The Genghis Khan imprinted in the memory of the west bears little relation to the Chinggis Khaan revered by Mongolians. Not only is the spelling different: to Europeans, his name lives on as the epitome of mercilessness and ravaging war; to the Mongolians, he embodies strength, unity, law and order. He is the young king who united the warring clans, stamped out feuds and gave Mongolians a sense of direction. This is what post-communist Mongolia looks for today, and Chinggis epitomizes the historic ability to rise above confusion and uncertainty.
Until the end of the 12th century, the Mongols were little more than a loose confederation of rival clans. A Mongol named Temujin was born in 1162 (although the exact date is open to debate) His father was a leader of the Kiyat-Borjigin tribe, while the ethnic origins of his mother are subject to conjecture. As a teenager, he killed his half-brother in cold blood, and at the age of 20, he emerged from a power struggle to become the leader of the Kiyat-Borjigins. Within a few years, he managed to unite most of the Mongol tribes, and in 1189, he was given the honorary name of Chinggis Khaan, meaning ‘universal (or oceanic) king’. No Mongolian leader before or since has held the Mongolians together.
Chinggis set up his capital at Karakorum, in present-day Kharkhorin (Avarga, in Delgerkhaan district of the Khentii province, also claims to be Chinggis’ capital), gathered a loyal army (possibly up to 200,000 men from many ethnic groups) and went on to create the largest empire the world has ever seen By the time of his death in 1227 (from injuries sustained after falling off his horse), the Mongol empire extended from Beijing to the Caspian Sea.
Search for Chinggis Khaan’s Grave
Mongolians, and some historians, have agreed that the birthplace of Chinggis Khaan is at Deluun Boldog, in northern Khentii. But where was he buried?
Chinggis’ grave is probably in Khentii province, and not too far from his birthplace, but the exact location is not known. According to diaries kept by Marco Polo, the Mongols at the time wanted to keep the location a secret – which they have managed to do to this day. According to legend, the 2000 or so people who attended Chinggis’ funeral were killed by 800 soldiers, who were in turn slaughtered themselves – so total secrecy was insured.
Various expeditions, often with Japanese and US assistance and technology, have failed to shed any light on the mystery. His tomb may contain millions, if not billions, of dollars worth of gold, silver, precious stones and other priceless religious artifacts (which obviously weren’t destroyed during the Stalinist purges), so the search is sure to continue.
However, the vast amount of money spent so far, which could be better used to assist regional development, and the fact that discovery of the grave is against the obvious wishes of Chinggis Khaan himself, also causes resentment among many Mongolians.
Power passed into the hands of Chinggis’ favourite son, Ogedei, who continued the programme of military conquest. His generals pushed as far west as Hungary and were all set to invade Western Europe when Ogedei died. Mongol custom dictated that all noble descendants of Chinggis had to return to Mongolia to democratically elect a new khaan (king). This forced the abandonment of the European campaign.
Chinggis’ grandson, Kublai Khan (circa 1216-1294), completed the subjugation of China, effectively ending the Song Dynasty (960-1279). He became the emperor of China’s Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Kublai established his winter capital in Tatu (‘great capital’), today’s Beijing. (So thoroughly have the Chinese erased the traces of the Mongol conquest that only two major monuments in Beijing remain: the Lama Temple and the giant white stupa in Beihai Park.)
Kublai soon realized that the Mongol empire had reached the limits of expansion. In 1260 the Mongols lost a major battle to the Egyptian Mamluks. An attack on Java briefly succeeded, but the Mongol troops were finally expelled. Two attempts to invade Japan (in 1274 and 1281) ended in failure; the second was thwarted when a typhoon destroyed the Mongol fleet. The Japanese claimed this was divine intervention – the Mongols said it was bad weather.
Instead of looking for more wars to fight, Kublai concentrated his efforts on keeping the vast empire together. This was the height of the Mongols’ glory: the empire stretched from Korea to Hungary, and as far south as Vietnam, making it the largest empire the world has ever known. The Mongols improved the road system linking China with Russia and promoted trade throughout the empire and with Europe. Tens of thousands of horses were on standby to enable pony express riders to cross the empire with important messages at great speed.
In China, the Yuan dynasty instituted a famine relief scheme and expanded the canal system, which brought food from the countryside to the cities. It was the first to enforce paper money as the sole form of currency. This was the China that Marco Polo and other travelers visited and described in their journals to an amazed Europe.
A Mongolian revival of sorts occurred under Altan Khaan (1507-83), who united the Khalkha, defeated the Oirad and brought most of Mongolia under his control. The war with Ming China was renewed in an attempt to recapture the lost empire of the Yuan dynasty, but this effort proved fruitless. China’s Great Wall was built at this time in an effort to find a technological solution against Altan Khaan and the resurgent Mongols. Altan signed a peace treaty with China in 1571 and turned his troops south-west against Tibet.
At the height of his power, Altan was seduced by Buddhism (ironically, the religion of Tibet). He became a devout believer, and Buddhism – the religion of the Mongol nobility for 200 years – became the state religion.
Born in 1635, Zanabazar is Mongolia’s earliest Buddhist leader and first high reincarnated lama, as well as a politician, diplomat and renowned sculptor. Said to be descended from Chinggis Khaan and from a Bodhisattva, he was deemed a possible gegeen, or saint, at the age of three, enthroned at the age of five, and studied Buddhism with the Dalai Lama in Tibet. Zanabazar returned to Mongolia to spread Tibetan Buddhism and created many famous bronze statues of Buddha.
After a long confrontation with the Oirad Mongols, the Khalkha Mongols under his religious and political leadership opted for an alliance with the Manchu rulers of China in 1691. Zanabazar was murdered in 1723 during a visit to Peking soon after the Manchu emperor died, according to a biography published in 1995.
Many Mongolians refer to the time of Zanabazar’s life as Mongolia’s Renaissance period. His most enduring legacy is the sensuous statues of the incarnation of compassion, the deity Tara. His creations can be seen in many monasteries and museums in Mongolia, such as at the Gandan Khiid, the Erdene Zuu Khiid and the Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan. A museum of fine arts in Ulaanbaatar is also named after him.
Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj (1906-1937), was Mongolia’s first ‘socialist classic’ writer. He was one of a group of young Mongolians educated in Germany between 1926 and 1929, and on return, he helped set up what later became the Writers’ Union. He wrote stories, plays and poems, including a well-known poem called My Native Land, describing the natural beauty of Mongolia. Here are three of the twelve verses:
The crystal rivers of sacred Kherlen, Onon and Tuul,
Brooks, streams and springs that bring health to all my people,
The blue lakes of Khovsgol, Uvs and Buir – deep and wide,
Rivers and lakes where people and cattle quench their thirs;
This, this is my native land,
The lovely country – my Mongolia.
The land of pure grasses waving in the breeze,
The land of open planning full of fantastic mirages,
Firm rocks and out-of-reach places where good men used to meet,
And the ancient ovoos – the standing stones to gods and ancestors;
This, this is my native land,
The lovely country – my Mongolia.
Land where in winter all is covered with snow and ice,
And the grasses twinkle like glass and crystal,
Land where in summer all is carpet of flowers,
And full of songbirds from the distant lands to the south;
This, this is my native land,
The lovely country – my Mongolia.
It won’t take long before you wonder who Sukhbaatar is – his statue astride a horse dominates the square named after him in Ulaanbaatar, his face is on many currency notes, and there is a provincial capital and aimag called Sukhbaatar.
Born in 1893, probably in what is now Ulaanbaatar, Sukh (which means ‘ax’), as he was originally named, joined the Mongolian army in 1911. He soon became famous for his horsemanship, but was forced to leave the army because of insubordination. In 1917, he joined another army, found against the Chinese, and picked up the added moniker of baatar, or ‘hero’.
By 1921, Sukhbaatar was made commander-in-chief of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Army, which defeated the Chinese again, and, later, the White Russians. In July of that year, he declared Mongolia’s independence from China at what is now known as Sukhbaatar Square.
He packed a lot in a short life; he died in 193, at the age of 30. The exact cause of his death has never been known, and he did not live to see Mongolia proclaimed a republic.
A great hero of the 1921 revolution, Khorloogiyn Choibalsan became Mongolia’s leader in 1928, probably purging or assassinating rivals in the process. Like his Russian mentor, Joseph Stalin, Choibalsan was ruthless. Following Stalin’s lead, Choibalsan ordered the seizure of land and herds which were then redistributed to peasants. In 1932, more than 700 people – mostly monks – were imprisoned or murdered, their property seized and collectivized. Farmers were forced to join cooperatives and private business was banned, Chinese and other foreign traders were expelled, and all transport was nationalized. The destruction of private enterprise without sufficient time to build up a working state sector had the same result in Mongolia as it did in the Soviet Union – famine.
While Choibalsan moderated his economic policy during the 1930s, his campaign against religion was without mercy. In 1937, Choibalsan launched a reign of terror against the monasteries in which thousands of monks were arrested and executed. The antireligion campaign coincided with a bloody purge to eliminate ‘rightist elements’. It is believed that by 1939, some 27,000 people had been executed (3% of Mongolia’s population at that time), of whom 17,000 were monks.
Although Choibalsan’s regime has been heavily criticized by modern Mongolians, statues of him remain, and his name is still used for streets, cities and sums. Some Mongolians admire him for defending Mongolia’s independence.
Anandyn Amar (1886-1941), after whom a street is named in Ulaanbaatar, was one of Choibalsan’s purge victims. He was head of state 1932-36 and Prime Minister 1928-30 and 1936-39. Choibalsan and Amar were both founder members of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party.
Roy Chapman Andrews
An honorary Mongolian! Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960) was an American palaeontologist from New York who explored the Gobi in the 1920s and found the first dinosaur eggs, jaws and skulls in Central Asia. Andrews’ first expedition was based at Bayanzag, which he renamed the ‘flaming cliffs’. For political reasons, he abandoned his incomplete expeditions after about five years.
According to his books and biographies, he was a real-life adventurer who took the ambushes, raids and rebellions during the expeditions in his stride. He worked for US intelligence during WWI and also explored Alaska, Borneo, Burma and China. He wrote such Boys’ Own classics as Whale Hunting with Gun and Camera (1916), Across Mongolian Plains (1921) and On the Trail of Ancient Man. Not surprisingly, Andrews is widely regarded as the model on which the screen character Indiana Jones is based.
Yumjaagiyn Tsedenbal ruled Mongolia for about 40 years until 1984, when he was forcibly retired as secretary-general. He moved to Moscow with his Russian wife and died a few years later.
Unlike most Mongolian heroes of the 20th century, Davaadorj didn’t fight in the 1921 revolution – he was too young. He was noted for his bravery while fighting the Japanese along the Khalkhin Gol in 1939, at the tender age of 22. Like Sukhbaatar, his death is a mystery. His statue now dominates the town square in Moron, the capital of Khovd, his home province.
Born in 1926, Givaan became a sergeant in the Mongolian army and was assigned to patrol the area in southern Khovd, near the Chinese border. He was killed in 1948 during clashes with Chinese troops. He is a hero to his hometown of Ulaangom, in Uvs province.
Aldanjavyn Ayush (1859-1939) wrote a petition in 1903 to oppose excessive taxation and debt, and presented it to the Manchurian rulers in Khovd province, all to no avail. In 1912, after the Manchu dynasty was overthrown in China, he again wrote a petition to oppose feudal privilege and ask the Mongolian government to cancel previous debts and lower taxes – but he was later arrested.
Ayush joined the 1921 revolution which succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy and bringing socialism to Mongolia. He was rewarded by being made head of the Tsetseg sum in Khovd, where he is a local hero.
Greenway, Paul, Storey, Robert & Lafitte, Gabriel, Lonely Planet – Mongolia, Second Edition, Lonely Planet Publications, Hawthorn, Australia, 1997, pp. 13-17, 206 (Zanabazar), 201 (Sukhabaatar), 275 (Roy Chapman Andrews), 243 (Givaan), 189 (Davaadorj), and 239 (Aldanjavyn Ayush). The three verses from Natsagdorj’s My Native Land come from p. 34.
The sections on Anandyn Amar, and Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj were taken from Sanders & Bat-Ireedui’s Colloquial Mongolian – The Complete Course for Beginners, First Edition, Routledge, London, 1999, pp. 66-67.