of their territories to appease the discontent population that was Arabic, Persian, Chinese, or Slavic.

And so, a vast empire that started with one young Temüjin who was forced by his bitter life to protect his own family, this same empire was finally brought down by a disease that wiped out a large chunk of the human population. History, glory, life, and fate seem so random and ephemeral yet ever-lasting all at once.

The Soviets cracked down brutally on Mongolians who held on to the history of Genghis Khan. Not only were intellectuals and civilians murdered for studying or learning such nationalist history, but the black sulde of Genghis Khan, a pole with circularly arranged horse hair that symbolized the soul of the great Khan, disappeared and was never found again. And so, with this brief yet brutal blow from communism, the last physical piece of item that belonged to Genghis Khan was gone from this world.

Thankfully, some of us are lucky to enjoy Weatherford's book on a historical figure so crucial to a small landlocked country's identity as well as the entire world's history, in a perhaps free and democratic corner of this earth, free from the deadly threats of a pandemic, privileged of Enlightenment values that arguably had ties to the Mongol's rise and fall. Maybe we don't need Genghis Khan's sulde. His legacies are with us forever.