Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Genghis Khan, Modern Man

What do you know about Genghis Khan? Before reading Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, my knowledge was limited to a few keywords like “barbarian invader.”

Although it’s true that Genghis Khan conquered more land and people than anyone in history, Weatherford focuses on the less known but more interesting story of what Genghis Khan did with his winnings, the Mongol Empire:

In American terms, the accomplishment of Genghis Khan might be understood if the United States, instead of being created by a group of educated merchants or wealthy planters, had been founded by one of its illiterate slaves, who, by the sheer force of personality, charisma, and determination, liberated America from foreign rule, united the people, created an alphabet, wrote the constitution, established universal religious freedom, invented a new system of warfare, marched an army from Canada to Brazil, and opened roads of commerce in a free-trade zone that stretched across the continents.

These are not allegorical statements. Around the year 1200, Genghis Khan actually did establish freedom of religion, the rule of law, free trade, military and civil ranks based on merit rather than bloodline, and a long list of other societal innovations presaging the modern world.

Although many of Genghis Khan’s innovations were from his own instincts, his most important innovation was building a culture of assimilation. The Mongol Empire systematically learned from and connected the disparate civilizations it conquered. In the process, it acquired technology and know-how far beyond anything the original Mongol tribes had—and in many cases, beyond what Europeans of the time had. For example:

In 1269, [grandson of Genghis Khan] Khubilai Khan established a printing office to make government decisions more widely disseminated throughout the population, and he encouraged widespread printing in general by nongovernmental groups as well. This included religious books and novels in addition to government publications....Presses throughout the Mongol Empire were soon printing agricultural pamphlets, almanacs, scriptures, laws, histories, medical treatises, new mathematical theories, songs, and poetry in many different languages.

In Europe, Gutenberg’s printing press came 200 years later.

So why aren’t we more aware of Genghis Khan’s and the Mongol Empire’s achievements? One reason is that the Mongols never occupied and assimilated Western Europe. As a result, Western historians saw the Mongols from the outside: as mysterious, militaristic foreigners from primitive lands. And to be fair to that view, when the Mongols were on the move, they did not bother projecting their good side. Instead, their goal was to scare enemies into submission—for example, by not just defeating but also devastating a resistant town so the people would flee to the next town to tell how fearsome the Mongols were, thereby causing the next town to surrender without fighting.

Yet Weatherford argues that many pre-Renaissance Europeans, through travel and trade, saw past the “barbarian invader” headline and grasped the Mongol Empire’s modern aspects, which were like seeds for the Renaissance.

Europeans experienced a renaissance, literally a rebirth, but it was not the ancient world of Greece and Rome being reborn: It was the [then declining] Mongol Empire, picked up, transferred, and adapted by the Europeans to their own needs and culture.

It is a testament to the book’s effectiveness that such a point—placing Genghis Khan as a godfather to the modern world—seems uncontroversial by the end.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World adroitly balances storytelling with historical detail and analysis. The subject matter is epic and engaging history, and a worthy upgrade to the view of Genghis Khan as just a barbarian invader.

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