World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

To the Left of Chinggis Khan

Timothy May

North Georgia College and State University

    Eight hundred years ago, a state arose in what many people would consider the middle of nowhere: the steppes of Mongolia. In less than a hundred years, the Mongol Empire stretched from the Korean peninsula to the Carpathian Mountains. While the later rulers of the empire were worthy in their own right, on the 800th anniversary of the founding of not only the Mongol Empire, but the Mongolian state, we should reflect a bit on its founder, Chinggis Khan…often erroneously bastardized as "Genghis" in the West. 1
    A full consideration of Chinggis Khan's legacy and influence could easily fill several pages; however I want to focus on one particular aspect that has entered the English lexicon, both in America and in Britain, which is that phrase "to the right of Genghis Khan." When uttered, it usually is not intended as a compliment, but is meant to infer that the person is not only extremely conservative, but even perhaps somewhat fascist, tyrannical, or autocratic--basically an exaggerated version of the stereotypical image of the Mongol leader, Chinggis Khan. Of course, it is an attempt to demonize anyone who is slightly more to the right of the political views of the speaker or writer. While one might think this terminology is reserved for someone like Saddam Hussein or Stalin, it also has been used to describe President George W. Bush's judicial nominees, conservative columnist and polemicist Anne Coulter, and even journalist and host of a children's news show, Linda Ellerbee.i While it is doubtful that Ellerbee is likely to embark on a second career of world conquest, one must wonder exactly where Chinggis Khan fits on the modern political spectrum. Perhaps the best place to look is how he founded the Mongol Empire.
    Chinggis Khan was not the first tribal leader to unify Mongolia. Creating a tribal confederacy did not revolutionize Mongolian culture or society. Chinggis Khan, however, did not merely establish a confederation of tribes; he revolutionized Mongolia. In many ways, Chinggis' life is a rags to riches story. His father, assassinated while Temujin (Chinggis Khan is a title) was a child, left their family deserted and impoverished. Over time, Chinggis Khan eventually became an important leader on the steppe. Unsurprisingly, this meant several years of serving others and slowly building a following. His followers came from a variety of tribes and social levels; indeed, the majority of his supporters were from the lower classes of Mongolian society. Ultimately, merit rather than birth status provided Chinggis Khan's major determinant in selecting leaders and companions. Naturally, this did not win him friends among the aristocracy. In the end, choosing merit over lineage allowed Chinggis Khan to unite the steppe under his rule. Many of his leading generals started off as commoners, servants, and even slaves.
    Rather than simply conquer other tribes and then maintain them in their regular form, the tribes he defeated no longer existed after the conquest. Chinggis Khan incorporated the defeated nomads into tribes and military units loyal to him under an inclusive banner of Xamag Monggol Ulus or All Mongol Nation. This new formation was not greater Mongol tribe, but rather a new state that no longer operated under traditional Mongolian tribal structure. By 1206, Chinggis Khan ruled the steppes of Mongolia and a single people—the Mongols. All other tribal distinctions disappeared or were submerged beneath the common identity of the Mongols. 4
   Chinggis Khan also restructured other facets of society. He created a welfare and pension system to take care of the widows and children of his soldiers. Having learned the hardships of poverty in his youth, he sought to ease the lives of others. Although he remained illiterate, Chinggis Khan might be considered the "education Khan" as he saw the value of literacy, forced the adoption of an alphabet and made literacy compulsory for Mongol princes. The script remains in use today in Inner Mongolia and to a lesser extent in Mongolia. Additionally, Chinggis Khan's policy of religious tolerance remains somewhat of an oddity in world history. 5
    After his death in 1227, his words and deeds became the ideal for all Mongols. His maxims were honored and treated as a model of conduct for all of his descendents. In addition, some claim that the Mongols took on a semblance of a democratic system. To select their new leader a quriltai, essentially a political convention, convened and candidates were vetted from Chinggis Khan's descendents. Of course as Chinggis Khan had at least a half dozen wives and numerous concubines, only American Idol has more contestants auditioning for the job. Eventually the quriltai elected a new Khan. Of course, the only real democratic aspect of it was that the leader was chosen from a list of nominees. However, one had to be from the family of Chinggis Khan to rule…so it was a one-party democracy. Nonetheless, many modern Mongolians connect their peaceful transition to democracy after decades of Communist rule to this, no matter how tenuous the link. Still, the emphasis on Chinggis Khan's family as the key to a ruler's legitimacy dominated much of Eurasia for centuries. The Soviets deposed the last Chinggisid ruler of the Khanate of Bukhara in modern Uzbekistan in 1920. 6
    In light of the social revolution that Chinggis Khan created, it is clear that perhaps the great khan was not exactly a conservative, as he threw many traditions to the wind and never looked back. His use of welfare, education, and social engineering moves him to the left. Nonetheless, I doubt if anyone will ever view Chinggis Khan as a teddy bear of a guy and rightfully so. We can be certain that he carried the same wallet as Samuel L. Jackson's character, Jules Winnfield, in the movie Pulp Fiction. Nonetheless, his role as a social revolutionary certainly moves him towards the left on the American political spectrum. This in turn, leaves more latitude for accuracy when judging someone to be "to the right of Genghis Khan"…such as that would be world conqueror, Linda Ellerbee. However, perhaps in the future we will hear a new twist on an old phrase, as conservatives demonize their opponents by accusing them of being "to the left of Genghis Khan." 7

i Tim Grieve, "The Abortion Fight Back Home", Salon, March 7, 2005, Accessed January 18, 2006; Rob Capriccioso, "New from Linda Ellerbee", Connect for Kids, October 6, 2003, Accessed January 18, 2006.  

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use