The legacy of Genghis Khan
With John Man, author of The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan, His Heirs and the Founding of Modern China (Corgi, 2015)
Q WHAT MADE GENGHIS KHAN A GREAT LEADER?
A He never stopped learning and was endlessly willing to adapt. He realised early on that the only way to prosper was to strike alliances with rival tribes. Then, when he became Genghis Khan, he came up with the idea of breaking up tribes and distributing them into different parts of the army. This was a brilliant way of quelling inter-tribal feuding. And, of course, he promoted through merit, which meant that the greatest talents got to the top.
Q IS GENGHIS KHAN THE GREATEST MILITARY COMMANDER?
A He’s undoubtedly in the top three. You could make an argument for Alexander the Great rivalling him. The same goes for Napoleon who, like Genghis Khan, was a genius at marshalling both the military and civil side of his administration.
Q HOW DID HE ENSURE LOYALTY AMONG HIS FOLLOWERS?
A Everyone loves a winner. The more he won, the more people rallied to his flag. And in a country without money, many would have been attracted by the spoils of war. Genghis Khan was generous to those who showed loyalty – he was not the sort of leader to squirrel his wealth away in the 13th-century equivalent of a Swiss bank account!
Q HOW BLOODTHIRSTY WAS GENGHIS KHAN?
A He was more bloodthirsty than his contemporaries, but that’s only because he was more successful. I’d argue that he showed great restraint. He realised that to create an empire, he had to work with people afterwards, and would only resort to killing if it served his purpose. That probably explains his use of the ‘exemplary massacre’. Sieges
are extremely expensive and require a lot of manpower – the best way to avoid them was to terrify cities into surrendering in advance.
Q IT IS SAID THAT ONE-IN-200 MEN TODAY CAN TRACE THEIR LINEAGE TO GENGHIS KHAN. HOW MANY WOMEN DID HE SLEEP WITH?
A He wasn’t notably licentiousness. Captured women were currency to be given away or used as bargaining chips. There’s little doubt that Genghis Khan passed many captured women around to his followers.
Q WHAT WAS HIS GREATEST MILITARY VICTORY?
A The siege of Beijing. It was the first really big one. Once he had captured one major city, he acquired more manpower and siege weapons to use against others.
Q WHAT MOTIVATED GENGHIS KHAN?
A According to later Mongolian sources, he was inspired by the heavens to rule the Earth. I think that idea came from hindsight, not the man himself. I’d argue that each conquest inspired the next, until the whole thing gathered an unstoppable momentum. Empires are never big enough or secure enough – if you’re the emperor, you’ve always got to keep going.
Q HOW DID GENGHIS KHAN CHANGE THE WORLD?
A His greatest legacy was, for me, the vision of world rule that grew up after his death – put into practice by his son Ögodei and grandson Kublai Khan. That ultimately led to the unification of China, and it’s remained unified ever since. So it could be argued that perhaps his longest-lasting achievement is modern-day China.