‘Tis The East::
The Assassination of Genghis Khan
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first chapter of this series we recalled theassassination of the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan and began toexplore its effects on literature, the arts, and pop culture inthe centuries that followed. In this segment we’ll delve furtherinto the portrayals of the Khan’s death in art, literature, filmand other media and examine the assassination’s effects on world history.
Literature and film are just two of the mediums which have drawn artistic inspiration from the murder of Genghis Khan; the khan’s assassination has also served as grist for the mill of painters and sculptors seeking dramatic, interesting subjects for their work. From Michaelangelo’s harrowing portrait “The Death Of A Mongol Chieftain” to the Genghis Khan metal sculpture exhibition recently held at the British Museum in London, the khan’s demise has long been a gold mine of inspiration for artists everywhere. Just a partial listing of the painting and sculptural works which have had Genghis Khan as a theme could fill an entire gallery at one of the world’s major art museums.
The oldest known surviving sculpture based on the khan’s assassination is a ceramic figurine dated circa 1231 A.D. and found during an archeological dig in Korea in the late 1950s. It shows the khan in the throes of death, desperately reaching out for help as his life’s blood drains out from his multiple wounds. The identity of the artist remains a mystery to this day, but the sculpture itself has become a Korean cultural icon and occupies a place of honor in Seoul’s largest art museum. Known as “The Dying Warlord”, it draws thousands of visitors every day; since the early 1960s it has been featured prominently on Korean paper currency and postage stamps. It’s also inspired a number of hit songs by Korean pop singers, a number of romantic epics by Korean film directors, and even a popular online role-playing game.
The best-known Genghis Khan-themed sculpture to have been made outside Korea is the marble statue Last Breaths Of A Fallen Tyrant; carved in the mid-1870s by a British sculptor and donated to a New York City art gallery in 1936, Last Breaths portrays the khan lying flat on his back, an uncharacteristic look of regret on his face as his life’s essence ebbs out of the multiple knife wounds scarring his body. Although at the time it was criticized as being absurdly melodramatic in the way the subject was posed, most modern art critics praise the statue as being among the most realistic portrayals of Genghis’ demise made to date by Western sculptors. When the statue was loaned to the Getty Art Museum in Los Angeles for a special exhibition on British sculpture in the spring of 1985, it drew sellout crowds every day for three straight weeks. A smaller version of the statue, cast in bronze, continues to attract onlookers every day at London’s National Gallery.
The oldest-known surviving painting to depict Genghis Khan’s demise is a watercolor dated circa 1229 and preserved in the Tokyo University medieval history archives. Titled “The Slaying Of The Mongol Tyrant”, it was one of the few objets d’art in Japan that managed to emerge from the Second World War undamaged and is now deemed a national treasure by the Japanese people. Since the late 1960s Japan’s monetary system has featured the picture prominently on its 5-yen paper note; a 10-yen coin with the “Tyrant” picture on the reverse side has been minted since 1993.
What might be the most famous painting done in the West about Genghis Khan’s death since 1800 is Vincent Van Gogh’s oil portrait “Murder Of The Khan”, one of the last artworks he created before his tragic suicide in 1890. The original has hung at the Louvre since 1913 and enjoys a popularity among patrons surpassed only by that of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; a duplicate of “Murder” recently sold at auction in New York for a price higher than the gross national product of some entire countries. In the Netherlands T-shirts bearing a likeness of the painting are one of the most popular souvenirs bought by tourists visiting van Gogh’s home town-- and they’re not uncommon among locals either.
“Murder” was the subject of one of the most ingenious smuggling plots in modern history. In 1940, as the Nazi juggernaut was rumbling towards Paris, the senior directorship of the Louvre quietly took down the original painting in the dead of night and replaced with a forged duplicate that so closely resembled the real thing no one even noticed the substitution had been made until the directors themselves revealed it in 1949, four years after the Second World War ended. The painter who created the imitation of van Gogh’s painting was honored by the French government in 1945 and lived very comfortably on a government- arranged pension until his death nearly three decades later. Today the painter’s apartment is a French national landmark. ******
One would have thought that something as dramatic as Genghis Khan’s assassination would have been natural script fodder for TV writers, but surprisingly fictional television productions about the khan’s death are less common than non-fiction ones. In fact, in the first two decades of television’s history as a major broadcast medium, only one serious dramatic production about the khan’s death was mounted-- a 1959 “Playhouse 90” adaptation of an off-Broadway play about a footservant to the khan being accused of having a hand in his master’s demise. It wasn’t until 1972, when BBC-1 aired a two- part miniseries about the khan’s violent life and brutal death, that the television screen started to become a forum for depicting Genghis’ untimely end.
After that point, however, dramatic TV portrayals of the khan’s assassination would come thick and fast. America’s NBC network alone would account for eight such productions during the 1970s. The BBC aired three Genghis-themed teleplays and a docudrama over that same timespan; by 1980 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was in the midst of filming a six-part dramatic miniseries about Genghis Khan’s assassination. In the 1990s HBO and the A&E network would rack up a combined ten Primetime Emmys for their respective interpretations of the khan’s death.
The most recent TV depiction of Genghis Khan’s murder is the 2009 Cinemax miniseries Emperor Of The Steppes-- a five-part event that may have also been one of the goriest such takes on the assassination to be shown to date on any TV network. Broadcast on Cinemax, it portrayed the khan’s demise with a shocking gruesomeness that could have put the bloodiest slasher films to shame. U.S. media watchdog groups protested the miniseries’ depiction of Genghis’ death as unnecessarily gruesome; in Britain the BBC heavily censored the climactic sequence showing the khan’s murder.
Following Genghis Khan’s assassination, the Mongol armies he had once led across the steppes began pulling pack to the borders of their traditional homeland. The Mongol ritual for choosing a new khan was a staggeringly complex one that made the Communist bureaucratic systems of Cold War-era eastern Europe seem straightforward by comparison. As the Mongols were going through this laborious process, their potential victims were preparing to arm themselves against the invasion of their homelands which was bound to happen once a new khan was put in power. When the Mongols finally resumed their campaign to expand their empire beyond their homeland’s traditional boundaries, they found themselves confronted by adversaries noticeably stronger than the ones the khan’s horsemen had been facing at the time Genghis was murdered. After an especially disastrous defeat at the hands of Chinese cavalry forces in 1230, the Mongol armies found themselves irrevocably on the defensive; by 1242 the Mongolian homeland itself was under threat of invasion, an invasion which came the following year and overwhelmed the homeland in a matter of months.
The ancient Mongol kingdom would spend most of the next five and a half centuries under foreign occupation; since Mongolia is situated on the border between Russia and China, it was almost constantly being passed back and forth between those two powers like a football; by the time the American Revolution began in 1775 five separate wars had been fought for the possession of Mongolia and a sixth one was looming. Not once during those five and a half centuries did it occur to anybody at the Czar’s imperial court in St. Petersburg or the Emperor’s entourage at the Forbidden City in Beijing that the Mongolian people just might prefer to run their country themselves. Till the early 19th century, in fact, it was taken for granted by many Russians and Chinese alike that the Mongols weren’t capable of self-government. The legendary Russian empress Catherine the Great is said to have once openly laughed when a visiting foreign diplomat suggested granting the Mongolians at least a modest degree of autonomy in the affairs of their homeland.
The outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century and the expansion of British power in Asia would serve to weaken the grip of Russia and China on the Mongol kingdom, and when Napoleon himself led an invasion of Russia in 1812 the assault would force the Russian army to withdraw many of its occupation troops from Mongolia to shore up its defenses in western Russia. Those withdrawals gave Mongolian nationalists just the opening they’d been looking for to organize an insurrection to recapture their nation’s lost sovereignty. In January of 1813, the Mongolian Rebellion began with a daring cavalry assault on the main Russian command garrison in Ulan Bator; though the attack was repulsed with heavy casualties to the rebel forces, it signaled a sea change in the relationship between the Mongolian people and their foreign occupiers.
The rebellion would last nearly a decade, and no matter how hard the Czar’s troops tried to squash it they couldn’t get a handle on the insurgents or their daring, some might even say reckless, tactics. The guerrilla war ended in August of 1822 with a French-brokered ceasefire pact guaranteeing Mongolia’s independence; Russia would finally grant the newly revived Mongolian state diplomatic recognition in 1829. The Chinese were too busy trying to protect their southern borders to make any serious objections about the pact, and thus the Mongolian kingdom was able to preserve its hard-won independence. By 1850 Mongolia had developed a fairly prosperous agrarian economy, and in the 1860s the country would see its horse breeding legacy achieve renewed prestige abroad as both the Union and Confederate armies sought Mongol horses for their cavalry regiments during the American Civil War. When World War I broke out in 1914, thousands of Mongolian horsemen volunteered for service with the Russian imperial cavalry and earned considerable respect from officers on both sides for their fearlessness under fire and their ability to endure even the harshest weather.
Following the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in 1917 and the creation of the Soviet Union, more Mongolians emigrated to European Russia, this time to fight in the defense of the Bolshevik revolution. They proved themselves to be tough, relentless soldiers in combat with the White armies fighting to overthrow the Communists; Joseph Stalin, a fierce figure in his own right, said the Mongolian horsemen were the most frightening warriors he’d ever met. Stalin was so impressed with their reckless courage and their abilities in the saddle that when the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, he recruited thousands of Mongolians to serve in the Red Army’s cavalry regiments. Those recruits would wreak havoc on Hitler’s timetable for the war on the Eastern Front; at the Battle of Stalingrad in late 1942 and early 1943, a quarter of all the German 6th Army’s casualties in the vicious struggle for the city were sustained at the hands of Mongolian cavalry troops.
In the 1960s Mongolia started to lean more towards the People’s Republic of China, encouraged to do so by promises from Mao Zedong of economic aid to the Mongolian people and by disenchantment with what the younger generation viewed as the compromised nature of the Soviet system. The Cultural Revolution, however, quickly drove Mongolia back into Moscow’s arms and the Ulanbataar government stayed pro-Soviet up until the end of the Cold War. After the Soviet Union dissolved, the Mongolian government initiated a series of political reforms intended to revive Mongolia’s stalled economy and improve ties with the Western powers. Today a diverse coalition administration runs the country and is working on forging stronger trade relations with China, the United States, Russia, and the European Union.
In our next and final chapter, we’ll examine some of the most popular theories regarding the identity of Genghis Khan’s murderer and speculate how the course of world history might have run if the khan hadn’t been murdered.
To Be Continued