Mongolia after Chinggis
The name of the international airport should have given me a hint, but I was probably too tired to pick up the clues at that time. Names given to international airports may say a lot about a country’s eye on its own history, after all. In France, the biggest international airport is named after a president of the post-World War II era, Charles de Gaulle. Toronto’s airport, Canada’s busiest one, is named after a Prime Minister of the 1960s, Lester Pearson. And the list could go on, as the examples are numerous. Mongolia’s international airport was named after Chinggis Khaan, who died in 1227. Don’t get me wrong, the significance of Chinggis Khaan in Mongolian – and even world – history is hardly questionable. But he lived more than seven centuries ago!
Before coming to Mongolia, all I had heard about the country’s history included Chinggis Khaan, a man who had founded the biggest empire in human history by uniting thousands of Northeast Asian tribes under its command. The information I had about him was somewhat tainted with negative connotations though, regarding the massacres that had happened in the run for expansion. What I thought then, as my plane was taking off in Beijing for Ulaanbaatar, was that by going to Mongolia, I would not only learn more about this great man – sometimes referred to as the “Man of the millennium” – but also about other important figures of Mongolian history since his time.
And so, I landed in an airport named after him. And then I headed to Sukhbaatar Square to be shown its namesake’s statue. Of course, in my first week, I had my first taste of Chinggis Khaan beer and vodka as well. The airport’s name had not been enough to warn me, but the rest of it should have. It shocked me for several reasons. I find it sad that hardly anybody after this grand leader’s death was deemed significant enough to have things named after them. Yes, Ulaanbaatar’s biggest and most famous square is named after Sukhbaatar, a revolutionary leader of the post- World War I era, but there are now talks about renaming the square after Chinggis Khaan, too. Why? No matter where one stands politically, Sukhbaatar is an important figure in Mongolian history, and his name should not be replaced by somebody that predates him. If anything, I think it should be the other way around.
I don’t know much about Mongolian history, unfortunately, but this I know: at least during the twentieth century, Mongolia went through several major changes, such as the invasions by Chinese and Russian armies (as well as their liberation from them too), it experienced a period during which it was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, and of course, its transition to democracy. And this is just covering the last hundred years. Surely numerous important Mongolian people played a significant part in all these events, but it seems like on the surface (I have not looked at school textbooks), little reward is given to anybody who lived after the thirteenth century.
I come from a country that takes great pride in its history, its literature and arts: France. And if there was one person we should remember for its contribution to these fields, it would probably be King Francis I, who reigned in the early sixteenth century. His significance in France is comparable to Chinggis Khaan’s in Mongolia, although his grandeur did not spread nearly as far as Chinggis’. A lot of streets, squares and schools are named after him in France, because it is understood that one must remember the great men of a nation. Men, not man. Other significant subsequent kings, generals and politicians of more recent centuries have also earned the right to have their names known by the general public. Just like significant Mongolians who participated in making the country what it is today.
Seeing only Chinggis Khaan’s name everywhere gives me the impression, and I cannot be the only one, that Mongolia believes it has nothing to be proud of since him. Not only is this a very sad statement, but it is obviously wrong, especially considering the path on which the country has been since its transition to democracy. Lots remains to be done, but Mongolia can already pride itself on having successfully gone from a communist regime to a functioning democracy. Not a perfect one, in light of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights observations of the latest presidential election, but a more than encouraging one. Only about twenty years after its full independence from the USSR, this is quite an achievement.
Chinggis Khaan is known outside of Mongolia; he has contributed greatly to world history. But just like Francis I of France, whom most people outside of France have probably never heard of, Mongolia needs to pay tribute to those who’ve contributed to its modern history too, no matter how unknown they are to foreigners. On its incredible course of development, which seems parallel to some amount of Westernization, it should not forget its own culture and history. I believe this starts, not by forgetting about Chinggis Khaan, but by having some perspective and seeing other people who have contributed greatly to make the great nation that is Mongolia. Schools have started teaching the original Mongolian script; this sounds like a great start. Let’s hope that the government puts more policies of this sort in place to make sure that Mongolian identity does not limit itself to some far-far-away hero, and does not get swallowed by either of its two big neighbors… or the “third one”.
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