After sacking Yanjing in 1215, Genghis Khan enslaved hundreds of Chinese scribes from the Jin court enslaved and brought them back with him to Karakorum. The Mongols were an illiterate people. They had no written law, no recordkeeping. They had little interest in governing the people whom they conquered, but to sustain the horde, it became necessary to collect regular taxes and grain from the agricultural peoples in northern China. The Jin scribes were given ministerial positions throughout the empire. They created a rudimentary government which the Mongol Khans would use to control nearly all the nations of Asia. These scribes also left us detailed chronicles of the Mongolian conquests. Several biographies were written about Genghis Khan himself, perhaps at the Khan’s own bidding though he would not have been capable of reading them on his own. It is surprising how little these accounts glorify the figure of Genghis Khan. If anything, they portray him as being monstrous and without moral restraint. Undoubtedly this was purposeful. In an Empire that is acquired and thus retained by terror and violence, intimidation acts as a kind of currency.
My favorite anecdote:
Genghis Kahn lies beneath the silver tree of Karakorum, staring into the cloudless sky. He asks his favorite general, Subutai, what, in all the world, is the highest pleasure available to a man.
Subutai answers,“I feel the greatest pleasure to be found is hunting on the open steppe, on a clear, warm day, with a swift horse beneath me and my falcon on my arm.”
“You are wrong,” responds the Khan. “Man’s greatest happiness is to crush his enemies and to see them fall at his feet, to take their horses and their herds, to take the women of those you have vanquished and wear their weeping bodies as your bedclothes, kissing their lips and soft, pink nipples.”
The statement is so perfectly sadistic and pervy. It is not only terrifying, it’s weird. He lingers on the sex part and appears to be visualizing it in his mind as he’s saying the words. That it is contrasted alongside Subutai’s much more commonplace admission adds to the force of the derangement. Most of what the scribes wrote about Genghis Kahn, the man, was obvious myth. It’s unlikely that any of them ever met Genghis Kahn, much less heard him speak. But there’s a peculiarity about this quotation that would be difficult to make up. It is a bit off in the same way that all authentic things are: the oddity of the actual.