Marie Favereau is associate professor of history at Paris Nanterre University. Her latest book, The Horde: How theMongols Changed the World, is a finalist for the 2021 Cundill History Prize.
The city of Brescia in Italy is hosting the first international exhibition of the Chinese dissident artist Badiucao, in defiance of demands from the Chinese government. Unfortunately, this is just the latest episode in Beijing’s efforts to press artistic and cultural institutions around the world into adhering to its preferred narratives.
A year ago, the Nantes History Museum postponed a major exhibition on Genghis Khan, on which the French museum had been working in co-operation with the Inner Mongolia Museum in Honhot, China. The Nantes museum’s director, Bertrand Guillet, said that it stopped the production in the name of ethical and scientific values when the Chinese Bureau of Cultural Heritage asked for a number of significant changes to the exhibit’s storyline, notably requesting the words “Genghis Khan,” “Mongol” and “Empire” be removed from the exhibit. The Chinese bureaucracy also offered a new storyline that would highlight China’s cultural and social integration of its neighbouring peoples – effectively, a complete rewriting of history in favour of China’s national narrative. This push arrived at the same time as today’s Chinese government increases its pressure on the people of Inner Mongolia to assimilate into one Chinese identity by forbidding them to learn, practise and transmit their mother tongue and centuries-old script.
As a historian of the Mongol Empire, I’m aware of the deep impact of this period on our modern world. And yet I was struck by how contemporary figures seem threatened in some way by the medieval past. How could the emblematic leader of the Mongols, who died in 1227, still disturb the powers that be in modern-day China?
Genghis Khan and his successors took control of the Eurasian steppe belt, and expanded into the territories we call today China, Iran, Russia and Europe, shaping a mega-empire that eclipsed anything that the sedentary empires had achieved earlier. Through conquest, administration and trade, the Mongols profoundly changed the map of Eurasia, and in the 13th and 14th centuries, their Silk Road control integrated Eurasian peoples like never before. The Mongols were also able to build and maintain regime by absorbing and harmonizing the different societies and cultures of their subjects, rather than destroying them; this reveals the inherent power of their kinship system, which had the capacity to integrate newcomers. The Mongols’ all-embracive attitude toward family, religion and work, and their ambition to generate an increasing circulation of goods, technologies and peoples, was a kind of precursor for the Columbian Exchange of the early 16th century.
Yet, in many historiographies – not just China’s, but also Russia’s, Iran’s and Europe’s – the Mongol era is seen not a key macro-historical phenomenon in global history, but as a regressive stage of human economic and cultural development.
Why do Genghis Khan and nomads, more generally, so deeply upset the supporters of nation-states? First, the history of the Mongol Empire is a shared legacy that does not fit into narratives centred on monolingual, monoethnic and monoreligious communities. Second, nationalists have yet to accept that civilization is not necessarily a product of urban and sedentary development. Third, our traditional world history narrative is the success story of the sedentary world from the perspective of the sedentary peoples. In fact, over two millennia, humanity witnessed the rise and fall of several nomadic empires that profoundly shaped our history on continental scale. But this world-shaping phenomenon remains poorly understood, and nomadic empires are seen as marginal or secondary historical phases.
To challenge the misconceptions about the role of nomads in history, we need to tell their story through their eyes and from their points of view. Empire-building nomads had open cities, oral paperwork, coins and passports; they were trade geniuses with a profound understanding of ecology; they were cultural brokers, religiously tolerant, integrative and liberal; they had their own sense of loyalty, competition, violence, success, death and transgression. Nomadism is not a primitive stage on the path to modernization; it is simply a different choice.
Reconstructing Genghis Khan’s voice allows us to prevent facts from being invented or distorted for contemporary partisan purposes, and it helps us to conjure the danger of the resurgence of nationalism. A proper accounting of history requires us to preserve what is true about the Mongols, and other nomads like them.
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