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Claiming Genghis Khan

The World
Feb 15, 2011
By Mary Kay Magistat


Genghis Khan (Photo: Mary Kay Magistat)

Mongolians have been known to say that Genghis Khan wasn’t a bad man — he just had bad press. He didn’t just rape, pillage and plunder, he united the Mongolian nation and created an empire that, at its zenith, stretched to the Danube River.

After laying cities to waste he promoted literacy and religious tolerance, and a peace under the reign of his grandson Kublai Khan that allowed trade routes to flourish, and Marco Polo to travel East.

For many Mongolians Genghis Khan is like a god. And his spirit is worshipped even within China — specifically, at a shrine to his memory, on the grassy wind-swept steppe outside the Inner Mongolian city of Ordos.

On the path to shrine is a bronze statue of the man, on a prancing horse. Colored flags flutter above an urn for burning incense. Beyond — a white building, with regal blue and saffron domes — houses what many Mongolians believe are possessions Genghis actually used, 800 years ago.

Khan Mausoleum

This place is officially called a mausoleum, but Mongolians know better. They know that when Genghis Khan died, his body was spirited back to near his birth place in what is now the country of Mongolia, and buried in a secret location in the mountains.

Still, they come here — Mongolians from all over China, and from Mongolia itself. They gaze at the bow and arrow, the milk pail, the saddle, the banners said to have been used by Genghis Khan himself, and feel they are touching his spirit.

“We believe that when a person dies, the body goes, but the soul is left in the things the person left behind,” says Haskawa, a guide at the mausoleum.

Genghis’ spirit has been carried through the centuries in other symbolic ways. The guards here, who wear long plum robes with yellow sashes, are said to be 39th or 40th generation descendents of Genghis’ own generals.

At his death, the generals were charged with guarding his possessions — and for 800 years, they roamed the land, back and forth between the shifting borders of Mongolia and China, with eight white felt tents.

The spirit of Genghis

The generals and their descendents also kept a flame alive — literally.

It burns in the back of the mausoleum, a flame that is believed to have never gone out since it flickered at Genghis Khan’s deathbed some 800 years ago. Families come, and kneel, and put their hands on the candleholder, as a descendent of Genghis’ generals chants an ancient prayer, calling down Genghis’s spirit and his blessing on those gathered.

“It has great meaning for us to honor the memory of Genghis Khan,” says Sheek Bai-er, a young man who has come for the blessing ceremony with his family. “By commemorating him, it helps our family, and keeps us safe. We come here as often as we can.”

Sheek Bai-er’s voice drops to a reverent murmur when he mentions Genghis Khan. But he, like the guide Haskawa, straddles two loyalties — historically and ethnically to Mongolia, politically to China. Inner Mongolia is within China’s borders, so he’s a Chinese citizen.

Mongolia the country was ruled from the late 17th century until the early 20th by the Qing Dynasty — who, as Manchus, were, like the Mongolians had been in the 13th century, a foreign occupying force. When the Qing Dynasty fell, Mongolia declared independence. But what is now Mongolia the country came under the control of the Soviet Union until it, too, fell in 1991.

A population of Han Chinese

Mongolia is now an independent country, and a democracy. Inner Mongolia is now largely populated by Han Chinese, who former Communist leader Mao Zedong had encouraged to flood the region in the 1950s and ‘60s, while the government purged and executed many Mongolian intellectuals.

Mongolians now account for less than one-fifth of Inner Mongolia’s population, and many in the younger generation don’t even speak Mongolian. They have received the same education, in Mandarin Chinese, as other Chinese citizens throughout China.

That education includes a creative approach to history. No longer are Mongolians and Manchurians called foreign invaders and occupiers, who were far more successful at expanding China’s borders than were the Han Chinese dynasties.

Chinese officialdom has declared them retroactively Chinese, thus making their lands retroactively “always” part of China. No need to talk about Genghis Khan’s Mongolian empire, the largest land empire the world has ever seen; in China’s version, he’s a patriotic Chinese warlord who united the Motherland.

It’s a lot for an ethnic Mongolian citizen of China to keep straight. I ask my guide, Haskawa, how she sees Mongolia’s history.

“Genghis Khan built the great Mongolian empire and saved the Mongolian race, and his grandson Kublai Khan built (China’s) Yuan Dynasty,” she says.

“So when Genghis Khan built the Mongolian empire, was China part of Mongolia?,” I ask her.

Yes, she says. And under Kublai Khan, I ask, was China still part of Mongolia, or was Mongolia part of China?

“Mongolia was part of China,” she replies, without missing a beat.

“Then what was the Mongolian empire?,” I ask.

“That was just the Mongolian plateau,” she says, contradicting what she said earlier – that the Mongolian empire had stretched into Europe. Now, she says, it was China that extended into Europe.

“So was Genghis Khan Chinese?” I ask.

“No, no,” she says, laughing at my silly question. “He was Mongolian.”

“Was Kublai Khan Chinese?,” I ask.

“No, Mongolian.”

“So if he was Mongolian, how could he be a Chinese emperor?”

“I really don’t know,” she says. (She pauses a second.) “You know, in China, not that many people know the great Mongolian empire. But everybody knows the Yuan Dynasty. Because we say the Yuan Dynasty unified all of China.”

Claiming Genghis Khan as China’s own

Part of the purpose of this mausoleum, or shrine, is to cement the claim to Genghis Khan as China’s own. In that, China’s Communist leaders are just the latest in a long line of Chinese rulers who have tried to do that.

First came the Qing Dynasty — who, as Manchus and fellow foreign invaders, felt some kinship with the Mongolians, who persuaded the descendents of Genghis’ generals to settle their white felt tents in one place, near Ordos.

“They claimed a very close spiritual and cultural tie to Genghis Khan,” says Jack Weatherford, author of “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.” “It helped to legitimize their own rule, since the Mongols had ruled and they were connected to the Mongols.

And also, the Mongols had allied early on with the Manchus. So it helped to keep the Mongols happy. It was a very strategic policy on the part of the Qing, and a very effective one.”

Less effective was the approach of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, who built a brick structure for the relics. This offended the nomadic sensibilities of the Mongols. But not as much as invading Japanese forces, in the 1930s and ‘40s.

A pan-Asian history

“The Japanese had a new policy that they wanted to build a huge shrine to Genghis Khan, and unite all these shrines together as a sign of pan-Asian history,” says Weatherford. “They thought this was a good way of emphasizing that they were not just Japanese, they were great conquerors in the Asian tradition.

The Mongolians weren’t buying it. They packed up their eight white felt tents and fled south, away from Japanese control. Only once the China’s Communist Party came to power did the shrines return to the Inner Mongolian steppe, where they were again consolidated in one building. For a time.

Then, in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, teenaged Red Guards destroyed it, and persecuted hundreds of thousands of Inner Mongolians for supposedly harboring separatist sentiments.

The most recent incarnation of the mausoleum is yet another attempt to lay claim to Genghis Khan’s legacy. But Mongolians have made it their own in interesting ways. About 80 percent of the visitors here are Mongolian. Jack Weatherford recalls his visit there with a colleague from the country of Mongolia, and an Inner Mongolian soldier with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He says the two shared a reverence for their Mongolian ancestor.

“I could see the tremendous pride, especially in the young soldier, in his homeland there,” Weatherford says. “And he spoke Mongolian. Yet, he was a member of the PLA. And I appreciated that mingling of different cultural traditions. It shows how, in the lives of ordinary people, history is more complicated than we make it in books, of one side against another.”

And yet, the story of Mongolia and China was once the story of once side against the other, of the conqueror and the conquered. Once, China was the conquered, and later, the tables turned. It is said that history is written by the victor — and in the end, in Inner Mongolia, the victor is China.

But listen to the ancient chant sung by a descendent of Genghis’ generals, watch the way Mongolians respond to this place, and you might hear a secret history, a history kept near the heart, and passed down through the centuries.



From Yeke-juu League to Ordos Municipality: settler colonialism and alter/native urbanization in Inner Mongolia

Close to Eden (Urga): France, Soviet Union, directed by Nikita Mikhilkov

Beyond Great WallsBeyond Great Walls: Environment, Identity, and Development on the Chinese Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

The Mongols at China's EdgeThe Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity

China's Pastoral RegionChina's Pastoral Region: Sheep and Wool, Minority Nationalities, Rangeland Degradation and Sustainable Development

Changing Inner MongoliaChanging Inner Mongolia: Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chinese State (Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Grasslands and Grassland Science in Northern ChinaGrasslands and Grassland Science in Northern China: A Report of the Committee on Scholarly Communication With the People's Republic of China

The Ordos Plateau of ChinaThe Ordos Plateau of China: An Endangered Environment (Unu Studies on Critical Environmental Regions)

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