By Chet Yarbrough
By Jack Weatherford
Narrated by Johnathan Davis, Jack Weatherford
Revisionist history is a speculative business; particularly when corroborating evidence is scarce and documentation is based on translation. Like the new testament’s record of Jesus’s life, “The Secret History of the Mongols” is a translation, years after Genghis Khan’s death. The original Mongolian document is missing. The only surviving written record of “The Secret History of the Mongols” is a translation by Chinese scribes. The Chinese translation is bound by the limitations of the translator’s culture.
Jack Weatherford, the author of this revisionist history recreates a credible story of Genghis Kahn’s life based on China’s translation of “The Secret History…” Weatherford, educated as an anthropologist, visits the homeland of Genghis’s birth and spends time discussing the history of Genghis with Mongol’ descendants.
“The Secret History” misses much of the detail that explains how Genghis changed the nature of war. Battles were not a part of the written “…Secret History”. “The Secret History” primarily deals with Genghis’s character and incidents in his life that shaped it. One of the most interesting aspects of Weatherford’s history is the role women have in the formation of Genghis’s character.
“The Secret History” reveals two significant incidents in Genghis’s life. One, is his murder of an elder brother (born of a different mother) and two, the capture and discipline of another brother that disobeys the Kahn. In both incidents, Genghis is berated by his mother. She verbally accuses and reviles Genghis for killing his half-brother, whom she (by tradition) would have married to clearly establish the older half-brother as “head of household”.
Genghis’s mother, nearing the end of her life, reviles Genghis again, in front of his subordinates, for binding his brother for disobedience. She bares her sagging breast and reminds Genghis of where he came from. She cuts the ties that bind her restrained son. Genghis relents. He obeys his mother.
Weatherford notes that Genghis Kahn conquers the largest land mass in history and manages to create a dynasty that lasts nearly two hundred years. Genghis manages to conquer Turkey, China, Russia, Persia, parts of Europe, and countries not yet named, with an indigenous Mongol’ population of one million. At the empire’s height, 110 million people were under the suzerainty of the Mongols.
Weatherford fills in some of the battle tactics missing from “The Secret History” that explain how Genghis rose to such great heights. Genghis creates a military and governmental structure based on merit rather than blood.
His army grew to 105,000 in 1206. He chooses leaders based on what they do rather than who they know or to whom they are related. In many cases, this army is substantially smaller than the armies Genghis defeats. One of Genghis’s tactical maneuvers in defeating larger armies is the feigned retreat. His front line retreats to draw the enemy into a trap. The enemy pursues the retreating Mongols until tired and worn down. Genghis turns his army to face the tired pursuers and defeats the larger force because of their fatigue.
Genghis creates a decentralized but hierarchical organization that is based on loyalty. The smallest military unit is made up of ten warriors with one leader. Each group of ten (an arbat) belongs to a larger group of ten arbats that become a zuut which becomes ten zuuts that become a myanghan; ten myganhans then become a division of ten thousand which is a tumen. Each tumen is led by a warrior that has proven his worth in battle, while all tumen leaders report to the Kahn.
As the Kahn conquers cities and nations, he murders or denigrates aristocracies of the conquered. He captures the hearts and minds of indigenous peoples by rewarding those who can contribute to success of the Mongol nation. Genghis co opts the best and brightest of conquered nations by tolerating diverse religions, encouraging education, demanding fealty to the Mongol empire, instilling fear of Mongol reprisal for disloyalty, and promoting advancement based on merit.
“The Secret History” reveals how important loyalty is to the Kahn by reporting the tale of his chief rival (a former blood brother) that is betrayed by his kinsmen and brought before the Kahn with an expectation of reward. Genghis slays the kinsmen and releases his former friend. The released Mongol chooses to be executed with honor rather than become one of Genghis’s subordinate generals.
The most revelatory information given by Weatherford is how women have such a dominant role in the success of the Mongol dynasty. The Mongol empire is obviously a patriarchal society but Genghis Kahn’s mother, his wife, and wives of his sons are the backbone of the two hundred year dynasty. Without the tenacity of Genghis’s mother, Genghis would not have grown into the man he became. “The Secret History” is not a secret to anyone who looks at the history of great men. Strong mothers form the character of men that become great.
One ponders the question of the “Great Man” theory of history. One is more inclined to believe Tolstoy’s conception of greatness than Herbert Spencer’s. Tolstoy believes that circumstances of society rather than innate ability make men great. Weatherford’s story of Genghis Kahn infers Tolstoy is right but one would add that preparation for greatness comes from mothers that form great men’s characters.