Genghis Khan, Father of Mongolian Democracy


Paula L.W. Sabloff

Chapter 4 in Modern Mongolia:  Reclaiming Genghis Khan. (Paula L.W. Sabloff, ed.). University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2001.

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            I became involved with Mongolia through good luck and good friends when the country had already become an independent democracy. The more I experienced Mongolia, the more interested I became in two questions: Why did Mongolians take to democracy so easily after centuries of oppression followed by seventy years of Communist rule? And why do I feel so at home in Mongolia? In other words, what is there about Mongolians that makes an American feel that we easily understand each other?

I think these questions are very much linked together. I have been working as a cultural anthropologist in Mongolia since 1994, living many months in Ulaanbaatar and spending several weeks in the western aimag [province] of Hovd.  As an anthropologist, my job is to live the way Mongolians do, observe their behavior, ask them questions, and listen to what they say. As an anthropologist, I am curious about (a) how they manage different situations–how they obtain and prepare food, how they earn a living, how they educate their children, how they relax; and (b) what do they think about the world around them–their families, their history, their government, and their place in the world.

My impression of Mongolians is that they are very much like us, for Mongolians and Americans have the same ideal of what a man should be–a rugged, independent, resourceful, self-sufficient loner. The Marlboro Man. The difference is that the Mongolian Marlboro Man is connected to a mother–to family and friends–while the American version revels in his isolation from society. 

Mongolians have a wonderful sense of humor, something we Americans pride ourselves on also. I have often been with a group of Mongolians–a family, a group of friends, or people who work together–and noticed that they are always talking, telling stories, or relating what happened to them yesterday. But when they tell these stories, they always tell them in such a way that everyone gets to laugh at the end. Mongolians bond through laughter.

            Mongolians and Americans also share similar histories. For varying periods, we both have been underdogs fighting off powerful colonial masters to build free, democratic nations. We are both tremendously proud of our traditions of freedom and democracy.

How did independence and democratic principles take root in Mongolia so early in the world’s history, and how did these ideals survive through such a brutal history?  We start with Mongolia’s greatest leader, Genghis Khan, although we will see that the story of Mongolian democracy really precedes him.

Many Westerners think of Genghis Khan as a marauder who burned and pillaged Europe, Asia, and Persia.1 He was born in 1162 CE along the Onon River in present-day Hentii (Khentei) Aimag. By 1189, when he was only twenty-seven years old, he had united the Mongol peoples into an independent nation instead of separate clans and tribes. Between 1189 and 1206, he expanded Mongol territory to roughly the territory of Mongolia today. At that point, he was elected Genghis Khan of All Mongols.2

Genghis Khan’s soldiers were famous for their fierceness and skill in riding and shooting arrows. Their armor and stirrups were constructed to allow maximum freedom of movement on a horse, and this enabled them to shoot arrows with deadly accuracy while riding at full gallop. They could even hit their targets when shooting backwards from a galloping horse.3 The range of their composite bows–made of wood, sinew, and antler horn –exceeded that of European bows of the time. Genghis Khan built a military organization that enabled him to incorporate whole units of foreign soldiers, thus assuring himself a limitless number of troops for further conquest.  But his real secret weapon may have been that they were eating a high-protein diet of meat, milk, and cheese while China and Europe were falling asleep on their diet of rice, pasta, and porridge!  Of course these pasta-eaters were easy prey for the meat-eating Mongols!

By the time of his death in 1227, Genghis Khan had captured and controlled the Silk Road. He had conquered all the way west through Central Asia and Russia to the Caspian Sea, south past Beijing to the Yellow River, and southwest to Persia.  It is still the largest empire ever conquered under one man’s rule (see Map 4, Chapter 1).

Westerners evaluating outstanding achievement during the last millennium are only now recognizing his incredible accomplishment in a positive light. Some have even awarded Genghis Khan first prize for Greatest Achievement in the Category of Conqueror.4 Despite this revisionist view, most Westerners still see him as a terror.  But Genghis Khan has a different reputation among his descendants, the people of modern Mongolia. To them, his greatness lies in the fact that he gave his people the gifts of independence and the basic principles from which they could eventually build a modern democratic state.

Please note that I am not saying that Genghis Khan actually led a democratic government. There is a big difference between establishing democratic principles and running a democratic state. While some democratic principles can exist in a society that is not democratic, a democracy cannot exist without a basic cluster of democratic principles. So Genghis Khan may be considered the father of Mongolian democracy even though he ran a military state. After all, no one credits King John with establishing a democracy after he signed the Magna Carta, yet we trace the beginning of Western democracy to his relinquishing some authority to his noblemen. Genghis Khan preceded the Magna Carta (by nine years), and he instituted democratic principles willingly rather than under duress. In redesigning Mongolian government, he codified several key elements of democracy that became part of Mongolians’ memory.  Anthropologists would say that Genghis Khan established the political culture that is still in the minds of Mongolians today.

Political Culture

What is political culture and why is it so important to a nation?  Simply put, politics is about different ways of organizing the distribution of resources. Some examples are monarchy, totalitarianism, consensus democracy, and majority-rule democracy. Political culture is a people’s preference for one way of making decisions about how resources are distributed over another. 

            Alexis de Tocqueville, the young Frenchman who visited the United States when it was a young democracy, characterized American political culture as guided by love of equality and individualism, civil society, a belief in the sovereignty of the people (through majority rule), and distrust of government.5 Many would argue that the political culture he observed nearly two centuries ago is still intact today. If anything, we are at a point where we are even more distrustful of government, for our love of individualism and capitalism seems to be even more extreme than it was in the 1830s.

I went to Mongolia in 1998 to discover Mongolian political culture. And in the process, I stumbled across something bigger–namely, the roots of their political culture today. These roots are their traditional nomadic lifestyle and their ancient ruler, Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan’s Democratic Principles

The stories, legends, and history of Genghis Khan reveal certain democratic principles that Americans consider to be the core of a democracy. Political scientists have counted more than 200 definitions of democracy.  The American definition is built on four pillars: participatory government, rule by law, equality under the law, and basic personal freedoms and human rights. If we examine the history of Genghis Khan through historical accounts, we can see that he established some form of all four pillars for the Mongolian people during his rule.

We know of Genghis Khan mostly through one book, The Secret History of the Mongols. No one knows for sure who wrote it, but several historians believe its author was Shigi-hutuhu, adopted son of Genghis Khan, which means it was probably written thirteen years after Genghis Khan’s death in 1227.6 The Secret History starts with the legend of the birth of the Mongol tribe and continues through Genghis Khan’s successor, his son Ogedei.

Other accounts come from Rashid ad-Din, a doctor turned chief minister and historian of the court of Ilkhan Ghazan, the Mongol ruler of Persia and Iraq. This account, written at the end of the thirteenth century, was based on the official Mongolian history, the Altan Debter (The Golden Notebook), which has been lost. Other Western writers have written about Genghis Khan from the Western, or conquered perspective.7

If we treat The Secret History as text, we can see that Genghis Khan practiced certain democratic principles, even if he did not invent them.  And he provided the two key conditions necessary for establishing democratic principles.

Conditions Necessary for Democracy

Independence and sovereignty

Genghis Khan’s first gift to his people was to unite them into one independent nation, a nation that had the right to make its own laws. First he united the various tribes in the area (Naiman, Kereit, Tatar, Merkid) together into one big political unit, the Mongol nation. Then he fought neighboring groups such as the Tanggut and the Chinese (Chin Dynasty), freeing the Mongols from paying tribute or serving at the pleasure of foreign rulers. Eventually he conquered these groups, placing them under Mongol control. The conquest of the Chin Dynasty meant the conquest of Beijing and control of the Silk Roads.8

Independence and sovereignty were the first conditions for developing democratic principles. If democracy means a people rule themselves, then they cannot have a democracy if some other power makes their laws.


Genghis Khan had one of his captives adapt the Uighur script to the Mongolian language and had his sons and officials learn to read and write in this new form. The Naiman tribe, which had ruled western Mongolia before him, had adopted the writing system of the previous rulers, the Uighur Turks. But the Naimans wrote in the Uighur language. By modifying the Uighur script to fit Mongolian sounds and words, Genghis Khan freed his people from dependency on foreign scribes and assured that his rulings would be preserved.9

The Pillars of Democracy

            Genghis Khan included some form of all four pillars of democracy in his government. Some, we know, were traditional parts of Mongolian nomadic culture, predating his rule. Others were parts of surrounding cultures. Genghis Khan contributed additional components, and he combined the various principles into one government structure, which was unique for his time.

Participatory government

Genghis Khan had several ways of including people in setting policy, although he was the one responsible for final decisions. He took the tribal tradition of electing a leader in mass assembly, a hural (khural), to the next step by having a Great Assembly (Ih Hural, or Ikh Khural) of Mongols meet periodically. The usual topic was the matter of war and peace, but they discussed other policy issues as well.10

Genghis Khan also maintained a Council of Wise Men that met with him regularly. Acting as his cabinet, they helped him think through major policy decisions. While he started his council with Mongol supporters, he eventually included men from other tribes and nations in the council.11

One of the three pillars of Western democracy is participatory government.  The other two are human rights/freedoms and rule by law.12 While true participatory democracy includes all adults–men and women, rich and poor, the Great Assembly and Council of Wise Men are good starting places for participatory government. After all, we consider ancient Athens to be the first democracy, yet only men who were not slaves could take up citizenship responsibilities and vote. Women and slaves were not allowed to participate in the democratic process.13 Americans trace the beginning of our democracy to the notion that participatory government meant only the king and the barons in England.

            Mongolian participatory democracy preceded Genghis Khan; it was already part of the nomadic tradition, as the hural preceded Genghis Khan’s Ih Hural. But Genghis Khan extended and regularized participatory democracy when he formalized the meetings of the Great Assembly and Council of Wise Men.

Rule by law: the beginning of equality

In 1206, Genghis Khan appointed Shigi-hutuhu to write down Genghis Khan’s legal decisions as well as the rewards (titles, responsibilities, and material goods including captives) he granted his loyal followers. By establishing the rule of law, Genghis Khan lifted his people from fractious tribal groups to law-abiding citizens.

Genghis Khan also made Shigi-hutuhu the first judge. In that capacity, Shigi-hutuhu listened to disputes and transgressions of the law, imposing sentences ranging from fines to death for robbery, deception, adultery, etc. He was also made responsible for the judiciary system throughout the empire.14

The second pillar of democracy is the rule by law. When Solon established rule by law in ancient Athens (594 BCE),15 he changed government from forcing people to obey the whims of a single person (king, ruler) or group of people (oligarchy) to obeying laws that apply to everyone, or at least to whole groups of people. By adopting the rule of law, Genghis Khan placed the Mongol nation in the position of a fair and just society, one ruled by laws that everyone had to obey. However, in granting favors to his loyal followers, one of his rewards was to exempt them from punishment for up to nine transgressions.16

Equality of citizens

Genghis Khan initiated the concept that all citizens are equal in two different ways.

1. Equality through meritocracy. When Genghis Khan built his army, he organized the soldiers into units of 10. Their leader reported to the leader of 10 units, or 100 men. The next leaders were of 1,000 and then 10,000 men (actually, the words and concept came from the ancient Hunnu). Genghis Khan appointed the leader of each unit, for he knew his men well. The Secret History of the Mongols tells us that Genghis Khan selected these leaders for their loyalty, ability, and bravery, not because they were of noble birth.17 This meant that a commoner could advance through the army hierarchy by virtue of merit promotions.

Genghis Khan also used the concept of meritocracy to staff his Council of Wise Men. Wise men, no matter what their birth and no matter where they came from, were welcomed into his Advisory Council.18

Meritocracy is a way of saying that all people are equal in a society. It is what they do that counts, not who their parents are. Equality in Western democracy really means legal equality (all are equal before the law), but meritocracy increases the chances that people are treated equally.19

2. Equality through respect for women (and, by extension, all groups). When Genghis Khan ruled, women in Asia and Europe were not treated as the equals of men. Their male kin usually gave them to others in marriage without their consent, and they had no formal voice in government. This was true in Genghis Khan’s Mongolia also.

But The Secret History of the Mongols gives several examples of women making key decisions, telling Genghis Khan how to live and what to do. For example, according to the legend, Genghis Khan’s ancestress, Alan Ho’a, had five sons who were constantly fighting with each other. One day she gathered them around the hearth fire and gave them each an arrow. She told them to break it, which they did with ease. Then she tied five arrows together and told them to break the bundle. None of them could. She then told her sons, “Brothers who work separately, like a single arrow shaft, can be easily broken, but brothers who stand together against the world, like a bundle of arrows, cannot be broken.”20

When Genghis Khan was a boy, he and his half-brothers were incessantly fighting. His mother, Ho’elun, used the tale of Alan Ho’a to teach her sons the same principle of male kin standing together.21 Genghis Khan lived by this principle all his life.

Genghis Khan’s wife, Borte, was also politically important, for she warned him against a rival who was plotting against him. But most telling is the passage in The Secret History that first describes Borte when she is ten years old. She is described in the same words used to describe the child Temujin, Genghis Khan’s birth name:

. . . he [Genghis Khan’s father] saw a maiden

With light in her face

With fire in her eyes.22

In other words, Genghis Khan’s father sought an intelligent and equal partner for his son, not a brainless beauty.

While these stories are not the same as giving women equality–the vote, a part of government decision-making, equal pay for equal work–they set a baseline for treating women with respect, and they have the potential to lead to equal citizenship or to political equality.

This respect is borne out today. Munhtuya Altangerel, author of the first chapter, says that in Mongolian society today, mothers have a special position: They are seen as sources of wisdom, and people go to their mothers for advice. Many popular songs are about mothers. What interested Tuya when she moved to America was that we have several swear words that incorporate the word “mother.” But in Mongolia, there are no swear words that include mother.  She feels that American English degrades mothers whereas the Mongolian language does not.

Human rights and freedoms

Genghis Khan did not grant his people the basic human rights and freedoms that we Americans enjoy and Mongolians prize so highly. But he did allow a certain amount of freedom of speech or he never would have figured out who the Wise Men were!

He also championed freedom of religion. Although he himself practiced shamanism, he believed that the other religions of the region–Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam–had merit and should be tolerated. He declared that all religions should be respected and that none should be elevated above the others.23

Pastoral nomadism naturally encourages personal freedom. Even in Manchu times, serfs–nomads tied to a prince (a direct descendant of Genghis Khan) or to a noble–were free once they left the compound of their overlord. Although they reported to their overlord several times a year, they were free to do as they pleased in the countryside. 

Freedom of religion is the fourth pillar of democracy, a personal freedom that is also a way of respecting differences.  A democracy is based on equality of all citizens whether or not they are different from the majority. In fact, pluralism–the acceptance of differences and the ability to allow citizens of all groups to participate in government–is a hallmark of democracy.24 Therefore Genghis Khan’s insistence on religious tolerance is not only a mark of respect for human rights and freedoms but it is also a sign of equality among citizens.

Genghis Khan’s True Legacy: Mongolians’ Political Culture

These are Genghis Khan’s democratic principles. The Secret History and historians attest to their practice during Genghis Khan’s rule. But history can be found in books, dead, or it can be found living in the minds of a people. To turn history into political culture, the people alive today have to keep the past in their memory so that they can draw on it when they want. So what if Genghis Khan established democratic principles? Do his people remember these principles? Have Genghis Khan’s democratic principles become part of the political culture of present-day Mongolians? These are some of the questions that inspired my research.

I returned to Mongolia in the summer of 1998 to study Mongolians’ ideas about democracy. Logic would tell us that Mongolia was the least likely country to take to Western democracy. As the second-oldest Communist nation in the world, its people had been taught Communist dogma longer than most other Communist nations. And because it was totally surrounded by other Communist nations (once China became Communist in 1949), Mongolians had the least access to Western ideas for fifty years. Why would this isolated nation readily embrace Western democracy?

I believe the answer lies in people’s remembrance of Genghis Khan and their nomadic lifestyle. I have shown how historians describe democratic principles in Genghis Khan’s reign. But do modern Mongolians know about this part of Genghis Khan? And do his principles form part of their present political culture? 

In the summer of 1998, thirteen Mongolian researchers and I interviewed Mongolians about their ideas of democracy and Genghis Khan. Seven of the researchers worked in Ulaanbaatar.  It was founded in 1639 with the crowning of Zanabazar as Buddhist leader of the Halh Mongols, and it moved around central Mongolia until it settled at its present site in 1855.25 By the end of the nineteenth century, it had developed into a large center for foreign and domestic trade as well as religious (Buddhist) practice.26 Today, almost 29 percent of Mongolia’s total population (2.4 million) lives in Ulaanbaatar.27 Many residents are government workers or elected officials, but the real story of modern Mongolia is the incredible explosion in the number of shops and private enterprises. We watched new businesses open on center city streets every day. Most women work as well as take care of their families (more than 60 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 49 are in the work force).28 This rich mix of people–from all over the country and from foreign countries–makes a lively city.29

Six other researchers interviewed people in Hovd, a town of 27,000 in a setting very similar to the landscape of Phoenix, Arizona.

Located in the eastern portion of Mongolia, Hovd differs from Ulaanbaatar in more than size. Many of the inhabitants are Kazakh Muslims or Oirad Mongols, whereas most people in Ulaanbaatar are Halh Mongols.  Unlike Ulaanbaatar and its surrounding aimag, the majority of Hovd Aimag’s adults are herders–of goat, sheep, camels, cows, and horses.

The capital of Hovd Aimag, Hovd is now a quiet town. However, it used to be the political and economic center of western Mongolia.  In Communist times, industries such as automotive repair, woodworking, and plumbing flourished, and Chinese Communist partners built a regional theatre, TV station, and junior agricultural college there. But by the time I visited in 1998, the theatre sat empty and there was no electricity to run the TV station.  I never saw the factories and no one mentioned them to me. Still, I visited the active open-air market and the branch campus of the National University of Mongolia, where people could take courses in the English language and computer science along with more traditional courses of history, geography, physics, and mathematics.

Most difficult for the inhabitants is the breakdown of the Soviet system, which means that four-story apartment buildings built by the Soviets and Chinese no longer have electricity. In 1998, cold water was pumped into the apartments once a day, just enough to fill the bathtub with water that would be siphoned off for cooking, drinking, and bathing. The old cook stoves had to be replaced with wood- or coal-burning Chinese stoves, and someone in the family had to carry the fuel up the unlit stairs to the apartments. There was no electricity to read or watch TV at night. Instead, people used battery-operated radios and flashlights or kerosene lamps. In the summer, many city-dwellers moved back to gers along the Hovd River, where life was easier than apartment living under these conditions.

The project researchers in Hovd and Ulaanbaatar interviewed 867 people in the two urban centers and surrounding countryside. We worked to get voting-age citizens from all walks of life: men and women; young, middle-aged, and old; herders, government workers, business people, professionals, and students; people with no more than an eighth-grade education to people holding Ph.D.’s and professional degrees; people with different religions and ethnic identities; and people who voted for different political parties in recent democratic elections (1992, 1996, 1997).30

We started by asking Mongolian citizens to “Please list the characteristics that make a country a democracy.” Their answers are in the first column of Table 4.1. The reader will see that their list is not very different from the list made by my American students in my classes, as seen in the second column of Table 4.1.

            The first item on the two lists is exactly the same, for Mongolians and American students name personal freedoms (freedom of speech, religion, movement within the country) as the paramount characteristic of a democratic country. These freedoms are so important to Mongolians, who lost those rights during the Communist years. The details in the two definitions vary somewhat, for Mongolians include in their list of personal freedoms the right to demonstrate and associate with whom they choose, while the Americans name freedom of choice (freedom to make decisions for oneself) and freedom of lifestyle in addition to freedom of speech, religion, and movement. I have included pluralism, the right to freely express different opinions from the government, in this category. Mongolians name it frequently; Americans rarely do.

            The second most important characteristic for Mongolians is the democratic voting process, which is the third on the Americans’ list. But whereas American students put “voting” as the primary characteristic of a democracy, Mongolians specify “multi-party elections.”  In 1996, some Mongolians told me that all citizens voted during Communist times–they had to!  They just had no choice in candidates (Mongolia was a one-party nation then). So while Americans can assume that an election means there is a choice of candidates and issues, Mongolians do not make that assumption. Therefore they write “multi-party elections” rather than “voting.” Perhaps the most significant aspect of voting shared by the United States and Mongolia is the peaceful transfer of power from one political party to the next.

            While Mongolians list human rights as the third most frequently mentioned criterion for democratic status, Americans save this for number 6 on their list. Notice that Mongolians and Americans use different terms here. The former use the current phrase, “human rights,” having heard of its value from international organizations such as the UN since they became a democratic state in 1990. Americans use the phrase, “individual rights,” meaning the right to vote, to the pursuit of happiness, to trial (by jury). Indeed, it appears that Americans do not really distinguish between individual rights and personal freedoms, for they name the right to free speech and religion more than other examples.

It is almost eerie that both Mongolians and Americans name market economy and (related) capitalism as item 4. This suggests that the economic system has become linked so strongly with democracy at the turn of the twenty-first century that they are perceived as inseparable. Note also the slight difference in language. Mongolians use “market economy“ while Americans use “capitalism“ or “market economy.”

Mongolians reserve the fifth slot for rule by law, whereas it is the Americans’ second most mentioned item. While the American students wrote the United States Constitution as a symbol of rule by law, Mongolians never name their constitution. Instead, they focus their responses on the second part of the item, namely the concern that their government and laws are just and fair.

Freedom of the media (“the press”) is next on the Mongolians’ list. It is also on the extended list of American students, as item 14, and so it did not fit onto the printed list.  The concept, however, is very much in the minds of Americans.

The seventh item on the Mongolians’ list is something that would never appear on the Americans’ list: glasnost’. It comes from the late 1980s when the Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Gorbachev tried to save communism from self-destruction by initiating glasnost’ (openness in government instead of the secrecy that had characterized this totalitarian regime for decades) and perestroika, or the restructuring of government. While neither the Soviet Union nor its only president, Gorbachev, survived, the concept of glasnost’ did–in Mongolia as in other former Soviet territories. It suggests that the people have the right to know what their government is doing. It is fitting that the American item in the same position on the list is “government of/by the people,” which is our hallmark of democracy.

 By the way, it is interesting that neither the Mongolians nor the Americans interviewed mentions “government FOR the people”–the true mark of democracy. For if government does not work for the citizens, but citizens work for the government–the few in power, what is the point of having “the people” responsible for (“of/by”) government in the first place?

Mongolians and American students believe that a democratic country treats all people within its borders as equal under the law, no matter what their social, religious, or economic condition may be. This is item 8 for the Mongolians and 9 for the American students.

I can see Mongolians’ pain in many items on their list, which is largely a list of freedoms they lacked during Communist times: freedom of the media, religious freedom, justice in the laws and courts, openness in government (glasnost’). But these items are also ones that many American citizens would recognize as vital to democracy as well.  Notice that none of the items on either list implies the responsibility of citizens to their government and their nation. These come later for both our Mongolian respondents and our American students.

We can summarize Table 4.1 by saying that the basic Western democratic principles are on the Mongolian list. We can conclude from this that Mongolians define a democratic nation in ways recognizable to us. This is all the more interesting because Mongolians had been taught an entirely different definition of democracy when they were part of the Communist bloc. In the spring of 1996, I was walking toward Suhbaatar Square with Hongorzol, an English-language teacher at the National University of Mongolia. She had lived in England, studying English, and was very sophisticated. She said to me, “You know, Paula, we have been a democracy for a long time. The Russians told us we were a democracy in the 1970s and 1980s.”  “Really?” I replied, surprised that she would say this.  “Yes,” she said.  “We were told that we were a democracy because we voted and we all suffered equally. Therefore, we were a democracy even in Communist times!”  What Hongorzol was saying was that there are different ways of defining democracy, and “Communist democracy” was different from Western democracy. 

Western democracy is based on the notion of political democracy. To us, democracy means sharing in our own governance, taking responsibility as citizens for how laws are made and enforced. People are equal under the law. But Communist democracy is economic equality. People are not equal unless they are equal economically–their dignity comes from sharing what they have. This definition can be found right in Karl MarxCommunist Manifesto.31 And it was used in the Soviet satellites, especially in the 1980s when people behind the Iron Curtain heard more and more about democracy in the West and wanted that kind of government also. What is interesting here is that the Mongolians’ list of democratic characteristics gives strong indication that they have switched to the Western definition of democracy within eight years of gaining freedom from Soviet control. There is nothing on the Mongolian list that suggests economic equality–equal distribution of goods–is a characteristic of democracy.

If Mongolians’ ideas of democracy are not linked to Communist democracy any more, are they linked to their ancestor, Genghis Khan?  Or are they ideas they learned from their contact with the West? Many of the democratic principles laid down by Genghis Khan are also found in the minds of the Mongolians we interviewed; that can be seen by comparing the left column of Table 4.1 with the list of Genghis Khan’s democratic principles as related by the historians. But is the fact that all of the principles that appear on Genghis Khan’s list also appear on the modern list coincidence or causality?  We probably will never know for sure.  But we can ask the Mongolians what THEY think it is–coincidence or causality–and get at part of their political culture that way. And that is what we did.

To learn what Mongolians think of Genghis Khan and his contribution to present-day Mongolia, we asked 336 Mongolians in Hovd and Ulaanbaatar: Do you agree that in some sense there were democratic principles practiced in the time of Genghis Khan?  Two hundred eight (61.9 percent) gave Genghis Khan credit for practicing some democratic principles; 63 (18.8 percent) said no (no democratic principles may be found in the time of Genghis Khan); and 65 (19.3 percent) said they do not know.

We then asked 195 Mongolians in the two urban centers: What democratic principles could be borrowed from Genghis Khan’s time for use today?  Their answers generated the items in Table 4.2.

If we compare Table 4.2 with the description of the democratic principles that the historians attribute to Genghis Khan, we will see that the Mongolians we interviewed have the same view of Genghis Khan as the Western and Mongolian historians. It is as if our respondents had read all the history books! This may not surprise Americans or Westerners who do not know Mongolian history, but those of us who have talked with Mongolians know that Genghis Khan was barely taught in school during Communist times. In fact, he was forbidden. Younger people recall that parts of The Secret History were used as examples of great literature in literature class, but it was not used as historical material. Many older people report that they knew about Genghis Khan only through the stories told to them by grandparents and parents in the privacy of their homes or on the wide steppes of Mongolia.

Table 4.3 is a comparison of Tables 4.1 and 4.2, or our respondents’ views of a modern democracy and Genghis Khan’s reign. The table shows that today’s citizens credit Genghis Khan with instituting democratic principles that are very similar to the ones that they think are most important in a modern democracy.  And the table is organized according to the four pillars of democracy used in the beginning of this chapter. These categories give further strength to the argument that the roots of Mongolian democracy are found in Genghis Khan’s reign.

The first pillar of democracy is participatory governance. Table 4.3 illustrates the point that participatory governance may take different forms in each century (consultations with two different groups during Genghis Khan’s time and democratic elections with representative government today), but the basic principle is present in both cases.

The second pillar is rule by law. Both columns place rule by law coupled with a just legal system (laws, courts, and law enforcement) toward the top. In fact, it is the most frequently mentioned item for Genghis Khan’s time.

Equality under the law, the third pillar, may have been honored in the breach more often in Genghis Khan’s time than it is today (the concept is an ideal that is not always attained), but it was institutionalized in Genghis Khan’s time as well as today.

The fourth pillar is government protection of human rights and personal freedoms. We can see that personal freedoms are on both lists even though they are viewed slightly differently.

Our respondents write that a modern democracy must guarantee personal freedoms, which include freedom of speech, religion, and movement within the nation. The respondents to the second question recognize that Genghis Khan did not grant his people the full range of personal freedoms expected today (human rights are not mentioned for his reign), but they know that he honored some of them, as fit his time.

Based on the evidence presented above, it appears that Genghis Khan, or at the very least the people’s ideal of Genghis Khan, forms the basis for a political culture that greatly favors independence and democracy.  Indeed, he is clearly an inspiration for Mongolians’ embrace of the four pillars of a modern democracy.  Mongolians care about the same things that we Americans care about: independence, democratic government, integrity and honesty, and–of course–all of the freedoms that we value so highly: speech, the press, and religion. Combine these values with a love of laughter and family, and we can see that we share many traits with Mongolians. It is not surprising that this American feels right at home in Mongolia.


            The research for this chapter was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and IREX. The author would like to thank the thirteen Mongolian researchers who gathered the data in the summer of 1998, especially Tsetseglen Aduuchin, who guided the entire fieldwork process, and Dr. G. Nyamdavaa who co-directed the project in Hovd. Thanks also to Munhtuya Altangerel, Aviah Cohen, and Jennifer Kobrin for their help in the analysis.

1. Cynthia Crossen, The Rich and How They Got That Way (New York: Crown Business, 2000); Mike Edwards, “Genghis Khan: Lord of the Mongols,” National Geographic 190 (6) (December 1996), 9-37.

2. The term has been translated as Universal or Ocean Ruler in Paul Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 89.

3. Edwards, “Genghis Khan,” 14.

4. Crossen, The Rich, 29-34.

5. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Vintage, 1990), 2: 94-98, 103, 115, 287, 290.

6. Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan, xiv; David Morgan, The Mongols (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 9-14.

7. Morgan, Mongols, 16-27.

8. Francis Woodman Cleaves, The Secret History of the Mongols (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), sect. 139,153-54,189,200; Morgan, Mongols, 61-69; Academy of Sciences MPR, Information Mongolia (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1990), 98-101.

9. Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan, 94; Cleaves, Secret History, sect. 124; Academy of Sciences MPR, Information Mongolia, 100.

10. Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan, 42, 90-92, 150; Academy of Sciences MPR, Information Mongolia, 100.

11. Cleaves, Secret History, sect. 204; Academy of Sciences MPR, Information Mongolia, 100.

12. Participatory government as a pillar of Western democracy is derived from various authors in Sondra Meyers, ed., Democracy is a Discussion, 2 vols. (New London, CT: Connecticut College, 1996-1998).

13. American School of Classical Studies at Athens, The Athenian Citizen (Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1987), 4; S. E. Finer, The History of Government from Earliest Times (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1: 342-343, 362; Charles Williams, personal communication.

14. Morgan, Mongols, 96-99; Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan, 95; Cleaves, Secret History, sect. 203, 209-223.

15. Finer, History of Government, 342.

16. Cleaves, Secret History, sect. 209-223.

17. Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan, 92; Cleaves, Secret History, sect. 203-223.

18. Academy of Sciences MPR, Information Mongolia, 100.

19. Equality in Western democracy is discussed in Meyers, Democracy,1:3-4, 2:27-28.

20. Cleaves, Secret History, sect. 6-9.

21. Ibid., sect. 77-78.

22. Ibid., sect. 62, 66, 82, 149.  This phrase is only used to describe Temujin and Borte.

23. Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan, 197.

24. See discussion in Meyers, Democracy, 2: 2, 6.

25. Alan J. K. Sanders, Historical Dictionary of Mongolia, Asian Historical Dictionaries, 19 (Lantham, MD: Scarecrow, 1996), 207.

26. Academy of Sciences MPR, Information Mongolia, 71.

27. National Statistics Office of Mongolia, Mongolian Statistical Yearbook, 1999 (Ulaanbaatar, 2000), 26.

28. Ibid., 51.

29. See Chapter 1 for a lively description of Ulaanbaatar today.

30. Because I based the research on cognitive anthropological methodology, I used quota sampling, being sure to have at least twenty respondents in each demographic category. Interestingly–or luckily–the demographic composition of our sample closely matched the demographic composition of the nation at large.

31. Karl Marx, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., Robert C. Tucker, ed. (New York: Norton, 1978).

Table 4.1. Mongolians’ vs. American Students’ Lists of Characteristics of a Democratic      Country, in order from most frequently mentioned to least frequently mentioned



1. Personal freedoms (of speech, religion, movement, demonstrations, pluralism, etc.) are guaranteed.


2.  A multi-party system drives the democratic election process and representative (participatory) government.

Rule by law prevails through the Constitution.

3.  Human rights are protected.

A multi-party system drives the democratic election process.

4.  A free-market economy, including open competition and privatization, operates.

Capitalism/market economy organizes the economy.

5.  The rule of law prevails; government, laws, and courts are just/fair.

The system of government is controlled through checks and balances.

6.  Freedom of the media (“press”) is guaranteed.

Individual rights are protected.

7.  Glasnost’ (openness in government and no government corruption) prevails.

Government is of/by the people

8.  All are equal under the law and enjoy equal rights.

Examples: USA, ancient Greece, Rome.

9.  Society is humane, democratic.

All are equal under the law; equal rights guaranteed.


867 Mongolian citizens interviewed (402 from Hovd, 465 from Ulaanbaatar), 1998; 2,831 items listed.  20 undergraduate and graduate students interviewed at the University of Pittsburgh, 1994– all American citizens born and raised in the United States; 149 items listed.

Table 4.2. Mongolians’ Perception of Genghis Khan’s Democratic Principles, in order from most frequently mentioned to least frequently mentioned

1.  Rule by law prevailed; laws/legal system were just, fair, and strict.

2.  All were equal before the law; meritocracy system prevailed.

3.  Leadership (Genghis Khan) was strong, wise, and caring.

4. People revered, respected, and obeyed the government and its laws.     

5.  Participatory democracy existed in the Wise Men’s Council and Great Assembly.  

6.  Personal freedoms (speech, religion), pluralism, and human rights were honored.

7.  The state was strong in reputation, responsibility, power, and influence. It was just/fair.

8.  Genghis Khan united different peoples into one independent nation.

 . . . .

13.  The economy operated under the free-market principle.


195 Mongolian citizens interviewed; 483 items listed.

Table 4.3. Liberal Democracy Today and in the time of Genghis Khan: Respondents’ Perceptions

Liberal Democracy Characteristic

Mongolians’ Perceptions of Today (from Table 4.1)

Mongolians’ Perceptions of Genghis Khan (from Table 4.2)

Participatory government

Multi-party election system; representative government (#2).

Early forms: Wise Men’s Council, Great Assembly (#5).

Rule of law

Rule by law prevails; the laws and courts are just/fair (#3).

Laws/legal system = just, fair, strict (#1).

People revered, respected, obeyed the government, laws (#4).

Equality under the law

All are equal under the law (#8).


All were equal before the law (#2).

Human rights/personal freedoms

Personal freedoms (of speech, religion, movement, choice, etc.) are guaranteed (#1).

Human rights are guaranteed (#5).

Personal freedoms (speech, religion), pluralism, and human rights were honored (#6).


Numbers in parenthesis refer to item number from Tables 3.1 and 3.2.