Posted in Medievalists.net
May 31, 2022

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World: A Retrospective


By Jack Wilson

Jack Weatherford’s 2004 book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World quickly became one of the top-selling works on Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Empire. The book sets out to a mighty task: offering a reevaluation of the Mongol imperial founder. Let’s take a look at whether this book was successful at this goal. 

Challenging the notion of Chinggis Khan as a mindless, bloodthirsty brute, Weatherford sought a more nuanced picture, of a more farsighted man seeking stability for himself and his people. Rather than the Mongol Empire ushering in only bloodshed and chaos, Weatherford demonstrates that the empire had significant consequences for the history of the world. Washing away the medieval order, Weatherford argues, the Mongol Empire brought in an epoch of free trade, transfer of ideas and religious tolerance which became the foundation for the world today. Weatherford advanced his ideas in later works, namely The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Saved His Empire (2010) and Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom (2016). But here we focus on the first and most influential of these works.

Aside from selling extraordinarily well, Weatherford’s book also received accolades from the press and the government of Mongolia itself. Many of these accolades are well deserved; Weatherford’s writing is crisp and illustrative, and fights valiantly for seeing the Mongols of the thirteenth century as people, rather than a force of nature. Weatherford’s book accompanied other media like Sergei Bodrov’s film Mongol (2007) of the early 2000s which humanized Chinggis. Consider media portrayals of Chinggis Khan and the Mongols from before 2000, such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), where Chinggis Khan was a step above a caveman. In the post-Weatherford era, works of the 2010s such as the 2014 Netflix series Marco Polo have Chinggis’ grandson Khubilai Khaan a complex, largely sympathetic character. While Weatherford should not be given sole credit for this, his book was a factor in bringing some humanity to the conquerors for general audiences.

The book is still a major stepping stone to introducing readers around the world to the Mongol Empire. If a given book store is going to have a book on the Mongols, it’s likely to be Weatherford’s. Indeed, that is how the current author came to begin his studies on the Mongol Empire. For myself, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World was the first ‘serious’ book I could ever access on this topic. I had finished reading Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, a fiction series which sparked my interest and prompted a search for more. I was fortunate to quickly find a copy of Weatherford’s book. Many years later I still have it, well-thumbed, its pages bent, sections underlined. Without Weatherford’s book, it is doubtful that I would be preparing to begin my PhD about the Mongol Empire this upcoming autumn.

When I was new to the Mongol Empire, I was amazed at the depth of Weatherford’s descriptions, and his clear passion for Mongol culture. Weatherford is a skilled writer, and key to Modern World’s success was its readability. Many of Weatherford’s paragraphs flow like a painting. His description of the flight of Temüjin (the birth name of Chinggis Khan) to Burkhan Khaldun after Börte’s capture, and the choices he faced, has stuck in my head clearly since the day I read it.

Weatherford’s background is as an anthropologist, and that is apparent in the attention he gives to Mongolian culture. Not an extensive description of steppe peoples and politics, he places Temüjin into a cultural context recognizable to modern Mongolians, and focuses on his human side, rather than the conqueror. Considering that his entire book is on the positive transformative aspects of the Mongol Empire, that shouldn’t be surprising. The book’s great strength is for the reader who only knows the Mongols vaguely as “bloodthirsty barbarians,” and nothing else about the period, and seeks a new vantage point.

Yet readers may find it surprising that Weatherford’s book has had little impact on Mongolian studies. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is but a reflection of ongoing trends in the scholarship which long moved past the “bloodthirsty barbarians,” dynamic, and already sought to explore the empire on its own terms. Researchers agree heartily with Weatherford that the Mongol Empire had a dramatic impact on the world. But few would concur with as “rosy” an image as Weatherford paints.

Though most Mongolists can point to the reconstructive efforts by the Mongol governments after the initial conquests, or their support for literary or architectural efforts, they’d also caution against glorifying the Chinggisid states or portraying them as paradigms of religious tolerance, free trade or knowledge transfer. There were aspects of these, but much more limited, and generally of less impact, than a reader of Weatherford may expect.

The religious tolerance of the Mongols has been overstated: studies have demonstrated the Mongols’ repeated tendencies to forbid religious practices they detested. Muslims in particular were often singled out. Great Khans from Chinggis’ son Ögedai to the famous Khubilai Khaan, at various points, punished those who practiced circumcision or halal slaughter with the death penalty. Christopher Atwood’s article “Validation by Holiness or Sovereignty: Religious Toleration as Political Theology in the Mongol World Empire of the Thirteenth Century,” released the same year as Weatherford’s book, skillfully examines the nature of the Mongols’ oft-remarked tolerance, and how it was not a static nor immutable policy.

Beyond that, the book is, unfortunately, full of factual errors. Weatherford is a skilled writer and an anthropologist with a deep appreciation for Mongolian culture. But a historian he is not. For a historian of the Mongol Empire to read this book, it is a frustrating experience as often basic details are misrepresented. For instance, when discussing the opening of the conflict between the Mongols and the Jurchen-ruled Jin Dynasty 大金 (1115-1234), he writes:

The unexpected death of the Golden Khan of the Jurched and the ascension of his young son to the throne in 1210 offered the Jurchen court an opportunity to assess Genghis Khan by sending the envoy to him to announce the change of events and demand a strong show of submission from him.

This sentence alone provides numerous problematic aspects, both in framing and actual information. The Mongols did call the Jin Emperor the Altan Khan, meaning the Golden Khan. However it is unusual to do so in a secondary source, and perhaps confusing for the general reader. This is coupled with Weatherford continually referring to the Jin Empire as the Jurched. The -ed is a plural ending in Mongolian, which accompanies these tribal designations. But the Jurchen weren’t Mongolian, nor inhabitants of the steppe (they were ancestors of the Manchu). In doing this, Weatherford presents the Jurched as akin to another tribal entity to be conquered by the Mongols. The Jurchen made up the ruling strata of the Jin Dynasty, controlling most of north China with all the trappings of a Chinese state, accompanied by all the associated bureaucratic and financial complexity. The Jin Dynasty was not made up solely of Jurchen; they remained the aristocracy and military, but the majority of the empire’s population was non-Jurchen peoples, estimated around 40 million. These included the majority Chinese agricultural and urban population, the Mongolic Khitan people (an important part of the army and identity of many of the envoys sent to the Mongols) as well as other jiyün peoples, who guarded the borders with the Mongol steppe. Hence why focusing on the “Jurched” obfuscates the actual Jin Dynasty. The reader of Modern World may be unaware that Chinggis Khan was about to attack the single strongest military power in the world at the time.

Furthermore, Weatherford describing “the ascension of his young son to the [Jurched] throne in 1210” is demonstrably false. Firstly, there was no succession to the Jin throne in 1210. From 1208-1213 the Jin Emperor was a man posthumously called Wei Shao Wang (personal name Wanyan Yongji), of similar age to Chinggis Khan. Wanyan Yongji’s father, Emperor Shizong of Jin, died in 1189. Shizong was succeeded by his grandson, Zhangzong of Jin, who died in late 1208. Zhangzong’s uncle Wanyan Yongji then succeeded him, and upon Yongji’s assassination in 1213 was succeeded by a cousin, Emperor Xuanzong of Jin, who was also of similar age. There was no succession in 1210, the Jin had no father-son succession until 1224, and of all the succession issues the Jin ever had, they never put a young child on the throne (baring the 15-year old Xizong of Jin in 1135). The knowledgeable reader is simply left wondering what Weatherford is actually trying to refer to here.

Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) succession, from dynastic founder Aguda. Italicized are the posthumously granted temple names all emperors are given; Di’unai and Yungji were, after their deaths, demoted to lesser ranks. Most figures are shown with their Jurchen names, but all Jin Emperors also took Chinese names, and a Chinese rendering (Wanyen, 完顏) of the Jin imperial surname Wonggian. Some of these men are better known by their Chinese names; the Jurchen prince Kimšan is best known as Wanyen Yungji, posthumously demoted to Weishao Wang (the prince of Wei). Table by Jack Wilson.

This is but one illustrative example of many, the kind of basic historical errors which are inappropriate and distracting for a work attempting to be a serious historical study. These aren’t differences in interpretation, but essentially fiction which undermines other claims throughout the work.

Weatherford is also a frustrating read for his relative lack of citations, especially for his most interesting claims. For example, at one point he says the Mongol conquests led to an increase in tools that carpenters in Europe had access to, and that they built new cranes and other devices based on knowledge gained from routes opened by the Mongols. An interested reader cannot follow up though, for Weatherford provides no hint to where this information originated, or what evidence supports this statement, or if he is even accurately representing his source.

Finally, much of his argument I find either unsupported or just wrong. For example, he says literacy increased under the Mongol Empire, presenting Khubilai Khan’s construction of a printing office in 1269 to disseminate government mandates as support for this. But this does not actually support his claim. That isn’t even evidence of increased literacy in China because of the Mongols, let alone the entire Asian continent. It’s a creation of a printing office to spread government materials for the same literary circles, not accompanied by widespread pushes to increase literacy. A reader might also wonder if establishing a printing office offsets the destruction of libraries, archives and deaths of learned people in the initial conquests.

He also presents the Mongol invasions to Europe as ending the Middle Ages, saying at one point.

European Knighthood never recovered from the blow of losing nearly one hundred thousand soldiers in Hungary and Poland, what the Europeans mounted as the ‘the flower’ of their knighthood and aristocracy. Walled cities and heavily armoured knights were finished, and in the smoke and gunpowder of the Easter Season of 1241, the Mongol triumph portended the coming total destruction of European Feudalism and the Middle Ages.

This is simply ludicrous. Heavily armoured knights didn’t even end in Hungary, which suffered the worst of the 1241-1242 invasion, let alone in all of Europe – in studies by Erik Fügedi, Hungarian castle building actually increased after the Mongol invasion, and were now largely in stone instead of wood and earthen walls. And of course, European armour making increased in complexity in the coming centuries, as the Mongol invasion predated the famous full suits of plate European knights are famous for. And for topics as infamously complex as feudalism and “the end of the Middle Ages,” Weatherford provides little specifics as to how (or when) the Mongols ended them, especially when most researchers would argue that both continued for centuries past 1242. Finally, the references to gunpowder used by the Mongols in Europe are controversial, at best, and find little widespread support; not the solid foundation for linking them to, or even heralding, the end of the European Middle Ages.

That is the problem with much of Weatherford’s evidence for the impact of the Mongol Empire. There is a huge amount of actual effects the Mongols had, both positive and negative. But Weatherford misses much of these in favour of flashier statements like the above. And by trying to prove this point so much, one cannot help but come away feeling that Weatherford minimizes the lives lost in the first place. I find Weatherford’s work so frustrating: because it ultimately cannot reach the lofty goals it sets for itself, miring the reader down in distracting, inaccurate representations and doing a disservice to a fascinating and important topic for world history. As an introduction for a new reader to the Mongol Empire, or someone curious in passing, Weatherford’s book is an engaging, easy-to-read start. But for further research or argumentation,  a work like Timothy May’s The Mongol Empire (2018) will serve the curious reader better.

In the end, Weatherford’s work runs afoul of the common of many studies which seek to put history into a larger, sweeping narrative, that presents any topic as inherently beneficial or otherwise. No historical topic will fit neatly into such a box, particularly one as large, and often destructive, as the Mongol Empire.

Jack Wilson recently completed his MA thesis at Central European University, where he offered a reassessment of the life and career of Nogai and his role in the late thirteenth century Golden Horde. You can visit the educational videos he creates about the Mongol Empire on Youtube at The Jackmeister: Mongol History.

Medievalists.net May 31, 2022 at 08:11AM

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