Genghis Khan in Fiction and Film, Part 3 of 3

18 Nov

Military prowess ranks among the chief virtues of the fictional, and very likely the historical, Chinggis Khan — and so in The Blue Wolf as he undertakes successive campaigns in pursuit of wolf-like fierceness, Chinggis appropriates the military technology of newly-subject peoples without compunction, ignoring other aspects of alien culture.

Describing the invasion of the Naimans, The Blue Wolf provides a litany of the cultural achievements of these people beyond the Altai Mountains: musical instruments, temples with ornate altars for ritual ceremonies, a written language, and perhaps strangest of all, “homes that were fixed to the ground and did not move” (Yasushi 117).  Yet among all this, Chinggis Khan sees only one thing: “We shall pacify the Naimans,” he tells his men, “and make use of the new weaponry they possess as our own” (Yasushi 117).

In the novel, this dichotomy between military and cultural triumphs is concretized in the tension between Chinggis Khan and Yelu Chucai, a Khitan advisor to the khan.  “Military force can only hold down an opponent,” Chucai insists on multiple occasions, “To the extent that they do not yet have a high level of culture in their own land, Mongol officers cannot fully rule the state of Jin” (Yasushi 204).

Time bears out Chucai’s predictions — while militarily the “Oceanic” Khan reigns supreme, the cultural flow between the Mongols and subject peoples travels only in one direction.

What should be a triumphant return home to Mount Burqan after years of military campaigns becomes instead bittersweet for Chinggis, who experiences a wave of nostalgia for the old, lost, ways:

“I alone have the characteristics necessary to be greeted by women on the Mongolian plateau,” he says, only half-joking, as truly “he alone was wearing Mongolian clothing and shoes, and he alone knew what it meant to live according to Mongolian custom” (Yasushi 256).

An innovator in military technique and statecraft, the first conqueror to “succeed in holding both the Inner Asian steppe and the neighboring sedentary lands simultaneously” (Morgan 5), Chinggis Khan’s relentless drive to convince himself he is a true Mongol, according to Inoue Yasushi, ultimately results in the erosion of the very values he pursued: a wolf, but alone.

This in-depth treatment of motivations presented in Mongol and The Blue Wolf, possible in the realm of fiction, film directors, and novelists, presents more of a challenge for historians, who need evidence before they can play the psychologist — to understand an historical figure, scholar David Morgan writes, “we need some insight into his state of mind at the time; but he is not available for our analysis” (Morgan 69).

The mindset of as singular a man as Chinggis Khan may be the most attractive topic for an exploration of his life, but something as intangible as personal motive — whether love or obsession — leaves little evidence.

Restricted to a more carefully circumscribed narrative, Morgan postulates a political theory for the Mongols’ expansive conquest which, while perhaps drier than love or blood, stands on a firmer foundation:

Newly unified under Chinggis Khan in 1206 CE, the Mongol “military machine would soon dissolve into quarrelling factions again” (Morgan 63) if not used for some decisive, concrete purpose: war, only now against an outside enemy.

Even today, Chinggis Khan — while perhaps dividing academics — continues to serve, as he did historically, as a unifying force in Mongolia.  After the chaos and upheaval following the collapse of the Soviet Union, “Chinggis Khan returned not in a physical sense but as a symbol to unify the country and restore a sense of nationalism, grandeur, and even stability to an independent Mongolia” (May 146).

Perhaps this grants the khan one of his final wishes — In 1221 CE, contemporary Chinese histories report, an interesting event took place, what Inoue Yasushi describes as “the meeting between the famous Daoist master Changchun and the great mass murderer Chinggis” (Yasushi 275).

The records observe that Chinggis, realizing his age was progressing faster than his desired military conquests, inquired as to the existence of a medicine many ambitious men throughout history have unsuccessfully sought: an elixir of immortality.

But whatever his motivations — whether emotional, a desire for more time with his beloved Borte; or psychological, driven yet by mental turmoil over the circumstances of his birth; or strictly political, in an attempt to hold together the unified Mongol state by continuing to turn his pack of wolves against external enemies — the Mongol khan may have achieved his most elusive goal:

Recreated in film and fiction, pored over by historians, and shaped into a new national symbol for a modern Mongolian state, Chinggis Khan ranks among the historical figures whose legacy rightly gives them claim to the title “immortal.”  Both traditional khan and creative leader, if Inoue Yaushi’s and Sergei Bodrov’s portrayals touch close to life: having proven himself a wolf, Chinggis finds himself, for better or worse, apart from the pack.


This is part 3 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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