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Changing Perceptions of Genghis Khan in Mongolia

An Interview with Dr. Ts. Tsetsenbileg
By Yuan Wang

HARVARD ASIA PACIFIC REVIEW: You have done extensive research on the importance and prevalence of Ghenghis Khan in modern Mongolian society, a figure whose heyday ended well over 700 years ago. With that in mind, why did you become interested in pursuing this vein of research?

DR. TSETSENBILEG: As a sociologist, I have always been interested in the interplay of modern and traditional values among modern Mongolian youth, particularly in the context of the rapidly shifting economic and political currents running through the Mongolia of the last decade. It has always amazed me that even while caught up in a non-stop movement of culture, Mongolians still seem to hold a set of old and immobile societal norms in great esteem, with many among us continuing to conduct ourselves according to its guidelines. These norms, I feel, are the remnants of the legacy of Ghenghis Khan and the Great Yassa-or the Common Law of Mongols-which he elaborated. As I became interested in these philosophies, I wanted more and more to find out exactly how deeply rooted their creator was in the Mongolian psyche.

HAPR: Why would it be important to know the historical or the human angle from which most Mongolians view Ghenghis Khan?

TT: The history of Mongolia is the history of Ghenghis Khan; I think that this one phrase sums up the role of Ghenghis Khan in relation to Mongolian culture perfectly. Ghenghis Khan, whether one loves him as a cultural symbol or hates him as a ruthless conqueror, has always been and probably always will remain a central part of the Mongol consciousness. During the last few decades, while Mongolia was operated under the hand of socialism, there was a great state-wide attempt to obliterate, or at least cover up, Ghenghis Khan's significance as a symbol of national identity. He was depicted in a very ugly light-as something of an unfeeling barbarian, linked to everything that was violent and militaristic. To me, it would be a tragedy if this key figure of both my country's past and present, who is at once the father of our nation and the founder of our culture and civilization, were to be pushed to the periphery as someone of national shame. Thus, understanding how Mongolians view Ghenghis Khan throws a lot of light on how Mongolians view their own heritage and, to a certain extent, themselves. Within this rapidly changing world, Ghenghis Khan, if we acknowledge him without bias, can serve as a moral anchor; he can be Mongolia's root, its source of certainty at a time when many things are uncertain.

HAPR: So what have you concluded from your research?

TT: For one thing, despite decades of negative propaganda, Ghenghis Khan remains a positive figure to most Mongolians. Actually, I believe that in the very depths of their souls, Mongolians never abandoned their "father"; even during the Communist era, they held him close to their hearts. Of course, trends towards a democratic society and a market economy in Mongolia certainly lent a helping hand in rolling back the harsh criticism once aimed at Ghenghis Khan. For a large part, this is reflected in the reconfigured scholarship that is now available on him. While previously, historians were influenced by Russian communist ideology to displace the Mongolian's own point of view of Ghenghis Khan with a much less flattering foreigner's image of him, modern historiography has righted that slant after the erosion of Communist power in Mongolia. Instead of swinging between the extremes of good-guy/bad-guy-which really is a very flat way of depicting any human being-the current take on Ghenghis Khan is much more balanced, scientific, and analytical; it fleshes him out much better as a realistic man. Along the same lines, other aspects of mass influence have slowly moved to correct a once-biased outlook. The results have been very gratifying.

HAPR: Where did you find the most compelling evidence for your conclusions on the modern perceptions of Ghenghis Khan in Mongolia?

TT: Realistically, it doesn't take a scientist or a sociologist to deduce that Ghenghis Khan is still a very integral part of Mongolia. All it takes is a stroll around any street in Ulaanbaatar [the capital], and one sees a massive array of images of Ghenghis Khan, not only in the usual museum exhibits and the artifacts associated with academia, but also on restaurant signs, in television shows, and as an advertising emblem for every product imaginable. In fact, there was a very recent and very heated debate in Mongolia on the morality of using the name of such a towering historical figure to hawk one's wares; it seemed a little sacrilegious. For my research, I used the answers drawn from a large pool of interviewed Mongolians to construct my conclusions. A sample of the types of questions asked of them would be something akin to, "What do you associate with Ghenghis Khan?" An overwhelming majority affirmed his influence over themselves and over Mongolia with replies such as, "Ghenghis Khan is the history of Mongolia," or even to the effect of, "Ghenghis Khan IS Mongolia."

HAPR: Having dealt so much with other people's perceptions of Ghenghis Khan, could you expound a little on your personal opinion of him?

TT: One must be very careful when analyzing Ghenghis Khan, as is true whenever we deal with a person of his stature. To simply peg him as entirely "good" or
"bad," as I have said many times before, would be a gross oversimplification. I think of Ghenghis Khan as a child of circumstance, whose routes of action were on many occasions dictated for him by his status as the leader of a fledgling, nomadic nation. For example, while history paints Ghenghis Khan's invasion of Turkey as a cold and calculated military move, he actually attacked as an act of vengeance, to punish the slaying of his ambassador by the Turkish ruler Mohammed. So personally, I see Ghenghis Khan as a unique figure. In a manner unparalleled among his contemporaries and his followers, he fought not for material goods, gold, or power, but for the trust of his men, which again ties into the clan mentality that is very much a part of the cultural fabric of Mongolia.

HAPR: How do you think Ghenghis Khan might help Mongolia as it grapples with the issues of modernization, of a market economy, and democratization in the 21st century?

TT: Ghenghis Khan, contrary to what one might think, can help carry Mongolia across the threshold of the coming millennium, largely through counteracting the negative side-effects of modernization. Although socialism had been instated much longer in Mongolian society, for some reason, it left the traditional sources of our culture largely untouched. Unfortunately, that no longer holds true with modernization, which runs an opposite current from that of tradition. We Mongolians have always valued intimate inter-personal relations and a closely-woven community, values touted by Ghenghis Khan himself. But it becomes very difficult to maintain those bonds with your old neighborhood or extended family while trying to achieve your own objectives in this super-competitive and goal-oriented modern world. This is not to belittle the positive effects of modernization, but the loss of traditional values is one of the problems facing indigenous cultures as they attempt assimilation into the modernized world. This fraying of the societal fabric can only be remedied by the acknowledgment and celebration of a common past, which, for Mongolia, is Ghenghis Khan. The cultural norms established by him; his emphasis on a peaceful neighborhood, government by law, universalism, equal rights, and respect for nature; can continue to ensure the cohesion of our community even as we enter into a world much removed from the one that he moved in.

HAPR: When Mongolia fully carries out its modernization plans and is well-integrated into the world community, what kind of a role do you foresee it playing on a global scale?

TT: Economically, Mongolia can, of course, continue with its considerable exports of cashmere and copper to the world market, but I would like to stress a much more important and much less talked-about niche that Mongolia can fill in the global picture. Mongolia's culture and civil society, with its much stronger emphasis on inter-dependency and human beings, poses as a refreshing and striking opposite to those of western countries. For instance, developed nations like the US have a tremendously strong cultural basis in favor of individualism and private enterprise, while in traditional societies like Mongolia, you have groups of people-herding groups, neighboring tents, families, and friends-on very close terms with each other. I think this is a very valuable way of life, of which Ghenghis Khan was a prime emblem. Our emphasis on community is a necessary antidote to the Western pursuit of capitalism, competition, high industrialization, and technology, while our respect for ecology is a telling demonstration to the world of how the earth's natural resources can be used in a non-destructive manner. The old Mongolian saying, "The inner calm is the best life," has a lot of wisdom to offer the world.

HAPR: On a more personal level, what are your hopes for Mongolia in the coming years?

TT: I wish that Mongolia had stayed Mongolia. While to a foreigner, things in Mongolia might still seem traditional, to the eyes of a native, there has been a lot of cultural movement in the last few decades. In Ulaanbaatar, the young people look exactly as young Americans would, dressed as they are in blue jeans and Adidas[brand clothing]. Harder to detect is the detachment of extended kin, as families have become more nuclear and absorbed in their own issues. Our culture has experienced a slow but sure erosion by the forces of the outside world. My greatest wish is to see Mongolians achieve prosperity and modernity without loosing that valuable part of their Mongolian identity, that part of them which runs all the way back to Ghenghis Khan.

~This Issue's Index~
  Last modified Summer 2002 by Samuel Lipoff