A Mongol History: You Say Ghengis, I Say Chingis

I would be remiss to write a series of posts about Mongolian history without mentioning the one who looks over us all here in Mongolia… Chingis Khan. Pronounced Chingis Han, which through an adventure of transliteration I’m sure, is Genghis Khan to most Americans. Now that I think about it, I’m sure that that pronunciation will become a pet peeve once I get back… Anyways the guy is called Chingis , end of discussion.

Before coming to Mongolia, my knowledge of Chingis Khan was pretty much the same as the rest of the western world. Someone who conquered a bunch of land , in a short amount of time, with much raping and pillaging along the way. To say the guy was ruthless would be an understatement. But right before coming here I read up on my Mongolian history, and became aware of the origin story of the guy. It’s a story that is worth of Game of Thrones treatment, as it involves much political intrigue, a veritable amount o f betrayal, infighting and pioneering war tactics (including biological warfare) . For those wondering, I probably found Jack Weatherford’s books the most enlightening (especially the Mongol Queens book – go girl power! ). There are also a series of podcasts by Dan Carlin that go really in-depth into Mongol military tactics and strategy, which are hours long. For those who have short attention spans , John Greens “Crash Course History” episode on the Mongols was also informative while being entertaining. The resources on the guy are numerous and better told elsewhere, so I won’t go into the details, which easily lead to the generations after Chingis Khan that ruled… What intrigues me now is the prevalence of 12th century figure in modern day life and what that means to many Mongolians…

Most notably , his picture is everywhere. From the airport to offices to schools its hard not to find pictures of Chingis lingering over every business transaction and school lessons. Random wall carpets have his larger then life face lingering over living rooms across the country. There is even a statue of Chingis (which breaks some record, I believe for the largest free standing dude on a horse statue) which towers over the steppe outside of UB, sword unsheathed, looking towards his supposed birth place. His image is even on my money. Even in conversation, he is affectionately referred to as “Manai Chingis” , as in our, collectively owned and revered Chingis. Heck, one of the first days we arrived in country and made our way to the immigration office to take our ID photos, one huge wall was a map of the Mongol Empire… to which the PCVs wondered , does this office also do immigration for what is now Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China AND numerous other places… cause that would be convenient 😛

Kids also learn about Chingis Khan, pretty much exclusively through their secondary education. The Mongol Empire wasn’t much for writing things down, but through outsourcing, the great Mongolian novel was written, “the Secret History of the Mongols” and is now what all school children read and study through school. Its basically the origin story of Chingis and Mongolia , and gives The Song of Ice and Fire a run for its money. Mongolians look on Chingis as their father figure and “without Chingis, there would be no Mongolia”.

So it’s a surprise to me when I was told that prior to the 1990’s , there was barely any mention of Chingis or the Mongol Empire at all. From the 1920s to 1990, Mongolia was a socialist ally of Russia, and while bits of Mongolian history were taught (focusing on egalitarianism etc.) most discussion of Chingis Khan was stifled. I also imagine that as the Mongol Empire was the only military initiative to successfully attack medieval Russia DURING WINTER… the USSR might not have wanted to talk about that so much. So during the sea change that occured during the 1990s, you had an interesting cultural experiment. After years of historical amnesia, how do you take back your own culture? How do you remake society to reflect successful values? Heck , when in our history were we the most prosperous, the most feared , and most relevant nation in the world? Lets go back several thousands of years, and we have a winner!

Today there are many discussions about how Chingis Khan is viewed and portrayed in society. Is he Chingis Khan the statesmen? Making diplomatic decisions and ruling Mongolia well? Or is he Chingis Khan the warrior? Astride his horse , sword at the ready, the protector of this immense land ? More importantly, which do Mongolians want him to be, as a role model for this developing nation?

This dichotomy plays it self out in interesting ways. I usually stay at a hostel in the capital that is near three statues within view of each other. If you look outside my hostel window, you can see a life size statue of Zorig, one of the founders of democracy in Mongolia, who was mysteriously murdered right after / during the transition. He looks across a major intersection to the central square of Ulaan Baatar, to a much larger figure on a horse. This guy is Sukhbaatar, major military hero of socialist Mongolia, and he is battle ready on his horse, sword out swinging. But who looks over Sukhbaatar? A stately Chingis, sitting on a large throne , the main centerpiece of Ulaan Baatar’s Parliament Building. Chingis lords over both of these figures, much in the way he over powers history books and the hearts and minds of the Mongolian people.

As for my own personal feelings about the subject, I have many thoughts. Its refreshing to be in a country that is so universally for an important historical figure. Compared to American history where there are many iconoclastic views and opinions, so having such a unifying force and one that people see as a great leader, has many positives. Yet, he did kill millions of people, and while he might have been a great leader, todays world isn’t necessarily one where you can start invading and pillaging multitudes of countries. I have heard Mongolians use it as a crutch for their own political system, saying that Mongolians can only succeed under a strong military leader… which is an argument that leads to a strong branch of nationalism that makes me slightly uncomfortable. Personally I don’t believe that it doesn’t mean Mongolians can’t succeed in a democratic system with many different parties and ideas. People just haven’t had the chance to succeed under such a model before. Again… I have many thoughts. But its very much up to Mongolians, not some visitor to their country to wring out their own personal ideas about the guy, and what he means to their country.

This hopefully will be one of a series of articles about topics in Mongolian history that I find interesting, especially during this next week or two, which is when I will be in UB attending my Close of Service Conference. Hope you enjoy ! – V.

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One comment

  1. We also found Mongolian history super interesting as we read up on it before our trip there and while we visited UB and the big Chingis Khan statue with our tour guide. I think one thing all travellers adventurous enough to visit Mongolia have in common (I hope), is “Chingis”, not “Genghis”! That’s always the first thing I say when they ask how Mongolia is!

    And thanks for stopping by our blog.

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