Wednesday, February 11, 2009

History Lo Mein

"But, now that we have embarked on this topic, we have had second thoughts about setting it down in writing; for after all it is very well known to many people. So let us drop the subject and start on another one."

Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu (2007, Laurence Bergreen)
Marco Polo: The Travels (Penguin, 1958 translation R.E. Latham)

Genghis Khan & the Mongol Conquests, 1190-1400 (Stephen Turnbull);
The Mongol Empire (Mary Hull)
Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007 DVD, Sergie Bodrov)

1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance (2008, Gavin Menzies)

Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors
(2009, Ann Paludan)
Some good history books to recommend, and one DVD, although as a caveat I will admit that my movie pick was given a big Thumbs Down by the two friends I mentioned it to. Anyway, perhaps my enthusiasm will prove contagious. Remember, even Marco Polo's journey started with but a single step.

According to the Laurence Bergreen bio, most of what Polo claims to have seen, he really saw. Scholars through the centuries have contested how much of what Polo set down in his book was based on first-hand experience versus what he had heard second- or third-hand. Bergreen seems willing to cut Polo a lot of slack, casting dispersion gently over some of the more spurious bits of Polo braggadocio, such as the role he purports to play helping the Mongols with their siege of a key southern Chinese city that was providing fierce resistance. Polo claims he then helped design a series of catapults based on the latest Persian models, which sounds like so much Venetian bologna to Bergreen.

In another intriguing passage, Bergreen offers a novel explanation for why Polo seemed to linger so long near the mountains of Afghanistan: perhaps he was kicking a nasty opium habit he picked up along the way. And you thought history had to be boring.

As you probably already kno
w, Polo didn't actually set quill to parchment and write The Travels all by his lonesome; rather, while languishing in a Genoese jail as a prisoner of war around 1298, he dictated his fantastic tale to a fellow prisoner, a writer from Pisa by the name of Rustichello. Therefore, it's anyone's guess as to which adventures belong to the well-traveled but down-to-earth merchant and which to the writer of picaresque romances populated by chivalric knights. Kind of like in our day determining where manager Joe Torre ends and author Tom Verducci begins in The Yankee Years, nominally Torre's memoir but most of the time rendered in third person.

Whatever the case, the combination has stood the test of time. Polo left home in 1271 as a 17-year-old, and by the time he returned a quarter-century later, his claim to have seen more of the world than any single man ever had was wholly justified.

But it's the little details that make Polo's Travels such a fascinating read. Even when dismissing foreign customs and cultures in the sweep of a short paragraph, the style proves ingratiating. There are subtle variations on passages like "Since I have told you about these Tartars of the Levant, let us now leave them and turn to Turkestan, so that you may hear all about it. But as a matter of fact we have already told you about Turkestan and how it is ruled by Kaidu, so we have no more to tell." Then the master of the smooth segue is on to another exotic city, where invariably the natives are savages who worship idols, the amenities of life are good and plentiful, and the women are beautiful.

It's funny, I didn't start out on such a Sino-centric path, but one topic seemed to lead naturally to another. This good streak began with the Marco Polo biography, and that led to wanting to not only read Polo's Travels itself, but wanting to find out more about these raging, rampaging, fearless Mongols, who in the 13th century altered the course of history. Led by Genghis Khan -- who by sheer force of will and personal magnetism organized thousands of scattered, nomadic, often warring tribes into arguably the most cohesive military force in world history starting in 1206 -- their empire ultimately surpassed the Roman Empire and even Alexander's conquests, ranking second only to the British Empire in land mass. At its peak, the empire included not only China but as far south as Cambodia, as far east as Baghdad (a city the Mongols burned to the ground in 1258, after slaughtering the entire population), with control over Russia and the Ukraine (the Golden Horde) as well as part of Poland (Battle of Liegnitz in 1241) and Hungary.

In addition to their vast superiority in numbers (males up to age 60 were still draft-eligible), there was strict discipline and nuanced strategy in Mongolian warfare. Commanders of 10 reported to commanders of 100, who reported to commanders of 1,000 and so on up to 10,000 and 100,000, with constant promotion and demotion designed to reward soldiers based on merit, regardless of status. This resulted in a fierce loyalty not to one's tribe, but to the military chain of command.

Yet as innovative as Mongolian warfare proved to be, it was their ability to adapt their style of governing to the conquered lands that proved revolutionary, with policies that not only tolerated religious diversity but made a point of incorporating Christians, Muslims and Buddhists into positions of leadership.
But like all superpowers, the Mongols got a little too cocky and foolishly embarked on costly invasions of Korea and Japan. In the two unsuccessful Mongol invasions of Japan (1274, 1281), bad weather played as big a role in fending off the Mongol force as the fierce resistance offered by Japanese samurais, with kamikazes ("divine winds") and tsunamis conspiring to alter the the course of history, as thousands of ships in the Mongol fleet were lost at sea. This seeming intervention by the gods cast a pall over the once-infallible sheen of Mongol might back home, and just as suddenly as their meteoric rise on the world stage came their downfall. Following the death of Kublai Khan, the empire began to crumble.

I just happened to stumble on the Mongol DVD while I was checking out another movie at the library. I watched, loved it, and would have loved another hour. But after Genghis Khan's death the movie ends kind of abruptly. My thought was, as long as the director had his cast of thousands of native Mongols, dressed up in period costume with no place to go, why not spin the sucker out to 3- or 4-hour epic length? Well, turns out that Mongol was just the "first entry in a proposed trilogy." So for those of us who didn't get quite enough Mongol throat singing the first time around, we may have two more movies to look forward to. You go, Mr. Bodrov.

I found 1434
to be a terrific read, but I made the mistake of checking out the Wikipedia page halfway through the book. Turns out other historians are up in arms over some of the more controversial conclusions. The consensus is that not only are the author's credentials questionable, but his claims are often outlandish and his research shoddy. It's like writer Gavin Menzies was the James Frey of the historical world, with 1434 evidently the Million Little Pieces of the genre. Yet 1434 and its predecessor 1421: The Year China Discovered America were bestsellers. Maybe it's a good story even if it wasn't true.

The author claims that not only were the Chinese sailing around the world centuries before Europeans, but on one specific expedition they reached Italy and bestowed gifts on the Vatican, including the latest maps of the world, astronomical tables, and a comprehensive encyclopedia containing the latest Chinese innovations in agriculture, city planning, engineering and weaponry. Later on, Da Vinci and other "geniuses" like him, according to Menzies, were merely offering variations on what the Chinese had known for centuries. European civilization really emerged from the Dark Ages and took off as a direct result of the 1434 contact between Chinese and the West. And it was Chinese science and map-making that made possible the voyages of discovery, specifically an astronomical chart that was based on knowledge of the earth orbiting the sun hundreds of years before Copernicus and Galileo. There's probably an element of truth to the Chinese influence, but perhaps attributing the entire Renaissance to this one 1434 event is going too far.
Before reading Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors, I had no idea how much emphasis the culture placed on the afterlife. For the same reason ancient Egyptians built their great pyramids above ground, the Chinese built whole cities underground for the deceased nobility in unbelievably ostentatious displays of wealth and industry. They believed that they would need all their everyday belongings, utensils and even toiletries in the next life, and so houses were replicated down to the smallest detail.

The emperors themselves went to even greater lengths to ensure their afterlives would not only be lavishly comfortable but safe. Why else would the First Emperor, in the 2nd Century BC, have himself buried with thousands of life-size, life-like terra cotta soldiers and horses? This proved to be the rule rather than the exception, as the bigger the gravesite, the more notable and powerful the ruler. The Chinese were kind of funny like that. But aren't we all?

See also:

Highly recommended
Falling Man
Pirate Histories
Poe Eye
Finding Wiki


Anonymous said...

There's also a book about 2 guys from Queens who traced Polo's steps a few years ago...

jimithegreek said...

An informattive & educational piece! Lets get back to the ranting and raving!!! A-Rod, Cowboys?

Wardens World said...

A-Rod has singlehandedly ruined my enthusiasm for the upcoming season. We should've cut bait when we had the chance last year. The guy's karma is deadly.

Cowboys? You had to go there, didn't you?

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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