Chinggis Khan

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CHINGGIS KHAN (11621227), great Mongol leader and founder of a vast empire in Asia. One of the extraordinary personages of world history, Chinggis Khan is a striking example of an emperor who became a god.

Born in Mongolia, northeast of present-day Ulan Bator, and called Temüjin in his youth, he was the eldest son of a chieftain of the Mongol Borjigit clan. Having succeeded in uniting the Mongol and Turkic tribes of the area, he adopted the title of Chinggis Khan and set out to conquer the world. He subdued the Chin empire in North China, the Hsi-hsia kingdom northeast of Tibet, the Turkic states in Turkistan, and the empire of Khorezm, comprising Transoxiana as well as Afghanistan and Eastern Iran. Mongol units even advanced as far as India and the Crimea. When Chinggis Khan died in 1227 near Ning-hsia, capital of Hsi-hsia, he left the broad foundations of an empire that would extend, under his sons and grandsons, from Korea to the Near East and southern Europe and from southern Siberia to Indochina.

The story of Chinggis Khan's life reads like that of an epic hero. Indeed, the thirteenth-century Secret History of the Mongols, the first work of Mongolian literature, patterns Chinggis Khan's biography after the model of the hero-king, and thus reflects the indispensable qualities of a ruler and the hopes set upon him. Chinggis Khan possesses the mandate of Heaven and Heaven's support to restore law, order, and peace on earth. He is of noble totemistic descent: his forefather, the ancestor of the Mongol royal family, is a blue-gray wolf whose son is born on the holy mountain Burkhan Qaldun. It is this "good place," the center of the world, where Chinggis Khan's career begins as well. From here he goes forth to conquer nations and peoples in all directions, and to this same place his dead body returns. He has a good wife, a good horse, and good companions, and he finds himself in a situation favorable for his activities.

After Chinggis Khan's death, his character develops in three ways: Chinggis Khan becomes a means of political identification, a figure of political theology, and a deity. Chinggis Khan is used as a means of political identification by the Mongols as well as by the Chinese. To the Mongols, as the founder of their unified state, he is a symbol of Mongol national independence, or at least autonomy. To the Chinese, he is the glorious first emperor of a Chinese dynasty of Mongol nationality, a symbol of the multinational character of Chinese history.

Chinggis Khan's association with political theology is twofold. It was probably during the time of Kublai, grandson of Chinggis, that the concept of a dual Buddhist world government was introduced: the ruler of the state is the king, as represented by Chinggis Khan and his successors, the Mongolian great khans; the head of the religion is the religious teacher, the lama, as represented by Buddha Śākyamuni and his successors, the Tibetan hierarchs. The two orders of state and religion, based on mutual harmony and distribution of functions, guarantee secular and spiritual well-being. This concept, however, has never been fully realized. Kublai became not the ruler of a Tibeto-Mongol Buddhist state, but rather the first Mongol emperor of China.

Another notion of Chinggis Khan that links political and religious images proved to be more successful. In this view, Chinggis Khan, protected by Heaven, becomes the son of Heaven (Tengri) or the son of Khormusta, the lord of the gods (tengri), the Indian Indra, whose attribute is the thunderbolt. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, Indra developed into the bodhisattva Vajrapāi, the "bearer of the thunderbolt," a figure symbolic of power. It is power that is the principal quality of Chinggis Khan and his people, the Mongols. At the same time, however, in ideological or even genealogical terms, Chinggis Khan becomes a successor to the first king of humankind, the Indian Mahasammata.

There are three aspects to the deification of Chinggis Khan. First, he became the ancestral deity of the ruling Borjigit clan, the state, and the whole Mongol people, guarding them against all evil. Sacrifices to Chinggis Khan, his family, and his war genies (sülde) seem to be offered even today in his main sanctuary, the Eight White Yurts, in the Ordos district of Inner Mongolia. He is also still officially venerated by Mongolian refugees in Taiwan. Second, Chinggis was incorporated into the Lamaist-Buddhist pantheon as a local guardian deity of comparatively low rank. In the practice of folk religion he became fused with the ancestral deity. Third, traits of an initiatory god were imputed to Chinggis Khan; as this deity, he introduced marriage customs, seasonal festivals connected with the nomadic economy, and certain ritual practices of daily life.

See Also

Inner Asian Religions; Mongol Religions.


Basic observations on the religious role of Chinggis Khan have been made by Walther Heissig in his Die Religionen der Mongolei (Stuttgart, 1970), translated by Geoffrey Samuel as The Religions of Mongolia (Berkeley, 1980). The ideological development of Chinggis Khan's character is dealt with by Herbert Franke in his excellent study From Tribal Chieftain to Universal Emperor and God: The Legitimation of the Yüan Dynasty (Munich, 1978). Indispensable for everyone interested in Chinggis Khan's biography and thirteenth-century Mongol political and religious thought are the anonymous Secret History of the Mongols and two Persian chronicles written by al-Juwayni and Rashīd al-Dīn. The following English translations are available: The Secret History of the Mongols, for the First Time Done into English out of the Original Tongue and Provided with an Exegetical Commentary, 2 vols., by Francis Woodman Cleaves (Cambridge, Mass., 1982); The History of the World-Conqueror, by ʿAla-ad-Din ʿAta-Malik Juvaini, translated by John Andrew Boyle in two volumes (Cambridge, Mass., 1958); and The Successors of Gengis Khan, translated from the Persian of Rashīd al-Dīn abīb by John Andrew Boyle (New York, 1971). An excellent biography of Chinggis Khan written by a Western historian is René Grousset's Le conquérant du monde (Paris, 1944), translated into English by Denis Sinor and Marian MacKellar as Conqueror of the World (Edinburgh, 1967). The most recent study on Chinggis Khan's life and activities is Paul Ratchnevsky's Činggis-Khan: Sein Leben und Wirken (Wiesbaden, 1983).

New Sources

Onon, Urgunge. The Secret History of the Mongols: The Life and Times of Chinggis Khan. Richmond, 2001.

Ratchnevsky, Paul. Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy. Translated and edited by Thomas Nivison Haining. Oxford, 1992.

Turnbull, Stephen. Genghis Khan & the Mongol Conquests, 11901400. New York, 2003.

Klaus Sagaster (1987)

Revised Bibliography