Review of a Review: Chinggis Khan and his Biographer

Chinggis Khan Mausoleum, Ordos City, Inner Mongolia. Built 1956.

Chinggis Khan Mausoleum, Ordos City, Inner Mongolia. Built 1956.

British historian and travel writer John Man published Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection in 2004. I’d originally intended to post excerpts from Chapter 15 (“The Making of a Demi-God”)–specifically those passages that deal with the complex interactions between the Mongolians and the Chinese when it comes to veneration of Chinggis Khan–but I was distracted by certain critiques of the book.

Dr. Alicia J. Campi, who holds a PhD in Mongolian Studies and used to work as an adviser for the U.S. State Department, published a review of Man’s book in December 2005/January 2006 issue of the Taiwanese government’s Bi-monthly Journal on Mongolian and Tibetan Current Situation.

I decided to use this blog post to draw attention to Campi’s relatively obscure review instead of quoting from Man’s book, which is is widely available.

Campi’s criticisms of Man’s book are numerous, and range from what she considers annoying hyperbole and “pseudo-psychological comments”  to more serious accusations of factual inaccuracy and presenting other people’s theories without attribution (73).

Regarding historical detail, she points out a few glaring mistakes:

Man mistakenly identifies Jurchen tribes as nomads like the Mongols, and does not explain well the Jurchen (Jin Dynasty) conflicts with the Khitans (Liao Dynasty). He thinks the Great Wall was built in its present form during the pre-Jin period. (72)

I’m not sure where exactly in the book Man suggests that he thinks the Great Wall was fully built before the Mongol invasion, but if so, it is a major error (as the Wall in its current iconic form was a Ming Dynasty project).

Campi further criticizes Man’s seeming lack of knowledge about present-day Mongolia:

Man’s limited knowledge of contemporary Mongolia is very evident. For example, he writes that one-half of the population of Ulaanbaatar lives in gers on the outskirts of the city (pg. 365), when by all credible calculations this percentage is closer to 10-15%. (77)

She is also annoyed at the book’s inconsistency in transliterating Mongolian and Chinese words into the Latin alphabet, which she attributes to Man’s lack of familiarity with those languages:

Man’s text includes a mish mash of transliteration of names and spelling, which is not unusual for a person unfamiliar with Mongolian and Chinese. However, one wonders why he did not give the text to Mongolists such as Charles Bawden and Igor de Rachewiltz, whom he thanks in his ‘Acknowledgements,’ to assist him with standardization. […]

The lack of a book editor who is familiar with Chinese and Mongolian languages is evident by the example of Man transliterating Ejen Khoroo as ‘Edsen’ Khoroo and moving back and forth haphazardly from Wade Giles to Pinyin transcription systems. (66-7)

Campi is highly skeptical of one of Man’s central theses, namely that the veneration of Chinggis Khan is a “religion in the making” (Man 370):

I am not certain that most Mongolists and Sinologists would interpret the rites to Chinggis that are practiced at the shrine in Ejen Khoroo as real religious worship. Man does not explain how such rites are different from traditional Chinese ancestor ‘worship’, if in fact they are.

Since Man’s credentials as a Chinese historian are weak, it may be that his lack of experience with traditional Chinese and Asian respect or veneration for dead spirits leads him to false conclusions. Or, it may be that he has captured a special different quality about the rites to Chinggis that are in fact more religious (68)

While I disagree with Campi’s assertion that traditional ancestor veneration is not “real religious worship,” she is right to draw attention to Man’s seeming lack of understanding of Asian religion:

In trying to explain the rites the author falls into all sorts of pecular [a]llusions to other religious practices which in fact not only do not explain the Chinggis rituals but insult them. His prejudicial comparisons are often made to various Christian customs. […] Banners inside the main temple are compared to “rather tatty Christmas decorations.” (pg. 305)

The weirdest analogy is Man’s claim that at Ejen Khoroo the ceremonies to Chinggis represented “a sort of Mongolian Trinity, with God the Father, Son and Holy [Spirit] mirrored by Blue Heaven, Genghis and [yak-tailed] Standard.” (pg. 314) ( 69-70)

Campi concludes that Man should have severely limited the scope of his book:

Man should have stuck with what he does best – write travel books. His foray into biographical writing sows confusion and distortion. Yet because he includes some very interesting travel accounts in the text, his book cannot be completely dismissed by serious Mongolian researchers. (78)

In that spirit, however, I’d like to present some of Man’s travel writing, in particular his retelling of stories he heard from Mongolians about the power of Genghis Khan’s spirit:

The Darkhat Guriljab recalled in 1993: “All those who offended against Genghis Khan and were activists in damaging the Mausoleum during the Cultural Revolution are now dead. They were all about my age. I saw them die one after another. They all died abnormal deaths.

One suffered a kind of stroke. He couldn’t move for eight or ten years before his death. Another one, his head swelled up three times the size of his normal head, and he died. Yes, this is retribution.

Our former banner magistrate, he was the leader of this rebel team. Later he was accused of being a member of the Inner Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, and he was beaten and killed by a long nail being driven into his head. His wife and daughter died, and his son has gone mad. Another one…he fell into a manure pit and drowned.

Everyone has their own stories proving Genghis’s power. A group of soldiers break a taboo by killing two snakes in the Mausoleum; their car crashes, killing six. A young man gets drunk at a liquor ceremony, and urinates against a wall; that night his wife dies. A ceremony was omitted in error after the Cultural Revolution; sheep fall ill and die. Such stories carry a message: Have respect! Take care! Genghis is as powerful in death as in life! (316-7)

Those are definitely some cool stories!


2 responses to “Review of a Review: Chinggis Khan and his Biographer

  • Damocles Loraine

    There must be an almost infinate amount of Chinese ghost stories to go with such tales


      I’m not entirely sure what you mean. Do you mean that there’s generally a lot of stories about powerful spirits, across different societies? Or that there are a lot specifically in Chinese culture?

      By the way, the stories in the post above are all Mongolian rather than Chinese, and I’m not sure they’re strictly “ghost” stories. John Man thinks that Chinggis Khan is a demi-god. Alicia Campi is not convinced that this is the case, but she isn’t sure that it isn’t, either.

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