Battlepanda: Monday Book Blogging: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Monday Book Blogging: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

At this point, I actually don't think I'm behind anymore in my book-a-week resolution. I am very late in terms of blogging about my readings however. At some point I might just have to suck it up and realize that I'm not going to blog everything.

-- Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
This book utterly rocked my world. I picked it up expecting history and got sucked into the greatest rags to riches story ever told. Let's put is this way: Genghis Khan's dad kidnapped his mom because he was too poor to pay the bride price. Somehow, from this humble beginning, he ended up building an empire and his grandsons would rule from Baghdad to Beijing. You can't make it up. Weatherford, I suspect, has been totally taken by the magnificent sweep of the story. But along the romance and adventure, he makes a pretty good case that, cruel though his tactics often were in war, Genghis Khan was in many ways progressive for his time and the increased trade within his expanding empire bought prosperity to many of those he conquered and the first glimmer of enlightenment to a then-backward Europe.

I learnt many fascinating facts about the Mongol warriors -- despite their ruthlessness in battle, they have a horror of blood and consider all manifestations of death so distasteful and unclean that it is taboo to speak of it or to touch dead bodies. They also find honor not in chivalrous fighting, but in winning the battle. They use deception, strategic retreat and propaganda all with alacrity.

Quite as fascinating as his Grandfather is Kubilai Khan, the Grandson of Genghis. He was the founder of the Yuan Dynasty. I've always kind assumed that the "barbarian" rulers of China all got sinicized along the way as they ruled, as if by some kind of irresistable cultural gravity. Now I realize how wrong I was, at least in the case of Kubilai Khan. He certainly had a genuine appreciation of the Chinese language, but his ostentatious outwards display of Chineseness was superficial and designed to make his rule acceptable to the people. Deep down, the Khan and his descendants remained Mongolian. They even raised gers, or Mongolian tents, deep in the heart of the Forbidden city, so that they can live as their ancestors did. I find that oddly touching, somehow -- the ger, being designed for a nomad's life, really have no utility in a stationary location. But the Royal family made sure that each baby is born in a ger rather than the palace itself.

Like all empires, the Mongolian empire ended fractousness, which began to creep in among Genghis Khan's sons even before the great man died. But they had a good run. They had a damned good run.