More has been written about Chinggis Khan than perhaps any
figure in Asian history, but much of this has been misleading,
inaccurate, or prejudicial. Many Westerners accept the stereotype
of Chinggis as a barbaric plunderer intent on maiming, slaughtering,
and destroying other peoples and civilizations. To the Mongols,
however, Chinggis Khan is a great national hero who united
all the Mongol tribes and carved out the largest contiguous
land empire in world history. And according to this latter
view, Chinggis and his descendants promoted frequent and extended
contacts among the civilizations of Europe and Asia, ushering
in an era of extraordinary interaction of goods, ideas, religions,
Often based on secondary accounts and myths that cannot be
attested, these divergent views usually bear scant relation
to what we find in the limited primary sources on Chinggis
Khan that have survived to this day. Many Westerners are unaware,
for instance, that "Chinggis Khan" is a title and
that his birth name was Temujin. In addition, no contemporaneous
portrait of Chinggis Khan has survived in any painting or
in any other visual media.
Surprisingly few reliable accounts about Chinggis Khan have
been discovered. The
Secret History of the Mongols is one that presents
a contemporaneous Mongol perspective. The author (or authors)
are anonymous, and the date of the work's completion
is unknown, but it is certainly a 13th-century work and offers,
together with self-serving myths, the most complete account
of Chinggis's life and career.
The Persian historian and official Ala-ad-Din Ata-Malik
Juvaini (1226?-1283), who served at the Mongol court in
West Asia, wrote the best description
of Chinggis's campaigns. His work is generally judicious
it is (in his own words) "on the one hand, [a]
candid recital of Mongol atrocities, [a] lament for the extinction
of learning, [a] thinly veiled criticism of the conquerors
and ... [an] open admiration of their vanquished opponents;
and on the other hand, [in] praise of Mongol institutions
and Mongol rulers and [a] justification of the invasion as
an act of divine grace."
Chinggis also invited a Daoist sage named Changchun
to accompany him on his campaigns to Central Asia, and he
wrote a fine, first-hand
description of his Mongol patron that yields fascinating
insights into his personality.
The best modern work on Chinggis Khan is Genghis
Khan: His Life and Legacy by Paul Ratchnevsky, trans.
by Thomas Haining (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).