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Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
One cannot begin to imagine the horrific life of a boy whose only known support group abandoned him and his family in the harsh, biting cold of the Mongolian steppe. Such a boy existed, and his name was Temujin. He later adopted the name Genghis Khan, and today, after hearing that name, most of the West would picture a control freak turned bloodthirsty marauder who mercilessly pillaged his way to dominate everyone and everything from a throne of tyranny. Anthropologist Jack Weatherford seems to gently chide that Eurocentric belief of Genghis Khan being a destroyer of civilizations by authoring the history, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Written in three parts, the book captures Genghis Khan’s early life, genealogy, environment that shaped the mindset of the great conqueror, the resulting Mongol World War that occurred after the need to revolutionize arose, and finally, the ensuing large-scale awakening that shook the globe.
Weatherford’s emphasis throughout the book lies on erasing the Western bias to which Genghis Khan and the Mongols had fallen victim: Were they truly the savages the West paint them to be or saviors as some ethnic Mongols claim? As the ball of Genghis Khan’s previously hidden ways unfurled, most threads of information supported the fact that Genghis Khan was not as bloodthirsty, uncivilized, or bigoted as traditional Western historiography had portrayed him. In fact, blood and conversing about death were considered taboos in the Mongolian culture, an aspect of life Genghis Khan strived to protect. He also strongly condemned the practice of torture as punishment, preferring to end a criminal’s life with as little bloodshed as possible or exiling him or her into a life of imprisonment where the prisoner, once freed, was forced into a carefully monitored program of parole. The mildness of the Mongolian law contrasted harshly with that of the Western hemisphere of the time: "The Mongol Legal Code of 1291 specified that officials must 'first use reason to analyze and surmise, and shall not impose abruptly any torture.' By comparison, at the same time that the Mongols were moving to limit the use of torture, both church and state in Europe passed laws to expand its usage to an even greater variety of crimes for which there need be no evidence. Unlike the variety of bloody forms of torture, such as stretching on a rack, being crushed by a great wheel, being impaled on spikes, or various forms of burning, in other countries, Mongols limited it to beating with a cane" (201). Mongols, by limiting the use of bloody inflictions of pain, were moving in the opposite direction of the West and were much less cutthroat than Europe at the time, proving that Genghis Khan was not as harsh as he was said to be. By increasing the use of torture, the Europeans believed the greater the suffering, the greater the entertainment. This disparity in the level of torture used by the West and East adds to the fact that Genghis Khan and the Mongols were not as inhumane as they were thought to be.
Additionally, Genghis Khan placed regulations on blood sports. He advocated “hunting only in winter and never in spring” because the animals reproduced during that season, and he did not want the animals’ populations to die out by posing as an obstacle (214). This custom further pushes Genghis Khan away from the rumor that he was eager to spill blood. If he were eager to maim and kill, then he would have never placed restrictions on a recreation that involved bloodshed.
Not only were the Mongols less vicious than the Europeans, but also they were also more advanced as a society. The Mongols standardized currency, which in turn allowed taxes to be monetized. This standardization “eased problems in accounting and currency exchange for both merchants and government administrators” (176). Because traders had one less thing to worry about, they could expand their businesses. Additionally, the Mongol Empire “radically expanded the use of paper money” (204). This allowed for less hassle among trade routes and further encouraged commerce. Education and literacy were seen as a tool to advance society and “improve the quality of life for everyone” (206). The Mongols “created public schools to provide universal education to all children, including those of peasants. In the West, […] it would take nearly five hundred more years before governments picked up the responsibility for public education for the children of common people” (206). Agriculture and food production were enhanced, too. The Office for the Stimulation of Agriculture was created to ameliorate farmers’ lives. Rather than forcing the production of alien crops, “the Mongols encouraged farmers to cultivate crops that proved most appropriate for the climate, soil type, and drainage pattern. This change in emphasis promoted greater variety within an area and higher productivity” (228). The Mongols also found health and medicine to be areas of great importance: “To encourage a fuller exchange of medical knowledge, the Mongols created hospitals and training centers in China using doctors from India and the Middle East as well as Chinese healers” (229). Such careful thought and planning of a nation only goes to show how innovative and sophisticated the Mongols were striving to be. Money, trade, education, agriculture, and health were just a few of the many features of life the Mongols refused to leave untouched. Furthermore, the incorporation of diversity, such as in the medical system, showed that the Mongols were unbiased to ethnicity and that they recognized that skill and ability were more important that skin color. The notion that the Mongols were not civilized was far from the truth.
One of the most remarkable attributes of Genghis Khan was his realization that religion, despite its many forms, were all united because they gave faith and hope to its adherents. "In probably the first law of its kind anywhere in the world, Genghis Khan decreed complete and total religious freedom for everyone. Although he continued to worship the spirits of his homeland, he did not permit them to be used as national cult. To promote all religions, Genghis Khan exempted religious leaders and their property from taxation and from all types of public service" (69).
This freedom of religion showed that Genghis Khan was far more open-minded than other leaders of his era. It also allowed Genghis Khan to remain control over his empire because his subjects appreciated Genghis Khan more than ever. As he famously taught his sons, “ ‘You may conquer an army with superior tactics and men, but you can conquer a nation only be conquering the hearts of the people’ ” (125). Understanding that people were not objects to either win or lose and respecting that people had different beliefs, the impression that Genghis Khan was dictatorial is unreasonable.
Weatherford wrote from a third-person objective point of view as a part travelogue chronicler and a part epic narrator. The Mongol Empire’s life is related from its birth through Genghis Khan and its death shortly after Genghis Khan’s grandson Khubilai Khan died. Since this book’s focus was on uncovering the truth of Genghis Khan and the Mongolians, the author wrote in a style that informed the reader about Genghis Khan and his Mongol Empire. Weatherford was very successful in delivering his message because if the reader, like me, already had a hypothesis of Genghis Khan prior to reading the book, then the book’s use of strong evidence either justified or denied it. All in all, the information presented persuaded me that Genghis Khan’s virtues outweighed his vices.
As a reader, I was personally shocked at Genghis Khan’s cleverness. Before reading the book, I had always thought that the rumors of Genghis Khan’s barbarity were true and that he relied mainly on his military strength for his battle victories. After reading about his life, I found out that military tactics only constituted a little more than fifty percent of the equation to battlefield success. The other fifty percent was largely compromised of the encouragement and usage of propaganda. Unwilling to let go of their way of life, European leaders and Muslim scholars used Genghis Khan and his Mongol Empire to symbolize the barbarity and lack of civilization found in Asia. Shrewd Genghis Khan took advantage of the growing rumors because “terror, he realized, was best spread not by the acts of warriors, but by the pens of scribes and scholars. […]. Each victory released a flood of new propaganda, and the belief in Genghis Khan’s invincibility spread” (114-115). Propaganda, as it turned out, played one of the largest roles in securing land and people for the Mongol Empire. Ironically, however, it was the same way Europe sculpted the modern definition of Genghis Khan.
I had often heard the phrase that everyone in the world was related to Genghis Khan. I had also grown accustomed to the fact that because of Genghis Khan’s keeping of many wives, mistreatment of women was not uncommon for Genghis Khan. After reading Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, I was very surprised to find out that Genghis Khan was actually an advocate for women’s rights. “Genghis Khan’s first new law reportedly forbade the kidnapping of women, […] forbade the selling of women into marriage, [and] outlawed adultery” (68). While providing more safety and concern for the well being of women, Genghis Khan also gave women more freedom than other leaders of his time. “While the Mongol men stayed busy on the battlefield conquering foreign countries, women managed the empire” (160). Sometimes, the men would be completely incapable of leading, so the women had to take over. Such was the case for Ogodei and his wife Toregene. Ogodei was often too drunk to think straight, so Toregene, along with a small group of women, ruled the largest empire in world history for ten years straight. After their reign, the women “had given the empire a new foundation with their support of monasteries and schools, the printing of books, and the exchange of ideas and knowledge” (169). If Genghis Khan viewed women as inferior to men, then the Mongol Empire may have never flourished as much as it did. Clearly, since Genghis Khan protected women and gave them more freedoms in a world where women were traditionally used as gambits, then the myth that Genghis Khan violated the women he captured must have very little truth to it.
As a reader, I was able to relate very well with the book. What I found most astounding about Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World was how little the human sensations of emotions, such as love and hope, have altered from the thirteenth century to the modern day twenty-first century. Though the situation and time are different, the feelings of the ensuing emotions are the same. In the book, an enemy Mongol clan kidnapped Genghis Khan’s first and primary wife, Borte. Genghis Khan planned and carried out a surprise attack on the offenders to rescue his wife, and amid the turmoil of the onslaught, “Borte heard a voice crying out her name and recognized it as [Genghis’]. […]. [Genghis] became so distraught that he did not know her as she ran toward him, and when she grabbed the reins of his horse and snatched them from his hand, he almost attacked her before he recognized her, whereupon they [fell] in an emotional embrace” (35). The couple’s emotional reunion seems to mirror a similar incident I witnessed with my parents at the hectic Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru, India. My mom, siblings, and I were nearing a long three-month vacation in India without my dad because he had to attend a series of meetings crucial to his career. We were excited when we found out that my dad was able to join us in India for the remaining two weeks, but when we came to pick him up from the airport, the only way we found him in the throngs of people packing the entrance of the airport was by both of my parents calling out each others’ names; too many people were already waving arms or using some other form of traditional attention seeking that they all contributed to visual white noise. The test of patience was finally over when my parents found each other after twenty lengthy minutes and embraced in a much-awaited bear hug. The relief, affection, and joy that my parents felt after seeing each other after three months of separation must have been very similar to that of Genghis and Borte during Borte’s homecoming.
Along with love, I was able to connect the idea of determination Genghis Khan exhibited in the book to my own life. Genghis Khan was a tenacious leader, but far too often, his opponents outnumbered his warriors. For example, when fighting a group known as the Tangut, Genghis Khan was facing an army of 150,000 soldiers, “nearly twice the size” of his own (85). Genghis Khan could have easily decided to turn back home without a fight, but instead, he miraculously defeated the Tangut due to his consistent effort and diligence. He came with a desire to win, and the only way to reach victory, despite the difficulties, was by persevering. I was feeling the same way as Genghis Khan when I had to study for more than three tests that were scheduled for the same day. Persevering, like Genghis Khan, through studying was my only chance at success. If I procrastinated by wasting time being overwhelmed by the wealth of notes I had to read, then I would have never been prepared for the tests. I had to start from the get-go, and, like Genghis Khan, I had the option of giving up, but instead, I gave my best because I wanted to succeed.
Genghis Khan was a nonconformist during his day because of his mild punishment laws, emphasis on dedication and loyalty, advocation of religious tolerance, respect for the circle of life, and awareness of gender equality, but today, he remains a nonconformist in a new light: Genghis Khan’s behavior, as depicted in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, does not conform to the prevailing ideas, primarily of the West, about him. This great conqueror who gave everything for the cause of uniting the world under the Eternal Blue Sky and creating a universal way of life that rubbed out the struggles of the tribal lifestyle, ruled an empire that spanned from the Korean peninsula to Eastern Europe. As readers, we can recognize how the stories of Genghis Khan’s true ways do not match up with what we have been previously told. Nonetheless, the Mongol Empire remains an oasis of awe in world history. I highly encourage entering this world of wonder through Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, a book that erases the negative connotations associated with a traditional nonfiction history book.