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

Those who have already read John Man’s Genghis Khan, Xanadu, Kublai Khan and even The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan might be able to skip his latest offering The Mongol Empire, for it covers much the same ground. It does however cover it in fewer pages and provides the entire history in a single, coherent narrative.

The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan, His Heirs and the Founding of Modern China by John Man
The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan, His Heirs and the Founding of Modern China, John Man (Transworld Publishers Ltd, June 2014)

The story of the Mongols is endlessly fascinating. Genghis alone, to say of nothing of his heirs, conquered an empire the scope of which the world had never seen before— “four times the size of Alexander’s, and twice the size of Rome’s”—and he did so, unlike Alexander or the Caesars, from less than even a standing start: he even had a period where his mother, and hence Genghis too, were forced to grub for roots and berries.

Scrape this story—not unlike, in its way, the story of England’s King Alfred and the cakes—and one realizes that Genghis’s noble blood, for such he had, was that of a tribal chieftain, in effect a herder among herders—a world away from the castles and estates normally associated with kingship and a universe away from what he became. Where, one wonders, did these hordes (itself derived from a Mongol word) of warriors come from?

And, unlike almost all other stories of its kind—from Alexander and Attila to Napoleon and Hitler—the empire not only outlasted the death of the original conqueror but continued to grow: the conquest of China, Tibet, Russia, the Caucasus, and the Levant were still to come. By the standards of Rome, China, and even the Ottomans, the Mongol Empire was short-lived, but it was no mere flash in the night.

The Mongols were religiously tolerant: animists, Buddhists, Muslims, Daoists and Christians—Kublai’s mother was Christian—all rubbed shoulders, relatively conflict-free, in Mongol domains. The Mongols were innovative administrators and absorbed talent from the entire continent: Nepalese architects, Persian engineers and European metalsmiths all found gainful and indeed enthusiastic employment.

Yet the Mongols also slaughtered entire cities—pour encourager les autres—and engaged in what today would be called genocide.


John Man, as always, tells the story very well: the 350 pages zip along. He manages to be accurate—paying attention to sources, acknowledging when the information is less than perfect—without ever being dry. He has a way with imagery:


In fast-forward, the map of Chinese history looks a cell-culture dividing, growing, dying back, but always a plurality...


and with words: as the Mongols seized the walls of Baghdad, Man writes, using less-than-technical but oh-so-evocative language, that


Panic reduced the caliph to mush.


Man is as much a travel writer as a historian—his interest in Mongolia and its people is clearly very personal. In this book, he keeps his natural predilection for personal anecdote largely in check—with some difficulty, one senses—until the few pages where he gives in and relates stories of some journeys to Mongolia and people he met there. These include investigations into Genghis Khan’s final resting place, a mystery which still animates entire populations.


The latter part of the book also includes a fascinating discussion that Man starts by asking


Given that empires change civilizations, what other effects of Genghis’s empire remain today?


Not much, he concludes:


In Europe, the Romans left vast amounts of hardware — roads, building, aqueducts, stadia — but they also rewrote Europe’s software: language, art, literature, law ...


It is not, he writes, just that the Mongols’ reign was relatively brief at 150 years.


Alexander flashed across the skies of history like a comet, yet he left a lasting light. The British were in India for 200 years and the cultures are still interfused.


“Why?” Man writes that


the Romans, the Greeks and the British had something to say... The Mongols didn’t.


Man plays the discussion out over the next dozen pages, comparing the Mongols with the Arabs, bringing in everything from multi-culturalism to movable type, and asking what might have been.


Where the book is a slight disappointment is that it doesn’t really achieve the promise of its subtitle: “the founding of modern China”. Man points out the more or less straightforward, albeit always surprising, fact that the boundaries of modern China, including Yunnan, Tibet and parts of what is Central Asia, owe almost everything to the Mongol Empire. Kublai moved his capital to Beijing; he established the Chinese Yuan Dynasty of which his grandfather Genghis was posthumously made founder. Man relates the incongruity of it all—including using history to assert, as sometimes happens, Chinese sovereignty over modern Mongolia:


Officially, no one talks of repudiating the status quo. Unofficially, there is a wrong to be righted. If this ever comes to pass, it will be done in the name, naturally, of Genghis Khan, because it was his heirs who gave China its present borders (minus Mongolia itself, and a bit of Manchuria, now Russian.)


But Man doesn’t engage in much analysis. Perhaps there isn’t much to be said. Logic, historical or otherwise, rarely rules sovereignty discussions.

And before Westerners express too much superiority over the twisted thought-processes that make Genghis and Kublai into Chinese emperors so as to justify the absorption of their Mongolian conquests into historical and hence modern China, it’s worth casting an eye to the current debate over Scottish independence and the upcoming referendum. Britain owes its borders to James VI, King of Scotland, who became England’s James I. In earlier centuries, England’s claims to large bits and on occasion the entirety of France—the basis for centuries of conflict—also arose from the former’s conquest by the Normans.


The Mongol Empire is a fine book and an enjoyable read. Although Man has covered much of the same material before, here he does so here in one integrated volume.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.