"Every society produces its own cultural conceits," Jack Weatherford wrote in "The Secret History of the Mongol Queens," "a set of lies and delusions about itself that thrives in the face of all contrary evidence. The Mongols believed that they could not be completely defeated."
It makes me wonder what cultural conceits we might have in our society.
The name Genghis Khan still resonates with power and victory today, and brings thoughts of terror. Born into a nomadic tribe in Asia early in the 12th century, he became the first to unite the nomadic tribes in his area into an empire, the Mongolian Empire. He accomplished this unification, which had been thought of as impossible, creating one empire out of various factions and tribes. Once the tribes were conquered, he wove them together and strengthened their ties with an intricate web of alliances and marriages.
"Secret History" notes that Genghis Khan would marry his daughters to the nobility of other tribes. Once his daughter was ensconced, the new son-in-law would go into battle with Genghis Khan's army. His daughters ruled while their husbands were away.
Often their husbands did not return home from the fight.
The nomadic life was one of travel and transition. The homes, called gers, were tents that could be rapidly put up and taken down. "A child of the steppe was trained for survival and for constantly making vital decisions," Weatherford writes. "Every morning, the herder steps out of the ger, looks around, and chooses today's path according to the results of last week's rain, yesterday's wind, today's temperature or where the animals need to be next week."
This focus on daily survival required that those in leadership make good decisions rapidly, in an ever-changing environment. There was no rote process and no assured outcome, rather a fluid intuitive ability to take the best path at any given moment.
"The quest for survival is the same for each day, but the path is different. The herder looks across a landscape of perpetual possibility. Wrong choices inflict terrible pain. The child of the steppe learns to correct those wrong choices quickly or else die."
Their environment was harsh and hard. Life was not easy.
This changed for the Mongol leadership as they conquered Asia and moved into cities in China. No longer required to use their wits daily to survive, their nomadic skills declined.
"Throughout the fourteenth century, the Mongol leadership, especially the Borijin clan, deteriorated. Each generation proved less competent and knowledgeable, as well as more isolated and corrupt. ... A noxious fog of ignorance and greed engulfed the family, and the khans stumbled blindly in search of physical pleasures and mindless amusements until they were killed by some corrupt officials and replaced by another."
They no longer lived the nomadic life, but they were not Chinese either.
"They had all the confidence and bravado of the original Mongols of Genghis Khan, but they had none of the skills, strengths, or stamina. They seemed to have abandoned the virtue of Mongol life and ignored the virtue of Chinese civilization."
When the Mongols left China and returned to the steppe, they ate up their homeland, "destroyed their pasture and burned the wood."
Manduhai and Dayan Khan, whom she rescued when he was a boy and eventually married, changed the Mongol Empire's path of decline and deterioration. Manduhai claimed to rule the Mongol Empire, but "she had enemies on every side, and she needed to choose her first battle carefully. She had to confront each enemy, but she had to confront each in its own due time. Manduhai needed to manage the flow of conflicts by deciding when and where to fight and not allowing others to force her into a war for which she was not prepared or stood little chance of winning."
Manduhai used all of her skills and abilities, and reunited a large part of the Mongol Empire. She maintained the traditional way of nomadic Mongol life, raised Dayan as a nomadic Mongol. The Chinese contained her by expanding the Great Wall of China.
Why was this story of Gengis Khan, the creation of this Mongol Empire, and its resurgence so interesting?
Because it tells the story of a civilization being created, then saved by individuals. Created by Genghis Khan, then saved by Manduhai. Manduhai the Wise, as she was known, embraced and followed the values and beliefs of the empire's founder, Genghis Kahn. These values and beliefs created his strength, and helped Manduhai restore the empire.