The worst man in the world, ever, possibly

by Tze Ming Mok / 17 April, 2004
GENGHIS KHAN: The life and resurrection, by John Man (Bantam, $39.95).

They say a single family killed 1.3 million people one morning in the 13th century, then (after lunch, presumably) personally fathered 13 million more. For people spanning Eurasia, descendants of the vast empire of Genghis Khan, this could be the sound of a genetic memory: 120,000 hooves thundering towards the city walls - one horde of our ancestors coming to slaughter and subjugate another horde of our ancestors.

John Man's new biography of Genghis Khan narrates these bloodthirsty campaigns, speculates about where Genghis died and was buried, and attempts to investigate his lingering "cult". The backstory he tells is familiar for those of us with Mongolian ancestry: the Mongols united under Genghis Khan, took over nearly all of the known world with horse, bow and sheer ruthlessness, then settled down, went native, and forgot who they were. Nine hundred years later, the remnant of their empire is a small, weary nation, divided between two countries, with a bad reputation due west, and a genetic legacy like no other, stretching from the Pacific to the Caspian Sea. "Scratch a Russian, you'll find a Tartar", the saying goes. And ever wonder why those kids from Afghanistan who were pulled off the Tampa look kind of ... Mongolian?

With fanfare in the independent Mongolian heartland, and more carefully in Chinese-run Inner Mongolia, Genghis Khan is now revered as something approximating a god.

The Mongolians themselves told the first part of this story in The Secret History of the Mongols. Commissioned by Genghis Khan's heir Ogedei, The Secret History was the first serious stab at writing for a previously non-literate people. In one of the better sections of his book, Man takes us into this fascinating moment in history - where an oral, nomadic culture decides to set its stories down.

There are some satisfying elements in the book. Fine tribute is paid to the advanced Islamic cities whose populations were slaughtered "like livestock". Sources of the time approximated the aforementioned 1.3 million deaths during the complete destruction of Old Merv, in present-day Turkmenistan. There are nice portraits of the legendary administrators of the whole sprawling enterprise, hired from the subjugated urban centres.

But, overall, the book is bogged down in details; the empire as a whole never quite comes into focus. And so a perfect irony settles on Man's critique of The Secret History of the Mongols: "Although it shares some elements of the 'foundation epic' - myth and legend grading into anecdote and what seems like history - it lacks both epic grandeur and historical rigour."

The book un-evenly intersperses history with affable travel writing and Boy's Own archaeological adventuring (the latter being, unfortunately, far less interesting than it sounds). It is also hampered by the drag of narrating a fairly repetitive military campaign that lasted two or three generations. Meatily informative descriptions of the unstoppable Mongolian conquest become increasingly routine, until the account seems miraculously bloodless.

Battle-fatigue makes the reader practically beg the book to reveal the motivation for it all. What drives a nation towards imperialism? Man summarises the major historical sources well for the most part, but visibly strains to exceed them. He briefly alights on the historical context of Mongolian expansionism: the nomadic pastoralist society, fixated on pastures further afield and adrenalised by a perpetual-motion war-economy. But he has chosen to follow the epic path, focusing on Genghis Khan's belief in a divine right of conquest.

It would be a challenge to anyone to find insights into the mind of a medieval ruler who left no writings from his own hand. But here Man embarks upon a dubious slide into speculation. Even if his points are well-founded, it's impossible to tell - the extrapolations are terribly sketchy, and he doesn't reference. The result is an extremely unconvincing character-study, from a historian seemingly seduced by an absent personality.

Still, his enthusiasm for the masculine, heroic cult of Genghis makes for some compelling, and intensively Freudian, moments. He notes that the indelible genetic stamp of Genghis is impressed on an estimated 16 million living descendants - he is the supreme Alpha Male, the Hard Man of All Time. But as we can see from the Mongolian folk-myth in the book's epigraph, the Mongols gradually lost their edge after going over to the "civilisation" of urban societies. They were absorbed, unmanned, by their own empire. The folk-myth claims that Genghis never died - he was castrated by a new concubine from a freshly conquered nation, and fell into a deep sleep. One day, the story runs, the great Khan will "heal" himself, and Mongolia's manhood will be resurrected.

Man does well to mention the use of Genghis Khan as a figure of resistance during the Mongolian "sleep", as the Mongolians mouldered on one side of the Gobi as a Soviet vassal and, on the other, as a Chinese province. The double--speak Chinese take on Mongolian nationalism runs thus: Mongolians overran China, and therefore Mongolia is historically a part of China, not the other way around - they came to us, after all. But Man's reorientation of world

history around the fate of Mongolia and a resurgent Genghis cult, sound as bad the Chinese propaganda he mocks, and will be less successful.


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