Savage, evil, sex-crazed: Chinggis Khan, the conqueror of the beginnings of the largest contiguous land empire in history, is shrouded in controversy — his very name, usually mispronounced, often said with a curled lip and disgusted tone by professors and students alike. Throughout history, his legacy has been accompanied by descriptions of the Mongols as inferior “barbarians” who destroyed everything and everyone in the path of their strangely tiny horses and equally strangely tiny numbers.
In the famous Sukhbaatar square of Mongolia’s capital, however, a gigantic statue of the late Khan sitting commandingly on a throne emulates the majesty and consequence of Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial with compelling accuracy. For Mongolians, Chinggis Khan is their own George Washington: a national hero, their equivalent of a founding father and the reason for their brief time in the historical spotlight in the 1200-1300s as the Mongol Empire.
I should know. Even my toddler pictures from when I lived in Mongolia contain elements of extreme veneration for the uniter of the warring Central Asian tribes that would form the basis of modern-day Mongolia. In the photos, massive tapestries of Chinggis Khan’s face — or what Mongolian artists assume his face looked like since, fun fact, Khan didn’t allow portraits of himself to be painted while he was alive — adorn the walls in the background, his severe expression making for a jarring contrast to the loving smiles my family have on.
With no effort on my part, I became a wellspring of Chinggis Khan-related knowledge just as a virtue of growing up in a Mongolian household. I couldn’t tell you the amount of badly produced movies based on the Khan’s life, most which have been seemingly made without an understanding of the Mongolian language or culture that I have seen on family movie nights. I could recite his biography inside and out — everything from how he was enslaved to how he killed his brother to how he betrayed his blood-brother to the estimate of how many concubines he had (a lot) to how he ingeniously structured his military.
I know what horrible things Chinggis Khan has done very well, and so do the many Mongolians who persist in making the theme of their apartments “Universal Ruler” and paying homage to the statue of him on their visits inside the city. With their national pride serving as a sufficient cover, Mongolians often willingly turn a blind eye to the innumerable atrocities Chinggis Khan committed.
Being Mongolian-American, I saw him less as the leader who singlehandedly created my country and more as the man who was responsible for copious amounts of death and destruction as I grew older. Every new piece of information I learned about him renewed my decision to refrain from glorifying his memory, regardless of how important he was to my people’s past.
History class in the States, however, tempted me to reevaluate my position. My assigned readings, textbooks and teachers posed the opposite to Mongolia’s reverent adoration of Chinggis Khan: They would outright call the Mongols and “Genghis Khan” (his Westernized name) barbarians — not even specifying that that was the Mongols’ reputation according to those they conquered — and suddenly gain hold of their historical neutrality when they described European empires. Sure, the Mongols pillaged and burned and killed their way to their empire — but isn’t that the legacy of all empires, especially in that time period?
Why is it only that when a people speaking a guttural language and donning coarse animal skins are the conquering group, they are labelled savages with no ounce of human decency when history has shown just how savage and barbaric other more “civilized,” historically esteemed conquerors can be (the Crusades, anyone?). And why does history portray Chinggis Khan so negatively when it depicts, for example, a likewise bloodthirsty but greatly revered Alexander the Great much more gently when both have inflicted monumental suffering onto as well as immensely impacted their world?
To be completely clear, the huge loss of life that accompanied the building of Chinggis Khan’s empire is inexcusable; his battle tactics, though militarily brilliant, were inconceivably violent. One of them may even have spread the Black Plague. Yet the man decreed religious tolerance in his land, increased women’s rights and avidly supported the then-unfamiliar concept of diplomatic immunity. Considering that this was the 1200s, these practices strike me as impressively modern and entirely unbarbaric. Why is this not written in textbooks that are taught to seventh graders? And why do other empires receive more recognition for their positive global impact?
My argument is not that Chinggis Khan wasn’t barbaric. I definitely think he was. That’s kind of what you get for raising hell in the Eurasian continent. Or any continent or land mass for that matter. It’s just that the archaic, Eurocentric term “barbarism” has no place in the 21st century, in the context of historians picking and choosing whom to call barbarians based on Western standards and then proceeding to minimize the historical impact of those they condemn as primitive.
The lacking world history curriculum in my schools thus prompted me to realize that Mongolians are correct in perceiving that Chinggis Khan has played one of the most consequential roles in history; after all, he dramatically influenced the world and, of course, established the very existence of my country. Though hanging tapestries of his face will forever be a disturbing stretch to me, I fully affirm that learning about — albeit not glorifying — Chinggis Khan’s legacy and its continuing global reverberations from an unbiased perspective is absolutely essential to multifaceted, inclusive historical understanding.
Even if he is a savage, evil, sex-crazed barbarian.
Contact Yanichka Ariunbold at yanichka ‘at’ stanford.edu.