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Descriptions of Genghis Khan

According to a southern Chinese author who was an eyewitness of the bloody Mongol campaign

in north China:

This man is brave and decisive, he is self-controlled, and lenient [merciful] towards the

population; he reveres [respects] Heaven and Earth, prizes loyalty and justice (Qtd. in

Ratchnevsky 167).

The Indian historian Juzjani wrote in 1256 in the Sultanate of Delhi and had been an eyewitness

Of Genghis Khan’s raid on India in 1221. According to him:

A man of tall stature, of vigorous build, robust in body, the hair on his face scanty and

turned white, with cat’s eyes, possessed of great energy, discernment [judgment], genius

and understanding, awe-inspiring, a butcher, just, resolute, an over thrower of enemies,

intrepid [fearless], sanguinary [bloodthirsty] and cruel (Qtd. in Saunders 63).

Ghengis himself had a letter written to a Chinese Daoist sage whom he had invited to discuss

religious topics. The Daoist’s companion included the letter in the account of the trip. He said:

I wear the same clothing and eat the same food as the cow-herds and horse-herders. We

make the same sacrifices and we share our riches. I look upon the nation as my new-born

child, and I care for my soldiers as if they were my brothers (Qtd. in Ratchnevsky 149).

The Muslim historian Rashid al-Din, the official court historian of the Mongol khan of Persia.

According to him, some of Genghis’s sayings included:

From the goodness of severity the stability of government.

When the master is away hunting, or at war, the wife must keep the household in good

order. Good husbands are known by their good wives. If a wife be stupid or dull, wanting

in reason and orderliness, she makes obvious the badness of her husband.

Only a man who feels hunger and thirst and by this estimates the feelings of others is fit

to be a commander of troops. The campaign and its hardships must be in proportion with

the strength of the weakest of the warriors.

My bowmen and warriors loom like thick forests: their wives, sweethearts and maidens

shine like red flames. My task and intention is to sweeten their mouths with gifts of sweet

sugar, to decorate their breasts, backs and shoulders with garments [clothes] of brocade,

to seat them on good geldings [horses], give them to drink from pure and sweet rivers,

provide their beasts with good and abundant [plentiful] pastures, and to order that the

great roads and highways that serve as ways for the people be cleared of garbage, treestumps

and all bad things; and not to allow dirt and thorns in the tents.

It is delightful and felicitous [good] for a man to subdue rebels and conquer and extirpate

[destroy] his enemies, to take all they possess, to cause their servants to cry out, to make

tears run down their faces and noses, to ride their pleasant-paced geldings [horses], to

make the bellies and navels of their wives his bed and bedding, to admire their rosy

cheeks, to kiss them and suck their red lips (Rashid al-Din, Collected Chronicles, qtd. in

Riasanovsky 91)

According to inference from the laws that by tradition Genghis set up:

If it is necessary to write to rebels or send messages to them they shall not be intimidated

by an excessive display of confidence on our part or by the size of our army, but they

shall merely be told: if you submit you will find peace and benevolence. But if you

continue to resist—what then do we know [about your future]? Only God knows what

then shall become of you (Bar Hebraeus, Chronicon Syriacum, qtd. in Spuler 40-41).

Whoever gives food or clothing to a captive without the permission of his captor is to be

put to death.

[Leaders are to] personally examine the troops and their armament before going to battle,

even to needle and thread; to supply the troops with everything they need; and to punish

those lacking any necessary equipment.

Women accompanying the troops [are] to do the work and perform the duties of men,

while the latter are absent fighting.

All religions [are] to be respected and . . . no preference [is] to be shown to any of them

(Qtd. in Riasanovsky 83-85).

According to inference from the following decisions made by Genghis Khan:

When fighting against hereditary enemies of his tribe, Genghis’s’s own son begged him to

spare the life of the enemy leader’s son. Genghis replied: “How often have we fought

them? They have caused us much vexation and sorrow. How can we spare his life? He

will only instigate another rebellion. I have conquered these lands, armies, and tribes for

you, my sons. Of what use is he? There is no better place for an enemy of our nation than

the grave (Rashid al-Din, Collected Chronicles, qtd. in Riasanovsky 86)!

At a Grand Council meeting headed by Genghis in 1202, it was decided that “in days

gone by the Tartars killed our ancestors and forefathers. [Therefore] we will sacrifice

them in revenge and retribution…by massacring all except the youngest….down to the

very last male and the remainder will be shared as slaves among us all (Secret History of

the Mongols, secs. 148, 154, qtd. in Ratchnevsky 151).

Discussion questions:

1. What characteristics of Genghis shown by the documents would have been particularly

helpful to him in his career of conquest? If you had to choose three characteristics as the

most helpful, which would they be? Why?

2. What characteristics of Genghis shown by the documents would have been particularly

helpful to him in governing his empire? If you had to choose three characteristics as most

helpful, which would they be? Why?

3. Which of the items of information above about Genghis’s character would you question

as to accuracy, and why?

4. How would you explain variations in the descriptions of what Genghis was like?

5. In what ways could Mongol ideas about women’s position in society help the Mongols’

career of conquest? To answer this question use information from all parts of this unit so


6. Would you agree with Genghis’s idea that severity is good, because it leads to stable

government? Why or why not? Did the idea apply more in Genghis’s time and place?

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