Sunday, March 4, 2012

[books] the secret history of the mongol queens, jack weatherford

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens is an attempt to fill in some of the gaps that can be found in Mongolian history. It’s a comprehensive look at the role of Mongolian Queens in the ruling and establishment of Mongolia and how they advanced its borders over the centuries, starting from the early years of Genghis Khan through seven hundred years of history. It’s a compelling illustration, looking at not only Mongolian history but also touching on the role of historians in erasing those histories of which they don’t approve (here, ladies in ruling and making decisions and being awesome).

I really enjoyed learning about Genghis Khan’s wives and daughters, and the critical role they played in the division and governing of the Mongol Empire. The book gave a lot of insight into Mongolian history centred around Genghis Khan, and not knowing a lot about Mongol history it was a nice introduction for me. And I like lady-centric history!

It’s a shame then that in all the reviews I read of The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, not a one mentioned that the writer was patronising and condescending. Ordinarily when I make these claims I like to have page numbers, but I was reading on my iphone so alas page numbers are not to be. However the author did make a number of sweeping unsubstantiated claims such as the lack of a son was ‘one of the cruelest blows of her life’ (I didn’t note which queen this was in reference to), and the entire epilogue was just about how shocked and surprised he was that Mongolian people knew something about their history that he didn’t, and how he constantly dismissed tales of Mongolian Queens (and Manduhai) as folk tales. Definitely an epilogue that makes me respect him as an historian and researcher. He comments that there were a number of contradictions in the Secret History whilst rarely specifying what they were. The Secret History, incidentally, is an historical Mongolian document, and maybe it was just my epub version but at no point did the author mention what the Secret History was, so there were lots of confusing references to things in the Secret History.

The book also veers from history, and things actually verifiable, to actual made-up storytelling, or at the very least, poetic license, with little distinction between what is what. And rather than this elaboration making what could be a dry historical document interesting and compelling, it just makes it longer and boring.

I’m glad this book exists, I just wish it was written by someone else.

five out of ten penguins


  1. I don't know if it's just my general lack of basic Chinese history, but I kept going, "Hey, that emperor sounds pretty interesting! I'll look him up!" and then finding that either the Wikipedia article's facts were completely different, or that the emperor in question must have reigned under a completely different name, because I couldn't find him at all. It was very frustrating.

  2. Completely different name is very likely, but it's weird that the histories for the same authors should be different! Wikipedia has been known to be wrong though.