Equality of citizens

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan

Equality of citizens

Genghis Khan initiated the concept that all citizens are equal in two different ways.

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1. Equality through meritocracy. When Genghis Khan built his army, he organized the soldiers into units of 10. Their leader reported to the leader of 10 units, or 100 men. The next leaders were of 1,000 and then 10,000 men (actually, the words and concept came from the ancient Hunnu). Genghis Khan appointed the leader of each unit, for he knew his men well. The Secret History of the Mongols tells us that Genghis Khan selected these leaders for their loyalty, ability, and bravery, not because they were of noble birth.17 This meant that a commoner could advance through the army hierarchy by virtue of merit promotions.

Genghis Khan also used the concept of meritocracy to staff his Council of Wise Men. Wise men, no matter what their birth and no matter where they came from, were welcomed into his Advisory Council.18

Meritocracy is a way of saying that all people are equal in a society. It is what they do that counts, not who their parents are. Equality in Western democracy really means legal equality (all are equal before the law), but meritocracy increases the chances that people are treated equally.19

2. Equality through respect for women (and, by extension, all groups). When Genghis Khan ruled, women in Asia and Europe were not treated as the equals of men. Their male kin usually gave them to others in marriage without their consent, and they had no formal voice in government. This was true in Genghis Khan’s Mongolia also.

But The Secret History of the Mongols gives several examples of women making key decisions, telling Genghis Khan how to live and what to do. For example, according to the legend, Genghis Khan’s ancestress, Alan Ho’a, had five sons who were constantly fighting with each other. One day she gathered them around the hearth fire and gave them each an arrow. She told them to break it, which they did with ease. Then she tied five arrows together and told them to break the bundle. None of them could. She then told her sons, “Brothers who work separately, like a single arrow shaft, can be easily broken, but brothers who stand together against the world, like a bundle of arrows, cannot be broken.”20

When Genghis Khan was a boy, he and his half-brothers were incessantly fighting. His mother, Ho’elun, used the tale of Alan Ho’a to teach her sons the same principle of male kin standing together.21 Genghis Khan lived by this principle all his life.

Genghis Khan’s wife, Borte, was also politically important, for she warned him against a rival who was plotting against him. But most telling is the passage in The Secret History that first describes Borte when she is ten years old. She is described in the same words used to describe the child Temujin, Genghis Khan’s birth name:

. . . he Genghis Khan’s father saw a maiden

With light in her face

With fire in her eyes.22

In other words, Genghis Khan’s father sought an intelligent and equal partner for his son, not a brainless beauty.

While these stories are not the same as giving women equality–the vote, a part of government decision-making, equal pay for equal work–they set a baseline for treating women with respect, and they have the potential to lead to equal citizenship or to political equality.

This respect is borne out today. Munhtuya Altangerel, author of the first chapter, says that in Mongolian society today, mothers have a special position: They are seen as sources of wisdom, and people go to their mothers for advice. Many popular songs are about mothers. What interested Tuya when she moved to America was that we have several swear words that incorporate the word “mother.” But in Mongolia, there are no swear words that include mother. She feels that American English degrades mothers whereas the Mongolian language does not.

Human rights and freedoms

Genghis Khan did not grant his people the basic human rights and freedoms that we Americans enjoy and Mongolians prize so highly. But he did allow a certain amount of freedom of speech or he never would have figured out who the Wise Men were!

He also championed freedom of religion. Although he himself practiced shamanism, he believed that the other religions of the region–Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam–had merit and should be tolerated. He declared that all religions should be respected and that none should be elevated above the others.23

Pastoral nomadism naturally encourages personal freedom. Even in Manchu times, serfs–nomads tied to a prince (a direct descendant of Genghis Khan) or to a noble–were free once they left the compound of their overlord. Although they reported to their overlord several times a year, they were free to do as they pleased in the countryside.

Freedom of religion is the fourth pillar of democracy, a personal freedom that is also a way of respecting differences. A democracy is based on equality of all citizens whether or not they are different from the majority. In fact, pluralism–the acceptance of differences and the ability to allow citizens of all groups to participate in government–is a hallmark of democracy.24 Therefore Genghis Khan’s insistence on religious tolerance is not only a mark of respect for human rights and freedoms but it is also a sign of equality among citizens.

Genghis Khan, Father of Mongolian Democracy
by Paula L.W. Sabloff

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