Friday, 24 March 2017

Genghis Khan - and the Making of the Modern World

A tribal born in India – say, a Bhil or Toda
who raised an army – not merely a tribal battalion
which defeated every rival kingdom in India
then conquered Persia, Egypt, China, Russia
and whose descendants ruled those nations as the Shah of Iran, Pharaoh of Egypt, Emperor of China, Czar of Russia!

That is what Genghis Khan accomplished. I used this metaphor or comparison, when I reviewed Jack Weatherford’s book “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World,” for TieCon, a conference of Entrepreneurs, in Chennai, in November 2016. Before I explain why I chose this book, let us look at the author Weatherford’s metaphor.

Jack Weatherford’s metaphor

If USA were created not by educated merchants or rich plantation owners
but by an illiterate slave
who liberated his country from foreign rule
united the people
created an alphabet
wrote a constitution
established universal religious freedom
invented a new system of warfare
conquered all land from Canada to Brazil, and,
established a contiguous free market zone across continents…

that person – “illiterate slave” etc.. – would have equalled what Genghis Khan did!

It’s not easy to grasp all that (or believe even some of that) after one reading. And it clashes severely with our vague images of Genghis Khan or the Mongols of his time. Most people equate them with the most terrifying warriors in human history (which was probaly true), who beheaded thousands and razed cities (also true), and were the most savagely brutal and cruel people (false – Weatherford argues with examples, that so called civilized people of that time – Italians, Persians, Germans, Chinese etc – were far more cruel and brutal).

But look at some elements of that list again –
1.      Created an alphabet
2.      Wrote a constitutuion
3.      Established universal religious freedom
4.      Established a free market zone

Genghis Khan????!!! Really??? Alphabet, Constitution and free market are not usually associated with marauding empire builders, leave alone Genghis. But that simply shows the deep and historical bias that most historians have (and eagerly jumped upon by believing readers and peoples, proud of their own heroes). Most Westerners – Europeans - are quite eager to believe that Alexander the Great (whose record of genocide and destruction of cultures is rarely matched in history) brought civilization to the barbaric Asians. They also believe the same of the Roman Empire, European Colonialism of Africa Asia and South America (but not Atilla or Napoleon or Hitler or Stalin’s colonizations of Europe). Pakistani text books teach that Islam brought culture to India. India’s own history books while critical of earlier Islamic invasions, go into paroxysms of joy about the delights of Mughal rule, while also painting European colonialism in pure vileness. Twentieth century history according to Indian text books on history, is fifty terrible years of British rule when Congress was a noble sacrificing heroic opposition, followed by fifty glorious years of Congress rule overcoming all the terrible opposition parties and “foreign powers.” For context, these three perspectives on history may be of some interest.
My book review at TieCon
Photo: Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy
You will have to read the book or at least, listen to the audio recording of my review for further details on Genghis Khan’s accomplishments. Actually I was struck by the subtitle of the book “and the Making of the Modern World.” Again, a phrase that one does not associate with the Mongols or Genghis. But then Weatherford is not the only historian who makes this claim regarding Genghis Khan.

Here are some other interesting facts:

1.     Did you know that Genghis Khan built more bridges than any other ruler in history?
2.     The Mongols made pants and trousers globally popular (the Europeans were early adopters, they used to wear togas and tunics and robes before that – Romans, Greeks, Crusaders, Goths).
3.     It was the collapse of the Mongol empire and the resulting massive inflation in Asian cottons, silks and spices, that prompted Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan to find a sea route to India.
4.     The longest tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” is about Genghis Khan!
5.     Genghis Khan exempted doctors, lawyers, scholars, teachers from tax. No democracy in the world has done or will ever do that. (Most Hindu kingdoms in India exempted doctors, teachers, barbers and priests from tax. There were no lawyers).

The Mongols defy almost every standard pattern in history, in the eyes of John Green, who did a marvelous series of ten minute videos on world history. “Except the Mongols,” is a standard phrase he uses, quite justifiably.

Do I agree with Weatherford that Genghis created the Modern World? No, I don’t. My views are closer to those of Vaclav Smil, who mocked this claim in his book “Creatingthe Twentieth Century.” I believe the modern world is the result of the Industrial Revolution, which was more important than all political and social revolutions combined. But the book is a marvel, I respect his claim – given the history of Genghis Khan before he conquered Mongolia, what he did after that was utterly astounding. And unparalleled.

The organizer of TieCon, V Chandrasekhar, an entrepreneur himself, is a friend who liked my other book reviews, and asked me to review two books for TieCon. The other book  I reviewed was Alan Beattie’s “False Economy.

Genghis Khan is an unusual person to interest entrepreneurs, I would have thought, but my review of this book drew nearly twice the crowd of my review of Beattie’s book about Economics. You can see Beattie’s video explaining his book here, the video of my book review in Tamil here and the audio of my TieCon book review of Beattie’s book here.

In case you missed the links…
  1. Video of my Genghis Khan book review at TieCon
  2. Audio download of my book review of Genghis Khan
  3. Video of Jack Weatherford on Genghis Khan
  4. Video of my book review of False Economy (in Tamil, at Gandhi Center)
  5. John Green’s Crash Course – World History

My other book reviews (all in Tamil)
  1. Madrasapatnam
  2. Harry Potter 
  3. Darwin’s Armada


Genghis Khan - book review banner

Dinner at TieCon with V Chandrasekhar, family and friends

1 comment:

  1. Chingis seems to be an amalgam of Julius Caesar and Spartacus (rising from a slave to a revolution, rewriting the calendar, etc)