Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

The Thinker by Rodin

Last August, I reviewed a book about the Scots, whose cover suggests Scots invented the modern world. I said in that review that the subtitle to the book was doubtless a publisher’s invention. At least with Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, the author Jack Weatherford does not attempt to say that the Mongols invented the modern world, but certainly their empire connected much of the known world. When at its largest, Mongols ruled an area the size of both North and South America. That’s a lot of land. Their system of commerce joined these areas together, arguably for the first time.

Their impact, principally in the area of trade, has gotten somewhat obscured over the years. Weatherford does a good job of taking us through the remarkable life of Genghis Khan, who founded the Mongol empire, and walks us through an abbreviated summary of its inevitable decline. By the time Marco Polo made his famous journey to China, the Mongol empire was well established. Marco Polo was just one of the first western Europeans to travel the empire and report back.

Much of this book is based on a manuscript that appears to be authentic describing the secret history of Genghis Khan. Even for someone schooled in Mongol, translating the book was very challenging. To help make sense of it, Weatherford spent many years in Mongolia working with local experts, as well as visiting other parts of the formerly vast Mongol empire. At its largest, the Mongol Empire stretched from the China Sea across Asia and encompassed much of Eastern Europe. It included much of India, Persia and the eastern parts of the Middle East. It seems strange that the nomadic Mongols, isolated to the higher altitudes of the Mongolian steppe, could create an empire. For uncounted centuries the Mongols spent most of their time warring with each other. Genghis Khan’s initial contribution to history was to do what no one had done before: unite the Mongols. The story of how he did this consumes the first fourth of the book and it is perhaps its most riveting part. This history is fairly well documented in the movie Mongol, which I reviewed a few weeks back.

The idea of a Mongol empire evolved over time. Mongols lusted after goods that their remote location and poverty largely denied them. It did not take too many campaigns for them to realize they could outwit any opponent strategically. Under Genghis Khan’s direction, Mongols learned how to conquer through working with their assets. They had something other empires lacked: rapid mobility. Their army was essentially a massive cavalry. Genghis Khan smartly organized them into armies of ten thousand, each broken down into units of a thousand. Their tactics rarely changed. Scouts were sent out to get a lay of the land and its people. As the Mongol army approached, they gave the local power the opportunity to surrender, which involved a certain amount of plundering, a certain amount of local control but no loss of life. Surrender rarely followed, so they worked on capturing edge towns, which were poorly fortified, and let survivors send their reports back to the city which caused great consternation and usually made for quick captures. They did not believe in wasting their own lives, and learned the advanced arts of siege, which often consisted of lobbing flaming and then novel explosive projectiles over city walls. Whoever they captured were fair game and were often forced to fight against their own people. Given these amazingly effective tactics, it is not surprising that the Chinese built the Great Wall of China. It was one of the few ways they could defend themselves against a massive Mongol cavalry assault.

It all sounds pretty barbaric and gruesome, but similar and less effective tactics were common at the time. The irony was that Mongols were a reasonably civilized race. Once the looting and pillaging of a conquered city was completed, they usually made benign overlords. A certain percent of a city’s goods went back to the Mongol Empire, which opened up trading routes. The free exchange of goods between far-flung places quickly became possible, facilitated by a common paper currency the Mongols introduced. Many nations conquered by the Mongols ended up more prosperous as a result.

Since the cavalry was the Mongol’s only army, it eventually proved something of a limitation. Their empire could only expand as far as there was plenty of ready pasture for their horses. This spared Western Europe from a likely Mongol conquest.

In our imagination, we often see Mongols as barbarians. For their time they were remarkably enlightened. They did not try to institutionalize any religion, but ensured freedom of religion. They created institutions of higher learning, one of the world’s first paper currencies, and a sophisticated bookkeeping system. Mongol became something like Latin for Asia, a common language for trade. Their rule was generally benign.

Like all empires, they quickly forgot the lessons inspired by their leader. Successor Great Khans were generally less effectual and more insular. While they often intermarried as a way to create a dynastic control of an area, they were more insular than inclusive. The plague, which originated in China, facilitated the empire’s end, and trade routes took it to Europe where it decimated populations there as well. Over time the empire fractured into multiple states and then dissolved altogether, but not before they had connected much of Asia together.

Weatherford’s research as well as extensive tours of Asia that the Mongols conquered makes for an accurate albeit incomplete survey of the Mongol Empire. However, it is readily accessible by a layman. Like all good histories, it gives us an accurate perspective of these times principally in the late 13th and 14th centuries. Maybe the Scots invented the modern world and maybe they didn’t, but they could not have gotten too far without the trade pioneered by the Mongols, whose tentacles extended even into Scotland itself.

Weatherford’s descriptions of Mongolia make me want to visit the place, see the External Blue Sky that the Mongols worshipped and walk the largely unknown paths that seven hundred years ago gave the world one of its most remarkable leaders and an empire that united much of the known world. Perhaps I will make this journey someday.

Review: Mongol (2007)

The Thinker by Rodin

I am roughly half way through the book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. This history of the Mongol empire that Genghis Khan created in the 13th and 14th century is interesting and likely reasonably close to the truth, as it is based on a secret history that was recorded at the time. There have been lots of movies about Genghis Khan over the years, some good, some quite dreadful, but few have been both really good and reasonably historically accurate. Mongol, an excellent Russian production released in 2007 comes quite close.

To the extent that we think about Genghis Khan today, we tend to thing of him as some sort of crazed Mongolian leader bent on empire and loving to dish out death, misery and torture. There is no question that in his quest for empire Genghis Khan and the Mongols killed a lot of people, and many perished in ways that would make even a medieval torturer squirm. Life was very harsh back then so the behavior of the Mongols was actually rather typical. Genghis Khan succeeded so well because he was a brilliant strategic thinker, and because Mongols traveled light. A full review of the book will come once I am done with it. Since Genghis Khan’s empire endured after his death, the Great Khan goes to his reward well before the halfway part of the book. So it was safe to Netflix this 2007 movie. It is part of an expected trilogy of movies about Genghis Khan and the Mongols. The next installment was supposed to released last year, but it has not appeared in theaters yet.

Reading Weatherford’s book, you realize that Mongolia is a very desolate, arid and cold place. The Mongolians did not have much besides lots of horses. Back then they spent much of their time warring with each other. Genghis Khan realized that to rise as a nation and as a people they first had to unite. Mongol tells the first part of Khan’s remarkable story: how he united his people and, tangentially, how he conquered his first Chinese kingdom.

Based on Weatherford’s descriptions, the film’s director Sergey Bodrov does a remarkable job of getting the details right. To say that life on the Mongolian steppe was harsh was to understate just how hard survival was. It meant constantly moving from place to place. It meant endless winds and unfathomable cold. Aside from their horses the Mongols had almost nothing. Bodrov does an outstanding job of depicting the harshness, poverty and cruelty of 13th century Mongolia. Mongolia had no kings, but there were all sorts of warlords who vied for constantly shifting regional leaderships.

Genghis Khan’s childhood and young adulthood would appall our modern sensibilities, but it is very well rendered in Mongol. It was a time when a man picked his bride as a prepubescent; where men about to be overrun often sensibly abandoned the women and fled just to survive; and where the notions of chastity and monogamy largely did not exist. Life was ephemeral on the steppe, and Genghis Khan, then known as Temudjin, got far more persecution and abuse that most. This was because his father was a clan warlord, and he made enemies with the leader of a local clan, who thus wanted Temudgin dead.

Actor Tadanobu Asano plays the key role of Temudgin. He is certainly not a name we would recognize here in the states, but he does an exceptional job in a very challenging role. It is hard to render Genghis Khan likeable, but Asano does a realistic job. By the standards of the 13th century, Temudgin was something of a gentleman. While capable of being ruthless, he built trust through being respectful of his men and not seeking to take more than his share of any plundered booty. He never really lusted for empire, or for gold and jewels. He lusted for unity and peace among his people. To end their endless civil wars he had to break more than a few eggs.

Much of the movie focuses on Temudgin’s basic fight to stay alive, starting as a young boy. He survived through a combination of luck, unusual resourcefulness and the exceptional loyalty from those who grew to know him. This included his wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun) who remained remarkably loyal and faithful to him. This was despite more than once having her life ripped apart when neighboring tribes captured her. Temudgin loved and was very attached to Borte as well, even though they spent much of their lives separated. Temudgin’s primary opponent turns out to be Jamukha (Honglei Sun), which starts as a great boyhood friendship. Temudgin also must endure years as a slave and imprisonment in a neighboring kingdom. Asano well captures Temudgin’s steely character and plays him as a man full of great self-confidence and ceaseless but quiet determination.

It is hard to find fault with any of the casting. As you might expect, the movie has an exotic Lawrence of Arabia feeling to it. In addition to the fine casting you get to enjoy gorgeous scenery in very distant lands. And there will be plenty of blood drawn. There are many, many battles, mostly on horseback. Mongols were great shots with a bow and arrow while riding on horseback, and they were efficient when using their swords. You will see lots of spurting blood during the battle scenes, but it’s clear they were added by CGI.

Mongol thus qualifies as a distinctive, well done and largely historically accurate movie that is well worth seeing. Genghis Khan was a remarkable character and his life story turns out to be very compelling. You will find the movie very well done and very engaging, and won’t even notice the subtitles. I am ready to see its sequel, and I hope it is as good as this first movie, which was deservedly nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the 2008 Oscars.

Good stuff and worth my 3.4 out of four points rating.

Rating: ★★★½