Excerpts from “Genghis Khan & the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford
Copyright © 2004 by Jack Weatherford,
Published by Crown Publishers, Random House, ISBN 0-609-61062-7

The Mongols Adoption of Modern Printing Technology

The volume of information produced in the Mongol Empire required new forms of dissemination. Scribes could no longer handle the follow of laboriously hand copying everything that need to be written. They compiled the records, wrote letters, and sent information to those who need it, but they did not have time to copy agricultural manuals, medical treatises, atlases, and astronomical tables. Information had to be mass-produced for mass dissemination, and for this task, the Mongols turned again to technology, to printing.

The Mongols adopted printing technology very early. In addition to the printings sponsored by Toregene during the reign of her husband, beginning in 1236 Ogedei ordered the establishment of a series of regional printing facilities across the Mongol-controlled territory of northern China. Printing with moveable letters probably began in China in the middle of the twelfth century, but it was the Mongols who employed it on a massive scale and harnessed its potential power to the needs of state administration. Instead of the printing with thousand of characters, as the Chinese did, the Mongols used an alphabet in which the same letters were used repeatedly. Under the Mongols, printers carved out many copies of each letter that could be then arranged in whatever word was needed. Each time the printer wanted a new page of print, instead of carving the whole text, he needed to merely place the right sequence of already carved letters into position, use them, and then wait until the next printing job, when they could be rearranged and then used again.

General literacy increased during the Mongol dynasty, and the volume of literary materiel grew proportionately. In 1269, Khubilai Khan established a printing office to make government decisions more widely disseminated throughout the population, and he encouraged widespread printing in general by nongovernmental groups as well. This included religious books and novels in addition to government publications. The number of books in print increased so dramatically that their price fell constantly throughout the era of Mongol rule. Presses throughout the Mongol Empire were soon printing agriculture pamphlets, almanacs, scriptures, laws, histories, medical treatises, new mathematical theories, songs, and poetry in many languages.

Whether in their policy of religious tolerance, devising a universal alphabet, maintaining relay stations, playing games, or printing almanacs, money or astronomy charts, the rulers of the Mongol Empire displayed a persistent universalism. Because they had no system of their own to impose upon their subjects, they were willing to adopt and combine systems from everywhere. Without deep cultural preferences in these areas, the Mongols implemented pragmatic rather than ideological solutions. They searched for what worked best; and when they found it, they spread it to other countries. They did not have to worry whether their astronomy agreed with the precepts of the Bible, that their standards of writing followed the classical principals taught by the mandarins of China, or that Muslim imams disapproved of their printing and painting. The Mongols had the power, at least temporarily to impose new international systems of technology, agriculture, and knowledge that superseded the predilections or prejudices of any single civilization; and in so doing, they broke the monopoly on thought exercised by local elites.

Excerpt from pages 232 to 234

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Writings on Genghis Khan

The imagery of Mongol greatness received its clearest statement around 1390 by Geoffrey Chaucer, who had traveled widely in France and Italy on diplomatic business and had a far more international perspective than many of the people for whom he wrote. In The Canterbury Tales, the first book written in English, the longest tale relates a romantic and fanciful tale about the life and adventures of Genghis Khan.

This noble king was called Genghis Khan,
Who in his time was of great renown
That there was nowhere in no region
So excellent a lord in all things.
He lacked nothing that belonged to a king.
As of the sect of which he was born
He kept his law, to which that he was sworn.
And thereto he was hardy, wise, and rich,
And piteous and just, always liked;
Soothe of his word, benign, and honorable,
Of his courage as any center stable;
Young, fresh, and strong, in arms desirous
As any bachelor of all his house.
A fair person he was and fortunate,
And kept always so well royal estate
That there was nowhere such another man.
This noble king, the Tartar Genghis Khan.

Excerpt from pages 239 and 240

Christopher Columbus’s View of the Mongol Court

Columbus embarked on his journey to find the Mongols while carrying with him a printed copy of Marco Polo’s travels, into which he had jotted copious notes and observations for his planned arrival at their court. For Columbus, Marco Pole was not merely an inspiration but also a practical guide. When he reached Cuba after visiting smaller islands, Columbus believed that he was on the edge of the Great Khan’s realm and would soon find the Mongol kingdom of Cathay. Columbus remained convinced that the land of the khan lay a little farther to the north within what we today recognize as the mainland of the United States. Since he had not found the land of the Great Khan of the Mongols, he decided that the people he met must be the southern neighbors of the Mongols in India, and thus Columbus called the native people of the Americas Indians, the name by which they have been know ever since.

Excerpt from page 254

Development of European Anti-Asian & Anti-Mongol Views During the Enlightenment Period

Whereas the Renaissance writers and explorers treated Genghis Khan and the Mongols with open adulation, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in Europe produced a growing anti-Asian spirit that often focused on the Mongols, in particular, as the symbol of everything evil or defective in that massive continent. As early as 1748, the French philosopher Montesquieu set the tone in his treatise The Spirit of the Laws, holding the Asian in haughty contempt and blaming much of their detestable qualities on the Mongols, whom he labeled, “the most singular people on earth.” He described them as both servile slaves and cruel masters. He attributed to them all the major attacks on civilization from ancient Greece to Persia: “They have destroyed Asia, from India even to the Mediterranean; and all the country which forms the east of Persia they have rendered a desert.” Montesquieu glorified the tribal origins of Europeans as the harbingers of democracy while he condemned the tribal people of Asia: “The Tartars who destroyed the Grecian Empire established in the conquered countries slavery and despotic power: the Goths, after subduing the Roman Empire, founded monarchy and liberty.” Based on this history, he summarily dismissed all of Asian civilization: “There reigns in Asia a servile spirit, which they have never been able to shake off, and it is impossible to find in all the histories of that country a single passage which discovers a freedom of spirit; we shall never see anything there but the excess of slavery.”

Genghis Khan became the central figure of attack. Voltaire adapted a Mongol dynasty play, The Orphan of Chao, by Chi Chün-hsiang, to fit his personal political and social agenda by portraying Genghis Khan, whom Voltaire used as a substitute for the French king, as an ignorant and cruel villain. The Orphan of China, as he renamed it, debuted on the Paris stage in 1755 while Voltaire enjoyed safe exile in Switzerland. “I have confined my plan to the grand epoch of Genghis Khan,” he explained. “I have endeavored to describe the manners of the Tartars and Chinese: the most interesting events are nothing when they do not paint the manners; and this painting, which is one of the greatest secrets of the art, is no more than an idle amusement, when it does not tend to inspire notions of honor and virtue.” Voltaire described Genghis Khan as “The king of kings, the fiery Genghis Khan/Who lays the fertile fields of Asia waste.” He called him “a wild Scythian soldier bred to arms/And practiced in the trade of blood.” In Voltaire’s revisionist history, the Mongols warriors were no more than the “wild sons of rapine, who live in tents, in chariots, and in the fields.” They “detest our arts, our customs, and our laws; and therefore mean to change them all; to make this splendid seat of empire one vast desert, like their own.”
Genghis Khan’s only redeeming quality, in Voltaire’s play, was that he reluctantly recognized the moral superiority of the better educated. “The more I see,” Voltaire quoted Genghis Khan as saying, “the more I admire this wondrous people, great in arts and arms, in learning and in manners great; their kings on wisdom’s basis founded all their power.” Genghis Khans ended the play with a question: “…what have I gained by all my victories, by all my guilty laurels stained with blood?” To which Voltaire answered: “…the tears, the sighs, the curses of mankind.” With these words, Voltaire himself began the modern cursing of the Mongols.

Excerpt from pages 254 and 255

The Eternal Spirit of Genghis Khan

The clash between the nomadic and urban cultures did not end with Genghis Khan, but it would never again reach the level to which he brought it. Civilization pushed the tribal people toward the ever more distant edges of the world. Chiefs such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse of the Lakota Sioux, Red Eagle of the Muskogee, Tecumseh of the Shawnee, and Shaka Zulu of South Africa valiantly continued the quest of Genghis Khan over the coming centuries. Without knowing anything about the Mongols or Genghis Khan, these other chiefs faced the same struggles and fought the same battles across Africa and throughout the Americas, but history had moved beyond them. In the end, sedentary civilization won the long world war; the future belonged to the civilized children of Cain, who eternally encroached upon the open lands of the tribes.

Although he arose out of the ancient tribal past, Genghis Khan shaped the modern world of commerce, communication, and large secular states more than any other individual. He was the thoroughly modern man in his mobilized and professional warfare and in his commitment to global commerce and the rule of international secular law. What began as a war of extinction between the nomad and farmer ended as a Mongol amalgamation of cultures. His vision matured as he aged and as he experienced different ways of life. He worked to create something better for his people. The Mongol armies destroyed the uniqueness of the civilizations around them by shattering the protective walls that isolated one civilization from another and by knotting the cultures together.

Excerpt from pages 266 and 267

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