December 29, 2006
outcast nomad to tribal warlord and finally founder of the
world's greatest land empire, Genghis Khan went through a lot of
changes in a tumultuous life spanning the end of the 12th
century and the beginning of the 13th.
But perhaps the strangest transformation ever undergone by the
Mongolian military genius has come in modern times: his
reinvention as a Chinese hero.
"Genghis Khan was certainly Chinese," says Guo Wurong, general
manager of the Genghis Khan Mausoleum Tourist District in
China's Inner Mongolia region.
"We currently define him as a hero of the Mongolian nationality,
a great man of the Chinese people and a giant in world history,"
says Mr Guo, who has led a multimillion-dollar redevelopment of
the site of the greatkhan's "mausoleum" in Inner Mongolia's
The Chinese part of that description would no doubt surprise
Genghis himself, who seems to have seen the Han Chinese people
who lived south of his Mongolian heartlands as merely another
ethnic group to be subjugated.
Mr Guo's definition closely matches that pushed by official
histories and government scholars, however. The late chairman
Mao Zedong may once have dismissed Genghis as someone who "only
knew how to draw his bow at the eagles", but Beijing's cultural
commissars have good reason to embrace the great khan as a model
Celebrating Genghis aligns Beijing policy with the reverence
ethnic Mongolians feel for the founder of their nation.
Turning Genghis Chinese, meanwhile, pushes the party line that
Inner Mongolia is an integral part of China, despite the quiet
yearning for independence of many of the region's increasingly
outnumbered original inhabitants.
State-approved histories paint an idealised picture of an
eternal "Chinese" state grouping the majority Han with ethnic
brothers such as the Mongolians.
"Coming from a nomad nationality, Genghis Khan rose to become a
representative of many excellent national cultures, embodying
especially the essence of China's minority nationality culture,"
wrote Chen Yu-ning, professor at Ningxia University, in a
history published this year.
Such official endorsement of Genghis and traditional culture has
brought real benefits for Mongolians in China, who suffered
severe oppression for decades under Mao's rule.
Traditional Naadam festivals of riding, shooting and wrestling,
once banned, are now subsidised by the state. At one Naadam
gathering on the Gegentala grasslands this summer, local
government departments lent tents to contestants to stay in.
Yet the cost of being subsumed into a greater Chinese identity
is also apparent. Much of the Gegentala festival was arranged
for the benefit of dignitaries and tourists staying at a nearby
tent hotel complete with a bathhouse stocked with Chinese
A flag-bearing police honour guard and playing of the national
anthem opened proceedings, to the disgust of one ethnic
Mongolian official. "Naadam has been diluted, Communised and
Sinified," said the official, who declined to be identified. "To
a person who has studied history and national culture, Naadam
should not be this way."
A Chinese tide is also washing over the Ordos "mausoleum" -
which is actually the site of a sacred enclosure where relics of
the great khan were preserved. Now a complex of statues, plazas
and museum halls has been built around the site in a style
reminiscent of China's imperial tombs.
Mr Guo says effort is being made to reflect the site's
Indeed, he plans to install hidden speakers in the grassland to
give visitors a sense of place. "That way you'll be able to hear
the sound of horses galloping on the steppe . . . or in another
place you might hear the sound of Mongolian singing," he says.
Such ersatz echoes of steppeland tradition irk Baildugqi, an
expert on Mongolian history at the Inner Mongolia University.
"You cannot use the methods of the Han interior to commemorate
Genghis Khan and his culture," Prof Baildugqi says.
Sinifying Genghis's legacy does not just risk upsetting
mild-mannered academics. Official emphasis on Mongolians'
minority status also fuels fears in Mongolia itself about
Beijing's long-term intentions.
Calling Genghis a Chinese hero is even drawing quiet protest
within China, where many people retain the more traditional view
that he was a barbarian invader and some are simply annoyed at
what appears a blatant abuse of historical fact.
The official justification rests essentially on the view that
Genghis is Chinese because his successors ruled China as
emperors and many Mongolians live within Chinese state borders
It is an argument waved aside by critics such as one contributor
to the popular Hefei discussion website who goes by the name
Dagui. "Now there are quite a few Mongolians in China, and they
have Chinese citizenship - but that does not make Mongolians (of
Genghis's era) Chinese," Dagui wrote. "If your grandson moves to
the US, gets a green card and becomes a US citizen, that will
not mean that you and your dad were Americans!"