I believe Hallmark has yet to develop a cheesy birthday card celebrating/mocking one’s 850th year. But, Mongolian’s are not letting Chinggis (Ghengis) Khaan’s momentous day go unnoticed. In fact, it seems that they are giving it extra attention.

This newly erected statue of Chinggis Khaan stands at 40 meters tall

This past week, Mongolian Parliament has devoted time to debating the official celebration of the Mongolian leader’s birth, mainly what day and how it should be acknowledged. After reading the limited reports I could find (RFL/RE, MAD, UB Post), I am actually more confused about the outcome.
It seems there was debate over whether the government should declare Chinggis Khaan’s birthday a national holiday and celebrate it on a different date than the National Independence Day (November 26) or maintain the practice of celebrating it on the same day. It also appears there was lengthy debate over which day is his actually birthday. Some argue there’s substantial evidence indicating November 14, others say it is difficult to discern using the Gregorian calendar.

The discussion surrounding the issue is quite revealing of Mongolians’ relationship with the ancient conqueror. I was particularly struck by the following statement made during the debate of the birth date:

We Mongolians are undoubtedly the descendants of Chinggis Khaan who are continuing his family lineage and are custodians of his birth place and home land. Today more than ever it is of great significance to determine the birthday of Chinggis Khaan so it can be celebrated. I am especially glad that this discussion is occurring as currently Mongolians mark only two national holidays Tsagaan Sar and Naadam Festivals while celebrating foreign religion such as Valentine’s Day have encroached into the Mongolian psyche. Thus, we must mark the birthday of our Chinggis Khaan nationwide with a magnificent display once a year. It would help our next generations to know about their history, revere their country and grow up with strong affection towards Mongolia.

– Professor, PhD Sh.Choimaa (via M.A.D)

Also worth reading (or skimming) is President Elbegdorj’s pretty poetic speech given on November 14 entitled “Temujin-Chinggis is the Greatest Pride of us, the Mongols” (Temujin is Chinggis Khaan’s childhood name).

Heaven-sheltered Great Khaan Chinggis was not born out of void.
We was born of Mongol life.
Fed by the waters of Kherlen river, riding his horses, he worshipped his land and the Sky.
Listening to his mother, roaming in the steppe packing his ger, and feeding and raising his younger siblings.
He knew the value of a bowl of bird-cherries.
Accruing everything his fathers and forefathers left in him, he built up his strength.
Temuujin, grew up and distinguished out amidst the life-soaking miseries and challenges.
It was to get back his stolen light-bay horses that he raised his bow for the first time.
It was to save his bride Burte that he started his first war.

He later goes on to say:

The blue-spotted great grand children of the Lord Chinggis Khaan are being born to their fathers and mothers, bringing joy and happiness.
The blessing for Mongols to grow more is carrying on. (applause)
Mongols are uniting in the spirit to advance and prosper our country.
The State, established by Chinggis, with its seal, Sulde, the coat of arms and the owners of the country are flourishing. (applause)
The State and the people of Mongolia join altogether in saluting our blessing to our great Khaan in the turn of the nineth century of establishment of the Great Mongol Empire.

At first glance, Mongolians’ reverence for Chinggis Khaan might be almost comical to a foreigner. His visage and name are everywhere (vodka bottles, beer mugs, hotel signs, energy drinks, cigarettes, rugs hung in gers around the country, statues, murals, restaurants, and more). A large bronze statue of Chinggis Khaan sitting in a position modeled after the Lincoln Monument sits in front of the Parliament Building. And in 2008, a 40 meter-tall silver-colored metal statue of Chinggis riding a horse and staring off into the distance toward his birthplace was erected about an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar. Tourists who visit the privately-funded monument can walk out onto the top of his horses head to get a view of the surrounding countryside and an up-close look at a very stern Chinggis.

Tapestries depicting Chinggis Khaan are common living room decorations in Ulaanbaatar

To an outsider, all of this may seem a bit overkill. But, when one considers Mongolia’s recent past and current struggle to place itself in the world, the extreme reverence for this internationally known man begins to make sense.

Prior to the democratic transition in 1990, the mention of Chinggis Khaan was essentially forbidden. He was not celebrated as a national hero or founder of Mongolia and schools barely mentioned him in their history lessons. In 1962, the Prime Minister was removed from office, exiled to Western Mongolia and “eventually chopped up with an ax” after trying to erect a small monument at Chinggis Khaan’s birthplace, according to anthropologist and author of “Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” Jack Weatherford. “He was something that was simply no longer in existence in Mongolia. But the people didn’t forget. They had to change their songs, they had to change their poems, they had to strike him from the history books, but the people didn’t forget. In 1990, one of the most important things for them was to resurrect their history.”

And so when the new era of Mongolia and Mongolian national identity was ushered in two decades ago, Chinggis Khaan was already becoming a strong figure. One of the subversive rock groups of the 1980s named themselves after the leader. People had already started evoking his name as they protested for democracy. Chinggis Khaan had unified the warring tribes of Mongolia in 1206 and Mongolians relied on him once again for national unity.

Chinggis has been portrayed as the ultimate man – strong, large, authoritative, warrior, healthy labido. He is responsible for the world’s largest land empire – spanning Korea to Eastern Europe. But the side of Chinggis western schools often overlook is also celebrated.

“There’s no question that Chinggis Khan was the greatest conqueror in the world,” says Weatherford. “But he was also a very innovative thinker. He was also a great law-giver. He created international law that in many regards we still have today, or at least we still strive to have today. He had a law of diplomatic immunity – we still strive for that today, it’s not quite there. He had a law outlawing the buying and selling of women – again, we don’t have that today, but we still strive for that. There’s law that promoted religious freedom. The world still wants religious freedom. He was a very innovative thinker and he gave the Mongolians a very wonderful moral foundation for their nation.”

He’s also proof of a once-strong Mongolia.

It’s impossible to understand Mongolian national identity without acknowledging the active and passive roles its neighbors of Russia and China have played. They are a landlocked country of 2.7 million stuck between two of the world’s most powerful (and fairly aggressive) nations. They are dependent on them, yet they deeply wish to maintain their independence. And so Mongolians also use Chinggis Khaan as a reminder that they were once the most powerful people in the world and that blood still flows through there veins (never-mind that most of Chinggis Khaan’s direct descendents were killed due to hundreds of years of internal political conflict). That’s a pretty powerful national figure.

As Mongolians now eagerly establish their place in the world, determine how to negotiate their quickly growing economy, and work to become key players in their region and international politics, the reminder of Mongolia’s great past serves as a call to create a great future. The days of waging war with horses and bows and arrows are over (as Pres. Obama and Mitt Romney reminded us a month ago), but the psyche remains, and as far as national identity is concerned, that can be pretty powerful.

View from the top of the Chinggis Khaan statue

Chinggis sits in a law-giver’s pose in front of the Mongolian Parliamentary building

There are several competing brands of vodka named after “Chinggis”

Chinggis paraphernalia is for sale in one of the many tourist gift shops in central Ulaanbaatar

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