It is worth periodically remembering—as the tsunami of news of China’s momentous economic and political developments rushes past—that China has not always been “Chinese” in the quite the way it is, or can be presented to be, today.
Although the Yuan Dynasty has long been considered in China as “Chinese”, the Mongol emperors were at the time consciously part of a larger, if somewhat amorphous, entity that extended to the Mediterranean and the gates of Europe. It was not, of course, “united” in a political sense, but the various Mongol khans had relationships of family, language and culture and maintained—for a while at any rate—some sense of common purpose.
Chinese history, as might be expected, can have a somewhat different view of the matter, but George Lane’s A Short History of the Mongols naturally tells the story with the Mongols front and center. The Mongols are themselves fascinating: a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious empire—or more accurately, perhaps a sort of confederation of empires—far larger than anything seen before or since. The result was a mixing of peoples that would seem impossible today: the first governor of Yunnan, appointed by Kublai Khan (or Qubilai as Lane has it) was Sayyid ʿAjal Shams al-Din ʿOmar Bokhari, who was, as his name indicates, from Bukhara. Kublai’s new capital, Khanbaliq (now Beijing), was “constructed under the guidance of the Persian engineer, Jamal al-Din”. The Mongols were nothing if not catholic in their tastes when it came to human capital.
Eurasia might once again be coming into its own. Seen through the now almost imperative lens of the “Belt and Road Initiative”, certain Mongol practices documented by Lane—those of relative tolerance, encouragement of open debate and commerce, acceptance of expertise and assigning of executive responsibility regardless of background or ethnicity—give rise to thoughts of what might have been and which might, just possibly, be again.
Mongol history can be in turn fascinating, enlightening and thought-provoking, depending on why one comes to it. Lane’s treatment is less accessible, however, than some others. The book is arranged mostly by ruler, thus largely eschewing a thematic treatment while also, because it is divided by region, making the overall chronology hard to follow. Even within a single section, the chronology can double back on itself. Some terms and people are entered into the narrative without first being introduced: if wants to know who “the hated Naiman prince Kuchluq” is when first mentioned, one needs to refer to Wikipedia. The book could also have benefited from a firmer editorial hand: there are repetitions of phrases only a few sentences apart. The terms “Khan” and “Qa’an” appear without explaining the difference (if any) between them. These sorts of things make life harder on the reader than is entirely necessary.
A Short History of the Mongols perhaps serves best, especially in searchable electronic form, as a handy reference to people, places and events. As a general introduction, there are fine books by John Man and Jack Weatherford among others. And it would be hard to surpass the third volume of Christoph Baumer’s The History of Central Asia on “The Age of Islam and the Mongols”, but the latter volume requires a Mongol saddlebag to carry it rather than, unlike Lane’s more physically manageable opus, a (large) pocket.