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The Asian Reporter's
BOOK REVIEWS


From The Asian Reporter, V16, #12 (March 21, 2006), page 15.

Millennial Mongol

Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection

By John Man

Thomas Dunne Books, 2005

Hardcover, 388 pages, $29.95

By Douglas Spangle

Who’s yer daddy?" is an age-old question, but for eight percent of Eurasian men, according to a recent study in genetics, the answer seems to be: Genghis Khan.

John Man, in his book Genghis Khan, sets out to relate how Temujin, the son of an obscure chieftain from the northeastern hill country of Mongolia, became the founder of the world’s most extensive empire, comprising almost the whole continent of Asia. Genghis Khan, as this Temujin came later to be named, was arguably the most important man of the millennium — the shaper of world events such as the discovery of America, the scourge of many nations, the epitome of the Alpha male, and the ancestor of that eight percent of Asia.

The story entails the union by alliance and warfare of the nomadic Mongolian tribes, and then the successive conquest of neighboring nations in central and northern Asia. After Genghis’s death in 1227, his sons and grandsons swept through the rest of the continent, until the Mongol Empire stretched from Java to Poland.

Genghis and his Mongols had the advantage of a number of factors in this widespread conquest. In addition to the charismatic leadership of the Khan, their nomadic tribal structure encouraged a top-to-bottom loyalty. Their splendid horsemanship promoted lightning mobility, their use of the compound recurved bow gave them a range superior to anyone on earth, and they borrowed from the Chinese artillery of a nearly modern development. Finally, Genghis Khan was a pioneer in another aspect of warfare familiar to anyone in today’s world — terrorism.

John Man gives a fair amount of attention to the casualties of the Mongol campaigns. He compares Genghis’s numbers with those of Hitler and Stalin and finds that the Khan of the Mongols indeed measures up to the horrors of modern times. In an attempt to mitigate Genghis’s crimes against humanity, Man stresses that his use of terror was tactical, intended to cow populations into total submission. In this, he was undeniably successful; the Mongols gained either total submission or annihilation. If Genghis Khan fails to qualify for a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize, he definitely stands as an innovator of all-out warfare.

One positive quality of the Mongols as overlords was their religious tolerance. The tribal Mongols had been animists, worshippers of natural forces, and they made little attempt to force any sort of belief on their subjects. In fact, the khans as a rule adopted the faiths of their subjects, so that the conquerors might profess Islam, Buddhism, or Nestorian Christianity. Man writes that Genghis himself took instruction in Taoism from the adept Ch’ang-ch’un. He extrapolates from this the notion that Genghis had in mind the transmission of his own legend into posterity — also pioneering the modern cult of personality?

Considering his subject’s origin in an obscure corner of the world, the biographer of Genghis Khan is fortunate in the extent of near-contemporary writings about him, from sources in Europe, China, the Islamic world, and the Secret History of the Mongols, rescued from transliterated Chinese archives. John Man is adept in citing these diverse accounts and incorporating his own extensive experiences. These range from the search for Genghis’s burial place to a recipe for marmot casserole cooked in the skin with a blowtorch.

The result may be a tome of less than exhaustive scholarship, but it is an entertaining and far-ranging book. The world needs an accurate and popular account of Genghis Khan, and John Man’s book about him fills the bill well enough.

In spite of the ludicrous treatment of Genghis Khan in the 1956 bit of film kitsch The Conqueror, a bit of dialogue may not be out of place here.

"Come and take me, mongrels — if you dare. While I have fingers to grasp a sword, and eyes to see your cowardly faces, your treacherous heads will not be safe on your shoulders. For I am Temujin, the Conqueror. No prison can hold me, no army defeat me."

And who better than the King of American Cowboys, John Wayne, to portray Temujin?

 

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