genghis-khan-documentary

[Photo: BBC]

GENGHIS KHAN AND THE QUEST FOR GOD: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom by Jack Weatherford completely revises our concept of Genghis Khan. Outside Mongolia (where he is venerated), he’s viewed as murderous, merciless, a monstrously insane warrior king who conquered the largest empire in history.

But Weatherford – a bestselling Macalester College anthropologist – finds Khan was a key influence on Thomas Jefferson and American religious freedom. Here is Simon Winchester (one of David’s favorite writers on China) in a book review last month:

“Though godless himself, [Genghis Khan] favored total religious freedom for his subjugated millions, of many different faiths…[who should] ‘live together in a cohesive society under one government.’ …The Great Khan’s ecumenism has as its legacy the very same rigid separation of church and state that underpins no less than the American idea itself. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment is, at its root, an originally Mongol notion…Many might think this eccentric in the extreme, until we learn that a runaway 18th-century best seller in the American colonies was in fact a history of “Genghizcan the Great,” by a Frenchman, Pétis de la Croix, and that it was a book devoured by both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.”

grasslands-yurts-clouds

We’ve written here about Chinese (Inner) Mongolia (2012, the time of these photos). The haunting music, devastating impact of mining, the demeaning commercial imagery.

grasslands-temple-exterior

The author Weatherford, a hero in Mongolia, lives there half the year with his wife, who is apparently quite paralyzed by MS. I was touched, in an interview he gave, his description of how she is received there:

“In Mongolia there are no special facilities for disabled people; the streets and sidewalks are a jumble of broken cement and open holes. Yet when we step out of our building, hands always appear. No one says, “May I help you?” They simply do it and disappear, expecting no thanks. I never have to ask for help. Every week a few musicians come by to play the horse-head fiddle and sing for Walker, in the belief that music is the best medicine. Pop singers and hip-hop groups have come for the same purpose, saying that it will keep our home warm. People from all over the countryside send us dairy products. Our kitchen is usually full of yogurt, hard cream, curds, mare’s milk, mutton, horse ribs, and wild berries. Lamas, shamans, and healers come by to offer prayers, incense, herbal teas, chants, massage, and other forms of traditional treatments. Even strangers send camel wool or cashmere blankets, shawls, and socks to keep Walker warm. Mongolia has welcomed us with a care and warmth I can scarcely comprehend.”

 

 

Making Fierce Mongolians into Babies

Xilinguole grasslands, Chinese Mongolia

Without refrigeration, Mongolian herders eat like their ancestors: meat, air-dried milk hardened into twists & flakes, yogurt that seems rancid to our fussy American palettes. Fruits and veg are too pricey, the growing season too dry and short. During our visit this summer, we were served onion grass (pickled, to last), what grows in the lawns of NJ.


It’s minus-50F in winter so there’s no problem then.
But we visited this hot summer. All night, wonderful lamb dinner leftovers sat on the table, mid-yurt. In the morning, we declined as hosts, guide, and the herders–tough cowboys–cut the old meat into salted butter tea.

We were near this hill, a pilgrimage spot, which Genghis Khan declared sacred, helping him to victory when he prayed there. Its image symbolizes proud heritage–nationalism, wounded ethnic pride today–as Chinese coal mining encroaches and settlers buy up the grasslands. We climbed it in a few minutes. A carpet shows its beloved image.

Traditional saddle, pride of herders

Life we saw was rugged, simple. One family where we stayed had this small windmill generator, enough for light but not refrigeration.

Our guide said he descends from the “Golden Family,” in English the Golden Horde (from orde, Turkish for ‘people’). “A Mongol brought Tibetan Buddhism out of Tibet and across China,” he said.

“We have a culture, and belief.” (Tibetan Buddhism, he meant–also called Lamaism). “Our Chinese friends have no culture, no belief–they pursue power.” He told this to my son. “I’m sorry, but if you know this,” he said, “it’s better for your future.”

Corrupted local Mongolian local officials had become millionaires, he said. Meanwhile, “We have no rights.” He compared his people to Native Americans. I was thinking that, too, of the Plains Indians, whom we visited in 2008. And as the AIM (American Indian Movement) was born on Pine Ridge, our daring guide was willing to mention the Inner Mongolian Democratic Party of the 1960s, an independence party. He alleged that China killed 150,000 to eradicate it (1960-1980), purging separatists. I don’t know if it’s true or not. Many perished during the Cultural Revolution years. He said the remnants left for America, Germany, Finland.

He is a horsehead fiddler and we talked to its sad lovely strains on an iPod, playing a song called ’60 Trees.’ “When my grandpa sings this song, tears come out. It describes the feeling, how they love those trees.”

I mention the anger, bitterness, nationalism, as lead-in to how Mongolians are packaged, souvenir-ized, at the airport and gift shops. You don’t have to be a semiotician to see what’s going on with the depiction of this fiercely proud, historically mighty people:

Infantalizing images

No threat from these cutie pie babies

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