Mongol Apologia – How Genghis Khan Made the Modern World

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In Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast on the Mongols, he recounts taking a class in college on Genghis Khan where he wrote a paper about some of the economic benefits of the Mongol Empire’s reign, and his Chinese professors gave him a bad grade for overlooking the tens of millions of people the nomads killed to acquire their massive empire. Carlin argued that the Mongol death toll wasn’t the point of the essay and it was unfair to grade him that way, but the teacher said it was morally inexcusable to overlook blatant genocide in this context.

I had a vaguely similar encounter in college, but in the other direction. I took a class on Mongol history taught by a professor who was famous in the field (he had spent years unsuccessfully searching for Genghis Khan’s body in Mongolia), and he used to make good-natured jokes about how one of his TAs was an unabashed Mongol fan. The TA didn’t just think the Mongols were interesting, he genuinely believed they were a force for good in the world, and when giving lectures he would go on at lengths rattling off the accomplishments and stats of the Mongol Empire, only to be occasionally interrupted by the main professor who would remind everyone that the Mongols probably killed a higher percentage of the earth’s population than any military force in history.

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Jack Weatherford’s book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. When I started it, I wondered if the publisher forced that rather click-baity title on Weatherford. After all, though it’s a well-written and entertaining account, it is a fairly straightforward historical survey of Genghis Khan’s life and legacy. The book never concisely states what the “modern world” is or how exactly Genghis Khan made it.

But now that I finished it, I think Weatherford may have chosen the title after all, because he is about as pro-Mongol as one can get. And though the book is more of a historical account than an argument for a grand historical/cultural/societal explanation for the modern world, there is a faint outline for such a thing somewhere in there.

Even though I don’t totally buy it, I’ll do my best to explain Weatherford’s argument. I’ll also try to explain how Genghis Khan was so awesome (at least in a purely amoral, achievement-based sense) and why he’s one of the most famous people in all of history.

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Old Mongolia and Temujin

Genghis Khan, who was known as “Temujin” in his early life (Mongols tend to have one name), was born in 1162 in a rough part of the world.

Late 12th century Mongolia probably would have been described as a shit hole by contemporary civilized Chinese people. If you factor in wind chill and the Gobi Desert, Mongolia is somehow both the coldest and hottest place on earth. With no resources but grass, goats, and horses, a brutally tough and entirely nomadic civilization emerged. There were no cities, no written languages, no formal education system, and basically no economic production besides the aforementioned goats and horses. The only metal or jewels to be found were stolen, usually from the Chinese is the south. The Mongols may very well have been the poorest people in Eurasia.

Fortunately for the Mongols, they were incredible fighters whose mobility, discipline, and tactics outmatched even the mighty Chinese, which led to centuries of successful pillaging of outlying towns. Unfortunately for the Mongols, like virtually all other nomadic people, they never had the manpower, expertise, nor technology to take walled cities. So the Chinese developed a containment strategy for dealing with their nomadic neighbors. Depending on China’s condition at the moment, they would fight, buy off, or negotiate with the nomads. The smartest diplomats would try to sow dissent in the Mongol ranks and make them fight each other, which wasn’t exactly difficult because…

This Mongol civilization could be categorized as a low-trust society. The populations could be nominally divided into tribes/clans which consisted of extended families, though these tribes were further broken down into smaller and smaller family units which nomadically roamed in groups of dozens, hundreds, or sometimes thousands. Occasionally the “Khans” of tribes would call together the warriors to go on raiding expeditions abroad, but most of the time the smaller family groups would ruthlessly harass each other, leading to endless cycles of blood feuds and retributions.

The process of mutual antagonism between these units was so routine that an informal warfare system developed. During part of the year, everyone would implicitly agree to peace, and they’d hang out together and go on hunts and trade horses and do nomad stuff. Then in another part of the year they would launch sneak attacks on each other where the unstated norm was for all the men to hop on their horses and flee, thereby leaving their women behind to be raped and/or turned into concubines, and their children to be enslaved, and their meager possessions to be looted. But then once the men got away, they would form up a war band, wait a few weeks, and attack back, hoping to inspire the same “flee-and-leave-everything-of-value-behind-to-be-raped-plundered-and-enslaved” process.

(One of Temujin’s big innovations that propelled his rise-to-power was convincing his warriors to not settle for raping and looting, and instead chase down and slaughter the fleeing men.)

At first, Temujin grew up as just another random Mongol kid, meaning his father was murdered, his mother was kidnapped, and he was enslaved. For a while, Temujin lived with his mother and six siblings as non-tribal outcasts, making him one of the poorest people in one of the poorest civilizations. He and his mother were said to have worn clothes made of stitched together field mouse skin and ate animal carcasses left behind by other tribes. Unsurprisingly, this process made Temujin a pretty tough guy, and sometime in his mid-teens, he and another brother murdered his older half-brother who had begun to call the shots in their family.

I won’t go into too much detail about the political mechanics of Temujin’s rise to the head of the Mongol tribes, because it’s a blur of tribal warfare, betrayal, and murder that I can’t keep track of. What I want to focus on is Temujin’s vision. Suffice to say, it’s amazing that a random outcasted Mongol accumulated power and rose through the ranks until he managed to unify one of the most disorganized people on earth for the first time in history.

Much like Napoleon, Genghis Khan is best known for his military glory, but arguably his administrative accomplishments were even more impressive.

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The Vision of Genghis Khan

After nearly two decades of tribal warfare, Temujin rose to the top of the Mongol ranks. Rather than just become another Khan, he became “Genghis Khan,” which means something like “Khan of Everything.” How did Temujin unify the roughly 1 million tribal Mongols spread out across a vast steppe under a single ruler after centuries of non-stop stealing, murdering, kidnapping, raping, and blood feuding?

The short answer is that he destroyed and rebuilt Mongol society along more rational lines. On the one hand, it seems incredibly difficult to get such untrusting people to put aside their differences and work together, but on the other hand, maybe Mongol society was so chaotic that it was crying out for order.

And that “order” was something sort of, kind of, a little like meritocratic secular liberalism.

(These are my words, not Weatherford’s, but I think that’s what he was going for.)

Here’s how it worked:


  1. Meritocracy

Temujin broke down the old family-based social structures and rebuilt Mongol society on unified, but meritocratic grounds. Not only were the tribes abolished, but all tribal subdivisions as well. No longer would people marry or kill each other based on whether they were “white bones” (close family) or “black bones” (distant family). Once Temujin took over, every man, woman and child was simply Mongol. No more and no less.

Temujin led by example. When he won his final victory against his tribal enemies and erected his new government, he purposefully filled all his top administrative and military positions with non-family members. And not just any non-family members, but nearly all were men from the dregs of society – the Mongol equivalent of peasants – who had risen with Temujin because of their military skill. These guys were no joke – while Temujin was undoubtedly one of the greatest strategic generals in history, he also may very well have had one of the best lieutenant corps ever as well.

This is a point that I wish the book had gone into more detail on. Basically, my understanding is that when Temujin finally won in Mongolia, he rounded up all the aristocrats in the enemy tribes and executed them, but left the peasants alone. Then he turned around on all of his aristocratic allies and told them that they were no longer aristocrats. The new Mongol nation doesn’t have aristocrats. Granted, many of these supporters were given military and administrative positions, but the inherited rights their ancestors had enjoyed for centuries were abolished.

This anti-aristocrat streak was brought to future conquered lands as well.

In one of my favorite part of the book, Weatherford described how European feudalism was basically a warfare system where aristocrats would be super nice to each other while they sent legions of peasants to horrifically butcher each other. So if a lord was cornered on a battlefield, he would be captured and then hang out in a nice castle until he was ransomed; meanwhile the peasants and men-at-arms would routinely torture prisoners to death in full view of enemy armies to inspire fear on behalf of their lords.

The Mongols inverted this process. When they conquered cities, the standard practice was to round up the X percentage of wealthiest people and execute them. They might also slaughter the peasantry too if they put up a fight, but at least the Mongols were generally laxer about it. The result was the Mongols had a tendency to systematically decapitate the social and political systems of the places they occupied, to be replaced by sweet, sweet Mongol meritocracy.

The result was a society where talented, loyal individuals rose to the top. Weatherford gives the sense that Temujin truly did not give a shit who someone was as long as he did his job well. One of his top generals was a guy nicknamed “The Arrow,” because he shot Temujin with an arrow during the tribal wars, but upon being captured, was recruited into the general staff. Eventually Temujin’s military and civil administrations would absorb many of the best and brightest across China, India, Korea, the Middle East, and Russia, paying no regard to nobility, religion, or even disposition, as long as tasks got done.

In their own weird way, the Mongols were uniquely humble as far as empire builders go. They knew what they did and didn’t do well. They knew they had a kickass military machine, so they rode around the world kicking ass. They knew Genghis Khan was god’s chosen ruler, so they put him in charge of everything. But they also knew the Chinese had the best engineers, so they used captured Chinese engineers to build siege weapons and take down Chinese walls. They knew Muslims were the best merchants, so they assembled Muslim merchant caravans to import goods from abroad. They new the Uighurs had a great writing system, so they made Uighur scholars invent a new Mongol writing system. They knew Koreans made great bureaucrats with their paper, so they imported Korean bureaucrats. Etc.

Meanwhile, despite building the largest empire in history, there are precious few remnants of Mongol art, architecture, production, or culture throughout their old imperial territories, not because it was all destroyed, but because they never built any of it in the first place. The Mongols knew they weren’t good at it.


2. Secularism

According to Weatherford, the Mongol Empire was the first state in history to offer total religious freedom. Any and all religions were not just tolerated, but actively promoted by the Mongol state via tax exemptions and state funding. It’s hard to tell if Temujin and the Mongols came to this stance because they were uniquely tolerant or uniquely apathetic.

Genghis Khan was a Tengrist, which was the traditional faith of the Mongols. Tengrists believed that the sky itself was the highest god, though there were also various natural spirits in the world worthy of worship. However, Genghis Khan was also arguably sort of, kind of, a little Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, and Christian, as he went through the spiritual rituals of all these religions and regularly consulted with their holy men.

Dan Carlin speculates that Temujin was playing Pascal’s Wager. We don’t have many records of Temujin’s own words, so we can’t say for sure what his true religious leanings were, but at the very least he seemed open to the viability of every religion he stumbled upon. Maybe at heart he was a Roman-style polytheist who considered all gods as real and existent, and so he may as well appease them.

Regardless of what Temujin actually believed, the Mongol religious tolerance was remarkable. At a time when pretty much every corner of Eurasia was dominated by a religious group which used military power to enforce strict adherence to the chosen dogma, the citizens of the Mongol Empire could worship any way they pleased.

Centuries before the Spanish Inquisition, the Mongols were hosting state-sponsored religious debates. One Great Khan literally invited a Christian priest, a Muslim Imam, and a Buddhist monk to his capital city, and had them debate a series of theological issues in front of him and a crowd. The monk got off to a bad start as the priest and imam formed a temporary alliance against his esoteric bullshit, but in classic Mongol form, it didn’t matter in the end, because everybody got super drunk and the judges lost track of who said what.

The result of this religious tolerance on the Mongols themselves was a society-wide fracturing. Prior to the start of the Empire, presumably pretty much all of the Mongols were Tengrist, or some closely associated Paganism, but as the Mongols spread throughout Eurasia, they drifted away from the old faith. Sometimes this happened when they conquered a new land and stayed there for a while, so they naturally went local, but it also happened to the Mongols hanging out back in Mongolia or the steppe. They would import craftsmen, slaves, and fine goods from abroad, and basically fall in love with some distant culture and eventually convert.

The spiritual fracturing wasn’t based on social class either; all strata of society adopted different religions. Genghis Khan’s elite military inner circle included Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists, as did his wives. One of the details in the book I found most surprising was just how big of a Christian influence there was in the Mongol Empire. Temujin’s main wife was a Christian, and was said to have a powerful hand in his policies. And after Temujin died, his successor was surrounded almost entirely by Christian advisers, much to the consternation of the other religious groups.

Most surprisingly, this religious fracturing didn’t lead to a break down of Mongol society, or at least not for hundreds of years. That’s the crazy thing – Genghis Khan’s religious freedom proclamation wasn’t just a law he slapped on the books, the Mongols bought into it.

Weatherford recounts an anecdote of a Mongol warrior talking to a bunch of captured Christian Russians. The Russians were shocked to hear that this warrior was also a Christian, and they asked how he could justify the butchering of his fellow Christians throughout Russia. The warrior replied with something like, “yes I am a Christian, but first I am a Mongol.”

That’s some pretty impressive secularism. Or maybe it’s some pretty impressive nationalism, of the sort that the rest of the world wouldn’t see until the 19th century. I’m no expert, but I can’t imagine anyone in Europe at the time identifying himself as first a Frenchman/Englishman/Tuscan/Spaniard/etc., and only second a Christian.


3. Liberalism

In Scott Alexander’s Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell, he describes the perfect government as one created by aliens which levies a 20% tax on the planet, but basically lets people do whatever they want so they can keep being productive. Genghis Khan’s government was basically a medieval version of this.

Yes, yes, everyone always talks about the death and destruction wrought by the Mongol armies. But here’s how their conquests typically happened –

A Mongol army would ride up to some big walled city and demand the unconditional surrender of the inhabitants. If the city acquiesced, the Mongol army would ride in, demand that their horses be fed, tell the inhabitants to hand over 15% of the city’s wealth, and execute the 100 richest guys (not counting religious figures whom they rarely touched). Then the Mongol general would tell the local city administration that they are now part of the Mongol Empire. Their duty is to report to this small group of (probably Chinese or Korean) bureaucrats that the army is going to leave behind.

Then the army would leave, because unlike almost every other army on earth at the time, the entirely-cavalry-based Mongol armies didn’t need to be supplied externally. In fact, it was easier to keep armies supplied out in grassy fields where their horses could graze than in the cramped cities where the 5-horses-to-every-one-man would quickly burn through the grain supply.

Then these Mongol Empire bureaucrats would inform the city of their new tax obligation to the Empire, which was nearly always lower than that of their old tax obligation to their previous empire. Also, religious freedom is now a thing, so anyone caught beating Jews or Yazidi Muslims better stop. And also, the Mongols have their own legal code with a zero-tolerance policy, which mostly consists of stuff like “don’t steal,” “don’t rape,” and “don’t murder.” Even the Golden Family (the close relatives of the Great Khan) and the Great Khan himself were subject to Mongol laws. For instance, no member of the Golden Family could murder another family member without achieving a proper quorum. Now that’s rule of law.

Oh sure, as a Mongol citizen you can steal, rape, and murder to your heart’s content, but only of non-Mongol citizens. If you’re within the Empire then you’re one of us, and you are afforded the Great Khan’s protection. As long as you don’t disobey the Khan’s law, you’re free to do whatever the hell you want.

By medieval standards, this is a fantastic deal for a conquered people. There were no forced religious conversions, no looting, no byzantine legal systems designed to entrench the conquerors as a privileged class, and lower taxes. Sure, the old ruling class will probably be wiped out, but Temujin quickly figured out that the peasants don’t give a shit who rules them. One haughty lord sitting in a castle is no different than any other one. So as long as the Mongols were fair and honest in their rule, these conquered societies didn’t mind being decapitated and absorbed.

You want more benefits of Mongol rule? How about capitalism? According to Weatherford, the Mongols created the largest free trade zone on earth along the Silk Road. With the assistance of a robust and honest legal system, never before had goods moved so easily from China to Europe, with key stops in the Middle East, the steppes, and India. Suddenly rich people around Eurasia could enjoy Persian silk, Chinese pottery, Indian spices, European jewelry, and all the bounties of two continents.

But that’s just the economic goods, what about technological advances? Remember, the Mongols were master meritocrats. They picked up the best and brightest in every place they conquered and took them with the army and administration as they kept conquering. The Mongols spread Korean paper, Chinese gunpowder, Chinese paper money, Muslim caravan techniques, and countless more technologies throughout Eurasia.

Better yet, the Mongols didn’t just spread existing technology, they facilitated the creation of new tech by forcing different cultures and experts together. They put Arab, Indian, and Chinese doctors together in the same hospitals, where they could argue and critique and improve each other’s methods. They revolutionized gunpowder, bringing it from an unwieldy rocket up to use in the form of a “handgun.” (I’m sure there are more examples, but I can’t remember them).

Basically, joining the Mongol Empire was awesome. It meant lower taxes, more economic growth, more tolerance, better law enforcement, more technology, and better technology. All the city had to give up was its old corrupt leaders, a cut of its present wealth, and its independence.

The Costs

Of course, if this walled city didn’t surrender to the Mongol army it would be brutally conquered. The Mongols might starve out the inhabitants or blow the walls down with Chinese engineering, and then enjoy no-holds-bar pillaging, raping, and looting for as long as they damn well pleased.

Just as peaceful Mongol occupation was remarkably good for the time, Mongol conquest was remarkably bad. Weatherford explains that the Mongols had no sense of military honor; they simply had nothing holding them back. They believed that the only measure of military value was in the plunder gained by victory. The Christians had chivalry to somewhat blunt excesses, and Muhammad laid out military conduct doctrines in the Koran for Muslims to follow (ie. one should only loot a city for three days), but the Mongols had no restraints. They took what they wanted, and if a city was outside the bounds of the Empire, its history, culture, and inhabitants held no moral value to the Mongol armies.

As a result, the Mongol Empire killed something like 5-10% of the world’s population.

For instance, the population of Persia may have dropped from 2.5 million to 250,000. Chinese censuses show a fall from 120 million to 60 million, though natural famines and diseases probably played a big role. Poor little Hungary may have lost one million out of two million during its Mongol invasion.

Of course, the numbers are hard to calculate. The best historians can do is look at the pre-conquest census figures in places that had them, and then look at the Mongol census usually taken almost a century later, and compare the two. There were contemporary estimates, but the Mongols had a habit of dramatically overestimating their kill-counts for propaganda purposes. But typically, it’s easy to see what parts of the empire fell more or less peacefully than others.

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How Genghis Khan Made the Modern World

Genghis Khan made the modern world by establishing a sort of, kind of, vaguely secular liberal government to unify much of Eurasia under a fair and prosperous system, which facilitated trade, economic growth, and technological growth for centuries. This growth primed the birth of modernity in the place that most benefited from the Mongol Empire… Europe.

Europe got many of the benefits of the Mongol Empire at limited costs. China, India, Persia, and the Islamic Caliphate all benefited from Mongol rule, but only after having their populations and cities annihilated by the Mongol armies first. Despite being ahead of Europe culturally, economically, and technologically before the Mongols came, these regions were never able to recover, even with the full benefits of Mongol rule.

Europe was attacked by the Mongols too, but only in Russia and the East. The Mongols easily could have pressed to the Atlantic, and basically smashed all of Eastern European knighthood in a single easy battle, but through sheer luck the planned invasion of the continent was cancelled because the Great Khan died and all of his sons had to run back to Mongolia to try to replace him.

So European population losses to the Mongols were comparatively small, but Europe was still on the receiving end of much of the glorious benefits of Mongol rule. They may not have been subject to Mongol law, but they purchased goods produced throughout the Mongol empire, and snapped up the technology spread. It was this prosperity that both financed and inspired explorers like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus to leave Europe and seek Mongol land on the other side of the world.

IMO this is where Weatherford gets really shaky. He doesn’t devote enough time or detail to explaining the causal connection between Mongol Eurasia and the birth of modernity in Europe, but if you squint hard enough, you can kind of, sort of, vaguely see it.

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