November 08, 2007

"Genghis Khan and the Makings of the Modern World" by Jack Weatherford


Jack Weatherford's Gengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World changed my perspective on Gengis Khan, a historical figure I had thus far recognized only as a barbarian, a plunderer, and a rapist.

Weatherford's novel belongs in the genre of revisionist history, a genre I'm not widely read in, yet one that I've always been wary of. Revisionists often look at events in a modern day perspective, in the light of which historical events get misrepresented and take on meanings that might never have been! However, that is ammunition for another post. Weatherford's book was first published in 2004, and though it piqued my curiosity, I put off reading it primarily because it was revisionist in nature. Nevertheless, I followed the media reports on it which were very complimentary and stated that Weatherford's research in and about Mongolia prior to writing this book, had been very comprehensive despite the challenging conditions under which it was done. The novel reflects that undeterred effort of the author in unravelling and tracing the history of an unusual leader coming out of Asia, and who until recently had been relegated to the back benches of world history. Genghis Khan was a leader no less than an Alexander, yet historians of the time never admitted to that. Weatherford's book challenges that stand; Gengis Khan, through this book gets his due as a remarkably modern leader, a visionary who paved the way for globalization by intoducing "paper money, primacy of the state over the church, freedom of religion, diplomatic immunity, and international law", all of which was done by a man who lead his people on horseback and at a time when the rest of world was in a state of political infancy.


The book presents an engaging almost alluring picture of the Khan who "did not feel that he had been as successful in peace as he had been in war". He thrived on war and mastered the art of statesmanship; yet, he failed as a father since he "had not built a working relationship among his own sons nor trained them to replace him." However, Weatherford's revisionism may have been at the cost of historical accuracy at some points in the book. For instance, the use of gunpowder for the invasion of Baghdad is a fact that could be challenged in that there is no proof to document that. Weatherford, set out to research Mongolia, and perhaps the charisma of Genghis Khan mesmerized him to such an extent that he couldn't but help romanticize the icon that was Chinggis Khan. Needless to say, the readers will thank Weatherford for that since it makes for a riveting read. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the greatest statesman the world has produced, was 'fascinated' by Genghis Khan who was "without doubt, the greatest military genius and leader in History" and "Alexander and Ceasar seem petty before him".

I was drawn to this book because growing up I had read stories about Genghis Khan, outside of my history book, most of which made me hate him. That lead me to wonder what would lure a reader to this book; especially someone who had had limited or no exposure to the exploits of Genghis Khan? Well, the book seems to have done remarkably well, and I would attribute that to the story like quality of this book. It is history spun as a yarn, and it's told in a way that has the reader wanting to turn that next page to find out what happened to Gengis's wife who was kidnapped, or then to his son of doubtful lineage who decided to speak up against him in the 'Khuriltai'. Weatherford has masterfully colored the history of a voiceless people, the Mongolians, who despite their rough terrains and simple lifestyles, have inherited a rich heritage, which not having proved gainful for them, has certainly put the rest of the world on a fast track toward globalization.

28 comments:

eshuneutics said...

Very interesting. "History spun as a yarn"...or a yarn spun as history--sorry, I think that is called politics.

Lash said...

i have been hearing about this revisionist history from a faculty member here.. this is interesting.. it is not impossible that Gengis Khan could have been a brilliant administrator.. That side of it must be known too.. though one would naturally question the authenticity of the data provided, i guess it would still be a commendable job.. to look at history through a dieffernt lens.. interestinmg..

and yeah, happy diwali to you too.. i celebrate all the festivals.. I love the idea of social bitching and thats what festivals in india are all about.. we get together and share 'stories' :)

Raza Rumi said...

Happy Diwali

thanks for this great review - once again. There are many facets of history that become victims of orthodox interpretations -

Id, btw, you poem Choices has been posted here:
http://pakteahouse.wordpress.com/2007/11/09/choices/

Please do check

Id it is said...

Raza,
Thank you.

nandi23 said...

The History channel showed a documentary on him once, I thought he was brilliant, a bit cruel but very brilliant. Wouldn't revisionist history be a good thing to sort of removes some of the 'standards' set by the WEST to define civilization etc. there were other conquerors who were very cruel as well because with war of there there would've been murders and bloodshed, it seems however that only the conquerors of the East were barbaric and cruel. Historians or authors of history books had made it seem as if it was okay for the crusades etc.

Id it is said...

nandi,
You've brought up a question that is being widely discussed/ debated at universities. Should revisionist history books be used as prescribed readings for college courses? I don't have any definite opinion, but I lean toward a no ; it cannot be a prescribed text since it presents undocumented history. We cannot leave it to the discretionary powers of our readers /students to decipher what is fact and what is fiction in a revisionist text. Perhaps most students would do it anyways, but it is for the few who will not be able to pick and choose, and who will carry away those facts as gospel truth, that we need to address. Revisionist text may be a "a good thing to sort of removes some of the 'standards' /stereotypes but it might simply replace one stereotype with another is my fear.


However, that is merely an opinion and you may think otherwise, and it'd be great to hear from you on this...

nandi23 said...

It would be nice to have the texts presented alongside the original ones so that students would be given the opportunity to debate over both sides. In a pluralistic classroom environment I am sure that the debates would be enlightening as well as interesting and would eventually benefit the student even if they are left without a definite answer as to which is historical fact but would open up the mind to he ability to question 'fact'.
There are a lot of suggestions that the Church has had a lot to do with the History that has been fed to us for centuries, so it would be interesting to see both sides of the mirror ( everything just may be an illusion and neither may be true :D)

Id it is said...

That would certainly be an ideal scenario to have both sets of books to generate a thinking forum; questioning 'fact' does indicate a very high level of analytical thinking and would make for some profound exchanges.

bharath said...

very interesting. Although I wonder if history of the ages have much impact on us today. we do live in times with very different political structures, economic structures and even social standards on morality. well, perhaps not.

EXSENO said...

Wow, that was a very interesting book review. My grandson is quite a history buff. Do you think it would be something that he would find interesting.Would it be suitable for a fifteen year old.

Id it is said...

exseno,
That's yet another interesting question about revisionist literature that you've brought up; can it be made available in the juvenile literature/ history sections?
I'd be wary of recommending it to someone that young unless he is well versed about the proven history of Genghis Khan. Revisionist history needs to be read with a high degree of discretion which a 15 year old may or may not have. However, if your grandson is a history buff, he may very well know the documented history of Genghis Khan, and then this book, though a little dense to hold the attention of a teenager, would be safe for him to read.

Lotus Reads said...

Id,thank you so much for such an enlightening review. I can't say I paid much attention to revisionist history before I read your review, but now I am truly curious to see how Jack Weatherford's Genghis compares with the Genghis of my history textbooks.

I like Nandi's suggestion that they present both texts alongside each other for compare and contrast.

I am going to have to have to get my hands on this book, thanks Id!

Coffee-Drinking Woman said...

I wonder where the line is between rediscovering the history of a people that has only ever been told from a Euro-centric
(and probably racist) point of view and revising history. The book does sounding interesting.

ReadnRyte said...

Pretty neat review and I do want to get hold of this book now.

I had heard only good things about William Shirer's 'Rise and Fall of third Reich' and when I finally got to read it, I was so very disappointed by the strong American/European bias...but none of the reviews I heard about it mentioned it. The problem with History is that, it is always biased and in a world that is predominantly 'Euro / West' centric, you always see this in its very subtle forms. Genghis Khan from what I read back in my school days was probably more legendary and much more grander figure than Alexander, but western mode of viewing history has made him more popular than Ghengis Khan. A similar neglect can be seen in the Indian context too...Sher Shah Suri is rarely mentioned among the greats that ruled erstwhile India...but he came up with so many progressive ideas and diktats some of which hold good even today and along with Ashoka and Akbar, Sher Shah Suri is among the three greatest rulers this part of the world has seen in the last 2000 odd years.

Bharat: Reading history may not have a direct impact on us now, but that doesn't mean that history can't teach us.

Nandi : As of now revisionist history can only be suggested as reference literature to read more than is prescribed in your textbooks...and only to those who want to actually know more...cause if you look at it school curricula is not oriented towards learning and understanding.

Ahh is my comment more than the original post...sorry :)

Cheers,
Rahul

jedi said...

there are friends of mine who take it upon themselves to prove to the world that the holocaust didnt exist.. some hoot n some cheer, call it haute or call it faux pas, the argument remains tht though history is singular, perspectives can, do and should tell tales. revisionism is welcome as long as the mutant doesnt feed on the original. delightful read

Sanjay said...

Id, thank you for a most interesting post! I think you may have stayed away from revisionism or books dealing with that because like a lot of us we are more familiar with the word used in it’s negative connotation.

Revisionism in its legitimate form is where historians look at facts again in order to update the narrative with newly discovered facts and information which may alter the original history as told before and the negative form of it when one may attempt to rewriting history by simply denying or simply ignoring essential facts, as holocaust deniers have.

So I would have been wary of this book as well. The only reason I had a slight idea that Genghis Khan may have had a few redeeming qualities came from this excellent New Yorker article about Hulagu a descendant of Genghis Khan. While the piece is not about Genghis Khan it does talk about some previously unknown aspects of him and his descendants, but you have with your review told us about a book that casts him in a different light.

I do have a question though, what lead you to believe that Weatherford’s revisionism is at the cost of historical accuracy. Did some of the reviews of his book mention that or is that something that you came across? How would you classify this as revisionism or a legitimate kind of revisionist history? I think for most books that deal with history and are extensively researched it is natural for the author to feel the influence of the subject.

Also as much as the world might want to dismiss Genghis Khan, he has left his mark in a way that still endures. As per the New Yorker article (and you may already know this)..
Dr. Tyler-Smith and his colleagues found that an anomalously large number of the Y chromosomes carried a genetic signature indicating descent from a single common ancestor about a thousand years ago. The scientists theorized that the ancestor was Genghis Khan (or, more exactly, an eleventh-century ancestor of Genghis Khan). About eight per cent of all males in the region studied, or sixteen million men, possess this chromosome signature. That’s a half per cent of the world’s entire male population. It is possible, therefore, that more than thirty-two million people in the world today are descended from Genghis Khan.

Sanjay said...

Sorry back again, and since this post desl with the Mongolian folks thought you might like to know that the inaugural Man Asian Booker prize went to "Wolf Totem" link .

The novel is based on the author's experiences as an intellectual in the inner-Mongolian grasslands during the 1966-76 cultural revolution. It extols the virtues of Mongolian nomads, who find a balance in living with nature, even with the wolves that prey on their herds. This way of life is threatened by the materialism of the Han ethnic majority, who bring environmental destruction and an oppressive political culture that is the antithesis of the free nomadic and wolf-like spirit.

sivananth said...

the archaeological survey of india, a government body in response to a PIL filed by a lawyer for stopping the project, said there is no scientific evidence that the characters exist, let alone build a bridge. The govt let it file a public document, sidestepping the religious sentiments of millions.

The Ramayana is about a hero who can do no wrong. Mahabharata is about characters (including God himself)who faced moral dilemmas and made grey decisions. They are simple yet profound stories which has something for kids and adults alike. They can guide humanity in these chaotic times characterized by terror and greed.

After that post, there have been reports saying the project may be unviable since the region (which is already ravaged by 2004 tsunami) is prone to sedimentation due to oceanic currents and frequent dredging may be required. Perhaps the project stoppage is a good decision for wrong reasons.

sivananth said...

didnt have much to write..but it feels great to know people remember you..thanks.

Id it is said...

Sanjay,
Thanks for those great links.
There are a couple of inaccuracies in the book, some of the obvious ones being:
-the use of gunpowder by the Mongols in the invasion of Baghdad in 1258 (which won them the battle) cannot be proven as none of the vernacular texts (Arabic, Pharsi etc) refer to it either

- Weatherford cites Timur as a successor to Genghis Khan

- certain tribes he refers to as existing at the time of Genghis Khan in fact came about much later

You are absolutely right about the negative connotation that the word 'revision' carries; it certainly applies to me and that accounts for my wariness; something I do need to work on...

Id it is said...

readnryte,
Sometimes its the cultural biases that make for oversights and misdocumentation in history. Not that it is to be condoned, but that is simply how it is and thus makes us want to work toward a tolerant and an all-encompassing society.

I am now piqued by Shershah Suri, thanks to your comment.

Id it is said...

jedi,
"revisionism is welcome as long as the mutant doesnt feed on the original" ...
why couldn't I have said that! How succintly put!

sivananth,
Good to see you back, and thanks for the heads up on 'Ramasetu'

AVIANA said...

hey there...

hi!

would you still have the same point of view if he was a pioneering legend that accomplished all of these amazing feats while he was still a rapist, a plunderer and a barbarian?

i don't know anything about him but just wanted to bring the other side also if it is true...

i admire che guevara for what he did but i also acknowledge that he might have done some horrible things....

but his positive for many supersedes his bad so that he has become the legend that he is..

oh well..

have a nice one

Sanjay said...

Sanjay said...
Hey Id, Thank you for your response.I agree that those inaccuracies take away from what might be a decent book.

From what I read after your response, apparently Weatherford may have gone by Timur's claim. Timur claimed he descended from Genghis Khan.

I do have a question though, if the issue of gunpowder and tribes is glaring is there a record of an errata being published?

Id it is said...

sanjay,
Not much errata to report but then I'm an outsider in the field, and so I'm not aware that there is any counter research being done on Weatherford's book; however, I asked a colleague of mine the question you raised, and he said that you have to remember that Weatherford is currently a chaired Prof at Macalester; yet, the book has made it only to the supplementary reading category, and that is telling.

Khakra said...

and you finally touch on Mongolia! Been waiting for this. Never traveled to Mongolia, but covered the region for years and it's a big, big mystery. Is the revised Genghis related to current Mongolian culture? Genghis was a brute no doubt, he killed mercilessly and as rumor has it, had no heart. But that's what Mongolians today love him for -- a sort of old-day Indiana Jones who created the nomadic culture that the Mongolians take pride in. There's this funny story from a while ago: Mongolians weren't allowed to have the last name, but that was banned to ease the role of Mongolia's census bureau to count and identify population. (Some stories say it was to rid of population conflicts -- that is incorrect). People were asked to select a surname, most of them selected Borjigin, Chinggis' clan name. The Chinggis culture also reflects in the Naadam festival, where people wrestle to prove who's the manly man of em all. On a sidenote, Mongolians are great martial artists too, it comes from their aggressive culture that could have started with Genghis. I'm guessing Timurlane may have been declared a Genghis successor in rebuilding the Mongol empire after Genghis' kids destroyed it. That's the closest reason I can imagine he was called a successor. And the use of gunpowder is anti-Genghis in a way, they were expert horse and marksmen, even today.

Overall, don't get all romantic about the Mongolians -- yes, they are great and very friendly, but also known to be lazy and take things for granted! Kinda like how some folks in India are. Have a colorful 10-15 page log of a friend's trip horseback riding to Naadam and through Mongolia, it's awesome, drop an e-mail if you'd like to read it.

moazzam said...

great discussion, folks. a thing or two about revisionist history. every new book of history is, to some extent, a work of revision. as methodology, technology and approaches improve, it is only logical that some historical grand narratives will reveal their cracks. for example, as israel declassified its archives, israeli historian had an opportunity to look at those documents and despite nationalism, the nature of truth is that it beckons you to spit it out. when that happens the establishment tags them as reviosnist or new historian in a way that the whole enterprize carries a negative ring. of course, media too helps out since it is almost always part of establishment and popular sentiment.
moazzam sheikh

Id it is said...

moazzam,
"every new book of history is, to some extent, a work of revision. as methodology, technology and approaches improve, it is only logical that some historical grand narratives will reveal their cracks."
...beautifully put!

I hope to watch the movie "The Mongol" soon as I'm keen to see what the movie makers did with their depiction; yet another revisionist piece in a different art form!
Thanks for stopping by!