Genghis Khan was tolerant, kind to women – and a record-breaking mass-murderer

A review of The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan, His Heirs and the Founding of Modern China, by John Man. The Mongols made China, argues this book, which means it’s unlikely to get a Chinese translation any time soon

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan, His Heirs and the Founding of Modern China John Man

Bantam, pp.357, £20, ISBN: 9780593071243

Genghis Khan, unlike most Mongols in history, is a household name, regularly misappropriated as a right-wing totem. If we recall the genocidal killing sprees of, say, Stalin and Mao, perhaps it would be more historically accurate to say ‘to the left of Genghis Khan’. In the popular imagination he is the despot’s despot, a one-man killing machine who led his army of mounted archers to triumph after triumph, terrorising and slaughtering by the million to carve out an empire that stretched from the Caspian to the Pacific. His martial conquests place him in the top trio of world conquerors, alongside Alexander the Great and Tamerlane.

If you had the misfortune to live in Central Asia during Genghis’s rampages in the 1220s, you ran the very real risk of being cut in two, beheaded, disemboweled, perhaps even forced to swallow molten metal by his ferocious soldiers. Cities were razed and depopulated, prisoners slain or ordered to march as a shield before the army, in full battle formation. Mongol bloodlust was such that even cats and dogs were killed.

Yet the same man who is said to be responsible for the deaths of a world record 40 million is also noted — admittedly less widely — for his religious tolerance, enlightened diplomacy and championing of women’s rights. As Edward Gibbon noted,

The Catholic inquisitors of Europe who defended nonsense by cruelty, might have been confounded by the example of a barbarian, who anticipated the lessons of philosophy and established by his laws a system of pure theism and perfect toleration.

Gibbon went so far as to posit ‘a singular conformity’ between the religious laws of Genghis and those of John Locke.

Genghis was convinced of his divinely ordained calling to subdue and rule an unruly world, a view accepted by John Man and faithfully maintained by many Mongols today. During the past few months I have received more than 50 impromptu emails from an eccentric young Genghis disciple in Mongolia who told me how he had preserved some of his father’s ashes in fermented mare’s milk and travelled right across the country to sprinkle them over Genghis’s birthplace, honouring him as the father of the nation.

Unlike Tamerlane, whose empire collapsed in short order on his death in 1405, Genghis bequeathed an empire that would endure and expand, and this is Man’s great interest here. He is rightly fascinated by one descendant of the great tyrant in particular: Genghis’s grandson Kublai, generally remembered only as the mysterious potentate in Coleridge’s opium-enhanced poem ‘Kubla Khan’, resident of Xanadu and possessor of a ‘stately pleasure dome’.

Kublai hailed from a junior branch of the family and only managed to take supreme power as Great Khan thanks to his spirited mother and his own diplomatic and military prowess. The sudden and successive deaths of Kublai’s brothers Ariq, Hulagu, Berke and Alghu within the space of a few months from 1264 fortuitously opened the path to power, allowing him to settle and then expand his dominions in the east.

In short order Kublai became the richest and most powerful man on earth. His conquest of China and its deftly handled assimilation into a Mongol-Chinese empire was surely his greatest achievement. In 1271, only seven years after establishing his imperial capital at Xanadu, he shifted his headquarters to Beijing, where his taste for grandeur was given free rein in a remarkable building programme that gave birth to the Imperial City. Man clearly enjoys the delightful fact that China’s current borders were determined not by a Chinese ruler but by a Mongolian warlord.

He does a splendid job of conveying the sheer opulence and grandeur of Kublai’s court, not least the hunting. For 500 kilometres or 40 days’ journey from his new capital the entire countryside was dedicated to hunting. The large game belonged to the emperor: boar, deer, elk, wild asses and wildcats, expertly marshaled to their destruction by 2,000 dog handlers and 10,000 falconers. The figures are Marco Polo’s, and therefore extremely suspect, but you get the point.

Much of this is familiar material and may even be familiar to readers of Man’s earlier works, which include accessible biographies of both Genghis and Kublai. If Mongol history is your thing, David Morgan (The Mongols), Igor de Rachewiltz (The Secret History of the Mongols) or Henry Howorth (History of the Mongols) are surer guides. What Man does, however, is tell a rollicking good story, his historical narrative interspersed with high-spirited travel-writerly digressions, searching for Genghis’s secret burial place one minute, positing a slightly fanciful link between Genghis and Columbus the next. The personal tone is lively and engaging, Man’s wide travels recorded in a series of handsome illustrations.

Man leaves us with a final playful thought which suggests Beijing publishers may not be rushing to have this book translated. For the Chinese, Genghis and Kublai made Mongolia part of China. For Mongols, however, they were the great leaders who made China part of Mongolia.

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  • saffrin

    Genghis knew how to deal with the chinaman.
    I bet they didn’t sell him any dodgy counterfeit gear.

  • Patrick KT

    “For the Chinese, Genghis and Kublai made Mongolia part of China. For Mongols, however, they were the great leaders who made China part of Mongolia.”

    It is much more complicated than that. The term “China” or Central/Middle Kingdom (中國) before the 19th century was fluid and not fixated, really more of a geopolitical concept of being at the “center of the world”. A clear example that illustrates “China” was really more of a fluid geopolitical concept was seen in the 18th and 19th century when political philosophers in Japan felt their country was more deserving of using the term 中國 to reflect its geopolitical position, especially after Japan defeated the Qing dynasty. In fact, China was not necessary the official name of a nation-state or empire. The official names were generally the dynastic names such as Great Qing Empire, Great Ming Empire, etc. An example of how “China” was used was seen during the Northern Song dynasty and Liao dynasty. The ethnic Hans led Song dynasty was in a relatively weaker position than the Qidan led Liao dynasty, thus forcing the Song to effective pay tribute and accept an inferior position relative to the Liao. The Liao emperors saw themselves as the legitimate holder of the “mandate of heaven” (emperor of China) and occupied the central (aka China) geopolitical position. In essence, the Liao dynasty was really more “China” than the Song dynasty at the time. Imperial China was a classical multi-ethnic universal empire. Its territory expanded and contracted based on the strength of each dynasty. More accurately, it depended on the relative strength and ambition of the emperor at the time. Even within a dynasty, the territory it controlled fluctuated. Let’s look at a few examples. Take what is now Xinjiang, the Han dynasty first controlled the region about two millenniums ago. The Ming dynasty initially controlled the so called “Manchu” northeast region before the rise of the Qing. Much of the territories under the PRC today were at some point under the control of major dynasties, including Han, Tang, Yuan, Ming and Qing. Basically, what is known as China today was an empire (sometimes multiple empires/kingdoms) before the 19th century, ruled by various dynasties. Some of these dynasties were founded by ethnic Hans while some were established by nomadic groups. A dynasty like the Tang was of mixed-ethnicity (Hans and Mongol related Xianbei). Regardless of ethnicities, they were all structured by the same geopolitical objective. They saw themselves and were recognized as the legitimate holder of the “mandate of heaven” (emperor of China), their empires as the legitimate “Central Kingdom” (China) and the rightful successor to the previous dynastic regime. Equally important is that it can be oversimplified to use modern concepts of the nation-state, sovereignty, citizenship, ethnicity and international relations to describe pre-19th century East Asia. International borders became more legally defined was largely the result of the establishment of the Westphalian sovereignty system influenced by Europe. The ancient Sino-centric hierarchy order began to collapse after the Qing dynasty was defeated by the European powers, leading to the development of the term China as the basis of the name of a new modern nation state and Chinese as the citizens of this state.

  • Inez Deborah Emilia Altar

    Genghis Khan was the paramount leader of the Mongols re modern chaebols, a council system possibly older than the Money Hoes landless starving labourer insurrection he and nomads and the risen Chinese peasant masses including desperate peasant women with Mongol women who did not accept concubinage fought vastly superior imperial Chinese starvation taxation armies and 91 starvation garrisoned tax-exacting cities under the Carmina Burana or earlier scarlet Mongol banners, he demanded Universal Love that is unconditional surrender of each city and troop defended region with no punishment of the transgressors and acceptance of him the Paramount Leader~Genghis Khan of tumen the People also meaning army later the invincible altan ulus under him the invincible glorious levies or Reds due to the banners I am concerned for the lives of Genghis Khan Asian family descendants and proper ethnic Mongols claim of mass execution of them September 5, 2015 now in even Mongolia the reason it is recognized!