Democratic Principles of Genghis Khan
Democratic Principles of Genghis Khan
The stories, legends, and history of Genghis Khan reveal certain democratic principles that Americans consider to be the core of a democracy. Political scientists have counted more than 200 definitions of democracy. The American definition is built on four pillars: participatory government, rule by law, equality under the law, and basic personal freedoms and human rights. If we examine the history of Genghis Khan through historical accounts, we can see that he established some form of all four pillars for the Mongolian people during his rule.
We know of Genghis Khan mostly through one book, The Secret History of the Mongols. No one knows for sure who wrote it, but several historians believe its author was Shigi-hutuhu, adopted son of Genghis Khan, which means it was probably written thirteen years after Genghis Khan’s death in 1227.6 The Secret History starts with the legend of the birth of the Mongol tribe and continues through Genghis Khan’s successor, his son Ogedei.
Other accounts come from Rashid ad-Din, a doctor turned chief minister and historian of the court of Ilkhan Ghazan, the Mongol ruler of Persia and Iraq. This account, written at the end of the thirteenth century, was based on the official Mongolian history, the Altan Debter (The Golden Notebook), which has been lost. Other Western writers have written about Genghis Khan from the Western, or conquered perspective.7
If we treat The Secret History as text, we can see that Genghis Khan practiced certain democratic principles, even if he did not invent them. And he provided the two key conditions necessary for establishing democratic principles.
Conditions Necessary for Democracy
Independence and sovereignty
Genghis Khan’s first gift to his people was to unite them into one independent nation, a nation that had the right to make its own laws. First he united the various tribes in the area (Naiman, Kereit, Tatar, Merkid) together into one big political unit, the Mongol nation. Then he fought neighboring groups such as the Tanggut and the Chinese (Chin Dynasty), freeing the Mongols from paying tribute or serving at the pleasure of foreign rulers. Eventually he conquered these groups, placing them under Mongol control. The conquest of the Chin Dynasty meant the conquest of Beijing and control of the Silk Roads.8
Independence and sovereignty were the first conditions for developing democratic principles. If democracy means a people rule themselves, then they cannot have a democracy if some other power makes their laws.
Genghis Khan had one of his captives adapt the Uighur script to the Mongolian language and had his sons and officials learn to read and write in this new form. The Naiman tribe, which had ruled western Mongolia before him, had adopted the writing system of the previous rulers, the Uighur Turks. But the Naimans wrote in the Uighur language. By modifying the Uighur script to fit Mongolian sounds and words, Genghis Khan freed his people from dependency on foreign scribes and assured that his rulings would be preserved.9
The Pillars of Democracy
Genghis Khan included some form of all four pillars of democracy in his government. Some, we know, were traditional parts of Mongolian nomadic culture, predating his rule. Others were parts of surrounding
cultures. Genghis Khan contributed additional components, and he combined the various principles into one government structure, which was unique for his time.
Genghis Khan had several ways of including people in setting policy, although he was the one responsible for final decisions. He took the tribal tradition of electing a leader in mass assembly, a hural (khural), to the next step by having a Great Assembly (Ih Hural, or Ikh Khural) of Mongols meet periodically. The usual topic was the matter of war and peace, but they discussed other policy issues as well.10
Genghis Khan also maintained a Council of Wise Men that met with him regularly. Acting as his cabinet, they helped him think through major policy decisions. While he started his council with Mongol supporters, he eventually included men from other tribes and nations in the council.11
One of the three pillars of Western democracy is participatory government. The other two are human rights/freedoms and rule by law.12 While true participatory democracy includes all adults–men and women, rich and poor, the Great Assembly and Council of Wise Men are good starting places for participatory government. After all, we consider ancient Athens to be the first democracy, yet only men who were not slaves could take up citizenship responsibilities and vote. Women and slaves were not allowed to participate in the democratic process.13 Americans trace the beginning of our democracy to the notion that participatory government meant only the king and the barons in England.
Mongolian participatory democracy preceded Genghis Khan; it was already part of the nomadic tradition, as the hural preceded Genghis Khan’s Ih Hural. But Genghis Khan extended and regularized participatory democracy when he formalized the meetings of the Great Assembly and Council of Wise Men.
Rule by law: the beginning of equality
In 1206, Genghis Khan appointed Shigi-hutuhu to write down Genghis Khan’s legal decisions as well as the rewards (titles, responsibilities, and material goods including captives) he granted his loyal followers. By establishing the rule of law, Genghis Khan lifted his people from fractious tribal groups to law-abiding citizens.
Genghis Khan also made Shigi-hutuhu the first judge. In that capacity, Shigi-hutuhu listened to disputes and transgressions of the law, imposing sentences ranging from fines to death for robbery, deception, adultery, etc. He was also made responsible for the judiciary system throughout the empire.14
The second pillar of democracy is the rule by law. When Solon established rule by law in ancient Athens (594 BCE),15 he changed government from forcing people to obey the whims of a single person (king, ruler) or group of people (oligarchy) to obeying laws that apply to everyone, or at least to whole groups of people. By adopting the rule of law, Genghis Khan placed the Mongol nation in the position of a fair and just society, one ruled by laws that everyone had to obey. However, in granting favors to his loyal followers, one of his rewards was to exempt them from punishment for up to nine transgressions.16
Genghis Khan, Father of Mongolian Democracy
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