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Bookclub 15 Nov 2013. Genghis Khan by Jack Weatherford

Posted November 15, 2013 into Book Club by John Birmingham

Well that went on for a while, didn't it? The Mongol Empire, and the book. I didn't rip through the last chapters of Genghis Kahn in the same headlong dash that I advanced through the first half, and I suspect that has something to do with a basic narrative truth. Jack Weatherford gives us an epic mash up of hero's journey, slashing fantasy and slick infotainment package covering the first decades of the Empire. In other words, covering the life of Genghis Khan.

I still remember being struck in the first chapters at how closely the story seemed to follow the familiar arcs of the best fantasy literature. The names, the setting, the characters it could all have been drawn from Patrick Rothfuss, Peter V Brett or George RR Martin. Indeed the more I read the more it became blindingly obvious how many fantasy authors had not been borrowing from Tolkien, but rather from the great Khan.

Nothing wrong with that. In fact I intend to go back and read this book again and plunder it without mercy for some of the later titles in my Dave Hooper series. The rise of the Mongol Empire would be an object lesson in world building if it hadn't been an exercise in reconstructing an ancient world on Weatherford's part. Likewise the collapse of the empire a couple of hundred years down the track provided exactly the sort of detail I've been searching for, often fruitlessly, online in the field of "resilience studies".

You don't really see it in Protocol, and you only begin to see it in the still untitled second Book of Dave, but just as I do in Without Warning, I'm planning on breaking the world. Because of this I found the stresses both internal and external that finally collapsed the Empire to be both fascinating and useful. I'd always known that the Black Death had come out of China, but I'd never put all the Lego blocks together in my head. I hadn't remembered any of my high school history – we had to study Kublai Khan as I recall, dimly – and consequently although I knew quite a bit about the ravages of the plague in Europe, I knew very little about all of the history that have to pass before it arrived.

That same experience, of shaking my head in surprise, was a regular feature of reading this book. It's pretty hard to grow up in the modern world without having at least a glancing acquaintance with Genghis Kahn and the moguls, or at least with our vague cultural memory of them. The famous Schwarzenegger/Conan quote about true happiness being found in driving your enemies before you and hearing "der lamentations off der vimmin" is popularly attributed to Genghis, although as Weatherford points out this is something of an historical slander.

That was the other thing that struck me as I read. So much of our understanding, or rather misunderstanding of Genghis Kahn and the Mongols is tainted by the refined barbarism and bigotry of self-serving European colonial designs in the nineteenth century, rather than the older, more deeply embedded fears of earlier ages. Fears which gave way to admiration and commercial engagement with the later descendents of Genghis.

If we think of him at all, we pay him the compliment of assuming he was a military genius, but just how much of that genius lay in a flare for bureaucratic organization had escaped me until now. It's easy to imagine how the tactics of hunter gatherers could be advantageously applied to tribal warfare. It's less obvious, although Weatherford does a good job of making it clear, how they'd useful when scaled up to the strategic level.

It was enlightening, astounding even, to learn of how truly modern the barbarian emperor was, and how so much of modernity that we take for granted, and assume is purely Western – the separation of church and state, the tolerance of multifaith culture, the promotion of individuals based on talent rather than hereditary – of how much of that originated on the steppes.

My Kindle version of this title is littered with footnotes to which I will return over the summer while writing the third book in my next series. At some point I'll grab a hard cover edition to place on the shelf of the library. I can already see it will be worth having around, if only for the kids' benefit as they go through high school. I've already drawn on it once when helping Anna with an assignment about the Edo Era of Japanese history, a period characterized by a strict feudal hierarchy headed by the Shogun, or military governor. Weatherford, you may recall, made the point that it was the attempted Mongol invasion of Japan that contributed to the militarization of that society.

Having said all that, and having enjoyed the book, omigod it just went on and on. Like the Mongol Empire. And once the story was decoupled from the personal journey of Genghis Kahn it became less compelling. Still interesting yes. Fascinating in parts, especially the links he drew between the European Enlightenment and Renaissance and the rise of Europe as a colonial power, but I could imagine that people without a professional interest a such as I have, may have flagged by that point. I did see a couple of you complaining in another blog entry about the authors "voice".

This, I'll confess, vexes me. I listened to a lot of this book on Audible, dipping into the Kindle version when I wanted to delve more deeply into a particular point. I found Weatherford's prose to be exactly what was needed, highly polished but not complex. Words put together like shiny machine parts to do a very particular job. So I'll be interested to hear from anybody who had a different experience.

43 Responses to ‘Bookclub 15 Nov 2013. Genghis Khan by Jack Weatherford’

AuntyLou mutters...

Posted November 15, 2013

Well I may as well start...being one of those "voice" people. I gave up. Don't know if it is the 3 minutes of academic training I had for an Ancient History major but the writer just seemed to go round and round the information inserting the "team" & how clever they were to enter the "forbidden zone". Yeah...you are probably right...I probably didn't give it as much a go as I could of. But the intrusion of the modern day simply made me stop reading. Love the topic & would really be interested in the information. Feel free to castigate me - lazy, lazy Aunty Lou with the gadfly mind

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted November 15, 2013

I'm caught up with family stuff, but will reply to these in the morning.

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Bangar puts forth...

Posted November 15, 2013

Some things to think about, if they (the Mongols) lay the foundation for guns then they sowed the seeds for the defeat for of their style of warfare. Which in turn returns back to being mobile, the battle normally is where they want it or move it to. A prepared field would be devasting to them (covered pits as a starter) but most civilised societies weren't familiar with warfare like this. If Kublia had made sure his heirs understood his reasoning in adopting of Chinese ways it may have stuck.

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pitpat swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted November 15, 2013

Thanks for a good thinky analysis.

I appreciated GKs direct hands on approach to management. The modern MBA seems quite drab in comparison. However the sustainabilty of the empire/corprate model was always going to run into issues with the transfer of power to later generations. I liked the idea that he really understod the underlying and enduring themes of power- fear and greed- from an almost an intrinsic level and certainly the murder of his brother not only eased his entry into upper managent but alo provided the template for future strategic maneuvering. Strike early and hard then watch the rest fall in line. Personally I think his genius is transferring - dare I use the word leverage- from a pure tyrant/dictator to CEO basing his operation on merit and not blood line. That and reducing -on pain of death- the cost of transport.

I gotta agree with Aunty Lou though once Rupert/Gina/Ghengis karked it I kinda lost intrest in the squabbles over the will/trust fund/empire. Been a while since I've read but I can't remember anything particulaly offensive about the writing style.

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MickH mumbles...

Posted November 15, 2013

hmm common thread emerging here. I think we lost interest at abut the 3/4 mark. I certainly did. I think it was because you knew it would all end in tears in the end with the most common of human vices greed and the hunger for power, tearing the family dynasty apart.

Another problem for me is that I took you advice John and actually 'listened' to this book via 'Audible' Poor choice for a first go I reckon. I found I couldn't absorb anything of the story unless I closed my eyes and reduced the sensory input to minimum. This normally had the unfortunate consequence of sending me off to sleep. It was bloody hard to concentrate on it and bloody hard to work out where I got up to.

Im not sure I'll visit audable again. Oh! yes I will! The bastards just stung me for $15 bucks and Im not sure why.

AuntyLou puts forth...

Posted November 15, 2013

I also struggle with the audio book thingy. I was given some good advice when I whinged about the sleep inducing nature of the medium. Listen as though you are listening to music etc. For me that is dancing around the lounge room. Haven't given it a go...scared that someone will walk in on Grandma dancing to zombies or Mongols or something else unsavoury!!

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Suze is gonna tell you...

Posted November 15, 2013

The voice didn't bother me at all. In fact, if the story hadn't been told so simply I would certainly have given it away. As it was, I flagged after the meaty bits, but gave it one last effort to finish. And I made it. And I'm pleased I did. I was appalled at how much high school and university history I'd forgotten (my original quals are in high school English & history teaching!). Having said that, I'm pretty sure the version of the black plague I learned didn't look quite like this one - it was certainly less complete. In fact all the connections with Europe revealed in this history were, er, an enlightenment. Without meaning to sound sycophantic, I was, like JB genuinely surprised how many modern 'Western' social concepts - foundations even - were in fact initiated by Genghis Khan. And from Weatherford's account, Genghis seemed to bollocks them up far less than we have.

Suze would have you know...

Posted November 15, 2013

PS Imbibement of choice this evening is an AdelIde Hills Petaluma sauvignon blanc

AuntyLou reckons...

Posted November 15, 2013

I have had so much...mostly out of a cardboard box... that I am surprised I can type! Colombard Chardy or some such... Really should do these book things on a non- drinky night..........

Suze would have you know...

Posted November 15, 2013

Well that would hardly be in the spirit of things, would it (see what I did there)?

I thought drinking was a pre-requisite for Burger Book Club ...

MickH mutters...

Posted November 15, 2013

I have had 3 glasses of a very good cardboard Merlot.

I'm feeling no pain at the moment! :)

AuntyLou reckons...

Posted November 15, 2013

Three? Girl!

MickH asserts...

Posted November 15, 2013

they're very BIG glasses!!

AuntyLou swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted November 15, 2013

That's ok then! Have another on me!

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AuntyLou has opinions thus...

Posted November 15, 2013

Well frankly I would be hard pressed to find a non-drinky night! And I am afraid my input would probably not improve. So...hoist a glass (or two etc) to the dogs of literature!

MickH has opinions thus...

Posted November 15, 2013

WOFF!

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan mutters...

Posted November 16, 2013

I liked this book very much - but not because of anything I learned. Frankly, very, very little of what was discussed or revealed can be anything other than speculation. But Weatherford's struggle to separate fact from fiction, and to compare different sources to find commonalities that might be considered more reliable, was really fun.

It is the same sifting that Reza Asian performed in his incredibly great book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (I cannot recommend Zealot more highly). But Professor Asian had the benefit of lots and lots of Roman records to compare with the apocryphal second/third/fourth hand events described in the New Testament as well as an enormous body of academic work to draw off of. Weatherford had little more than a newly accessed informal history written in a dead, highly contextual language he compared to a bunch of complaints written by biased chroniclers.

As I said, Weatherford's struggle to determine the facts was fun to watch, but very little fact was determined. For me the most amazing thing I learned was how the Mongols influenced European fashion. How cool is that?

To sum up: I enjoyed the book, am glad I read it, would recommend it, but won't read it again.

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MickH mumbles...

Posted November 16, 2013

The Zeaolt book sounds really interesting Paul, I think i might chase it down, I have done some reading into the life of Jesus before and I am of the opinion that the man was a myth. Im interested in Professor Asians conclusion but only after aserting the mans religious beliefs first. Bias is the worst enemy in religious historical debate.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan would have you know...

Posted November 16, 2013

Professor Asian is muslim - and his objectivity was attached for that reason alone. His objective scholarship is impeccable. It challenges many popular beliefs about Jesus. It certainly challenged and continues to challenge mine.

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted November 16, 2013

Think I might get this one too

MickH has opinions thus...

Posted November 16, 2013

Have you read "A Christian Rebuttal to Reza Aslan's Zealot:..." by Robert Alan King?

damian swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted November 16, 2013

Mick, I'm not sure I understand what would be interesting about that.

MickH puts forth...

Posted November 16, 2013

For the opposite veiw of course, so you can get a balanced perspective. If you are a true seeker of knowledge you have to be prepared to read both points of view Damian. Its true that we tend to only read stories or articles that we fundimentally agree with but to get the best understanding of the topic, you have to read the other point of view. Not many people can do that.

damian mumbles...

Posted November 17, 2013

Sure, but it doesn't even usually work that way. It's a mistake to think that everything is a point of view. Most things don't really have an "opposite" either.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan asserts...

Posted November 17, 2013

Mick - please understand that I consider myself a Christian with the added benefit of belonging to the oldest Christian church (Greek Orthodoxy) that has, over two millennia, concluded that faith without reason is dangerous and unquestioned faith is meaningless.

Professor Aslan's book challenged and continues to challenge many aspects of my faith. He did it with impeccably honest scholarship that forces me to reevaluate many things I once took for granted as true.

I will read the book you reference as a rebuttal to Zealot, but I suspect it won't measure up to Professor Aslan's patent objectivity. Amazon describes A Christian Rebuttal to Reza Aslan's Zealot as "a rebuttal from a Christian perspective that exposes the fallacy of Aslan's position that Jesus was a mere Jewish peasant and political revolutionary who was suffering from delusions of grandeur and thus failed in his mission."

That is a gross misrepresentation of Professor Aslan's position, if he had any position at all. That is not one of his conclusions. Period.

I am familiar with Robert Alan King. He has written a lot of books - my favorite being The Real Zombie Apocalypse is Coming: A Christian Survival Guide (a "what to do" guide for the coming biblical End Time apocalypse). The hard truth is that Mr. King's education and experience isn't even close to Professor Aslan's education and academic achievements. Mr. King is a fundamentalist protestant minister and a notorious homophobe. He believes that the Bible is, word for word, the inspired word of God. It isn't, especially the version he is using. But if you start from that flawed premise, everything that follows is rubbish. It would be like disagreeing with Jack Weatherford's analysis in Genghis Khan and supporting your arguments with references to films and fantasy/ science fiction.

As I said, I'll read Mr. King's new rebuttal (he has written many books rebutting other fundamentalist Christians he disagrees with) but, based on what I've already read that he has authored, I don't expect much. He is rebutting a straw man argument he himself has created, one that Professor Aslan never suggested.

MickH asserts...

Posted November 17, 2013

Oh OK Paul, I suspected as much but I have not read him.

Authors that normally offer religious rebuttle's are usually fundies whose argument, in the end, boils down to "It's true because the bible says so" anyway but as I said in my post above, you have to understand where the author is coming from. Since he is a muslim, it puts a different slant on the way I will takes his argument as apposed to an athiest or a fundimentalist.

I find that its interesting that, as a self-confessed beleiver, you read stuff that must ultimately convince you otherwise. It was that way for me.

I was a Christian by birth, not by chioce and as I got older i realised I never really believed in all the stuff I was suposed to, it never matched up with my reality. Books like the above helped me see that.

They still do.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan would have you know...

Posted November 18, 2013

No worries, mate. In addition to reading Zealot, do find yourself a copy of The Real Zombie Apocalypse is Coming: A Christian Survival Guide. It is hilarious and disturbing at the same time, and, from my very limited perspective, a book doesn't get better than that.

Lulu swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted November 18, 2013

As someone who read the Narnia books when young, I am (not-so)quietly amused that a book on Christ is wriiten by someone called *Aslan*.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan mumbles...

Posted November 18, 2013

OMG that's funny. I love you, Lulu. I want to have your baby.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan puts forth...

Posted November 18, 2013

Don't tell my wife.

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damian is gonna tell you...

Posted November 16, 2013

Yeah, it got better after the author slipped out of the spotlight. I appreciate the section on methodology was necessary, since the ratio of speculation to verifiable history is very high, and you want some of the background to the speculation. Ultimately it is probably as accurate as it's reasonable to hope for.

I was a little non-plussed when I noted that there really wasn't much story left, but there was still quite a bit of book. That was before realising that the last 20% was "notes". Made more sense after that.

There was certainly some interesting information, but what I got was that raging success was less about subsistence hunting tactics applied to war, but rather the cosmopolitan nature of the methods and capabilities adopted. Because employing Chinese methods and Europe and the Middle East, and vice versa, could be devastatingly effective. Other than that it is almost the story of any large empire that grows from a series of smaller scale unification wars. The standing army gains so much experience in these campaigns that by the time they are finished (and it is now a very large standing army), it is also the most experienced army in the world with mature organisation and capable generals. I think the nature of the organisation itself (the decimal thing) is less important than there being one, that it is under control of the high command rather than traditional oligarchies and that it is disciplined and reliable.

Did find it very interesting to note the reasons why various places were able to resist: Egypt, Japan and Java. Mostly because it was all for (sort of) different reasons.

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yankeedog is gonna tell you...

Posted November 16, 2013

Please tell me someone yelled "KHHHHHAAAAAAAAANNNNN!!!" at some point in this get-together.

MickH mumbles...

Posted November 16, 2013

you did :)

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MickH has opinions thus...

Posted November 16, 2013

John, you said "...the characters it could all have been drawn from Patrick Rothfuss, Peter V Brett or George RR Martin."

Couldn't agree more. Arguably the best fantasy writers around at the moment. But how about we get back on track a bit and do the next book club on one of them? You know how keen i am on "The painted man" I'd like other here to read it too. I'm ready for a third re-read of it now anyway.

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted November 16, 2013

OK, we might do Painted/Warded man.

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Barnesm reckons...

Posted November 17, 2013

If the next book is Painted/Warded man let us know soon, because I want to borrow it from the library rather than buy it.

JG ducks in to say...

Posted November 23, 2013

Hear, hear, M. Barnes (pls forgive my sudden disappearance from FB. I had to escape social media. It despaired me.). Almost finished Black Caviar's biography, God bless her. The Melbourne Cup spurred up my reading on that. Today, my daughter lent me Becoming Indpired, I wish. Need a motivation boost.

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Barnesm would have you know...

Posted November 17, 2013

or we could just wait for the movie

MickH ducks in to say...

Posted November 17, 2013

Thats a real old link Barnsey. Its not a trilogy but a 5 book series. He has already released "Desert Spear" plus the next one in the series "The Daylight War" Most of us are now hanging for the forth entilted "The Skull Throne" due out next year.

If they do the films right, they could be as big as Lord of the Rings.

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Dave W swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted November 18, 2013

I would have contributed some musings on Friday night, but for someone reason I got a fail message each time I tried to submit.

I agree with Damian's Saturday assessment that once the authorial voice dissipated the story improved. I also agree that many of the characters could have been drawn from fantasy authors, but I'd turn that around and suggest that the fantasy authors have drawn from history. I'll even commit heresy here and say that after reading book one of Game of Thrones, I'll never read another George RR Martin and will also advise others to pick up this Genghis Khan book instead.

Finally, the idea that the Mongol Empire was the first exponent of a meritocracy and the forerunner to the modern tolerant society is interesting, however I'd argue that it's hard to see that it was the example from which others were drawn. Basically, it's hard to see from Weatherford's text how it was transmitted to other (European) societies. I consider that the European countries were all too contemptuous of the Asian empire and ignored the benefits that might have been gained. Weren't there about 300 years between Khan and the first stages of the enlightenment?

All in all, highly enjoyable. Even Mrs W is having a go at it now, based on my enthusiastic ravings.

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Surtac would have you know...

Posted November 18, 2013

I meant to participate in Book Club on Friday night, but an eruption and meltdown occurred here at Chateau Dysfunction, balanced as we are on the knife-edge intersection of Planet Asperger and Planet Parenthood. So it goes.

Here’s my (sadly) unfinished review fwiw.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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

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