Most of our understanding of the Mongol Empire begins and ends with Chinggis Khan and his sweep across Asia. His name is now included among conquerors whose efforts burn bright and burn out quick: Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and so on.
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.
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.
Expect no easy ride. Author Bryn Hammond evidently thinks that the best way to teach you swimming is to throw you into the deep end. But if you don’t drown instantly, and if you brace yourself through the first 10-20 pages of Against Walls, there is a good chance that you’ll stay in the magic waters of her world until the end of the story.
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.
Jack Weatherford has a clutch of informed, and impassioned, books on the Mongols to his credit. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, he argued that the Mongols were the precursors of modern economic globalization:
The Mongols displayed a devoutly and persistently internationalist zeal in their political, economic, and intellectual endeavors. They sought not merely to conquer the world but to institute a global order based on free trade, a single international law, and a universal alphabet.
He credits them with universal paper money, primary school education and a unified calendar.