The 'tac was unavoidably detained on Friday night but he put so much effort into his review I thought it unfair to let the copy languish at the bottom of an abandoned thread.
So here tis:
Early October, 2010. It was one of the holiday Golden Weeks of the Chinese year. I stood on the Great Wall near Khanbalyk (oh all right Beijing), gazing out to the west. In my mind’s eye, the ranks of four tumans, 40,000 warriors in total, sat ahorse arrayed against my position. The sky above me was a glorious deep blue, and an eagle cruised lazily around the summit above my right shoulder.
Conn Iggulden’s fictional retelling of the Secret History of the Mongols had led me to this point. His detailed version of a history that might have been was absolutely compelling to me and set my imagination on fire. He tells the story of the man called Genghis Khan with flair and compassion, but it undersells the Mongols achievements.
Weatherford’s Book, despite its flaws (too much how clever am I in the early part, fizzling out a bit at the end) provides a context for Mongol achievements relative to European and world history, that Iggulden from his insular context inside Mongol history simply cannot, so while his fiction entertains (and it does so very well), it doesn’t educate us to the significance of the Mongol achievements on the world stage.
GK was very much a pragmatic conqueror. There was no cultural baggage in Mongol society: they were portable and self-contained, so they were able to adopt and adapt anything (tools, techniques) from other societies that seemed both useful and transportable.
I found it astonishing to realise exactly how much the Mongols accomplished across their vast territories, even more so when seen in context against what was happening elsewhere at the world - moveable type printing (in 1269, almost 200yrs before Gutenberg’s bible in 1455), paper currency, uniform written language and calendars etc., and all to document the accounting of the empire’s productivity and its subsequent distribution amongst the ‘shareholders’ of the ruling family?
The Gavin Menzies’ theory’ that China kickstarted the European Reformation via Zhang He’s fleet in the early 15th century gets a right head-kicking off-stage and off-page by this book. It’s clear that the Mongol and Chinese influences were tracking to and arriving in Europe much earlier via the Silk Road and the outreach of explorers and envoys such as Marco Polo and the religious emissaries.
A few days after climbing the great Wall, I saw commemorative signage in Xi’an marking one end of the Silk Road. The part of me that’s half my real age and much fitter wanted to buy a couple horses and a dog and set off down that trail. It still does.
I too will be adding a physical version of this book to my library. And JB, I had no problems with Weatherford’s authorial voice once he hit his stride.
Other relevant books that some might find interesting:
· Sir Arthur Waley’s Secret History of the Mongols – the first partial English translation
· Beyond the Great Wall – Jeffrey Alford & Naomi Duguid – part travelogue and part cookbook: it works on both levels and includes the story of Duguid’s encounter with the author of the following book, who was heading on her first trip to Tibet at age 80+
· Forbidden Journey – Ella Maillart
· Cleaves – Secret History translation - scanned ebook edition of a fuller and more florid translation than Waley’s.
· Xanadu: Marco Polo and Europe's Discovery of the East (2009) – John Man
· On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomad - Tim Cope, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (2013),
· In Search of Genghis Khan - Tim Severin
· In the Bloody Footsteps of Ghengis Khan: An Epic Journey Across the Steppes, Mountains and Deserts from Red Square to Tiananmen Square – Jeffrey Tayler