Book Review: Genghis Khan And The Making Of The Modern World

Genghis Khan And The Making Of The Modern World, by Jack Weatherford

While this book was pleasant enough to read, I had a feeling of deja vu about this book.  This author’s perspective unites two threads of writing about the Mongols [1] that I feel somewhat ambivalent about.  On the one hand, this book repeats another book I read by the author about Genghis Khan’s daughters and their supposed importance to world history to a substantial degree.  On the other hand, this book also promotes the idea that Genghis Kahn and the Mongols as a whole were immensely innovative, while more careful scholarship suggests that they were better at popularizing innovations from other nomadic tribes (like the Khitan) and bringing them to the attention of scholars in the West and the Middle East who adapted and learned from them, which is still something to be proud of.  I thought the author tended to overstate the difference between Genghis Khan and his heirs, to the detriment of the latter, but despite these reservations I found the book enjoyable to read and certainly informative enough for a book aimed at the mass market.  If that seems like faint praise, it is mainly because the author seems to think himself a much more knowledgeable person about the Mongols than he is.

In terms of its contents, this book contains between 250 and 300 pages that serve as an enjoyable introduction to Mongol history as well as how it relates to the West, which is what most of this book’s intended audience will be interested in.  The first part of the book looks at the little-known beginnings of Genghis Khan’s life with his troubled early childhood and his rise to power in unifying Mongolia through a combination of success in warfare and diplomacy, passing along information from the Secret History as well as his own travels in Mongolia.  The second part of the book looks at the warfare the Mongols inaugurated with the rest of the world, including the Jurchins, Turks and Arabs of Central Asia, Russia and various Central European States, as well as Sung China and even the Sultanate of Dehli.  The third part of the book looks at the decline and fall of the Mongols and their retreat back to Mongolia, spending a great deal of time contrasting Khubilai Khan’s adoption of a more Chinese approach with his grandfather’s more ascetic approach to life, although it appears that the author exaggerates Khubilai’s pro-Chinese approach in order to make a point.

If this book is certainly easy to read and has a lot of interesting points, in reading this book I could not help but feel as if the author was a salesman of some kind.  This book reads like the writing of those who saw in the Mongol military machine the forerunners of contemporary tank warfare, and who did not see the Mongols as a successful but not wholly unusual practitioner of typical nomadic warfare.  The failure to place the Mongols in a broader context as well as the exaggerated contrast between Genghis Khan and his descendants, as well as the author’s obvious and irritating feminism, all make this a decidedly unreliable book when it comes to factual evidence.  If you want to read an entertaining if somewhat oversold book on the significance and importance of the Mongols, this book certainly has a lot to offer, but if you want something that you can rely on or use as evidence or support for an argument or position, this book is unfortunately pretty weak.  Whether or not entertaining is a worthwhile enough purpose will depend, of course, on the reader.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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