Yesterday I visited the Genghis Khan exhibit in Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science, with my wife and Mother-in-Law. Short of traveling all the way to Mongolia itself, this was a très cool experience! I really enjoyed it. I’d wanted to visit this exhibit since I’d heard about it late last year, and I’m glad I finally got there. There was a lot to see, and though I thoroughly enjoyed it (and the two demonstrations we’d seen, with a musical and contortionist presentation) there was one area of disappointment, which I’ll hit below.
Walking into the special exhibit section’s doors, and seeing the image of the Great Khan elicited such a deep sense of familiarity within me. I don’t know if it was because of all the research I’d done, or any other metaphysical considerations, but, yeah, it kinda felt like I’d “come home.” When I wrote one of my still on-the-rounds novel manuscripts (mss) that involved Genghis Khan, I did a lot of research, and while researching, I remember feeling that deep sense of familiarity and calm when I saw the open plains (steppes) depicted on page xxvii, of the Paul Kahn’s translation and adaptation of The Secret History Of The Mongols: The Origin of Chingis Khan, which I read and reread during the writing of my ms.
But here’s my issue: yes, those were rough and brutal times, and Genghis (or Chinggis, or Chingas, or any other derivative) was just as ruthless and violent…but if he was so much the absolute incarnate of evil that much of the world seems to make him out to be, then what of his Great Yasa that he (yes, he) created in order to bring, well—order—to life? The absolute freedom of religion he allowed? The “importing” (okay, “importing” can mean plundering and pillaging, here, but he also did seek out talent in other, non-violent, ways, too, if I remember correctly…) of skills that the nomadic tribes of Mongolia utterly lacked? The incorporation of writing into a largely oral culture (the exhibit talked about how it was thought that the Mongols had brought in the Uighur language and modified it, but I’d read a couple years ago that there was a more modern consideration that they might have actually created their own script)? What about his shamanistic side (he wasn’t “just” a warrior, my research had found he was also considered a shaman), and his statesman side? His pure genius? Yes, the exhibit did mention these, some of them more than once, but with all the apparent focus on his weaponry, violence—even with constantly rolling film part way through the exhibit that I only saw depicting battles and violence—I really felt it simply didn’t do the Khan justice in this often ignored respect. I only now just thought of this, but there were two Mongolian performers there, and I’d wished I’d asked them what they’d thought about my thoughts.
This is my point, one I’ve made many times in the ten years since I started researching and writing that novel ms: just like in today’s world in which it’s the “in thing” to be “connected” to technology every waking and sleeping moment, back in the 13th century, I feel the “in thing” was violence. Being tough. I mean, let’s face it, if Genghis was the equivalent of sweet-talkin, philosophizing thinker…he would have lost his head (and no doubt other body parts) in an instant. You live in a violent era, you either play within the rules—or die. And the nomadic tribes of that location were totally and utterly violent. Like the museum videos said, there was one rule: you wanted something, you took it. And there was no escaping vengeance. If you wronged some tribe or individual (which seemed to be easy to do…), they would keep coming after you and your family (and your cats and your dogs and your goldfish…). So, really, to effectively put an end to that kind of behavior, a ruler really had to decimate entire populations. Because they’d simply keep coming after you and yours, like the Hatfields and McCoys, like my Mother-in-Law so-aptly put it. To rule violent people, in violent times, you simply had to be ruthless. Had to be able to “put up, or shut up.” And I feel that’s what he did. He made rules (and, from what the exhibit showed, one had to be caught in the act, it wasn’t based upon any hearsay). You steal—you die. You commit adultery—you die. You lie—you die. You betray—you die.
Really, how else you gonna keep a nation of ruthless warriors in line? With spankings? With “No dinner for you—go to your ger!”?
If he was so frigging evil, why would he do this? Why would he want better for his people?
I’m not saying he was a saint—he was a pure and perfect product of his times, and I don’t agree with everything I’d read he’d done. But those were the times, and that was all they knew.
And one other thing I’d like to mention. I’d also found in my research that one of the reasons researchers felt the Mongol warriors were so fierce and unafraid in battle was their belief in reincarnation (among other things—check out this link; it’s definitely eye opening). And if, as this link discusses, they believed in excellence in everything, this could also surely explain their “enthusiasm” for warfare. But let it also be noted (again, by my Mother-in-Law), that their handiwork in weaving and spinning clothes was so incredibly detailed. I also noted their attention to detail in their incredibly detailed inlay work on trunks, near the end of the exhibit (the method used started with a “T,” I believe, where you infill etched lines with a compound, then buff it down so it’s all flush). Simply incredible work—imported or not! But if the Mongols believed they were all reincarnated, then death is but a mechanism to other things. Again, this is not an endorsement of me of their violence, I’m just parroting what I’ve found, trying to give a better depth of understanding to the life and times of Genghis and his people (I’ll also have to reread this link, myself, since it’s been a number of years since I’d last read it, so don’t nail me because I missed something in it; I’ll repost). But it helps explain some of their behavior, that’s all I’m saying.
So, Genghis rose above the common people. Exhibited genius, innovation, statesmanship. Created order.
What I’ve gathered, much or all that has been written about him, was not written by him. And much of it came years after his death, in August of 1227. And, let’s face it, he did piss off a lot of the world, and those who came after him wanted to make their own marks in the world…so, really, who knows exactly how the Great Khan was, what he was thinking? I’d read that he frequently went off by himself to “think.” Perform his shamanistic communing. I don’t feel “evil incarnate” would act like this. “Evil incarnate” is about “you want something—you take it” Uninhibited plundering. A self-fulfilling philosophy that would eventually collapse upon itself (which eventually, the empire kinda did not long after Genghis’s death).
So, I say…take what you hear with a block of salt (and this can be applied to most things, I find). Genghis Khan was a man ahead of his time who tried to better the plight of a battered and fractioned people, through the only tools he knew. The only “way” he knew. He wasn’t perfect, but he learned and improvised and improved upon his and his peoples’ situation. And he should be better recognized for that, and not simply as one who was simply a brutal, vengeful, and ruthless warrior.
But, what do I know. I’m just running off at the mouth 783 years after his death.