Welcome! For people dropping by for the first time, we will just run
a short summary of our first two posts. Our first post on Egypt attempted to introduce alternate theories behind the creation of the pyramids. Whereas our second post introduced the perspective of viewing the Song Dynasty’s culture by being in their shoes (pun intended). Our efforts then culminate to our third and final blog to bring yet another post on perspectives.
In this post, we seek to reiterate on the idea of history as 1)a matter of perspective and interpretation of the observer and 2)how it is twisted by authors to demonize some individuals.
History is commonly critiqued to be "his story", the account of male historians. “Ourstory” is then a double barreled word that hopes to include people whom we have always thought of as “others” and to cast aside any gender connotations into our understanding of our own pasts with the help of two examples--- Chinggis Khan and Wu Zetian respectively.
Chinggis Khan (c.1162-1227CE)
So just before we jump into the topic of the Mongols, we would like to ask: What do you think of when we mention the Mongols?
Wait for it…
If that is the picture that came to mind, it is only understandable. Much of the sources were written by cultures invaded by the Mongols(Author's Note). It would be similar to having only one voice against the many. The Mongols were portrayed as the barbarians, the uncivilized, violent, and the incarnation of evil, who plundered, maimed and butchered millions. Having been viewed as the "other" by many cultures, we speculate that the Mongols might have also internalized those views to see the other cultures as the "other" as well. They then forge it into their own identity and pride as evidenced by their own writing and reverence for Chinggis Khan that is seen in various locations of Mongolia up till today.
Little is known about the life of Tenmujin when he was young. His father, a leader of a small clan, had been poisoned by a rival clan and the other members of his clan left the broken family to fend for themselves in the harsh condition of the Mongolian plains. Living in the environment which seems to scream “Kill or be killed”, this young boy would later grow to unite the other tribes and be known by the title of Chinggis Khan. Although he is better known in popular sources as Genghis Khan, we have opted for the original pronunciation for his title--- Chinggis Khan.
As the saying goes, “all’s fair in love or war”. Uniting the tribes on the Mongolian steppes, he grouped his army into divisions of ten, hundred and thousand for a good chain of command. In a time when wars were based on bravery, the feints of the Mongols to hit and retreat would surely be seen as cowardly, but a coordination that is still used in our modern world war and sports. We can see this as an intelligent move on his part to conserve his forces against a larger number in future battles to come. Chinggis Khan utilized an effective psychological warfare which struck fear into cities that he had yet to come into contact with. Public displays of massacres for towns and cities that resisted his invasion were warnings to the others. His agents were planted in advance to spread the word of the Mongols’ invasion and the examples made of the earlier resistances were encouraging enough to make subsequent invasions(surrenders) swifter for the Mongols.
Image 3. Weaving fear into his identity for efficiency in the psychological warfare.
Speeches such as Image 3, were used to demoralize people, but do note that he was against resistance and not religions. His allowed the practice of free religion. Moreover, is it really sensible for us to expect war and expansions to be similar to Disney productions with happily-ever afters? Another perspective proposed by Julia Pongratz in her research for the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology says that the massive depopulation allowed forests to regrow and reduce carbon levels in the air. In short, these people were unintentionally eco-friendly!
Chinggis Khan was not all violence and without peaceful approaches. He had attempted talks with the Islamic Khwarazmian Empire but the death of his envoys were a clear declaration of war. In addition, he respected knowledge and trade, going on to create a writing system for the Mongols and sparing skilled people of the raided cities. Moreover, the so called civilized cultures have had wars in the past and it would not justify the view of excluding the culture of the Mongols by making them seem only capable of violence and destruction.
Wu Zetian (624-705CE)
In the context of the Tang Dynasty, women were granted more freedom and were less submissive. Born to a wealthy and noble family, Wu Zetian was well versed in music and Chinese Classics which allowed her to be assigned to work in the imperial study when she became concubine to Emperor Taizong at the age of 13. Access to the imperial study also provided the opportunity to be accustomed to state affairs. What came next would be a whole list of affairs between her and her step son which allowed her to escape the fate of continuing her life as a nun after her husband’s death and movements within the positions of power (p.365) that is similarly seen from Image 4. Image 6(p.367) would then be a good example of how Wu Zetian is shown in a very bad light by historians.
The deaths and exiles that were coincidental with each rise in power led to the many insults that Wu Zetian was a demon, a witch, a seductress(p.364) and a ruthless woman who would even kill her own children for power. In fact, Song (2010) in a review of various literature pointed out that the general view of Wu Zetian continues to be cast in a negative light and that it continues to be an attempt to dampen the achievements of powerful women(p.364). Popular sources of history have also chosen to comment on her relationships. Her establishment of the secret police instilled fear and removed political opponents. But is that any different from any of the other rulers?
The focus on her sexual relations with her husband, step son, harem, and her moves to remove political threats by executions and exiles overshadowed the other accomplishments in her political term. Her support for Buddhism instead of misogynist Confucianism paved the way for more improvements to the lives of females. Scholars were encouraged to write literature on famous women. Tax reduction and irrigation schemes for agriculture helped the peasants to prosper. She also made positions of officials a meritocratic process by the use of imperial exams, personally interviewed candidates and opened it for women to become officials---an unprecedented move of her time. In response to the criticisms, Dash(2012) posits the fact that emperors had their harems and that few rulers maintained or came to power without a violent removal of opponents--- it was only a problem because of her gender. Cai Zhuozhi, author of "100 Celebrated Chinese Women" have also clarified that many of Wu Zetian's past were written 300 years after her reign by Confucian historians which would lead to biased recounts.
Although we would have loved to know more about what female leaders such as Wu Zetian may have done and how it would fit in their timeline, we would also like to point out that perhaps the relationships with powerful men are necessary for female rulers to rise to power in patriarchal societies. The maintaining of power and the process in gaining power should also be viewed as a success in its own right.
Our understanding of our past is very much dependent on 1. the cultural lenses that we view it from (from blog 2), 2. the view of the historian who writes the story(this post). This calls for a need to develop a critical eye in reading between the lines and to be in their shoes to understand the context. It would then facilitate a better interpretation of the way people lived in the past and the possible lessons for our current time. Ending off on this note, we hope that you have enjoyed “Ourstory of their stories”, which hopes to encourage the view of a collective and inclusive story of Humans rather than that of Mankind which excludes others.