Chinggis Khaan in modern Mongolia: Hero worship or personality cult?



By John Holland

Chinggis Khaan has long been both an esteemed and venerated figure in Mongolian society. However, Western observers have claimed that respect for him has developed into religion, even a cult. Is this true?

I arrive at the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue at Tsonjin Boldog, 54 kilometers east of Ulaanbaatar. Standing 40 meters high, it is the largest horse riding statue in the world. The statue is covered with 250 tons of stainless steel, and gleams magnificently on this beautiful sunny morning. Completed in 2008, the monument is just one of many icons to a man who, not more than 20 years before, was anathema to public discourse. In fact, one finds Chinggis Khaan’s image or name not only on monuments, but on just about everything. Tourists can land at Chinggis Khaan International Airport, exchange their currency for bills of 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, and 20,000 Mongolian tugrug (all with Chinggis Khaan’s face on the front), use the money to take a taxi to Chinggis Khaan Hotel, and later take a photo of his statue at Chinggis Square (now returned to the name of Sukhbaatar Square), all the while enjoying an energy drink with Chinggis Khan’s face on it. Yet, even this list does not include all the buildings, streets, monuments, statues, pictures, clothing, food, and drink products that feature him as well, many of which emerged after the fall of communism in 1990. Chinggis Khaan’s birthday is even celebrated as a national holiday. Being credited with founding the great Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire in history, he remains, for many Mongolians, a national hero.

Indeed, whenever I asked about Chinggis Khaan, I got almost the same answers from people. “Every Mongolian respects him a lot,” said Urnaa, an employee at a travel agency in Ulaanbaatar. “Chinggis Khaan is not just Mongolian, but a world person.” One Mongolian college student was perhaps the most direct with me. “We respect him 100 percent,” she declared. Undoubtedly, Mongolians hold Chinggis Khaan in very high regard, but exactly how far does this all go?

In the minds of Western scholars and media, Mongolians seem to lavish so much praise and admiration on Chinggis Khaan that some Western scholars and media maintain that a cult of personality has developed, even going so far as to treat him as a deity. One can see this thinking simply from the titles of published article. In 2003, BBC News published  an article entitled, “Mongolia’s cult of the great Khan”. In November 2015, Discover Mongolia published “The Worship of Genghis Khan”, with a subheading of “Genghis Khan almost a cult in Mongolia”.

On this phenomenon, Isabelle Charleux of the French National Centre for Scientific Research writes:

“The apex of the Chinggis Khan fever was reached in 2006 with the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the Chinggisid state. This was accompanied by a plethora of new images of him: bronze and stone statues, paintings, etc. in a huge variety of contexts… Chinggis’ portrait appears on currency and postage stamps and now represents the nation: it is even offered to foreign countries as a diplomatic gift, and meetings between Mongolian and foreign presidents take place before his statue. Chinggis Khan’s effigy exalts the glory of the Mongolian nation, and serves as a model, a leader and a god for officials and students. A new state cult was invented… based on the Khan’s symbols, and his effigy was used in state rituals.”

Finally, John Man, author of “Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection”, talks about the Mausoleum of Chinggis Khaan in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, in China. He contends it is a place where Mongolians can go to practice their religion of Chinggis Khaan worship, both making offerings, and praying to him, as though he were a god.

Is all this talk about a cult of personality and worship of Chinggis Khaan accurate? To start with, what is a cult of personality?

Although the term was first used with political connotation by Karl Marx, Nikita Krushchev further popularized it in his “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” speech, in which he criticized a wide range of Joseph Stalin’s policies, and charged him with fostering a “cult of personality”, also translated as “cult of the individual”. It arises when one (usually a political figure) is presented to the public, through media, laws, and rallies as a kind of superhuman, godlike being to be admired, followed, and sometimes even worshipped. This is all for the purpose of enhancing or sustaining that individual’s political power. Concerning Stalin, Kruschev denounced these actions, so characteristic of his reign, calling them “impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism.”

Besides Stalin, other individuals accused of fostering a personality cult include Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Kim Il Sung, Mao Zedong, and Nicolae Ceaușescu. The term is usually used in reference to leaders of totalitarian regimes, often while they are still living or in power. On the other hand, “personality cult” can also be used for dead individuals — such as Lenin and Mao — who are still useful to an existing regime, as well as for democratic figures — like British Prime Ministers — as political scientist Richard Crossman has discussed.

So, in the modern definition of the term, is there evidence of a cult of personality around Chinggis Khaan? Well, to start with, he is dead; so, we are examining actions by the Mongolian government and people, relating to his reverence, and he is clearly revered. First, he is ubiquitous. As aforementioned, he or his name can be found on places, money, art, products, food, and drink — practically anything. There is a national holiday in his honor. The oldest surviving Mongolian literary work, “The Secret History of the Mongols”, is regarded as a classic and is all about him. If a foreigner knows nothing else about Mongolia, they probably, however, have heard of Chinggis Khaan.

Second, Chinggis Khaan is not only ubiquitous, but he is idolized, sometimes as deity. In an article by The Independent entitled, “The cult of Genghis Khan”, an Amraa Mandakh is quoted as saying during an interview that he “worshipped Genghis Khan”. A Mongolian sumo wrestler living in Japan recently stated, “Genghis Khan is our hero, our father, our god.” Finally, Kh.Lkhagvasuren, president of Chinggis Khaan University, made the claim, “For Mongolians, he’s almost like Jesus Christ. They feel very close to him. They feel attached to him.” At least a few people give Chinggis Khaan transcendent status.

Third and finally, Chinggis Khaan is not only ubiquitous and idolized, but he is sanitized. At Tsonjin Boldog, when I asked my tour guide whether Mongolians ignore the bad things about him, she replied that it’s not that they ignore them, they just don’t care. “There are a lot of bad things. There are good things about him, and bad things. I have read a lot of bad things about him… We know it. Our attitude towards the bad things is, We know it. So what?… There’s nothing to do now. It’s already happened. I think that’s the attitude.” When I asked her why Chinggis Khaan had to go conquer all the countries he did, she replied, “I think he just wanted to expand the territory. Maybe he wanted to unite the world, to talk in a good way. Or maybe, in a bad way, he wanted to enlarge his power.” When I asked an Ulaanbaatar businesswoman the same question, she seemed to respond with equal indifference: “The rules of that period were not the same as today’s.” Finally, a Mongolian blogger by the name of Nar Amar has posted on the question-and-answer site Quora, “He killed so many people, but Mongolians don’t care… Even today, most Mongolians want to kill Han Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese.” Although opinion may be different as one travels afield, in Mongolia, the question of who Chinggis Khaan was elicits almost nothing but praise.

If one were to judge solely from the past few paragraphs, one might conclude that there is a personality cult around Chinggis Khaan. Granted, most leaders who promote their personality cults are also ubiquitous, idolized, and sanitized; yet, when compared to other examples, the argument becomes more complex. First of all, Chinggis Khaan does not enjoy the mandated honor found in other regimes. During the heydays of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, all their countries’ national anthems featured their names. This is not the case for Chinggis Khaan. In North Korea, every household is required to hang pictures of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il on their walls, and they are fined if the pictures are found to be dusty. In Mongolia, one can spit on Chinggis Khaan’s picture if one wishes — with no punishment. In China, Mao is on all paper currency with a value of one yuan or more. In Mongolia, Chinggis Khaan shares the bills with the “Father of Mongolia’s Revolution” Damdinii Sükhbaatar. Also, in China, one can be arrested for speaking negatively about Mao. In Mongolia, one has freedom of speech, even for Chinggis Khaan. Nicolae Ceaușescu gave himself such titles as “Conducător” (Leader) and “Geniul din Carpați” (The Genius of the Carpathians), and had songs sung for him on his birthday, praising his supposed supernatural qualities. No such tributes are demanded by the Mongolian government for Chinggis Khaan. So, when one compares the actions of the worst instances of cult of personality, national respect towards Chinggis Khaan is rather mild.

Furthermore, Chinggis Khaan’s adulatory following is not that pervasive. Despite any declarations of praise and worship from certain individuals, such attitudes are rare, and people admit that. When I asked my tour guide, she knew of no one who performed any religious ritual for Chinggis Khaan. Munkhbat, an overseas student in Russia, told me, “We don’t pray to him like a god.” An Ulaanbaatar native named Tim, however, expressed how it does happen, albeit rarely: “Maybe some people, I think, but it’s not common. I know on Facebook I saw some people do that, but it’s not really common.” One can see that the land is not peppered with Chinggis Khaan shrines and temples, as it is for Buddha.

Lastly, Chinggis Khaan is dissociated from current government success. Whichever party the Mongolian people vote into office does not rise and fall based on opinions of Chinggis Khaan. Just last month, the opposition Mongolian People’s Party took back power from the incumbent Democratic Party in a landslide election win. How much did the voters’ decision have to do with Chinggis Khaan? Most probably not at all. Yet, usually where there is a personality cult, the leader and the government are inextricably connected, and when one falls, so does the other.

If not a deity or personality cult (generally speaking), why is Chinggis Khaan so respected among Mongolians? After all, historical figures of other democracies are rarely given the distinction he is, even if they were great conquerors. One reason is that Chinggis Khaan provides a ready-made solution to Mongolia’s identity problem. Dr. Alicia J. Campi of the Woodrow Wilson Center explains:

“Mongolia is trying to establish itself as a viable democratic, western-oriented, free market economy with a unique and valuable native culture. It is seeking to redefine its national identity and world image in terms that inspire its own people and at the same time revise any negative image left from its imperial past 800 years ago. The key to this search for a new identity appears to be the redefining and renewal of the symbol of Chinggis Khan, the founder of both the Mongol state and nationality.”

Dr. Ts.Tsetsenbileg of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences agrees: “Genghis Khan, if we acknowledge him without bias, can service as a moral anchor. He can be Mongolia’s root, its source of certainty at a time when many things are uncertain.” The last Mongol rulers came under Qing rule in 1691, and for 300 years Mongolia was dominated by either Beijing or Moscow. After the fall of communism, Mongols needed a central rallying point, and it was Chinggis Khaan who filled that void.

Well, is there any personality cult? Although held as larger than life by Western standards, Chinggis Khaan is not the imposed Supreme Being one finds in the worst of dictatorships. He may be found everywhere, and admired to the point where any wrong he did does not matter, but he is no dictator. Any real deification of him is hard to find, and he really has nothing to do with government policy. If there is a cult, it is only among the few, and it is certainly not mainstream.