From the "creative history" files: Genghis Khan was Chinese?

This past autumn, a project funded by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences set off a mini-firestorm when they suggested that the Goguryeo kingdom of Northern Korea (37-668) as well as the later Balhae kingdom (698-926) were actually Chinese kingdoms, founded by ethnic minority groups from China. One Korean newspaper even suggested that it was the beginning of a Chinese ‘land grab’ of Northern Korea in the event of a DPRK collapse. The whole point of the study was ludicrous, not the least the assumption that such entities as “China” or “Korea” existed in their modern forms during the first millennium C.E.

Now from the creative history files of the PRC, comes the claim that Genghis Khan, once famously slagged by Chairman Mao as just another barbarian warlord, was in fact Chinese. The last few holdouts of the Song dynasty who faced down the horses and boats of the Mongol horde must be really pleased by this recent rehabilitation of their arch-nemesis. If only they had known. The Song army could have welcomed them in as brothers, made some tea, and offered up their wives.

“We define him as a great man of the Chinese people, a hero of the Mongolian nationality, and a giant in world history,” said Guo Wurong, the manager of the new Genghis Khan “mausoleum” in China’s Inner Mongolia province. Genghis Khan was certainly Chinese,” he added.

Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the fact that Inner Mongolia really only became “Inner” after the MPR sided with the Soviets in the 20th century (thus making the latter “Outer”), there’s the small problem that no Chinese dynasty ever really controlled any part of “Mongolia.” It wasn’t until the Qing dynasty that a combined government of Manchus, Chinese, and (yes) Mongols unified both sides of the Great Wall into a (relatively) cohesive polity.

There are two issues here. The first is China’s fixation on maintaining the notion of “5000 years of continuous history.” A case could be made for culture or civilization but to try to project any kind of political unit backwards five millennia is preposterous.

That Inner Mongolia is part of China today does not make it “China” in the 12th century nor does it make the people who wandered across that land “Chinese.” It just doesn’t. There is no unbroken line of succession for the Chinese “state” that dates back even 100 years, never mind 1000.

For example, 95 years ago this weekend Sun Yat Sen was named interim president of a new Chinese Republic. He promptly swapped that job to Yuan Shikai for the promise of Yuan’s military support of the new regime. Within four years, Yuan had orchestrated the assassination of China’s brightest young political star, Song Jiaoren, disbanded parliament, nearly sold out the country to the Japanese, and then as the coup de grace had himself declared emperor for a week. By 1916 Yuan was gone and China was the very definition of a failed state, with whole sections of the country outside central control and under warlord rule. Think Afghanistan. On steroids. Coincidentally, it was about this time that the Mongolians decided to take their country and run. “Outer” Mongolia eventually became the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924 under the warm and protective embrace of…Joseph Stalin?


The second issue is the thorny problem of ethnicity. How do we define ethnicity for past peoples and times? Do modern definitions of self-identification or linguistic/cultural variation apply? Does “race” (another thorny definition) play a role?

I think a simple test is this: Genghis Khan is leading a cavalry charge against a fixed position on the North China plain. Do you think Genghis Khan worries he might be attacking his “own people?” Do the defenders feel a kinship with the man about to charge into their villages? Remember this was a man who reportedly lamented that the human body had only so many orifices for an army to violate?

I’m assuming this guy Guo is just another would-be huckster out to make a buck from a few unwitting tourists. I really hope so. But his shtick is representative of a whole current of thought in the Chinese government, popular consciousness, as well as in academia (who should know better). They want to use modern definitions to make historical claims…and then turn around and use this “creative (created?) history” as evidence in contemporary territorial and political disputes and/or feed the beast of nationalism.

I’m not a big believer in creationism when it’s in science books. I like it even less in my history books.