For centuries, Genghis Khan has served as a symbol of brutality, a leader who thrived on the misery that his Mongol warriors were to spread throughout Asia and into Central Europe.
"Man's highest joy is in victory: to conquer one's enemies, to pursue them, to deprive them of their possessions, to make their beloved weep, to ride on their horses, and to embrace their wives and daughters," he is reported to have said.
But this year, China, whose people suffered at least as much from the depredations of Genghis Khan as other nations did, is spending lavish sums on a mausoleum erected in his honor.
Amid the arid, barren wastelands of Chinese Inner Mongolia, where Genghis Khan and his all-conquering cavalry once rode, workmen are now restoring an elaborate tomb built on the spot where Mongols have traditionally paid homage to his memory.
Biography Being Published
China is also permitting publication this spring of the first biography of Genghis Khan by an ethnic Mongol, who argues, in effect, that Genghis Khan has been the victim of a bad image.
"In my opinion, Genghis Khan positively influenced cultural flow between China and other countries," wrote the author, a professor of Mongolian studies named Saixiyerl.
The purpose of all this attention, it appears, is to show that China's dominant racial group, the Han, care about minorities such as the Mongols. Overall, ethnic minorities--they include not only Mongols but Tibetans, Uighurs, Manchus, Zhuang, Hui, and Koreans--make up about 7% of the nation's population and are heavily concentrated in sensitive border regions.
Genghis Khan, who lived from 1167 until 1227, first unified the tribes of the Mongolian steppes and then extended his rule south into China, north into Siberia and west across Central Asia. His successors conquered Persia and moved on into Europe, reaching as far as the valley of the Danube.
It was Kublai Khan, Genghis's grandson, who moved the Mongol capital to Beijing, establishing what is known in China as the Yuan Dynasty. (Kublai Khan first built a palace in Shangdu, the fabled Xanadu described in the unfinished poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.)
Officially a Plunderer
For years, the official view of China's Communist regime was that Genghis Khan represented a disaster for the Chinese people. A basic Chinese history text published only five years ago said his Mongol army had trampled through the Yellow River region, "burning, killing and plundering wherever they went."
"To the ministers who had easy access to him, the Han Chinese were no more than a nuisance to be eliminated, and the Chinese farmland should be laid waste and converted into pastures," the book said.
Over the past few years, such views have been toned down.
"I think Genghis Khan is an outstanding historical figure," said Fu Kejia, chief editor of the Inner Mongolian Daily. "We hold a positive attitude toward what Genghis Khan did in uniting the Mongol tribes. Of course, we understand the viewpoint of the European peoples which were invaded."
China has allocated more than 3 million yuan (more than $800,000) in central government funds for the current project to restore the tomb of the Mongol leader. Painters are now working to complete elaborate frescoes of Genghis Khan's life inside the tomb. New walkways and tourist facilities are being put up outside.
Tomb Resembles a Yurt
Ironically, there is little of Mongolian culture in the restoration project. Genghis Khan's tomb is shaped vaguely like a Mongolian yurt or tent, but otherwise, it is being developed in a fashion similar to that of historical sites in other parts of China.
Much of the work on the frescoes is being done by Chinese painters. Their pictures, full of noble spear-carrying warriors, look like illustrations from a children's book of "Arabian Nights."
Even the inscription over the entrance to the tomb--written by Ulanhu, the veteran Chinese Communist Party leader of Mongol descent who is China's vice president--is written in Chinese, not Mongolian, script.
Chinese officials acknowledge that the location of Genghis Khan's tomb is more a matter of tradition than of historical certainty. "The place where he died is unknown," said Si Qin of the office of foreign affairs for the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region.
The site in Ejin Horo is where Mongols for centuries kept relics of Genghis Khan, such as his war banner, and held festivals and memorial ceremonies each spring in honor of his military successes. According to one legend, Genghis Khan once stopped at Ejin Horo and said he wanted to be buried here.
Relics Moved in 1939
In 1939, the Nationalist regime then ruling China moved Genghis Khan's relics away to neighboring Gansu province to protect them from advancing Japanese troops. After the Communist revolution, the new government in 1954 returned the relics to Ejin Horo and built a tomb to house them.
However, according to subsequent Chinese accounts, the tomb was "seriously devastated" during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and many of the relics were destroyed. At that time, Genghis Khan was denounced as an early exponent of "hegemonism" (domination of one state over another)--usually a Chinese code word referring to the Soviet Union.
Actually, Genghis Khan is much more unpopular in the Soviet Union than he ever has been in China. The enduring Russian fears of invasion from Asia were fulfilled by the Mongols to a greater extent than before or since.
Armies Burned Moscow
A few years after Genghis Khan's death, Mongol armies burned Moscow and seized Kiev on their way to Europe. The Mongols' "Golden Horde" then stayed on in southern Russia for more than two centuries.
In Mongolia, China's northern neighbor which is allied with the Soviet Union and has Soviet troops stationed within its borders, Genghis Khan is given as little recognition as possible.
(There are more than 6 million Mongols in the world. Approximately 1.7 million live in Mongolia (traditionally known as Outer Mongolia, now the Mongolian People's Republic). About 3.7 million live in China, most of them in Inner Mongolia. There are also smaller Mongol communities in the Soviet Union, Afghanistan and Nepal.)
Another Soviet ally, Vietnam, not long ago denounced Genghis Khan as a "butcher . . . whose hands were stained with the blood of the peoples of many countries."
40th Anniversary Marked
China, however, is willing to let bygones be bygones. This year, it is officially celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of Inner Mongolia as an "autonomous region" under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. And what better way to celebrate the unity between Chinese and Mongol nationalities than to have China restore Genghis Khan's tomb?
"Mongol people are still very interested in attitudes towards Genghis Khan," observed Fu, the newspaper editor in the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot. He quickly adds, "For the Mongol people, although they think of Genghis Khan, they still follow the leadership of the Communist Party."
Outside Genghis Khan's tomb, an elderly gentleman who would identify himself only as Wang volunteered his own philosophical judgment.
Asked by a foreign visitor whether he thought Genghis Khan was a good leader, he replied, "Of course he was good. If he wasn't good, why would we be celebrating him like this?"