the Left of Chinggis Khan
College and State University
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
i Tim Grieve, "The
Abortion Fight Back Home", Salon, March 7, 2005, http://www.salon.com/politics/war_room/index.html?blog=/politics/war_room/2005/03/07/abortion/index.html.
Accessed January 18, 2006; Rob Capriccioso, "New from Linda Ellerbee", Connect
for Kids, October 6, 2003, http://www.connectforkids.org/node/505.
Accessed January 18, 2006.