Genghis Khan’s Legacy
Genghis Khan’s Legacy
Genghis Khan’s Legacy
Genghis Khan’s True Legacy: Mongolians’ Political Culture
These are Genghis Khan’s democratic principles. The Secret History and historians attest to their practice during Genghis Khan’s rule. But history can be found in books, dead, or it can be found living in the minds of a people. To turn history into political culture, the people alive today have to keep the past in their memory so that they can draw on it when they want. So what if Genghis Khan established democratic principles? Do his people remember these principles? Have Genghis Khan’s democratic principles become part of the political culture of present-day Mongolians? These are some of the questions that inspired my research.
I returned to Mongolia in the summer of 1998 to study Mongolians’ ideas about democracy. Logic would tell us that Mongolia was the least likely country to take to Western democracy. As the second-oldest Communist nation in the world, its people had been taught Communist dogma longer than most other Communist nations. And because it was totally surrounded by other Communist nations (once China became Communist in 1949), Mongolians had the least access to Western ideas for fifty years. Why would this isolated nation readily embrace Western democracy?
I believe the answer lies in people’s remembrance of Genghis Khan and their nomadic lifestyle. I have shown how historians describe democratic principles in Genghis Khan’s reign. But do modern Mongolians know about this part of Genghis Khan? And do his principles form part of their present political culture?
In the summer of 1998, thirteen Mongolian researchers and I interviewed Mongolians about their ideas of democracy and Genghis Khan. Seven of the researchers worked in Ulaanbaatar. It was founded in 1639 with the crowning of Zanabazar as Buddhist leader of the Halh Mongols, and it moved around central Mongolia until it settled at its present site in 1855.25 By the end of the nineteenth century, it had developed into a large center for foreign and domestic trade as well as religious (Buddhist) practice.26 Today, almost 29 percent of Mongolia’s total population (2.4 million) lives in Ulaanbaatar.27 Many residents are government workers or elected officials, but the real story of modern Mongolia is the incredible explosion in the number of shops and private enterprises. We watched new businesses open on center city streets every day. Most women work as well as take care of their families (more than 60 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 49 are in the work force).28 This rich mix of people–from all over the country and from foreign countries–makes a lively city.29
Six other researchers interviewed people in Hovd, a town of 27,000 in a setting very similar to the landscape of Phoenix, Arizona.
Located in the eastern portion of Mongolia, Hovd differs from Ulaanbaatar in more than size. Many of the inhabitants are Kazakh Muslims or Oirad Mongols, whereas most people in Ulaanbaatar are Halh Mongols. Unlike Ulaanbaatar and its surrounding aimag, the majority of Hovd Aimag’s adults are herders–of goat, sheep, camels, cows, and horses.
The capital of Hovd Aimag, Hovd is now a quiet town. However, it used to be the political and economic center of western Mongolia. In Communist times, industries such as automotive repair, woodworking, and plumbing flourished, and Chinese Communist partners built a regional theatre, TV station, and junior agricultural college there. But by the time I visited in 1998, the theatre sat empty and there was no electricity to run the TV station.
I never saw the factories and no one mentioned them to me. Still, I visited the active open-air market and the branch campus of the National University of Mongolia, where people could take courses in the English language and computer science along with more traditional courses of history, geography, physics, and mathematics.
Most difficult for the inhabitants is the
breakdown of the Soviet system, which means that four-story apartment buildings built by the Soviets and Chinese no longer have electricity. In 1998, cold water was pumped into the apartments once a day, just enough to fill the bathtub with water that would be siphoned off for cooking, drinking, and bathing. The old cook stoves had to be replaced with wood- or coal-burning Chinese stoves, and someone in the family had to carry the fuel up the unlit stairs to the apartments. There was no electricity to read or watch TV at night. Instead, people used battery-operated radios and flashlights or kerosene lamps. In the summer, many city-dwellers moved back to gers along the Hovd River, where life was easier than apartment living under these conditions.
The project researchers in Hovd and Ulaanbaatar interviewed 867 people in the two urban centers and surrounding countryside. We worked to get voting-age citizens from all walks of life: men and women; young, middle-aged, and old; herders, government workers, business people, professionals, and students; people with no more than an eighth-grade education to people holding Ph.D.’s and professional degrees; people with different religions and ethnic identities; and people who voted for different political parties in recent democratic elections (1992, 1996, 1997).30
We started by asking Mongolian citizens to “Please list the characteristics that make a country a democracy.” Their answers are in the first column of Table 4.1. The reader will see that their list is not very different from the list made by my American students in my classes, as seen in the second column of Table 4.1.
The first item on the two lists is exactly the same, for Mongolians and American students name personal freedoms (freedom of speech, religion, movement within the country) as the paramount characteristic of a democratic country. These freedoms are so important to Mongolians, who lost those rights during the Communist years. The details in the two definitions vary somewhat, for Mongolians include in their list of personal freedoms the right to demonstrate and associate with whom they choose, while the Americans name freedom of choice (freedom to make decisions for oneself) and freedom of lifestyle in addition to freedom of speech, religion, and movement. I have included pluralism, the right to freely express different opinions from the government, in this category. Mongolians name it frequently; Americans rarely do.
The second most important characteristic for Mongolians is the democratic voting process, which is the third on the Americans’ list. But whereas American students put “voting” as the primary characteristic of a democracy, Mongolians specify “multi-party elections.” In 1996, some Mongolians told me that all citizens voted during Communist times–they had to! They just had no choice in candidates (Mongolia was a one-party nation then). So while Americans can assume that an election means there is a choice of candidates and issues, Mongolians do not make that assumption. Therefore they write “multi-party elections” rather than “voting.” Perhaps the most significant aspect of voting shared by the United States and Mongolia is the peaceful transfer of power from one political party to the next.
While Mongolians list human rights as the third most frequently mentioned criterion for democratic status, Americans save this for number 6 on their list. Notice that Mongolians and Americans use different terms here. The former use the current phrase, “human rights,” having heard of its value from international organizations such as the UN since they became a democratic state in 1990. Americans use the phrase, “individual rights,” meaning the right to vote, to the pursuit of happiness, to trial (by jury). Indeed, it appears that Americans do not really distinguish between individual rights and personal freedoms, for they name the right to free speech and religion more than other examples.
Genghis Khan’s Legacy
Chapter 4 in Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan. (Paula L.W. Sabloff, ed.)