On one of my last days in China I wore a shirt that I bought in Mongolia with the image of Chinggis Khaan, Mongolia’s all around patriarch/superstar. As leader of the Mongolian nomads, Chinggis was able to invade and take over most of China, parts of Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, while establishing the largest empire in world history. The Ulaanbaatar Airport is named after him. Mongolia’s most popular beer is named after him, and pictures of him can be seen all over Mongolia. Although he died over 600 years ago, Chinggis is by far and away Mongolia’s most prominent historical figure. During my trip to Mongolia, I had to buy a Chinggis Khaan T-shirt.
My Chinggis shirt often becomes a conversation topic when I wear it in China. When my Chinese friends ask where I bought the shirt, and I tell them Mongolia, they are quick to point out that Mongolia was historically part of China, and that Mongolians are one of the 56 official nationalities living in China, and therefore Chinggis Khan was a Chinese.
During several periods in history, Mongolia was controlled by China, and today half of it (Inner Mongolia) still is. However, from 1271 to 1368, China was invaded and controlled by Chinggis and his Mongolian tribes in what is commonly referred to in China as the “Yuan Dynasty.”
Determining who is and who is not Chinese is not an exact science. What makes somebody a Chinese? If we say that a Chinese is a Han Chinese, then the Manchurians who controlled China during the Qing Dynasty would not be Chinese either, and neither would be Zheng He, the famous explorer (and Hui Muslim), who allegedly discovered America before Christopher Columbus.
Yet, if we insist that “Chinese” includes all of the peoples who are represented by the 56 official Chinese nationalities, then suddenly our definition of “Chinese” swells to include not only Chinggis Khaan, but Stalin, Kim Jong Ill, the Dalai Lama, and Borat, all of whose nationalities are part of the 56. So where is the line between a Chinese and a…for lack of better terminology…laowai? Calling Chinggis Khaan Chinese seems like a historical stretch to me, but by some twist of logic, I can see how the distinction would be made. However, using the same logic, you could argue that Mao Zedong was Mongolian. Somehow I can’t imagine this would sit too well with the Chinese.