Genghis Khan in Fiction and Film, Part 1 of 3

17 Nov

Ghengis (or Chinggis) Khan’s father-in-law was particularly insightful:

“This boy has fire in his eyes and light in his face,” he said (Onon 57) — or so states The Secret History of the Mongols in an early characterization of Temujin, the kid who would become Chinggis Khan.

The work’s date and author remain unknown; its phonetic transliteration from the original script into Chinese may have distorted some meaning; and the very content of its early legends and myths throw doubt on its accuracy as an historical document — nevertheless, The Secret History of the Mongols still remains one of the most substantial sources of indigenous history from the period of the Mongol Empire.  And though contemporary chronicles and accounts, modern historical analyses, and fictional reconstructions of the life of the great, if brutal, warrior often present conflicting narratives, all agree on the significant point best put by the anonymous author of the Secret History: the boy was driven.

This question of motive — what incredible mission or ambition propelled the young Chinggis Khan to unify and establish the greatest land empire in world history? —  forms the foundation of two recent depictions of the boy Temujin and the man Chinggis: Sergei Bodrov’s film Mongol and Inoue Yasushi’s novel The Blue Wolf.  Though the director and author take liberties with historical evidence in drawing their portraits, both works still reflect the personal and political tensions inherent in the clash of cultures the Mongol conquests catalyzed.

Life on the Central Eurasian steppe during the time of Chinggis Khan was dominated by a pattern of pastoral nomadism, defined as a “planned migration so as not to exhaust the pasture,” (May 33) a pattern necessary in an environment of little rain and a culture lacking the technology to cut and store feed for livestock.  Mongol life was thus dominated by constant movement, herding, and — most importantly — horses.

Holding an “honored status” (May 34) among the steppe tribes, the quantity and condition of a family’s horses could mean either prestige or ruin, something both Yasushi and Bodrov suggest in their works.

In the novel, a young man named Bo’orchu selflessly agrees to accompany the teenage Temujin in tracking down the horse thieves who had plundered his already-impoverished family’s yurt — Bo’orchu’s willingness to risk his own life for a stranger’s benefit not only guaranteed that he would become one of Chinggis’s closest companions, but also indicates the level of value the Mongols placed on horses: theft is worth losing one’s life over.  Mongol further emphasizes the important horsemanship by equating it with the fundamental Mongol identity: a young Jamugha laughs incredulously at Temujin’s confession that, with his family abandoned and suffering dire economic straits, he doesn’t have a horse — “But a Mongol has to be on a horse,” Jamugha insists (Mongol).

In this way, the film suggests Mongol identity as being inextricably tied up with the traditional nomadic lifestyle, a theme strongly reinforced in Yisugei’s death scene: though suspecting foul play, Temujin’s father accepts the offering of a drink from members of an enemy tribe.  “If I, the khan, start breaking the customs,” he says before drinking the poison, “the world will turn upside-down” (Mongol).

As Bo’orchu risks his life to preserve traditional values, Yisugei gives his for the sake of upholding custom.  Mongol, however, frames Chinggis as a rebel throughout.

Given the opportunity to avoid a battle by leaving the families of his warriors behind, Chinggis, though hopelessly outnumbered, refuses to abandon innocent women and helpless children — encouraged by his wife to “do as all Mongols do,” Chinggis nevertheless rejects traditional practice:

“Not me,” he replies (Mongol).

Unlike his predecessor, the new khan is shown to be willing to turn the world upside-down — at least for the sake of Borte, whose abiding love motivates Chinggis throughout the movie.  One scene even suggests that their connection is strong enough to transcend the farthest distances: Chinggis, enslaved by the Tanguts, entrusts a small carved bird to a Buddhist monk, hoping he will find Borte and give it to her as a sign that, though imprisoned and far away, her husband yet remembers her — though the monk dies on the journey, Borte sees his location in a dream and so finds Chinggis’s symbolic message.


This is part 1 of 3 of a slightly re-tooled version of an paper I wrote for an Asian Civ course in Fall 2009.  Feel free to use or abuse it—just cite your sources, and my sources, which are these:

Lane, George. Daily Life in The Mongol Empire. The Greenwood Press “Daily Life Through History” Series. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2006.

May, Timothy Michael. Culture and Customs of Mongolia. Culture and Customs of Asia. Hanchao Lu. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Mongol, DVD. Directed by Segei Bodrov: Picturehouse and Sony Pictures, 2007.

Morgan, David. The Mongols. The People of Europe Series. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1986.

Onon, Urgunge. The Secret History of the Mongols. Abingdon, Oxon: RoutledgeCurzon Press, 2001.

Yasushi, Inoue. The Blue Wolf: A Novel of the Life of Chinggis Khan. Joshua Fogel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.


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