Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Nobody can deny that Genghis Khan was a great warrior who conquered one of the largest empires in history. This book attempts to portray him as an enlightened ruler who adopted many modern liberal policies long before they became popular in the west.

The book starts with the kidnapping of a woman and the birth of her son Temujin. The boy had a challenging childhood on the Mongolian plains. However, he would grow up to conquer great territory and be known as Genghis Khan.

The book describes many aspects of the nomads life through the experiences of the young boy and his family. Then it goes in to details of the military campaigns, conquests and administration of the warrior. The mongols were portrayed as honest, benevolent conquerors. If a city surrender, they were left in a fairly good condition (especially compared to other conquerors of the day.) However, if they dared rebel or cross the Mongols, they better watch out. They may find useful professionals carted away, but warriors and aristocrats would be slaughtered, and others may be put to use as human battering rams or other similar tasks. The mongols were highly skilled and mobile (being on horseback.) They also readily adopted and synthesized the innovations of others.

A little over halfway through the book, Genghis Khan dies. We then get stories of his direct descendants and legacy. Some of them were severely lacking in the skills of their fore-bearer. Some could also be downright cruel. Genghis Kahn's grandson, Kublai Khan was portrayed as a young playboy, who's lifestyle was very far removed from that of his grandfather. However, he was an astute leader, uniting a great Asian empire primarily through diplomacy. He did also attempt to bring in nearby islands in a to the empire, but his large navies fell victim to the "divine wind" and he abandoned these conquest attempts. In China, he helped unite China under his rule, in part by "becoming" Chinese. He established paper currency, and also brought many other areas in to his realm. However, political intrigue in his family as well as the plague caused this empire to be fairly short lived. However, other descendants did maintain leadership positions in other areas up until the 20th century.

The Mongols were portrayed as great synthesizers and administrators. They were somewhat similar to Apple today. They don't invent very many big new things. However, they take many existing things from different areas and combine them together in to have something "innovative". Genghis Khan did just that, uniting his empire, creating an administration, and even establishing a written language.

In ruling, the Mongols had a decentralized government that largely retained the local policies and customs. They encouraged plurality, allowing freedom of religion and limiting capital punishment. They encouraged trade throughout the empire and beyond, and made sure routes and currency were readily available. They often preferred to avoid warfare, but if they had to fight, they had the best weapons and could destroy anybody they wanted to. Hmmm... It does sound a lot like the modern day ideals.

The Mongols here are presented from a Mongol point of view. This focuses on the good points while presenting explanations for the negative views. (The Mongols encouraged people to write exaggerated tales of their conquests to help allow them to conquer with fear. They also had disdain for aristocracy, so the elite appeared to be treated especially poor.) The author states that one of his purposes of writing is to help inspire greater interest in the accomplishments of nomadic people. In that quest he succeeds well in showing that looking past the "barbarian" appearance showed strong cultural ideals - just not ones that force wholesale changes in society.

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