Thursday, April 23, 2009

Re-evaluating Chinggis Khaan

Dr. Rossabi gave his lecture yesterday evening entitled: Recent Re-Evaluations of Chinggis Khaan and Khubilai Khan. Before the lecture the School of Foreign Service at the National University of Mongolia conferred on him the title of "Honary Doctor" and presented him with a doctoral robe, medal, and diploma. It was a well attended event with more than 60 people.

If anyone expected Dr. Rossabi to pull punches during his lecture out of deference to the occasion, they were proven wrong. He gave a rather candid reassessment of his book Khubilai Khan and the recent deification and "vulgarization," as he put it, of the popular image of Chinggis Khaan. It was a brave position to take given the politics involved, but he expressed his concern about exalting the positives of the Mongol Empire and attempting to conceal the negatives of the Mongol conquests. Noting that, of course, this is a response in some respect to a long history in the West of portraying the Mongols unfairly, still he insisted that honest and factual examinations of history are of paramount importance in scholarly research. The facts indicate that there were positives and negatives associated with the Mongol conquests of Eurasia.

It was not an easy argument to make, especially in Mongolia. It made me think of someone standing in front of a group of Americans and suggesting that the way forward in truly understanding American history is accepting, even embracing, the uncomfortable facts about slavery. For many people that would be tantamount to heresy, and in Mongolia suggesting that Chinggis Khaan was a great leader but he was also a ruthless and brutal leader can be very dangerous, indeed. I think Dr. Rossabi was making a very trenchant observation about the need for all people to embrace both the positives and negatives of their history in order to give lasting resilience and credibility to the image that is presented to the rest of the world. Americans who ignore the legacy of slavery risk being branded hypocrites on issues of human rights, and Mongolians who ignore the brutality of the Mongol conquests risk having people not believe the factual positives of Mongol rule.

Dr. Rossabi also added that in re-evaluating Mongolian history, he is somewhat troubled by the fact that other great Mongolians are often neglected in the national consciousness. Mongolian currency, for example, has images of Chinggis Khaan and Sukhbaatar, but not of Natsagdorj, Zanabazar, or others. But, at the same time, he said it was understandable because Chinggis Khaan and Sukhbaatar are Mongolia's great generals, and other countries also find it hard to give space to leaders of the arts and sciences. Hero worship of military leaders is a common phenomenon around the world. I remember the first time I saw a German 5 Mark bill and it had a portrait of Carl Friedrich Gauss. I was impressed to see a mathematician receiving such an honor. But, maybe Germany is one place generals are best left unremembered. In the rest of the world we have a tendency to measure greatness in terms of conquest of the physical environment as opposed to the human mind.

Overall the lecture was enjoyable, most especially for Dr. Rossabi's candid thoughts. He certainly elicited numerous questions at the end of the lecture which poured into the reception afterwards. Congratulations to you Dr. Rossabi for your award and thank you for an informative lecture.


Christian said...

Dr. Rossabi's talk sounds fascinating, and I'm glad to hear that he addressed all sides of the issue openly.

However, I have a somewhat nit-picky detail question. I was under the impression that Zanabazar is the individual portrayed on tugrug notes of 100-and-smaller denominations. Is that someone else?

Brian White, ACMS Resident Director said...

Sukhbaatar is portrayed on denominations 100 tugriks or less. He looks more lama like than general like in contemporary notes, though.

Christian said...

Very interesting, thanks for clearing that up Brian!

Also, whoever said it was Zanabazar at Dave's quiz night that one time was very much wrong.

Brian White, ACMS Resident Director said...

For what it is worth, Wikipedia has a page about the Mongolian tugrik. The Dave's quiz night that evening was definitely wrong. Hope you didn't lose because of it!

Hans v R said...

Dear Brian,
I read with much interest your article about Dr. Rossabi and Chinggis Khan.
I'm not an real expert on this subject but 've read a lot of books, older ones and recent ones about Mongols and Chingis Khan and agree with Dr. Rossabi that in literature one can observe the same trend of emphasizing the negatives 20, 30 years ago and emphasizing the positives in most literature, published around his 800' birthday.
I would like to publicize your column about this subject on my weblog:
and kindly ask your permission,
Kind regards,

Brian White, ACMS Resident Director said...

Thanks for your interest in the blog. You are free to republish the entry if you wish. Note at the bottom of the blog in the footer that all the content is licensed under a creative commons 3.0 non-commercial-share-alike license. As long as you reference our blog, I am happy to share. Thanks for asking.