Nov 11, 2009
Hohhot, the capital of the Chinese province of Inner
Mongolia, there is a brand new Genghis Khan Square,
featuring a huge equestrian statue of the conqueror, and
next to it runs Genghis Khan Boulevard, where the feature
nominally Mongol motifs, like domes on the roofs and blue
and white color schemes.
China would so honor Genghis Khan, whose Mongol armies
overwhelmed China in the 13th century and ruled it for more
than a century, would seem unlikely. But Beijing, in an
attempt to keep a close hold on its Mongolian minority, now
reasons that since Genghis conquered China, he can be
treated as a Chinese hero.
that gives the search for Genghis Khan’s grave a bit of a
geopolitical flavor. Asked why the tomb of Genghis Khan
should be found, Mongolians can give several answers, like
finding the right place to worship the great hero, or to
draw the world’s attention to him and to Mongolia. But
perhaps the most often cited justification is the need to
prove that Genghis Khan belongs to Mongolia.
prairie of Inner Mongolia, which borders Mongolia, and which
is home to most of China’s Mongolian minority, (and more
ethnic Mongolians than are in Mongolia proper), stands the
Genghis Khan Mausoleum. The name notwithstanding, virtually
no one claims that Genghis is actually buried there. But the
"mausoleum" is nevertheless a significant monument to the
Mongolian leader, and one that China uses to bolster its
claim to Genghis’s legacy.
current mausoleum is the modern descendent of a tradition
that began shortly after the death of Genghis Khan in the
13th century. Because the location of his tomb was secret,
Genghis’s heirs created a mobile memorial, originally a set
of white tents called ordos, where Mongolians could venerate
him. The tents first centered on Burkhan Khaldun, the holy
mountain in northern Mongolia where Genghis is presumed to
be buried. Through circumstances not recorded, they
eventually ended up in what is today China.
Through the early decades of the 20th century the mausoleum
remained a homegrown memorial of simple tents, open only to
Mongolians. After the Communist takeover in 1949, though,
the winds of official opinion on Genghis Khan shifted
rapidly: In the 1950s, the government, in an apparent
attempt to solidify the loyalty of Mongolians to the
Communist cause, built a modern temple at the site. Then
during the Cultural Revolution, Genghis was labeled as a
reactionary, and the mausoleum was shuttered and used to
the Chinese government is again trying emphasize "harmony,"
to use Beijing’s favored phrase, among its ethnic
minorities. For Mongolians, that means Genghis Khan is again
a hero - but with very Chinese characteristics. He is not
portrayed as a barbarian invader, but as a representative of
the greater Chinese world, under whom China was part of an
empire that, for the only time in Chinese history, defeated
Europeans on the battlefield.
town closest to the Genghis Khan Mausoleum (about a
four-hour drive from Hohhot) has been renamed from Dongsheng
to Ordos, the Mongolian word for Genghis’s memorial tents.
And in 2005 the mausoleum itself got a RMB 200 million
(about USD 30 million) makeover, including a new museum and
an altar in the main temple at which Mongolians can make
small sacrifices, of money, bricks of tea or bolts of silk,
mausoleum attracts both Mongolians and ethnic Han Chinese
tourists, who visit for very different reasons. Mongolians
come to venerate Genghis and ask for help; one burly
visitor, who declined to give his name, said he had come to
pray to Genghis and ask for help in a wrestling match he had
later that day. But the large majority of visitors appear to
be Han on group tours of Inner Mongolia, on a standard
itinerary that includes horseback riding on the prairie and
traditional song-and-dance performances. (Mausoleum
officials claim that 35 million people a year visit the
site, though a recent visit at the height of the tourist
season suggested that, while the attraction is popular, that
figure is likely heavily inflated).
mausoleum, in particular its new renovations, appears
oriented towards appealing to Han tastes rather than
Mongolian ones. The main temple, for example, was carefully
decorated with 1,206 images of dragons on the walls, carved
into the ceiling and painted on vases. But dragons are
significant to Han Chinese, not Mongolians, as one Han
Chinese tour guide pointed out. "Mongolian people like
wolves and eagles, not dragons," the guide said. "But you
won’t see any wolves and eagles here." Near the temple is a
new sculpture of another traditional Chinese creature, the
turtle-like creature bixi, whose head the Han Chinese
visitors rub for good luck.
co-opting of Genghis Khan has created some unease in
Mongolia, where widespread rumors persist that under the
mausoleum is a secret museum, purportedly containing maps
showing China controlling all of Mongolian territory. And
it’s also the source of bitter irony in Inner Mongolia,
which has seen such heavy migration by Han Chinese over the
past several decades that Mongolians, once the overwhelming
majority on this territory, are now only about 15 percent of
like when you have guests," said one Mongolian in Hohhot,
who asked not to be named, referring to Han Chinese
migration. "At first you welcome them, but ... they stayed
too long and now they took over the house." During a
conversation with EurasiaNet in Genghis Khan Square, he
removed the battery from his cell phone, in case it was
being monitored by the security services. He said that
20,000 ethnic Mongolians worked as informants for secret
police, even though there wasn’t any overt political
activity. Mongolian resentment is deep, he said, but not
Russia, too, has a large Mongolian minority: the Buryats, a
Mongol people who live on the border with Mongolia proper.
Buryatia holds a special place in the history of Genghis
Khan, as his mother was buried there. And there, too,
Genghis Khan is making a comeback, though in a much more
muted fashion than in China.
Russians, who were conquered by Mongols in the 13th century,
traditionally have seen Genghis Khan as a brutal conqueror.
Some Soviet historians even blamed the Mongol yoke for
Russia’s relative developmental backwardness in the 20th
is changing, though. For Buryats Genghis has become a symbol
of their nation, with hip-hop songs and novels devoted to
him. Two twenty-something brothers, Oleg and Bair Yumov, put
on a play called "Bloody Steppe" at the Buryat State Drama
Theater that re-imagined Hamlet during the middle ages, and
said they are inspired by Genghis Khan’s example. They try
to live by the Yasak, a book of laws promulgated by Genghis
(though lost to history except in secondhand sources), said
Bair Yumov, who compared them to the Japanese code of the
samurai. "I want to be adequate to his sayings, and to
follow his laws," he said. "People say he was a dictator and
a tyrant," said Oleg. "But that time called for a leader. It
should be understood that he wasn’t physically strong, but
strong in spirit."
Russians, too, are reappraising Genghis. Members of one
influential intellectual movement, the neo-Eurasianists,
argue that Genghis, by conquering Russia, in fact unified it
and protected its essential Orthodox Christian character
from Catholic Western Europe. The 2007 movie Mongol, which
portrayed Genghis Khan sympathetically, was a Russian
production whose director, Sergei Bodrov, is a neo-Eurasianist.
Russians still hold negative views of Genghis, and
nationalist Russians in particular distrust the fact that
his rehabilitation has come along with a rising tide of
Buryat nationalism. There is no official monument to Genghis
in Russia, in contrast to Mongolia and China, but officials
in Ulan-Ude, the Buryat capital, recently did erect a statue
of Geser, a mythical Buryat hero, in the center of the city.
statue was opposed by veterans groups who delayed the plans
twice, saying that Geser was "the same thing as Genghis
Khan," said Dorj Tsybikdorjiev, a member of the Institute of
Mongolian Studies, Buddhology and Tibetology of the Siberian
Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and leader of a
nationalist Buryat political group, Erkhe. "So you can
imagine what would happen if they actually put up a statue
of Genghis Khan."
general, educated people in Buryatia - whether they are
ethnic Russian or Buryat - view Genghis Khan more positively
than working-class people of either ethnicity, said Djamilya
Chimitova, the dean of the law school at Buryat State
University, who did her doctoral dissertation on Russian
historiography of Genghis Khan.
Russian archeologist even believes that Genghis Khan is
buried in Buryatia, close to the northeastern shore of Lake
Baikal, though his is a fringe opinion. Buryats, however,
are not enthusiastic about the search for the grave, said
German Galsanov, a news anchor at Arig-us Television, a
private network named after the site of Genghis’s mother’s
birth. "What’s the point?" he asked. "We’re not going to
learn anything more."
recounts a story that is popular in the former Soviet Union:
that in 1941 Soviet archeologists broke into the grave of
Tamerlane - a descendent of Genghis who had his own empire -
in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Two days later, Germany invaded
the Soviet Union. "So if that’s what happened when we opened
up Tamerlane’s grave," he said, "imagine what will happen
when we open up Genghis Khan’s?"
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer
who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the
Caucasus and the Middle East.