Guest Post: Dori Jones Yang–Aren’t the Mongols Bad Guys?

Dori Jones Yang is celebrating the release of Son of Venice, the sequel to her YA historical novel Daughter of Xanadu.  She stopped by the virtual offices  to set the record straight about the Mongols.   

Weren’t the Mongols Bad Guys? by Dori Jones Yang

Imagine a cartoon image of a horde of Mongol horsemen. Galloping on black horses, fierce and ferocious, they are invading a village, eager to rape and pillage.

The Mongols, history teaches us, were barbarians, vicious and cruel, destroyers of all that is good and civilized.

So why on earth did I choose a Mongol as the main character of my novel, Daughter of Xanadu, and the chief love interest in the sequel, Son of Venice? Who would fall in love with a Mongol?

In college, I majored in European history, and the Mongols were remembered as “Tartars” who decimated Hungary and Poland and subjugated Russia for centuries. But any good student learns that every set of people has its own take on history.

The story of the Mongols was mostly written by the people they conquered: the Russians, the Chinese, the Persians. The Mongols were definitely less “civilized” than all these peoples. When they began their conquests, they were nomadic herdsmen with no permanent settlements, no architecture, no written language. They lived in tents and spoke a guttural language no one else could understand. With no farming or manufacturing, they had to raid settled areas to get modern goods: stirrups, swords, fabrics, dishes.

Most of the horror stories about the Mongols are true. In retrospect, it seems almost impossible that Genghis Khan and his primitive hordes could have conquered most of the known world. They did it with “shock and awe” – swooping in on surprise attacks with such ferocity and cruelty that settled people were terrified of them. When one town resisted, Genghis Khan ordered his troops to massacre them with such horrific brutality that the next town would choose to surrender rather than face such a rampage. The Mongol troops cut one ear off each victim and collected them in bags as a way of counting the dead. They stacked up skulls to make sure no one would resist them in the future. The word “horde” even comes from Mongolian!

So it surprised me to read Marco Polo’s book. When he arrived in China, it was ruled by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Khubilai Khan. Marco would have heard these same horror stories from his father’s generation, who lived through Mongol attacks on Europe. And yet, Marco himself wrote nothing but positive things about Khubilai Khan: about his luxurious palaces, his glorious gardens, his large family, his lavish banquets. Marco Polo might as well have been a paid PR guy for the Mongols. Why?

It turns out the Mongol conquests were so swift that they gained control of almost all the land from Russia to China in just two generations. By the time Marco Polo got to China, the Mongols had settled into Chinese-style palaces and were living peaceful, opulent lives. They were commissioning art and poetry, learning good governance, and encouraging trade. They established an Empire that lasted over one hundred years, and most of that time they were not barbarian or brutal at all.

Most of us don’t think of our own people as bad guys. We Americans certainly don’t see ourselves that way – and the Mongols didn’t either. In their own legends, they were heroic, conquering more powerful kingdoms with brilliance and courage and then ruling them wisely.

In my novels, I wanted to make that point. To Emmajin, who grew up in the court of her grandfather, Khubilai Khan, the Mongols were the good guys.

You can find out more about the Mongols and my books at www.dorijonesyang.com.


Thank you, Dori!

You can learn more about Dori by visiting her website.

You can purchase both Daughter of Xanadu and Son of Venice from your favorite bookseller, or by clicking the widget below: