Genghis Khan in Fiction and Film, Part 2 of 3

17 Nov

Throughout the film, a motif of loving memory sustaining husband and wife during successive separations develops, the last line spoken in the movie being Chinggis’s promise that: “I have to finish what I started.  You’re a good wife, Borte.  You know I’ll always come back” (Mongol).

This idealized picture of timeless true love, however, has little basis in fact, with “no evidence of any romantic love between Chinggis and his chief wife Borte”  (Lane 234) extant today.

Bodrov’s compassionate characterization of the notoriously brutal Chinggis Khan, then, appears to be an attempt at fitting the historical couple into a more modern conception of romantic love and feminine independence — in Mongol, the betrothal of the two is seen not only as a free, unforced choice on the part of Temujin, but also made at Borte’s own insistence: “I chose you,” she later reminds him.

Modern audiences expect a bold female lead, but in reality, the khan and his wife’s relationship likely lacked the sentimentality.  Mongol women not only worked tirelessly in the hardscrabble environment of the steppe, but in marriage often occupied a similar position as the livestock they tended — status markers.  Higher-ranking men “acquired wives as they might horse or cattle, and the richer and more powerful the man the more wives he would have” (Lane 227).

Chinggis’s own domestic life only provides a more magnified example: as his army grew and state expanded ever-outward, marital alliances became increasingly important, and women as plunder increasingly common.  The Chinggis Khan of Yasushi’s novel appraises the role of his wives and consorts perhaps more realistically than the romanticized man of Mongol: “Impregnate them and make them give birth to Mongol children,” he advises his brother, “Do women have any other purpose?” (Yasushi 121).

But while Mongol probably overemphasizes the role love for Borte drove Chinggis to survive to fight and conquer, The Blue Wolf, contrarily, ignores the contributions another strong woman made to Temujin’s upbringing and protection — his mother, O’elun.

Yasushi depicts the family after Yisugei’s death and their later abandonment as an autocracy under the eldest son.  “When it came to the business of running the household, he allowed her no voice at all,” he writes of Temujin, speculating that “without the approval of Temujin, she could not so much as move some bedding around.”

Academic histories suggest, however, that it was O’elun whose “tenacity and perseverance held the family together during those hard and, for Temujin, formative years” (Lane 234).  Even The Secret History of the Mongols is in agreement on this point, describing the redoubtable O’elun’s constant struggle to provide food for herself and her children from what little she could forage — “with wild onions and garlic, the sons of the noble mother were nourished until they became rulers,” the translation reads, “the sons of the patient noble mother were reared on elm seeds” (Onon).

Though wild roots and seeds make for a paucity of sustenance, the passage indicates that O’elun was held in high regard for her indefatigable work on behalf of her children.  When in Mongol O’elun tells her daughter-in-law “I like you: you’re strong, like me” (Mongol), the characterization might not be far off.

And as the film points toward Borte as her husband’s central driving force, in The Blue Wolf Chinggis’s motivation for conquest surrounds O’elun, particularly the uncertainty of his paternity which arose from her abduction by the Merkids.

Unable to know for a fact whether his father was truly Yisugei of the Borjigin — and thus whether the blood of the distant Mongol ancestor, the blue wolf, heats his heart — Chinggis suffers a doubt so heavy that he is depicted as experiencing relief at the death of his long-suffering mother: with a strange sense of “expansive freedom” at the departure of “the one person on earth who knew the secret of his birth” (Yasushi 153), Chinggis at last could imagine himself heir to the blue wolf without O’elun as a living reminder of his doubt.

But imagination is not enough: “He was unable to have peace of mind unless he was back on the field of battle, or failing that, moving with his yurt,” Yasushi writes, revealing not only the great magnitude of Chinggis’s internal discord but also the solace he found in traditional culture.

A blue wolf, the passage suggests, was not only ferocious in battle, but adhered to the customs of all the generations before, much as Yisugei said in the film Mongol; deviation would turn the world upside-down.  And so throughout the novel, while Chinggis uses battle and conquest as a means of proving he is a true Mongol wolf to the only critic that matters — himself — his single-minded focus on military prowess leads him to neglect the second part of the equation: traditional lifestyles.  Ironically, it is this single-minded effort to prove himself a Mongol that ultimately opens the steppe to foreign cultures, alien peoples whose goods, values, and own traditions will undermine the lifestyle at the heart of Mongol identity.


This is part 2 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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