Genghis Khan (r. 1206-1227) was a prominent leader in world history with the formation of the Mongol Empire. However, many ethnic and national groups have different perceptions of him, those being both positive and negative.

To begin with, the Mongols often commemorate Genghis not as a successful soldier, but as an experienced administrator with nationalist attitudes. Many Mongolians appreciate his statecraft in building new socio-political institutions and innovations like their first written laws (yasa). Interestingly, they rarely emphasize the battles that made Genghis world-famous outside of Mongolia. Given his long-lasting institutions, his short-lived military invasions are typically secondary to them. They also celebrate his religious tolerance, political meritocracy, and economic contributions, such as increasing trade on the Silk Road.

 Chinese society had different perceptions about him because of his Chinese campaign. While many Chinese people appreciate his legacy by incorporating China into a cohesive unit, some accused him of demolishing Chinese culture and society. To exemplify, Mao contended that he “only knew how to shoot eagles with an arrow.”

His invasions constructed a generally negative perception of him in the Middle East. Contemporary Muslim historians like Ibn al-Athir have frequently condemned Genghis, underlining that he was “the greatest catastrophe and calamity…since God created Adam until now”. Along with the continuation of this perception, several Muslim communities compared later occupations to his invasion in written and oral ways. Furthermore, his name is used to frame deceitful people in idioms and proverbs is widespread in the Middle East.

In European communities, leading intellectuals after the Renaissance and later colonial ideologists conceived Genghis as “a barbarian leader” to justify their control of Asian societies. Accordingly, European art and culture reflected this stereotype in a variety of manners. To illustrate, Voltaire depicts  Genghis as a “destructive tyrant . . . motivated by the basic barbarian desire to ravish civilized women and destroy what he could not understand” in The Orphan of China. Moreover, several European artists painted him with savage eyes and merciless looks. Colonial doctrine regarded him as an excuse for its oppressive practices, claiming their rule is preferable to “barbaric nomads” like Genghis.

American popular culture reinforces and reflects these prejudices in comics and cinema. Dr. Donald, a Marvel character, mutters that “the only thing that could make this day worse would be if Genghis Khan and the Mongol horde ran me over.” Similar judgments are found in Spider-Man and Scooby-Doo, in which encountering Genghis  is the worst case scenario.

In conclusion, the perceptions of Genghis shift across different ethnic groups under the influence of nationalist sentiments, colonialist stereotypes, and historical conflicts. It seems that these changing perceptions will remain contested among these societies.

Recommended reading:

 Leo De Hartog, “The World Conqueror and His Empire”, Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World, (New York: Tauris Paperbacks, 2012): 139-144.

Timothy May, “Mongol Image”, The Mongol Conquest in the World History, (London, Reaktion Books, 2012): 103-105

.Jack Weatherford, “Introduction”, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, (Three Rivers Press, 2004): I-XXV

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