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Back in our first episode, we highlighted certain trends to look for over the course of this series. The first emphasized looking for the middle ground between the Mongols as inherently evil or good forces, but as people whose expansion was rooted in historical events and personages. The second was the struggles that came with the management of a world empire, and the need to rely on non-Mongolian subject peoples—Chinese, Central Asian Muslims, Persians, Turks and others. The third was the struggle for the purpose of the empire; should it be continued conquest, or consolidation and serving the needs of the imperial princes. This was the balance between the Khan and his central government, or the Chinggisid and military aristocrats. The fourth was the steady assimilation, particularly Turkification, of the Mongols outside of Mongolia, as Mongolian was replaced as the language of administration, legitimacy and finally, among the ruling family itself, even while retaining the Mongolian imperial ideology.
Regarding the first theme, we have sought to highlight in our many discussions of sources their often complicated, conflicting portrayals or events and persons. While authors like Ibn al-Athir, Nasawi and Juzjani had little good to say about the Mongols or Chinggis Khan, and fit well with the popular model the destructive brute, we’ve also looked at many sources which had more positive portrayals of the khans. Some of these are rather obvious, imperial-produced sources such as the Secret History of the Mongols, but even sources from outside the empire could give glowing reviews of Chinggis Khan. For instance, the fourteenth century English writer Geoffrey Chaucer, in the Squire’s Tale of his famous Canterbury Tales, opens with the following lines:
At Tzarev in the land of Tartary
There dwelt a king at war with Muscovy
Which brought the death of many a doughty man
This noble king was known as Cambuskan
And in his time enjoyed such great renown
That nowhere in that region up or down
Was one so excellent in everything;
Nothing he lacked belonging to a king.
Written at the same time as Toqtamish Khan of the Golden Horde was fighting for control of that Khanate, here Chaucher remembered Chinggis Khan not as a bloodthirsty barbarian, but as a monarch embodying all ideal qualities of kingship. Chaucer continues thusly;
As to the faith in which he had been born
He kept such loyalties as he had sworn,
Then he was powerful and wise and brave,
Compassionate and just, and if he gave
His word he kept it, being honourable,
The same to all, benevolent, and stable
As is a circle’s centre; and in fight
As emulous as any squire or knight.
Young personable, fresh and fortunate,
Maintaining such a kingliness of state
There never was his match in mortal man,
This noble king, this Tartar Cambuskan.
For writers in fourteenth century England, obviously distant from the Mongol Empire itself, it was not unbecoming to idealize the portrayal of Chinggis Khan. This is not to say that Chaucher’s description is accurate, or necessarily reflects any actual qualities about the man or any of his descendants. But rather, it reflects historical perception. How an individual is perceived by contemporaries, history, and modern people often bears little resemblance to actual details of the individual. Instead, people will contort an image for whatever use suits their current purposes, context and political climate. Thus, warlords from the late imperial, and post-Mongol world styled Chinggis’ image to suit their needs. In Central Asia Chinggisid descent remained one of the most prestigious, and necessary, requirements for rulership up until the nineteenth century in some areas. This was problematic though with the spread of Islam, given that Chinggis Khan’s actual life produced very few episodes to nicely accommodate an Islamic narrative. Certain Persian writings during the Ilkhanate sought to fix this by making Chinggis a Muslim in all but name. On the tomb of Tamerlane, an inscription likely added during the reign of his grandson Ulugh Beğ, makes Tamerlane a descendant of both the Prophet Muhammad and of Chinggis Khan. Later post-imperial authors had a more direct solution; simply making Chinggis Khan outright a Muslim. As the destruction of the conquests slipped further back in time, this became easier and easier to accomplish.
Religion was not the only aspect which can be molded, for Chinggis’ very status as a Mongol becomes malleable in state efforts to construct national mythos, in both medieval and modern settings. Today, you can find countries where official propaganda, or influential theorists, incorporate Chinggis into the desired story of their nation-state. In China, there remains a significant Mongolian population, largely in what the Chinese call the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, the land south of the Gobi desert but north of the mountains which divide it from the North China plain. The Chinese government has taken to presenting China’s non-Han peoples, Mongols among them, more or less as Chinese minority peoples and actively encourages their adoption of the state-language, Mandarin, and Han Chinese culture. In this view, the Mongol conquests are sometimes presented as a period of national reunification rather than foreign conquest. The efforts of Khubilai Khaan to legitimize the Yuan Dynasty based on Chinese dynastic legal precedent becomes the quote-on-quote “historical evidence,” that Chinggis Khan was actually Chinese, or that in fact, the Mongol conquerors were fully assimilated into the Chinese population and culture. The borders of the Yuan Dynasty served to justify later Chinese territorial claims in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Manchuria, Tibet and Yunnan; places that were, before the Mongols, inconsistently in the Chinese sphere of influence, but since the conquests have often remained dominated by empires based in China. Not coincidentally, such narratives serve to support the narrative of 5,000 years of a continuous Chinese Empire, and remove the sting that may accompany the embarrassment of being conquered by perceived barbarians.
Likewise, various Turkic peoples, most notably Kazakhs, Tatars, and Anatolian Turks, have sought to claim Chinggis as their own, and there are even groups in Korea and Japan that will argue that Chinggis was actually one of theirs. The Japanese version has Chinggis as the Samurai Minamoto no Yoshitsune, who faked his death and fled Japan for the steppe! Khubilai’s later invasions of Japan again become not foreign assaults, but attempts at national reunification or the efforts by Yoshitsune’s descendants to return home. And of course, fringe groups even in Europe and Russia which, refusing to believe a barbarian horseman could conquer such great states, insist that Chinggis was actually a red-haired, green-eyed man of European ancestry. Such claims often include vague references to the mummies of the Tarim Basin, who bore some features associated with Caucasian populations. The fact that these mummies pre-date Chinggis by millenia is often conveniently left out. All of these people care much more about ethnic categorization than Chinggis himself likely ever did.
Just as religion or ethnicity can be forced to fit certain agendas, so too can portrayal as barbarian or saviour. In Mongolia today, Chinggis Khan’s unification of the Mongols, his introduction of a writing system, religious tolerance, laws and stability are most heavily emphasized. For building a post-soviet national identity, obviously these are useful attributes to appeal to for the desired national character. But the Mongolian governmet also tends to gloss over the aspects less appreciated in the twenty-first century: namely, the destruction of people and property on a massive scale, mass-rapes, towers of skulls and wars of conquest. The fact that Mongolia’s two neighbours, Russia and China, suffered particularly under Mongol onslaughts, also avoids some diplomatic hurdles to step past these military aspects. For most of the twentieth century during Mongolia’s years as a Soviet satellite state, Chinggis was largely pushed aside, framed as a feudal lord. Instead, Mongolia’s hero of the 1921 socialist revolution, Damdin Sükhbaatar, became the preferred national icon. After Mongolia was democratized in the 1990s after the fall of the USSR, Chinggis Khan has seen a massive resurgence in popularity. Today, Chinggis and Sükhbaatar remain national icons, with monuments to both throughout the country. Outside Mongolia’s parliament, the main square has changed names from Sükhbaatar to Chinggis Square, and since back to Sükhbaatar square. An equestrian statue to Sükhbaatar sits in the middle of that square. More than a few foreign observers had mistakenly called this a statue of Chinggis. In fact, only a few metres away from the equestrian statue of Sükhbaatar sits a massive Chinggis Khan on a throne flanked by his generals, at the top of the steps leading into Mongolia’s parliament. In a way it is metaphorical. No matter how prominent any later hero of Mongolia may be, he will always stand in the shadow of Chinggis Khan. And that’s not even mentioning the 40 metre tall silver monstrosity about 50 kilometres outside of Ulaanbaatar. Speaking of state narratives, much of the cost for this statue was covered by the company owned by Khaltmaagin Battulga, a former professional sambo wrestler who from 2017-2021 served as the fifth President of Mongolia.
Outside of Mongolia though, Chinggis and the Mongol Empire remain a top-point of reference to paint someone in the most unfavourable light. One of the highest level cases of recent years was when the President of Iraq, the late Saddam Hussein, compared former US President George W. Bush to Hülegü, Chinggis’ grandson and conqueror of Baghdad. The American bombing and capture of Baghdad, and ensuing tragedies that Iraq as suffered in the aftermath of the campaign, have only solidified the connection for a number of Muslims. Meanwhile Russian television and education tend to present the Mongols in a style comparable to Zack Snyder’s film 300, such as the 2017 Russian film Легенда о Коловрате [Legenda O Kolovrate], also known as Furious. Like the Spartans in the film or Frank Miller’s graphic novel, the Rus’ soldiers are presented as formidable warriors fighting monstrous, untrained hordes from the east. Only through sheer numbers or trickery do the disgusting Orientals overcome the pasty-white heroes of the story— though few of the heroes in the Russian films have Scottish accents. Russia has turned the so-called Tatar Yoke into a catch-all to explain any perceived deficiencies compared to western Europe, from government absolutism to alcoholism. Not only the Russians have employed the comparison: “scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar,” Napoleon Bonaparte is supposed to have quipped. And in 2018 the Wall Street Journal released a particularly poorly written article, which compared the political machinations of current president Vladimir Putin as “Russia’s turn to its Asian past,” accompanied by vague comparisons to the Mongols and an awful portrait of Putin drawn in Mongolian armour. In contrast, the Russian Defence Minister, at the time of writing, is Sergei Shoigu, a fellow of Tuvan descent who is alleged to enjoy comparisons of himself to Sübe’edei, the great Mongol general popularly, though inaccurately, portrayed as a Tuvan. The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, essentially a good old-fashioned war of conquests accompanied by war crimes and destruction of cities, has also earned many comparisons to the Mongol conquests by many online commentators. Though unlike the Russians, the Mongols actually took Kyiv.
Somewhat surprisingly, most cinematic portrayals of Chinggis himself lean towards sympathetic or heroic. One of the most recent is a 2018 Chinese film entitled Genghis Khan in English, which features a slim Chinese model in the titular role, and one of his few depictions without any facial hair. In that film he battles a bunch of skeletons and monsters, and it could be best described as “not very good,” as our series researcher can, unfortunately, attest. One popular portrayal is the 2007 film Mongol, directed by Sergei Bodrov and starring a Japanese actor in the role of Chinggis. That actor, by the way, went on to play one of Thor’s buddies in the Marvel movies. Here, Chinggis is a quiet, rather thoughtful figure, in a film which emphasizes the brutal childhood he suffered from. Another sympathetic portrayal, and one perhaps the most popular in Mongolia, is the 2004 Inner Mongolian series where Ba Sen, an actor who claims descent from Chagatai and appeared in the previously two mentioned films, plays the role of Chinggis.
Hollywood does not tend to portray Chinggis Khan or the Mongols in films at all, but when it does, it really goes for a swing and a miss. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has Chinggis essentially only a step above a cave-man in that film. Other Hollywood endeavours are infamous for having non-Asian actors in the role, such as Egyptian-born Omar Shariff in 1965’s Genghis Khan, Marvin Miller in 1951’s The Golden Horde and the most infamous of them all, the cowboy John Wayne in 1956’s The Conqueror. That film’s theatrical release poster bears the tasteful tagline of, “I am Temujin…barbarian… I fight! I love! I conquer… like a Barbarian!” The film was also produced by Howard Hughes, founder of Playboy Magazine, and was filmed near a nuclear testing site. As you may suspect, that film bears as much resemblance to the historical events as an opium-induced fever dream.
The appearance and depiction of Chinggis and his successors varies wildly. The internet today loves the stories of Chinggis being the ancestor of millions of people, and killing so many people that it changed the earth’s climate. The articles that made both of these claims though, rested on shaky evidence. In the first, which we dedicated an entire episode of this podcast too, the study claimed that high rates of a certain haplotype among the Hazara of Afghanistan demonstrated that Chinggis himself bore that haplotype, and Chinggis was extrapolated to be the ancestor of other peoples bearing such a haplotype. But the historical sources indicate Chinggis and his immediate descendants spent little time in Afghanistan, and the associated Haplotype was probably one associated with various populations leaving Mongolia over centuries, rather than specifically Chinggis himself. Likewise, the study which spawned the claim that the Mongols killed enough people to cool the climate, firstly did not make that claim itself, but moreso incorrectly made the Mongol conquests last from 1206 to 1380, and presented it as an almost two-century period of population decline brought on by Mongolian campaigns; despite the fact that the major destructive Mongolian military campaigns largely halted after 1279. While campaigns continued after that, they were never on the level of the great-campaigns of conquest. Thus it’s irresponsible to claim that any atmospheric carbon loss over the fourteenth century was brought on by continued Mongol military efforts.
What these two popular descriptions lend themselves to, is one of extremes. The internet loves extremes of anything. For instance, since 1999 the Internet has always sought to outdo itself in declaring the latest Star Wars product to actually be the worst thing ever made. And the Mongol Empire, as history’s largest contiguous land-empire, responsible for immense destruction and long-ranging campaigns and forced migrations, can easily slot in this ‘extreme manner.’ A “top-ten” list where the author writes about how the Mongols were the most extreme and destructive and badass thing ever, repeating the same 10 facts, probably gets released on the internet every other month. Just as national-myth makers in Ulaanbaatar, Beijing and Moscow set how to portray the Mongol Empire in the way most suited to them, so too does the internet and its writers choose an aspect of the empire to emphasis; be it religious tolerance, free-trade, brutality, multi-culturalism, Islam, clash of civilizations, human impact on climate, the territorial expanse of a certain country or its national identity, or whatever argument the author hopes to make.
The Mongol Empire though remains in the past, and should be treated, and learned about, as such. The events which led to the rise, expansion and fall of the Mongol Empire do not fit into nice, sweeping modern narratives, but their own historical context and situation. The Mongol Empire was not predetermined to ever expand out of Mongolia, or to break apart in 1260; had Chinggis Khan been struck by an arrow outside the walls of Zhongdu, or Möngke lived another ten years, in both cases the empire, and indeed the world, would look dramatically different. History is not the things which ought to be or needed to happen or were supposed to happen; it is the things that did happen, and those things did not occur simply for the purposes of the modern world to exist. A million choices by hundreds of millions of individuals, affected by climate and geography with a healthy dose of luck and happenstance, resulted in the world as we know it. Reading backwards from the present to understand the course of the Mongol Empire, and attempting to make it fit into the political narratives we like today, only does a disservice to history. It should be seen not as a virtuous force bringing continental peace justified by easier trade, nor as a demonic horde, but as an event within human history, in which real humans took part, where great tragedy occured in the pursuit of empire.
History is not just written by the victor of the actual battles; as we’ve detailed across this series, we have no shortage of historical sources on the Mongol Empire; imperial approved sources, sources by travellers passing through the empire, to sources written by the peoples the Mongols crushed. Instead, the history learned in schools and passed down through historical memory and media is built on top of preferred state narratives, those made today and in the past.
Our series on the Mongol Empire concludes next week with a final afterward on Mongolia after 1368, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this was want to help us keep bringing you great content, then consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon.com/kingsandgenerals. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.