Chingis and me

Publié le par chrislzh

I don't know why, but I've developed a bit of a fascination with Mongolia this summer. Maybe it's connected with that little bit of study I did at the beginning of the summer. Maybe it's connected with a couple of films I've watched lately. Actually, one school in Mongolia twice offered me a job, and both times the offer came just after I'd already signed up for something else. The first time was in Changsha, when I signed the contract for my school in Taiyuan, faxed it to the school, got back home, checked my email and there was an offer for a job in Mongolia sitting in my in-box, just half an hour after I'd signed up for Taiyuan. I was also once offered a job in Hohhot. That was the last time I was in New Zealand, and I had two job offers on the table: One for BeiGongDa, which offered me my airfare to Beijing up front, and one in Hohhot, but I'd have to find the money to get there myself. Ah, the things that could have been.... I'm pretty sure that if I suggested to lzh that we move to even Inner Mongolia I'd wind up with a pretty hefty concussion.

Anyway, all of that is irrelevant rambling nonsense.  Still, irrelevant rambling nonsense is what this blog specialises in.... But there's a reason for me to be rambling about Mongolia. Recently I've been re-reading John Man's Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection, which is a fascinating book, brilliantly written. I love the way history, biography and travelogue are combined. 

Last night I read the final chapter, which should be divided into two very thought-provoking chapters. The first section is a look at the modern political aspects of Genghis Khan's legacy, which I don't really want to discuss. Let's just say: Genghis Khan is claimed by two countries, China and Mongolia. For China he's the founder of the Yuan Dynasty, which reunified the nation after a period of division. For Mongolia he's a national founder/unifier and empire builder, a symbol of national strength, power and independence. China's on the rise. Mongolia is working its way out of the mess left by its days as a Soviet satellite. Man writes:

Where does this leave Mongolia and the legacy of Genghis? Either in a peculiarly dominant position, and/or in a peculiarly dangerous one; and in any event at a turning-point, when the nation, the creation of Genghis, must rethink its nature and its role in the world. 

(p 401)

And we'll leave the politics at that.

What interested me even more is the second section of Chapter 18, in which Man discusses Genghis' possible spiritual role at the centre of a new religion. Actually, the worship, or at least veneration, of Genghis is a theme running through the whole book, and it makes a few brief appearances in the background of those two films I mentioned above, even if only as the portrait of Genghis on the wall of the ger (yurt). On page 403, Man writes:

In Mongolia there is a spiritual yearning that will not be answered by the current boom in Christian sects or even the rebirth of Buddhism.


But there is a religion that may offer both guidance and authenticity. The Genghis Khan Mausoleum is the heart of this religion in the making, with a developing and (for some) effective set of beliefs. It exists on many levels, echoing the early days of Christianity, with its historical roots, its evolving rituals, its struggles for insight. Perhaps one day the Cult of Genghis Khan will have its breakaway heretics insisting that Genghis, as the Son of Heaven, was more divine than human, wrangling bitterly over how his dual nature should be balanced. For the sect is more than its ceremonies and its community of acolytes. It has genuine spiritual aspirations, formulated by its own theologian, Sharaldai, whose name I had heard at the Mausoleum. He is the author of a book, Power of Eternal Heaven, explaining the nature of Genghis's semi-divinity.

 The Genghis Khan Mausoleum, it should be noted, is not a true mausoleum. It does not contain Genghis' body, for the simple reason that his grave was kept a very closely guarded secret, with the result that nobody knows where he is buried. Oh sure, there are rumours, but.... There are also, apparently, superstitions about what will happen in the event Genghis' grave is discovered. But even so, the Mausoleum seems to have become a focal point for Genghis-worship and has acquired its fair share of tales and superstitions. Anyway, this Sharaldai and his Eternal Heaven are what I'm supposed to be writing about: So man met Sharaldai at a hotel in Ulaanbaatar:

...and instantly I was in a different sort of universe, away from ritual and conflicting myths, drawn into the realm of theology and philosophy. Sharaldai did not suffer me all that gladly. He is a Darkhat, with the cult in his blood over generations, and impatient with those, like me, who pretend to a little knowledge.

Wow. Sounds like a scary man. Unfortunately, the only relevant search results for 'Darkhat' that I can find are about the dialect of Mongolian, and not about the clan entrusted with protecting the temple (a group of tents that functioned as a travelling shrine) and the rituals for worship of Genghis. Anyway, Sharaldai says Genghis Khan is an intermediary between us and Eternal Heaven. Cool, but what is Eternal Heaven and what is this all about? Well, I have only Man's account of his interview with Sharaldai to go on here, so this should all be taken with an appropriate grain of salt, but anyway, Man quotes Sharaldai as saying (all these quotes are taken from pages 404 to 406):

The basic tenet of Eternal Heaven philsophy is that we on Earth are part of Eternal Heaven, our system of nine planets. People say we human beings are the highest level of a hierarchy of life. That may be so in terms of biology. But in terms of philosophy, we are a part of Eternal Heaven. To think of ourselves as the top of a hierarchy is to serparate ourselves from Eternal Heaven. Our task is to reintegrate ourselves with creation. That's what people don't appreciate today. 


Also, you can worship Eternal Heaven directly. You see, there are three components: Eternal Heaven, the power of Eternal Heaven and being subject to the power of Eternal Heaven.


There are similarities [to the Christian Trinity]. But Eternal Heaven has real power. You can feel it, you can see its effects. That is the difference. Genghis knew that all living things owe their power to Eternal Heaven, and he was able to use it to lead. You can see how we Mongols did this by looking at our three national sports, wrestling, horse racing and archery. A strong body, good horsemanship, accurate shooting. By these means, we conquered half the world.

    But to use power in such a way was not Eternal Heaven's true purpose. In conquering, we saw that this was not the way to live, bringing suffering to others. What we learned was that the time had come to stop fighting, and live by talking. Now we use our sports to sharpen our mentality, not to fight, but to talk. 

And finally:

Genghis Khan is a spirit for all of us. We are created by Eternal Heaven. If we follow the way, then we shall all be eternal.

I don't know about you, but this all strikes me as being awfully similar to Taoism.  

But wow. Genghis Khan, uniter of the Mongols, and fearsome, ruthless conqueror of half of Eurasia has become a saint and prophet. That's quite a transformation. It's also interesting that Prophet Genghis' own life's work has become an example of how we should not live. Most prophets do the opposite, and their lives are supposed to be examples of how we should live. I guess it should also be noted that veneration or worship of Genghis has been going on since his death 800-odd years ago, so none of this is exactly a new phenomenon. Of course, both Genghis and Buddhism were suppressed during Mongolia's 70-odd years as a Soviet satellite, which could help explain a lot about this sudden flowering of Genghis-worship. 

And Genghis Khan did seem to see himself as being annointed by Eternal Heaven to conquer the world and set everything right. Or something like that. Some quotations ascribed to Genghis from this site:

  • Heaven grew weary of the excessive pride and luxury of China... I am from the Barbaric North. I wear the same clothing and eat the same food as the cowherds and horse-herders. We make the same sacrifices and we share our riches. I look upon the nation as a new-born child and I care for my soldiers as though they were my brothers.
    • (Alternate translation) Heaven has abandoned China owing to its haughtiness and extravagant luxury. But I, living in the northern wilderness, have not inordinate passions. I hate luxury and exercise moderation. I have only one coat and one food. I eat the same food and am dressed in the same tatters as my humble herdsmen. I consider the people my children, and take an interest in talented men as if they were my brothers. We always agree in our principles, and we are always united by mutual affection. At military exercises I am always in front, and in time of battle am never behind. In the space of seven years I have succeeded in accomplishing a great work, and uniting the whole world in one empire.

  • I am the flail of god. Had you not created great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.
    • (Alternative translation) It is the great among you who have committed these sins. If you had not committed great sins, god would not have set a punishment such as me upon you.

Heaven has appointed me to rule all the nations, for hitherto there has been no order upon the steppes. 

Personally, though, I'd be very surprised if Genghis-worship spreads much beyond Mongolia. Unfortunately for Sharaldai, Genghis has too much of a reputation as a blood-thirsty, murdering, raping, pillaging barbarian conqueror for his name to help spread messages of peace and reintegration with the natural order of things.

Note: All quotations in this post, apart from those taken from the wikiquote site, are from Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection by John Man, originally published by Bantam Press in 2004, although it seems my edition is the Bantam edition of 2005. I'm not sure if there's a difference, other than the year, between the two.

Publié dans chrislzh

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