Archive for February 8, 2008

Dignified Writing about Genghis Khan’s Legacy

Over fifty years ago, German Hans Baumann wrote with supreme elegance Sons of the Steppe, about two grandsons of Ghengis Khan.  First written in 1953 in German and then translated into English, it is considered a historical fictional account about life on the steppes from a Mongol’s perspective.  Baumann’s book focuses on the relationship between two Mongol brothers named Prince Kublai and Prince Arik-Buka.  In fact, Baumann weaves his interesting tale with a flashback to their childhood after they meet up as men and each other’s enemy.  

I would consider this a very good read for any young boy, because the reminiscing the main characters do as adults is about their boyhood romps of hunting and eventual battle scenes together.  Not one romantic notion or anything showing maternal feelings can be found in this Baumann book.  In fact, one of the earlier male characters who supervised the military education of the boys is reported dead in one sentence yet no sentiment is registered by the main character Kublai afterwards.  In a warring novel such as this one, many characters are easily dispensed with. 

However, early on, Kublai shows his sensitive side during training when he killed his first person who was one of his own horde.  Kublai accidentally killed to defend his brother Arik-Buka.  Ever after Kublai was haunted by that man’s death and also greatly saddened after losing his favorite tiger horse in the high peaks of the mountains. During that adventure to reach Sumarkand from the south by way of the mountains, Kublai’s brother saved him.  Throughout, Kublai was taunted by his brother Arik as going soft.  Yet Kublai showed that he could ride into the battles after all their training and kill people with the best of them.  However, he revealed his feelings again after one successful campaign when he thought to himself, man against manman against man.  When he signed up to be on board with his grandfather’s army of conquerors, he did not think that mowing down women and children was a part of the deal. 

Ghengis Khan apparently saw promise in his young grandson Kublai and bequeathed to him as a tutor a Chinese man who knew how to read not only Chinese but Arabic and understood the study of the stars.  Kublai was a thinker and easily learned the languages and faithfully studied under Yeliu, Ghengis Khan’s trusted counselor, a captive from China.  Earlier the Mongol leader had decimated the Chinese culture and was about to do the same with the Persian culture except that the Samurkand fortress held firm.  Eventually, the Mongols were able to penetrate and instill peace and trust among the people until rebellion started against them and that is when the relationship between Kublai and Arik really began to deteriorate. 

You will have to read the story yourself to see how conspiracy, intrigue, loyalty, suspicion, betrayal all factor into this children’s book meant for adults.  I could not help wonder about Baumann’s motives in writing such an elaborate piece.  He had fought for the Germans in WWII on the eastern front and had himself learned Russian.  Baumann was apparently a learned, bookish man instead of what was expected of him from his military family in Bavaria.  I believe Baumann while occupying Russia’s territory could empathize with the simple Ukrainian farmers and peasants who lost their land under the “scorched earth policy” of Stalin.  The two forces of Russia and Germany fighting on their land, where earlier in 1939, Hitler and Stalin had both signed a “non-aggression pact.”   

Perhaps Hans Baumann knew, as most Germans did leading up to WWII, how Stalin was the worst form of an autocratic leader who wanted to take power over many lands and crushed the people beneath him as Genghis Khan had been known to do.  Fortunately for Baumann, he was captured by the French and put in prison instead of being captured by the Red Army where conditions there would have been intolerable and sure death to him.  For it was not until 1953, after Stalin had died, did Baumann feel free enough to write a book such as Sons of the Steppes. Often I thought I read into Kublai’s thoughts as being Baumann’s thoughts.  Kublai Khan later became the first Yuen Emperor of China starting from 1260-94.  I believe that Hans Baumann was a prince for writing elaborate children’s literature set 800 years ago about what life was like in the land I live in now in Kazakhstan, part of the legacy of Ghengis Khan.

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