There is an aphorism, reported to have been spoken by minister Yelu Chucai to Ogodei Khan, Chinggis Khan’s first successor: “You can conquer an empire on horseback, but you cannot govern it on horseback.” Writers on the Mongols are fond of this line, usually inserted when Mongols begin to set up administrations in the settled lands they have acquired control over. The line’s wisdom is rarely questioned: historians, after all, tend to be sedentary themselves, and invested in a written culture that presumes paperwork must be the basis of office. It is accepted as a truism that steppe nomads had to get down off their horses in order to learn from settled states how to run an empire.
Biographies have much to offer as a way into the past. Lives are messy, and avoid neat conclusions about history—frustrating things, they refuse to fit a preconception. Human lives have a complexity that can keep history-writing honest. To navigate subjectivities keeps us alive to the truth that the work of history, too, is subjective.
Young Mongols is a book full of energy. Aubrey Menard has interviewed young Mongolian activists at work across different sectors of society; these she profiles together on the basis of a common commitment to make society more equal, more functional, more inclusive. Their participation in Mongolia’s social and political betterment is told with respect and enthusiasm, and most readers will find their passion irresistible.
In Chinese history, the Tang and Song dynasties are often contrasted for their attitude to the foreign: a cosmopolitan Tang, its late turn to xenophobia, succeeded by a proto-nationalist Song. Changes in attitude tend to be explained by political events, most frequently by the dynasties’ brushes with foreigners. In The Way of the Barbarians, Shao-Yun Yang wants to detach intellectual history from this political determinism.
Humanism, secularism, pluralism: these were the spirit of the age in the exchange system known as the Mongol Empire. So Roxann Prazniak finds in Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art. Prazniak’s starting place is art history, but her study of artistic exchange opens out into a wide view of the intellectual and cultural world under Mongol globalization in the 13th century.
Steppe women had a greater participation than their settled sisters in politics, war and daily work. With Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire, Anne F Broadbridge sets out to substantiate this general observation in the case of the Mongols, from Chinggis (Genghis) Khan to the Great Mongol Ulus and its successor.