More famous than Madonna

T.H. Barrett

  • Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy by Paul Ratchnevsky, translated by Thomas Haining
    Blackwell, 313 pp, £25.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 631 16785 4

What does it take to make a Medieval non-European of no particular personal charm as much a household name as Madonna? Could it be the teenage murder of a half-brother, the abandonment of his young wife to his enemies to save his skin, the execution of his closest friend, a blood-brother since childhood, by dismemberment, and (in all probability) the poisoning of his eldest son as well? This all sounds much more like Renaissance Italy than the everyday life of ordinary steppe-dwelling folk, whose humdrum existence has not generally been highly regarded by European civilisation. But is it enough to explain the success of Genghis Khan in founding the largest land-based empire in history?

If anyone could bring us close to the mystery of Genghis Khan’s achievements, it was the late Paul Ratchnevsky. Not only had he been instructed in all the relevant languages by Paul Pelliot, the outstanding figure in the heroic age of French scholarship on Asia, but he had specialised in the laws and customs of the Mongols during his early career. Ratchnevsky was, therefore, uniquely qualified to present to the world not merely Genghis the charismatic leader, the subject of a score of biographies entranced by the image of the world conqueror, but Genghis the banal, in private ‘a simple, likeable person’. Killing uppity half-brothers by secondary wives was quite the decent thing to do in Medieval Mongolia, and in the constant skirmishing between tribes, young Mongol brides simply had to take their chances as best they might, and knew it. About killing blood-brothers Mongols were admittedly much more squeamish, but the warriors of that time would probably have accepted that the convoluted and long-drawn-out relationship between Genghis and his friend Jamuqa was a buddy-buddy story bound to end in tragedy. As for the death of his eldest son, Genghis, ‘a father concerned for the well-being of his family’ (Ratchnevsky) was surely as little above ‘political considerations’ (Ratchnevsky again) as any European contemporary concerned with dynastic stability.

Given the tenor of its predecessors, then, one cannot blame Ratchnevsky’s biography for bringing forward such qualities as simplicity and likeability, but it is at least worth noting that Genghis shared with the most successful steppe leaders before him a relative lack of interest in family ties – one might argue that it was this ability to look beyond the zero-sum game of constant family vendettas that led to the far rarer creation of well-organised nomad armies capable of taking on the well-supplied professional forces maintained by neighbouring sedentary civilisations. This more nuanced portrait does not efface some important clues to the success of Genghis Khan, but it does modify the earlier picture of the superman (or monster) destined for fame.

Here again Ratchnevsky’s critical command of highly disparate materials allows him to piece together a story very different from the triumphal progress through adversity which others have accepted with far less question. It is not simply that the great leader is revealed as having been a complete failure well into middle age, a fugitive almost without followers, but that by Ratchnevsky’s reckoning he passed his prime not in Mongolia at all, but in service to the rulers of North China. This Genghis, though clearly not short of belief in himself, does not even seem to have arrived either in mid-career or later at the belief in Mongol destiny so dear to his successors. They certainly behaved like leaders of a master race, and their messages offering a stark choice between surrender or extermination retain a chillingly alien, Dalek-like quality even as preserved in Medieval Latin. But the leader in whose name they attempted to conquer the world (and came closer than most to succeeding) seems, on the basis of his own experience, to have had a far less sanguine view of their chances. Taxed at the height of his success with having killed so many of his opponents that there might be no survivors left to pass on his fame to future generations, he replied that the world was full of kings and that ‘peoples in other parts of the world and the rulers of other lands will recount my deeds’– a judgment not only realistic but, as it has turned out, quite accurate.

In order to assess, then, the considerable yet relatively limited achievements of Genghis Khan himself, we need not only Ratchnevsky’s careful account of his career, but also a broader perspective on nomad relations with China over the centuries. Even at the time that this biography first appeared in German in 1983, the notion that the Medieval Chinese and Mongols represented two ineluctably opposed ways of life only kept from a savage war to the knife by the interposition of the Great Wall had already become a ghost of its former self. Since then (as Thomas Haining’s additional notes to his translation make clear), Arthur Waldron’s research has revealed that the sporadic use of fortifications by the Chinese from ancient to Early Modern times was never sufficient to justify the myth of the Great Wall, while Thomas Barfield’s theories on frontier history have stressed the delicate symbiosis that normally obtained between China and Inner Asia. When the balance was disturbed, this was never due to a sudden irruption of raw barbarians into the Chinese empire, but to internecine struggles within the empire, depriving its northern neighbours of a predictable environment for any symbiotic relationship, and also involving them in the delicate business of attempting to restore order in North China.

In the tenth century just such a situation had brought into being two new states on the borders between China and Inner Asia. One, controlled by a people known as the Tangut, lay athwart China’s trade routes to the west, and seems to have derived a certain economic stability from this position. The other, founded by the Khitan people further east, was not so well placed, since though it was able to extract the equivalent of Danegeld from China’s rulers, it proved incapable of maintaining firm control over its own tribal neighbours further north, with the upshot that one of these groups, known as the Jurchen, rose against the Khitan and destroyed their state, leaving a small group who fled westwards beyond the Tanguts to establish the Kara-Khitai kingdom in Central Asia. The Jurchen, ancestors of the Manchus, proved aggressive and determined overlords, driving deep into Chinese territory to create a new empire, ruling over both Khitan and Chinese subjects. Mindful, too, of the circumstances of their own rise to power, they intervened ruthlessly in the politics of the steppe, adapting the ancient Chinese practice of ‘using barbarians to control barbarians’.

If Ratchnevsky is right in thinking that Genghis Khan passed as much as a decade as a servant of the Jurchen, the course of his later career becomes more intelligible. He would have known that their power was insecure, threatened by a free China to the south, and by restless Khitan and Chinese within; he would also have known that it would be impossible to exact any revenge on them if the steppe still harboured any rival whom they might use against him. Accordingly, his middle years were devoted to becoming undisputed master of Inner Asia, and only after he had succeeded in this did he prepare for an attack on his chief target, the Jurchen, by reducing the wealthy Tanguts to tributary status in 1210. The following year saw the start of his campaign of conquest proper, though this was very far from being the bolt from the blue that was later to strike Europe. Heavily outnumbered, he was able to make slow progress largely because of the desertion to his side of many able Khitan and Chinese leaders, who were prepared to throw in their lot with this new leader rather than put up with Jurchen rule any longer.

Even so, Genghis was forced to depute the campaign to a lieutenant in 1216 as defeated enemies on the steppe took the opportunity to make trouble once more. One managed to seize control of the Kara-Khitai kingdom, necessitating a campaign to the west which, while successful, brought Genghis into conflict with the next state beyond the Kara-Khitai, the empire of Khwarazm. Like the Jurchen empire, this was ruled over by outsiders who had recently imposed their regime upon a sedentary (in this case, Iranian) population; like the Jurchen emperor, the Sultan of Khwarazm knew that he in turn would have to neutralise any further threat from the steppes. But alter precipitating the inevitable clash, the Sultan found that his own empire was even more labile than that of the Jurchen in China, and by early 1221 he had lost everything and died a fugitive. Though this western adventure brought Mongol generals as far as the Caucasus by 1222, it provided a distraction sufficient to enable the Tangut to revolt and so it was to the extermination of these fickle allies that Genghis devoted his final campaign in 1226. Had he not died the following year, he would doubtless have prosecuted further his attacks upon the remaining Jurchen, but it was left to his successors and their children to complete that task and lead the Mongol armies onwards, from Poland to Palestine, from Japan to Java, driven on by his charge to them to conquer the whole world.

Why a warrior who had earlier displayed an entirely realistic appreciation of the limits of empire should have set his children such a task is unclear, though one suspects that he wished to ensure that morale after his death remained high enough to deal with the immediate problem of the Jurchen, As it was, the ensuing drama of conquest, dynastic squabbling and eventual defeat took a century and a half to be played out before the Mongols became once more a purely Inner Asian force. Yet the legacy of Genghis remained. The Manchu descendants of the Jurchen learned the bitter lesson Genghis had taught them – that it was impossible to oppose China and Inner Asia at the same time – and well before they swooped down from the north upon a China enfeebled by peasant revolts in 1644, they secured allies from among their Mongol contemporaries, allies who continued to serve them so well throughout the history of their dynasty that during the Opium Wars one doughty Mongol general was even alleged by the British to be a renegade Irishman.

By this time, however, the Manchu and Mongol forces had turned from establishing their rule over China to securing it by recreating the empire of Genghis in Inner Asia, including Tibet, which had never been conquered by a Chinese emperor, but formerly had been temporally subject to the Mongol khans, who were in return spiritually subordinate to the direction of its lamas. The process of expanding this second empire to its safe geopolitical limits seems to have been more or less achieved by 1792, when the first British embassy was dispatched to Peking, but we cannot yet be entirety sure of this: the number of scholars who read Manchu, Mongol and Chinese is strictly limited (to zero, in fact, among British academics), though in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union it would seem that the task of investigating the ultimate legacy of Genghis Khan is one of immediate concern. The fall of the Manchus in 1911 revealed some deep fault lines – Outer Mongolia detached itself from the Sino-Manchu bloc – but current events seem set to shake this inherited empire to its foundations, and we are all ill-prepared to make any sense of it.

Until recently the Manchu-language documents produced by the dynasty were used by Westerners, if at all, mainly to check their understanding of Chinese against ‘official’ Manchu translations: ‘Tiananmen’, for example, emerges in Manchu not as ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’, but ‘Gate of Imperial Pacification’, something which should, perhaps, have been more widely known. But even classical Mongol and 13th or 18th-century Chinese are now very rare specialisations. One is reminded of the Indian story of the king who, noting that he had no immediate enemies, set his expensive cavalry horses to earn their keep by hauling mill wheels round and round. When they did have to be hastily redeployed in a defensive cavalry charge, they could only gallop round and round in circles, with disastrous consequences. Today market forces rule education absolutely, at least in higher education, though how an initially uneducated market can make rational choices is unclear, at least to me. Those who would devote time to unpopular, ‘unproductive’ topics have been obliged to grind and grind about, teaching Japanese for business purposes or whatever, as if knowledge of a commercially useful language alone constituted a knowledge of Asia. Ideology has effectively blinkered our view of the world as dangerously as it did in Hoxha’s Albania.

Of course, in a country like ours, where the economy is already looking more than a touch Albanian, one modest academic salary devoted to the study of Manchu or classical Mongol may seem an outrageous expense when set against the need for more debt collectors and dole office clerks, and I would admit that there is a strong case for funding scholarship in the Pelliot and Ratchnevsky tradition only on a European Community-wide basis. Even so, when the Kashgar crisis of 1995 erupts, will the current affairs programmes know whether to phone Aarhus or Cagliari? If the only history of Kashgar is written in Danish or Italian and not translated (like this indispensable Genghis biography) until eight years after its first publication, will anyone in this country know enough to make sense of what they are told? We live in an increasingly interdependent world, most of which has (and will always have had) a history very different from our own. Arriving at an understanding of what that alien history means for the present and future is bound to impose new strains on our educational system. Simply removing support from areas too specialised to pack in the increased numbers of students now required to justify any form of higher education exhibits exactly the behaviour derided in the Indian fable: concentrating on grinding out profits regardless of the consequences. Now more than ever, security and prosperity, even if no longer threatened by invading nomads, depend on an accurate understanding of the shifting dangers and opportunities in the world as a whole; on an increased internationalism, not an Albanian retreat into comfortable illusions.

From this point of view, the translation of Ratchnevsky’s book, edited by Thomas Haining, shows what happens when a scholar is able to go straight to the point, no matter the cost. The rise of the Mongol empire was achieved, not by a towering genius but by a middle-aged loser, transformed into a winner by the complex interplay of long-standing forces, many of which are still with us. The end of history, in this part of the world at least, is still well over the horizon, and unless we are prepared to pay to make up for our shameful ignorance of the beginning and the middle, I fear that some very nasty surprises may yet be in store. In a country in which there is only one history department post devoted to the study of all pre-modern China, and none to Japan, we may have some way to go before Mongol or Manchu history receives its due.