That China would so honor Genghis Khan, whose Mongol armies overwhelmed China in the 13th century and ruled it for more than a century, would seem unlikely. But Beijing, in an attempt to keep a close hold on its Mongolian minority, now reasons that since Genghis conquered China, he can be treated as a Chinese hero.
And that gives the search for Genghis Khan's grave a bit of a geopolitical flavor. Asked why the tomb of Genghis Khan should be found, Mongolians can give several answers, like finding the right place to worship the great hero, or to draw the world's attention to him and to Mongolia. But perhaps the most often cited justification is the need to prove that Genghis Khan belongs to Mongolia.
On the prairie of Inner Mongolia, which borders Mongolia, and which is home to most of China's Mongolian minority, (and more ethnic Mongolians than are in Mongolia proper), stands the Genghis Khan Mausoleum. The name notwithstanding, virtually no one claims that Genghis is actually buried there. But the "mausoleum" is nevertheless a significant monument to the Mongolian leader, and one that China uses to bolster its claim to Genghis's legacy.
The current mausoleum is the modern descendent of a tradition that began shortly after the death of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Because the location of his tomb was secret, Genghis's heirs created a mobile memorial, originally a set of white tents called ordos, where Mongolians could venerate him. The tents first centered on Burkhan Khaldun, the holy mountain in northern Mongolia where Genghis is presumed to be buried. Through circumstances not recorded, they eventually ended up in what is today China.
Through the early decades of the 20th century the mausoleum remained a homegrown memorial of simple tents, open only to Mongolians. After the Communist takeover in 1949, though, the winds of official opinion on Genghis Khan shifted rapidly: In the 1950s, the government, in an apparent attempt to solidify the loyalty of Mongolians to the Communist cause, built a modern temple at the site. Then during the Cultural Revolution, Genghis was labeled as a reactionary, and the mausoleum was shuttered and used to store salt.
Today the Chinese government is again trying emphasize "harmony," to use Beijing's favored phrase, among its ethnic minorities. For Mongolians, that means Genghis Khan is again a hero - but with very Chinese characteristics. He is not portrayed as a barbarian invader, but as a representative of the greater Chinese world, under whom China was part of an empire that, for the only time in Chinese history, defeated Europeans on the battlefield.
The town closest to the Genghis Khan Mausoleum (about a four-hour drive from Hohhot) has been renamed from Dongsheng to Ordos, the Mongolian word for Genghis's memorial tents. And in 2005 the mausoleum itself got a RMB 200 million (about USD 30 million) makeover, including a new museum and an altar in the main temple at which Mongolians can make small sacrifices, of money, bricks of tea or bolts of silk, to Genghis.
The mausoleum attracts both Mongolians and ethnic Han Chinese tourists, who visit for very different reasons. Mongolians come to venerate Genghis and ask for help; one burly visitor, who declined to give his name, said he had come to pray to Genghis and ask for help in a wrestling match he had later that day. But the large majority of visitors appear to be Han on group tours of Inner Mongolia, on a standard itinerary that includes horseback riding on the prairie and traditional song-and-dance performances. (Mausoleum officials claim that 35 million people a year visit the site, though a recent visit at the height of the tourist season suggested that, while the attraction is popular, that figure is likely heavily inflated).
The mausoleum, in particular its new renovations, appears oriented towards appealing to Han tastes rather than Mongolian ones. The main temple, for example, was carefully decorated with 1,206 images of dragons on the walls, carved into the ceiling and painted on vases. But dragons are significant to Han Chinese, not Mongolians, as one Han Chinese tour guide pointed out. "Mongolian people like wolves and eagles, not dragons," the guide said. "But you won't see any wolves and eagles here." Near the temple is a new sculpture of another traditional Chinese creature, the turtle-like creature bixi, whose head the Han Chinese visitors rub for good luck.
This co-opting of Genghis Khan has created some unease in Mongolia, where widespread rumors persist that under the mausoleum is a secret museum, purportedly containing maps showing China controlling all of Mongolian territory. And it's also the source of bitter irony in Inner Mongolia, which has seen such heavy migration by Han Chinese over the past several decades that Mongolians, once the overwhelming majority on this territory, are now only about 15 percent of its population.
"It is like when you have guests," said one Mongolian in Hohhot, who asked not to be named, referring to Han Chinese migration. "At first you welcome them, but ... they stayed too long and now they took over the house." During a conversation with EurasiaNet in Genghis Khan Square, he removed the battery from his cell phone, in case it was being monitored by the security services. He said that 20,000 ethnic Mongolians worked as informants for secret police, even though there wasn't any overt political activity. Mongolian resentment is deep, he said, but not focused.
Russia, too, has a large Mongolian minority: the Buryats, a Mongol people who live on the border with Mongolia proper. Buryatia holds a special place in the history of Genghis Khan, as his mother was buried there. And there, too, Genghis Khan is making a comeback, though in a much more muted fashion than in China.
Russians, who were conquered by Mongols in the 13th century, traditionally have seen Genghis Khan as a brutal conqueror. Some Soviet historians even blamed the Mongol yoke for Russia's relative developmental backwardness in the 20th century.
That is changing, though. For Buryats Genghis has become a symbol of their nation, with hip-hop songs and novels devoted to him. Two twenty-something brothers, Oleg and Bair Yumov, put on a play called "Bloody Steppe" at the Buryat State Drama Theater that re-imagined Hamlet during the middle ages, and said they are inspired by Genghis Khan's example. They try to live by the Yasak, a book of laws promulgated by Genghis (though lost to history except in secondhand sources), said Bair Yumov, who compared them to the Japanese code of the samurai. "I want to be adequate to his sayings, and to follow his laws," he said. "People say he was a dictator and a tyrant," said Oleg. "But that time called for a leader. It should be understood that he wasn't physically strong, but strong in spirit."
Some Russians, too, are reappraising Genghis. Members of one influential intellectual movement, the neo-Eurasianists, argue that Genghis, by conquering Russia, in fact unified it and protected its essential Orthodox Christian character from Catholic Western Europe. The 2007 movie Mongol, which portrayed Genghis Khan sympathetically, was a Russian production whose director, Sergei Bodrov, is a neo-Eurasianist.
Many Russians still hold negative views of Genghis, and nationalist Russians in particular distrust the fact that his rehabilitation has come along with a rising tide of Buryat nationalism. There is no official monument to Genghis in Russia, in contrast to Mongolia and China, but officials in Ulan-Ude, the Buryat capital, recently did erect a statue of Geser, a mythical Buryat hero, in the center of the city.
The statue was opposed by veterans groups who delayed the plans twice, saying that Geser was "the same thing as Genghis Khan," said Dorj Tsybikdorjiev, a member of the Institute of Mongolian Studies, Buddhology and Tibetology of the Siberian Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "So you can imagine what would happen if they actually put up a statue of Genghis Khan."
In general, educated people in Buryatia - whether they are ethnic Russian or Buryat - view Genghis Khan more positively than working-class people of either ethnicity, said Djamilya Chimitova, the dean of the law school at Buryat State University, who did her doctoral dissertation on Russian historiography of Genghis Khan.
One Russian archeologist even believes that Genghis Khan is buried in Buryatia, close to the northeastern shore of Lake Baikal, though his is a fringe opinion. Buryats, however, are not enthusiastic about the search for the grave, said German Galsanov, a news anchor at Arig-us Television, a private network named after the site of Genghis's mother's birth. "What's the point?" he asked. "We're not going to learn anything more."
He recounts a story that is popular in the former Soviet Union: that in 1941 Soviet archeologists broke into the grave of Tamerlane - a descendent of Genghis who had his own empire - in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Two days later, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. "So if that's what happened when we opened up Tamerlane's grave," he said, "imagine what will happen when we open up Genghis Khan's?"
Editor's Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.