Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford (Paperback; 312 Pages)
Basic Summary of the Book
The Mongols, an Asian people living between Russia and China, have a bad reputation. Genghis Khan, the founder of an empire in the 13th Century, is particularly demonized as a brutal barbarian. This book is an attempt to redeem Genghis Khan and the Mongols’ reputation.
Dr. Jack Weatherford is a cultural anthropologist with a specialty in studying various indigenous cultures. An author of a book on money, he planned to write a book on the ancient trade route from Asia to Western Europe known as the Silk Road. This became instead a new passion, the study of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. He has written three books on this subject.
This book is the first of the three and is basically written from the Mongol point of view. The author does not deny that the Mongols were in various ways quite brutal and ruthless in their pursuit of empire. But, not only must one compare this to the other empires of the day, we should look at the aftermath. A golden age of civilization that helped bring forth the modern age.
The author does a good job while generally not ignoring the dark side of his subjects. The book is geared to the general audience while also having much cultural and historical content. The material covers over a hundred years of detail (and summarizes things up until today), so is not a full history in its three hundred pages. Later books by the author add more detail.
This opening quote, from “The Squire’s Tale,” a story written around 1395, is a fitting one here. The book is not only about Genghis Khan and the creation of an empire, but argues for his greatness at the time and (as the title says) toward “the making of the modern world.”
The book begins with the disappearance of Genghis Khan’s soul in the midst of Stalinist Russia. How so? Mongolian belief holds that a person’s soul lives on in a “spirit banner” formed from strands of hair of their best stallion. Mongols are animists, believing in the “Eternal Blue Sky” as their ultimate master. The loss of Genghis Khan’s spirit banner was a loss of his soul.
The author, however, tries to argue his spirit truly lives on in the consequences of his deeds. Genghis Khan’s empire was not merely a matter of conquest, one which at its high point reached from the Balkans to the full breadth of modern day China. The Mongol Empire brought a global order based on free trade, international law, religious freedom, and social welfare policies.
As a whole, the author argues the harsh (if less so in the context of contemporary practices) Mongol invasions were followed by much redeeming advancements in world civilization.
Part I: The Reign of Terror on The Steppe: 1162-1206
1: Blood Clot
Mongolia, a grassland (steppe) region between Russia and China, was divided among various tribes in the mid-12th Century. Geography was an important part in the development of Mongol culture, including a simple nomadic lifestyle, and a drive to raid surrounding areas to obtain goods they personally could not produce.
Temujin (the birth name of Genghis Khan) had very humble origins. His mother, pursuant to tribal custom, was kidnapped from her original husband by someone too poor to avoid the costs of a more proper wedding. This was just the beginning. His father died. Temujin killed his half-brother and had to live as a criminal/slave.
But, through it all, he survived and came out ahead. God seemed to be on Temujin’s side.
2. Tale of Three Rivers
Temujin married and used his wife’s dowry wisely to ally himself with the leader (khan) of a powerful tribe. This alliance was helpful when another tribe kidnapped Temujin’s wife, who might have become pregnant during her captivity (Temujin realized this was not her fault, but the child’s legitimacy would remain an issue years later).
The “three rivers” of the chapter is a metaphor of the choice he had to make when she was kidnapped. After all, his own mother was kidnapped, and accepted her fate. He chose to fight. The battle with his ally’s help was a rout. Over the years, Temujin gained power and popularity, a rival of his childhood blood brother. About twenty years passed.
3. War of the Khans
After it looked like all was lost, Temujin came out on top during a civil war. He was now the leader of the Mongols, taking the name “Genghis Khan,” or “strong, firm, unshakeable, and fearless leader.” The Mongol Empire now had about one million people (and many more animals).
Genghis Khan established various successful practices, including military organization (promoting the good of each unit as a whole, with leadership chosen by ability, not mere family connections), a “Great Law” to address various problems that divided his people (such as forbidding kidnapping and allowing religious freedom), and use of an election council (khuriltai) to assure that the new leader (khan) had support of the group as a whole.
Part II: The Mongol World War: 1211-1261
[This graphic provides a useful summary of the growth of the Mongol Empire over time. I found the book’s maps a bit confusing. His third book has a more clear map of the empire. The book also does not have any pictures, except for a few rough traditional drawings of Mongols.]
4. Spitting on the Golden Khan
The “Golden Khan” would be the leader of the powerful Northern Chinese ruling family, the trade rich region to the south of the Mongols. The new leader asked for Genghis Khan’s allegiance. Genghis killed his own brother. He only bowed down to the Eternal Blue Sky.
The first stage of the Mongol’s war of global conquest provides a window into their general successful techniques. Mongols were all cavalry, horse soldiers, skilled from youth riding horses in their native lands.
Their carefully organized, often better-fed, cavalry allowed for quick strikes (think the very successful “blitzkrieg” techniques of Nazi Germany). Over time, the Mongols also adapted to the many military techniques and technology of the lands they conquered. Mongols were great at adoption and innovation.
Mongols also used various strategies to make up for their lack of numbers. They promoted rumors of their harsh and brutal tactics to spread fear. And, brutal they were, including because peasant farmers to them seemed like almost animals, instead of herding nomads like themselves. A military campaign was much like a hunt for them.
Mongols appealed to the masses, including having a policy of killing all the leaders and aristocrats. They first gave the enemy a chance to surrender and welcomed the defeated into the Mongol Empire on equal footing. Over time, this led to the Mongol Empire to grow, with a cosmopolitan approach that only increased the success of their enterprise.
5: Sultan Versus Khan
After having success expanding his empire into China, Genghis Khan tried to establish trade relations with the Muslims. After a trade delegation was killed, it gave him a reason to declare war on them instead. The net result was that his forces quickly conquered a chunk of Central Asia. Meanwhile, now in his 60s, he tried to prepare for a time after his death. This proved more difficult, his two oldest sons strong rivals, and his third son a bit of a drunk.
6. The Discovery and Conquest of Europe
Genghis Khan continued fighting until the end, dying in the field at seventy.
His third son, Ogodei (ruling 1229-41), was chosen as a compromise as his successor. He was not a great leader, wasteful with the empire’s resources, including building a capital city in an isolated spot. The Mongols needed more wars to obtain the riches of conquest.
A dispute arose on where to go — west toward Europe or finish conquering China? They split their forces, fighting in both directions. The Mongols conquered the rest of the Muslim lands (eventually, they were stopped in modern day Israel) and as far as the Balkans. Meanwhile, splitting their forces blocked a defeat of China, which would take a few more decades.
7: Warring Queens
After a short reign, Ogodei died. His brothers already dead, his wife became regent for his young son. Thus started about a twenty-five-year period of family conflict, except during the 1250s where Genghis Khan’s somber grandson Mongke had a successful reign.
This became a period where wives became particularly significant, especially the wife of Genghis Khan’s youngest son, who carefully looked over her four sons. The author’s book, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, addresses this in more detail.
Part III: The Global Awakening (1262-1962)
8: Khubilai Khan and the New Mongol Empire
After Genghis Khan’s grandson Khubilai defeated his brother for control, Khubilai focused on gaining control of China. The rest of the Mongol Empire basically was ruled separately now in three parts (Mongolia itself, the “Golden Horde” or chunks of Russia, and the Muslim lands).
Khubilai gained control of China by means of reforms as well as adapting to the culture of the region. The result was a more pleasing alternative to many of the locals than their existing Chinese overlords. By a means of cultural absorption and military defeats, China was united under Mongol control. This was the land Marco Polo visited.
The Mongols brought modern day IndoChina into their orbit, but were unable to defeat Japan and Indonesia. They had reached the limits of their empire by the end of the 13th Century.
9; Their Golden Light
The late 13th Century to early 14th Centuries was the high point of the Mongol Empire. It was a cosmopolitan thriving center of trade, learning, and scientific advancement.
Mongols started as simple herders, without much cultural baggage to press on the lands they conquered in conquest to the Greek and Roman Empires. Mongols favored what worked, not ideological straitjackets. This was particularly seen by freedom of religion as compared to Catholic Europe. The path out of the Dark Ages into the Enlightenment began here.
The Mongol Empire opened up a path to a cosmopolitan culture that has a “modern” cast to it. The Mongols themselves as a culture were open to this universal approach, including believing religion should not dominate the state. This often was quite pragmatic; for instance, a more secular state prevented religious authorities from threatening Mongol political leaders.
The Mongols’ well run trade based empire helped to spread these principles from China to the outskirts of Europe. As with their military battles, this was not always a gentle process. The Mongols treated human capital (tradesmen, scholars, etc.) like goods, transporting them as booty throughout the empire. How did they and their families feel about that?
10: The Empire of Illusion
From the 1330 to the 1360s, the Mongol Empire broke apart. The basic reason was the Black Death, which destroyed the freedom of movement that was essential for its success.
The empire basically broke apart into its separate parts with each region now controlled by the original inhabitants. This also meant the previous united enlightened global approach was no more. China became much more insular, keeping the rest of the world separate.
The Mongol Empire was seen as a gold standard by the writers of the Renaissance, including the great English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer. But, by the 18th Century, the Mongol Empire was stereotyped as an uncivilized threat to European values.
On the other hand, it also became a heroic model for Asians. The Soviet Union later saw any appeal to Mongol greatness as a nationalistic threat to their power. Mongols were added to the victims of the communist purge.
Epilogue: The Eternal Spirit of Genghis Khan
The book ends with the author taking part in a ceremony to mark where Genghis Khan’s wife was kidnapped. Genghis Khan “shaped the modern world of commerce, communication, and large secular states more than any other individual.” His spirit still lives among us.
Points to Ponder
The author argues that the Mongols’ reputation as simply barbarians is unjust, including by explaining the mindset of their people when they did various cruel things. He also notes that the times overall were harsh, especially (as compared to Mongols generally) the use of torture.
Readers are likely to come out different places regarding how much this argument convinces. But, when thinking about such matters — including deciding how much the Mongols themselves can be praised for the positive developments of the age -– be careful to factor in the whole picture. Look at each side and how much other factors might have “made the modern world.”
And, then judge for yourselves.
About the Author
Jack Weatherford is a cultural anthropologist, he studies indigenous cultures, and was a professor at Macalester College.
Dr. Weatherford has worked with contemporary groups in places such as Bolivia and the Amazon with emphasis on the role of tribal people in world history. In recent years, he focused on Mongolia, and was awarded the Order of the Polar Star, Mongolia’s highest national honor.
Books He Has Written:
- Genghis Khan and the Quest for God
- The Secret History of the Mongol Queens
- Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
- The History of Money
- Savages and Civilization: Who Will Survive?
- Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America
- Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World
- Narcotics in Bolivia and the United States
- Porn Row
- Tribes on the Hill
Is Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World a Reliable Source?
This book is the work of an expert in the field of the study of indigenous cultures. This is the study of the social, cultural, and historical nature of the people with ancestral connections with an area. Dr. Weatherford spent years of research in the field and is well recognized by the Mongolian people themselves as a trustworthy expert in their history and people.
The book is a well-written and strongly researched account of a different time and culture with a lot to offer. The author is not a professional historian and some of his historical details are questionable. One expert critic provides certain examples here.
I also think the book might have a bit too much of a pro-Mongolian bias, including trying to give them too much credit for the ”making of the modern world.” Look elsewhere for a full context of the period covered by the book. On the other hand, it is making up for bias the other way.