I am an independent scholar functioning as an independent think tank. This means that I practice applied scholarship or applied history. Just as scientific theory can be applied to a practical use, so scholarly knowledge can illuminate the present.
I'm a student of Chinese and Japanese history as well as the Mongol Empire. This makes me a student of medieval history. I apply my knowledge of East Asia's past to current events.
My object is to go beyond reportage that does not rely upon history. The idea is to provide context to inform the general reader and background to inform policy makers. The past is prologue. It provides us with context.
In relating to cultures with long histories and intellectual traditions, it is best to be aware of history. For our time, that means global history.
There is no greater period of cross-cultural relations, in war and peace, than the Mongol Empire. Narrative history simply means the telling of the story.
My love of history is a tribute to my father, a brilliant man, a lawyer of international repute and my model for my portrait of Genghis Khan. I call my dad Genghis in Miami.
THE PAST ILLUMINATES THE PRESENT:
When I was a girl, my father taught me about the importance of history, of knowing the characters and deeds of the past. The popularity of authors such as David McCullough shows that there is a tremendous appetite for the general reader in works about the past.
In the publishing world, my books belong to the category of exotic history. I argue that we live in an age of global history. What was once exotic is exotic no longer. It is the new neighbor, the new next door.
The importance of the Mongol Empire is laid the foundations for the first period of global history.
The President of China at the October meeting of the National People's Congress introduced his program of the New Silk Road, the One Belt One Road initiative, into the Chinese constitution. This major objective of the Chinese government is to resurrect the Old Silk Road, to link China with Central Asia, Africa and Europe.
If today's China wishes to revive the Old Silk Road, my books tell the story. They are relevant to today.
The old Silk Road was a network of caravan roads that began in China's Far West, in the oasis towns of the Tarim Basin, the twin forks of the roads around the Taklamakan Desert. The oasis towns connect China with Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East and Africa.
Why is this important? Chinggis Khan shook the world. The conquests of China, the Muslim lands of Central Asia, Russia, and his fighting in the Middle East and on the edge of Europe were the major event of the medieval world. His army was the greatest fighting force of the Middle Ages.
Chinggis Khan made him the new master of Asia, but his influence extended across the vast expanse of the world. He built roads that connected the empire with Europe for the first time since antiquity. Silk from China covered the Roman coliseum during rainstorms.
He destroyed the old order that had existed since the Arab/Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, the great age of Arab imperialism.
The world order looked very different during the rise of Chinggis Khan and his empire. The Arab/Muslim world was far more advanced than Europe at the time. China was the richest and most advanced civilization on earth. This is a view of the world when China was the great power. With China's rise in the modern world, it is well worth a look back to another time.
Chinggis Khan and his successors destroyed the Arab/Muslim monopoly of trade between Europe and China, and their dominance of the banking system.
European merchants for the first time could enter the lucrative China trade and eliminate the middleman. The fortunes built in the overland China trade by the great merchant families, including the Medicis, built the fortunes that financed the Renaissance, the rebirth of science in a Europe destroyed by the barbarian invasions, and allowed the rise of the West. It was the birth of the modern world. The anthropologist Jack Weatherford has written of this in his book "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World."
The Age of Discovery, the period of the Western dominance of the oceans of the world, and the period of European colonialism, were the second period of global history. The Western powers developed large sea-going vessels, precision instruments and large cannon. The age of the overland Silk Road had come to an end. It was easier and cheaper to ship goods by sea, particularly the highly valued porcelains.
China was the master of the technique of porcelain. It's manufacture was unknown in the West. It was in high demand in the Middle East. The Topkapi Museum in Istanbul is full of the Chinese blue and white ware that had its origins in the Yuan, the Mongol Dynasty in China.
The mercantile fortunes belonged to the European trading houses.
We are in a new phase of global history. As my father used to say, there is nothing new about this. It is comforting to know that we have been here before.
Technology has created a globalized world. We are still adjusting to the effects of this technology. Things have speeded up. Humanity is undergoing the massive changes that are the result of modern communication and transportation. Cultures clash and intermingle. Nations rise and nations decline. Humanity is in the process of adapting to such things as instantaneous communication across the globe for the individual. The changes are more sweeping than those of the Industrial Revolution. That is why I tell these stories.
I tell the amazing stories of the larger than life characters of the Mongol Empire because it means something to modern times. The scholarship that has come into English after World War II allows me to create a new portrait of The Conqueror, Chinggis Khan.
Aside from the great man himself, barbarian and genius, there is the matter of the empire that lasted for one hundred years. It was an era of peace and prosperity. The way across the world was open to competition. It was said that a virgin carrying a sack of gold upon her head could walk from China to the Middle East without fear, because of the Pax Mongolica, the peace enforced by Chinggis Khan's Army.
It took me twenty years to dig out the stories of the successors of Chinggis Khan. As far as I know, I am the only scholar who has created the portraits of the Emperor Ogodei, his son The Usurper Emperor Guyug, the Princess Sorghagtani, Emperor Mongke. Of course I follow in the footsteps of the great biographer of Khubilai Khan, my mentor, Morris Rossabi.
These are stories about the competition for power at the top of the Mongol world order, and the policies that had an effect on global history. It is a story of brilliant commanders, the great General Subudei, who had conquered Russia and would have conquered Europe. Only the death of the Great Khan Ogodei saved Europe, for the imperial princes wanted to race back to the capital to stand for election as Supreme Khan.
We know that the conquests took generations, but we do not know much about the lives of the the successors of Chinggis Khan. The successor Khans were geniuses and villains, both, and their deeds are brilliant and sometimes bloody.
The fallacy in the thinking of those who do not study history is that everything is new. Humanity is always experiencing personalities and the shaping of events for the first time. The wisdom of those who study history is that everything old is new again.
My stories form an important backdrop to the modern period. They help us to understand where we are today and how we got here. As the great Simon Schama says, "History matters."
The Mongol Empire lasted for one hundred years in Asia. The Yuan Dynasty founded by Khubilai Khan fell after a century and the last of the Mongol emperors got on his pony and rode back to the steppes beyond the Great Wall. A Han Chinese dynasty returned to the throne.
The story of the Mongol conquest of Russia is very different. The problem with the Mongols in Russia was not that they conquered the Russian principalities where the Russian princes were elected by the citizenry, but that they stayed for two hundred years. They stayed until the coming of the Romanovs, until the time of Ivan the Terrible. The Romanovs were the czars who ruled Russia until the Bolshevik Revolution. This is Russian History.
Russia and China became the two most significant Communist states, neither had been as centralized nor as authoritarian until the Mongol conquests.
This is the backdrop to contemporary times. My stories flow in and out of each other. Mongol women had high status, so this story includes powerful women. It also includes as its hallmark, religious toleration, freedom of religion, and the promotion of free trade. These are values that elevate the story, that have resonance for modern times.
I was writing a contemporary work about China and I interviewed Olga Carlisle, a woman of letters. Olga is a member of a Russian literary family. She was responsible for bringing the Solzhenitzyn papers out of Russia. I did a private reading for Olga in her living room in San Francisco. She wept when I read her the story of the Mongol conquest of Russia. She said, "This is the story from the other side."
It was the story of her Russia, her history, but told from the point of view of the Mongols. She had told me the story of the Romanov victory over the Mongols that finally ended the conquest. She had not known this side of the story. It brought her to tears.
This is the story of the past from the side of the barbarians.
As I am fond of saying, this is Game of Thrones, only for real.