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Surtac's review of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Posted November 18, 2013 into Book Club by John Birmingham

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

10 Responses to ‘Surtac's review of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World’

Dino not to be confused with asserts...

Posted November 18, 2013

Thanks JB,

Surtac's comment is worth a read.

Movable type?

They had Pamphlets?

Therbs mumbles...

Posted November 18, 2013

Didn't realise the fkn Watchtower was being produced then.

Dino not to be confused with reckons...

Posted November 18, 2013

Was going to blog about Religion a couple of weeks ago starting with the JW.

My missus said everyone is entitled to their opinion.

I said ok I am going to join the JW how do you feel about that!

It is all ok now.

Took a week or more.

Why am I so intolerant?

Brian mutters...

Posted November 18, 2013

The other half of the Mongol environment were the Southern Song dynasty. Well worth looking at, as they seemed to have been the most innovative and export driven kingdom, Chinas produced.

Movable type predates the Mongols. Woodcuts.

Dino not to be confused with reckons...

Posted November 19, 2013

Ta Brian,

I have started reading about them.

They liked literacy!

Brian reckons...

Posted November 19, 2013

Dino. Not a problem. In your reading trace down . . Seals. If your familiar with signet rings, Chinese seals are a whole different world. Wherever you see a ideograph in red . . .thats someone using a seal. Contemporary Chinese collect them like stamps. . .and it's been going on for centuries. Generally they're carved out of jade, and in themselves works of art . . .usually a 10 year apprenticeship. Thing is . . .the same technique to make a seal goes into woodcuts. Give an idea the Soong about 1300 were issuing building regulations in book form right across their empire. . . All Chinese temples, palaces conform to the code based on modular designs. Look up dougong.

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan has opinions thus...

Posted November 18, 2013

Surtac's review makes me feel intellectually and artistically inadequate. And I hate that.

Suze has opinions thus...

Posted November 20, 2013

Ditto. Le sigh.

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Surtac mutters...

Posted November 19, 2013

Thanks for the boost John. I was disappointed not to be able to take part on Friday night, but I do live in Chateau Dysfunction, and so I try to be more philosophical about taking the good with the bad.

And of course, reading back over the essay, I immediately see all of the things I missed - the things I meant to say and forgot to include. Things like, if you do read the Igguldens, don't neglect his author's notes at the back of each book. He does a good job of explaining where and why he has deviated from the Secret History, what he has speculated about and added tto fill the gaps in the history, and also what he had available and used as sources.

On that note, all the books I mentioned in my review are from my own collection. So clearly I've been (overly?) fascinated by this topic for a long time now.

Brian reckons...

Posted November 19, 2013

Surtac. Me too.

These days, I spens far too much time watching Chinese doco's on Foxtel . . .CCTV has a channel devoted to it. Fascinating to see China's perspective on its history. If you're a sinophile( like me) its the material they don't talk about . . .like the Mongols. And as for modern history . . Whew! strange how the sorta airbrush the Cultural Revolution out of things. Or the Great Leap Forward - 30 million plus dead

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