The Amazing(ly Cruel) Life of Genghis Khan

A HR reader asks us what the history of Genghis Khan is. This is a rather good question, considering that I am a bit of a Mongol history fanatic, and so this gives me a great excuse to start raving about Genghis Khan (because, all things considered, if you’re reading this blog you probably do know a bit about Genghis Khan already).

Genghis Khan is a truly amazing man in many aspects. Amazingly cruel. Amazingly ruthless. Amazingly smart. Amazingly daring. And perhaps amazingly lucky. Genghis Khan was born as Temujin to the son of a khan of a small Mongol clan in modern-day Mongolia in an unknown date. Anyway, Temujin, while on his way to his new wife’s tribe at a rather young age, got news back from his family that his father, Yesugei, had been poisoned by his enemies. Temujin and his family was abandoned by the rest of the tribe and forced to live as outcasts.

Certainly not a good start to life, but as a real testament to his amazing abilities of diplomacy and wit he managed to crawl his way back and begin his (albeit slow) rise to power. By the year 1190, he had united all the Mongol confederations, and in 1206 he united the entire Mongolian steppes, forcing all the rival tribes into the newly-founded Mongol Empire with himself as the Great Khan, Genghis: universal ruler, khan of the sea of grass.

Jin Dynasty Map (Image Source)

Temujin, now Genghis Khan, decided that the Mongols would attack their ancestral enemy: the Chinese. The Chinese, with northern China ruled by the Jin Dynasty (and the south ruled by the Song) had a main foreign policy of ‘divide and rule’ with the Mongols: basically, it was ‘don’t allow them to unite and become strong, because if they become strong they’re gonna attack you’. Genghis’s formation of the Mongol Empire reversed all that, and he declared his readiness for invasion when a Chinese ambassador came to ask Genghis to attend the coronation of a new Emperor. Genghis spat on the ground and began insulting the Emperor, which for a person who has the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ in theory was not going to be taken lightly. Despite the fact that people raised in places where temperatures could swing from 30 degrees celsius to sub-zero in one day and are forced to live and eat in small ‘tents’ (known to the Mongols as gers) are generally more physically fit (and therefore better warriors) than people who have lived in a Chinese walled city all their life, Genghis decided not to attack right from the front where the Chinese would be strongest. Instead, he chose to attack the Xi Xia kingdom to the west, and from there invaded through the Jin Dynasty’s weaker defensive positions.

Here we see Genghis’s not-so-nice behavior on display. His system was to surround a city and raise a white tent. If the people inside the city did not surrender by the end of the day, he put up the red tent, which meant that all men of fighting age would die. Allow another day to pass and Genghis would raise the black tent, telling the city that all living things were to be killed and the Mongols would begin attacking and razing the city. Not very surprisingly, northern China would lose as much as a third of its population by the time the Mongols were finished with the Jin Dynasty. In 1211, the Mongol troops met the main Jin army and when the day was done, half a million Chinese troops had been killed. Genghis proceeded to attack the Jin capital, Yanjing, in 1215, and the capital of the Jin had to be moved to the city of Kaifeng by the new Emperor Xuanzong. (The fact that the previous Emperor had been slain by a defeated general did not help).

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Genghis now ruled most of northern China (southern China under the Song Dynasty would not be conquered until the time of Genghis’s

Mongol Empire by Genghis’s death (Image Source)

grandson Kublai), but instead of completing the Jin campaign, Genghis headed west. His envoys asking for trade to the Shah of the Khwarezmian Empire in the west (which rules most of Central Asia) had been executed. (This move by the Shah, whose name was Ala-Ad-Din-Muhammad, is sometimes considered one of the worst military decisions in history). An infuriated Genghis mobilized his Mongol troops and moved against the Shah. By the end of Genghis’s campaign the Khwarezmian Empire was utterly destroyed, most of its cities made into dust.

From this, you’d probably see that Genghis Khan can be counted as one of the most cruel leaders in history. Genghis Khan may never have said the following quote, but it wouldn’t be so far off from his true personality:

The greatest joy for a man is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms.

By the time of Genghis’s death, the Mongol Empire would stretch from the Caspian Sea to the borders of Korea. His descendants would stretch it even further until it covered nearly the whole of Eurasia. We could attribute Genghis’s successes to the fact that he was very cruel, mercilessly slaughtering everyone, but then we can’t overlook his charisma that brought followers to him and his excellent tactical mind. He was one of the best generals in history, certainly, and his generals (a lot of them deserve an HH post to themselves), known as Genghis’s ‘dogs of war’, were all very brilliant. The Mongol Empire he founded would connect Eurasia and allow the flow of ideas and money in the centuries to come.


History Republic

(Previously posted on HR’s original site Homewritten History)

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  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Great post from History Republic (the blog that won an award from me during 2013) on Temujin, a/k/a Genghis Khan, his life and conquests. Very interesting and informative, on a subject that’s not otherwise likely to appear on my own blog. Great job from HR as usual!

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