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Monday, July 06, 2020

Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is a history of the eponymous character. It's pretty comprehensive, and doesn't just cover the founding and expansion of the empire, but also its decline and eventual breakup.

Here's the deal: nomadic tribes have obviously been the norm through most of human history. What's unusual is when someone manages to organize them despite the nomadic tribes' inherent instability: when kinship ties are more important than anything else, unity cannot easily be achieved. The book probably could have been organized better, but here's my summary of it:

  • Genghis Kahn managed to organize the tribes not only through fighting prowess and political maneuvers, but also by changing the organizational principles from kinship ties to as close a meritocracy as could be found in those environments. In fact, Kahn went so far to avoid nepotism that as he aged he'd realized that he'd neglected his children: 
"The fighting among his sons made him keenly aware of how much work he needed to do to preserve the empire after his death. His sons did not match up to the needs of the empire. While pursuing his great quest to unite the steppe tribes and conquer every threat around him, he had never devoted the attention he should have to his sons, and now they were all reaching middle age and were still unproven men." (Kindle Loc 2570)
 More conversations and quotes survive from this phase of Genghis Khan’s life than any other, and they show a growing concern but lessening power to control his family. After too long a neglect of their education, he tried to teach his sons everything at once, and in doing so he struggled to articulate lessons he had learned and ideas he had but had not verbalized clearly. He was accustomed to giving orders, not making explanations. (Kindle Loc 2587)
 That engendered sufficient loyalty to him personally that he effectively united all the tribes and organized them to conquer the large swathes of empire that probably wouldn't have been feasible through a purely dynastic environment.
Just as Genghis Khan promoted men from the lowest levels of society to the highest ranks of leadership based on their skills and achievements rather than birth, Khubilai’s administration constantly promoted men from the lowest jobs, such as cooks, gatekeepers, scribes, and translators. Both the promotion of low-ranking men and the movement of them into new areas increased their dependence on and loyalty to their Mongol overlords and lessened their connection to the people ruled. (Kindle Loc 3957)

  • The fast moving nomads could out maneuver traditional armies because they didn't depend on supply chains being dragged behind them, but also because they effectively could pasture and hunt as they go. This also naturally limited the extent of their empire, but also explained their approach as they expanded: they would trample fields and burn cities so that those areas would revert to pasture, ensuring that they had a line of retreat.
  • Similarly, they were big on religious freedom, and welcomed all religions equally as long as they were willing to be subservient to the state. I did not know that the Mongolian court had Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Taoists all present. Their debates never turned into religious wars, which was remarkable.
  • They were very willing to co-opt skills and people who would help them with administration, including clerks, translators, engineers, and so forth. Again, this was unusual, but again, the Mongols themselves only developed written language after they'd encountered other civilizations.
  • The empire was finally brought down by the bubonic plague, which broke up the connections that the far flung empire had made:

With each group cut off from the other, the interlocking system of ownership collapsed. The plague had devastated the country, demoralized the living, and, by cutting off trade and tribute, deprived the Mongol Golden Family of its primary source of support. For nearly a century, the Mongols had exploited their mutual material interests to overcome the political fault lines dividing them. Even while sacrificing political unity, they had maintained a unified cultural and commercial empire. (Kindle Loc 4726)
 All in all, the book definitely dispelled my understanding of what the Mongols were like, and was worth the read. Recommended.

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