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China Claims Genghis Khan as One of Its Own Abuse of History, Tourists Hype or Ethnic Integration Strategy? Mure Dicie Examines the Sinification of the Mongolian Emperor

Financial Times
December 29, 2006
Mure Dickie

From outcast nomad to tribal warlord and finally founder of the world's greatest land empire, Genghis Khan went through a lot of changes in a tumultuous life spanning the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th.

But perhaps the strangest transformation ever undergone by the Mongolian military genius has come in modern times: his reinvention as a Chinese hero.

"Genghis Khan was certainly Chinese," says Guo Wurong, general manager of the Genghis Khan Mausoleum Tourist District in China's Inner Mongolia region.

"We currently define him as a hero of the Mongolian nationality, a great man of the Chinese people and a giant in world history," says Mr Guo, who has led a multimillion-dollar redevelopment of the site of the greatkhan's "mausoleum" in Inner Mongolia's Ordos prefecture.

The Chinese part of that description would no doubt surprise Genghis himself, who seems to have seen the Han Chinese people who lived south of his Mongolian heartlands as merely another ethnic group to be subjugated.

Mr Guo's definition closely matches that pushed by official histories and government scholars, however. The late chairman Mao Zedong may once have dismissed Genghis as someone who "only knew how to draw his bow at the eagles", but Beijing's cultural commissars have good reason to embrace the great khan as a model Chinese.

Celebrating Genghis aligns Beijing policy with the reverence ethnic Mongolians feel for the founder of their nation.

Turning Genghis Chinese, meanwhile, pushes the party line that Inner Mongolia is an integral part of China, despite the quiet yearning for independence of many of the region's increasingly outnumbered original inhabitants.

State-approved histories paint an idealised picture of an eternal "Chinese" state grouping the majority Han with ethnic brothers such as the Mongolians.

"Coming from a nomad nationality, Genghis Khan rose to become a representative of many excellent national cultures, embodying especially the essence of China's minority nationality culture," wrote Chen Yu-ning, professor at Ningxia University, in a history published this year.

Such official endorsement of Genghis and traditional culture has brought real benefits for Mongolians in China, who suffered severe oppression for decades under Mao's rule.

Traditional Naadam festivals of riding, shooting and wrestling, once banned, are now subsidised by the state. At one Naadam gathering on the Gegentala grasslands this summer, local government departments lent tents to contestants to stay in.

Yet the cost of being subsumed into a greater Chinese identity is also apparent. Much of the Gegentala festival was arranged for the benefit of dignitaries and tourists staying at a nearby tent hotel complete with a bathhouse stocked with Chinese prostitutes.

A flag-bearing police honour guard and playing of the national anthem opened proceedings, to the disgust of one ethnic Mongolian official. "Naadam has been diluted, Communised and Sinified," said the official, who declined to be identified. "To a person who has studied history and national culture, Naadam should not be this way."

A Chinese tide is also washing over the Ordos "mausoleum" - which is actually the site of a sacred enclosure where relics of the great khan were preserved. Now a complex of statues, plazas and museum halls has been built around the site in a style reminiscent of China's imperial tombs.

Mr Guo says effort is being made to reflect the site's traditions.

Indeed, he plans to install hidden speakers in the grassland to give visitors a sense of place. "That way you'll be able to hear the sound of horses galloping on the steppe . . . or in another place you might hear the sound of Mongolian singing," he says.

Such ersatz echoes of steppeland tradition irk Baildugqi, an expert on Mongolian history at the Inner Mongolia University. "You cannot use the methods of the Han interior to commemorate Genghis Khan and his culture," Prof Baildugqi says.

Sinifying Genghis's legacy does not just risk upsetting mild-mannered academics. Official emphasis on Mongolians' minority status also fuels fears in Mongolia itself about Beijing's long-term intentions.

Calling Genghis a Chinese hero is even drawing quiet protest within China, where many people retain the more traditional view that he was a barbarian invader and some are simply annoyed at what appears a blatant abuse of historical fact.

The official justification rests essentially on the view that Genghis is Chinese because his successors ruled China as emperors and many Mongolians live within Chinese state borders today.

It is an argument waved aside by critics such as one contributor to the popular Hefei discussion website who goes by the name Dagui. "Now there are quite a few Mongolians in China, and they have Chinese citizenship - but that does not make Mongolians (of Genghis's era) Chinese," Dagui wrote. "If your grandson moves to the US, gets a green card and becomes a US citizen, that will not mean that you and your dad were Americans!"




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Changing Inner MongoliaChanging Inner Mongolia: Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chinese State (Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Grasslands and Grassland Science in Northern ChinaGrasslands and Grassland Science in Northern China: A Report of the Committee on Scholarly Communication With the People's Republic of China

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