Mongolian wrestlers, a symbol of the nation's strength

One of the most extreme examples of cancel culture in history was the scrubbing of Genghis Khan’s memory in Mongolia under the Soviets. Genghis Khan was the founder of the Mongolian empire and ultimately the Mongolian nation, but his image and his name were suppressed during the 70 years that Mongolia was a Soviet satellite.

The most important holiday in the Mongolian calendar is the Naadam Festival, a unique annual celebration of Mongolian unity and the birth of the nation, held in mid-July.

The Naadam games consist of the “three sports of men”, archery, and horse racing and the highlight, wrestling. These sports mimic the warrior skills which made Genghis Khan’s army so dominant 800 years ago. The games were first celebrated in 1206 at his behest.

The empire built by Genghis Khan expanded until it became one of the largest land empires in history. It then declined and eventually fell under the rule of the Qing dynasty of China. Mongolia declared its independence from China after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. The country exchanged mutual recognition with Tibet and existed for a time as a theocracy on the Tibetan model under the Bogd Khan.

In 1921, the communist Mongolian People’s Party, supported by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), took control of the government, allowing the Bogd Khan to remain as titular head of government until his death in 1924 under somewhat mysterious circumstances. That same year the Naadam festival was adopted as Mongolia’s National Day and as a celebration of its independence from China.

Under the Soviets, Genghis Khan imagery was banished from the Naadam festivities. Instead, the nation was guided to accept new communist heroes like Khorloogiin Choibalsan, who rose to power in 1928, and Colonel Sukhbaatar, a hero of the revolution. The Russians promoted the idealisation of Sukhbatar because he lead Mongolian armies alongside Russian troops fighting China. For the Russians these two symbolised the Soviet-Mongolian relationship and both men were commemorated at the central square of the the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, Sukhbaatar Square. The country would remain a Soviet satellite for nearly 70 years.

An entrepreneur named named Enkhbatin, from Ulaanbaatar, commented: “During that time we celebrated Naadam but we dared not talk about Genghis Khan. Everyone was spying on everyone. And they would call and report you.” When a senior banker who was asked if Mongolians were allowed to talk about Genghis Khan during Soviet times, he replied: “How could we talk about something we didn’t know about. They never taught us that in school.”

The USSR had a number of reasons for suppressing Mongolia’s hero. The Russians had a long and violent history with Genghis Khan. In the 13th century Genghis Khan invaded the Buryat Republic, now part of Russia, to rescue his bride who had been kidnapped by the Merkit people. In that raid, the Mongolians killed countless Russians, laying waste to dwellings, cities, castles and land.

A later Mongol army invaded and decimated the principality which today is called Kiev. It took until the 17th century for the Russians to finally drive the Mongols out of Russia. Russian school children are still taught that Genghis Khan was an evil invader who brought hardship and destruction to Russia. However, in the Buryat Republic, home to over 400,000 Buryat people who share a number of cultural features with Mongolians, he has always been a folk hero.

Mongolia was never actually a part of the Soviet Union, but one of the reasons why the USSR may have repressed the Genghis Khan imagery was because it did not want Mongolians feeling proud or independent. In 1962 the Mongolians had hoped to celebrate the 800th anniversary of his birth with a public event and commemorative postage stamps, but the Soviets quashed the idea, calling Genghis Khan a “reactionary” whose “Tartar-Mongol yoke” had caused great suffering in Russia.  Consequently the event was cancelled. Some experts go so far as to say that the very name Genghis Khan was forbidden under the Russians.

With the fall of the Soviet Union the Russians abandoned Mongolia leaving the Mongolian People’ Party in charge. In January, 1990, pro-democracy protesters began gathering in Sükhbaatar Square, many carrying banners of Genghis Khan. The country underwent a peaceful transition to democracy and capitalism and regained its hero, Genghis Khan.

Since 1990 Genghis Khan imagery and references have played a larger part in both daily life and Naadam. The national airport was renamed Chinggis Khaan International Airport (Chinggis being one of the traditional spellings for Genghis). A prominent hotel is the Chinggis Khan Hotel. Chinggis Khan beer is extremely popular. Additionally, private tour companies and product manufacturers have all used the name for their branding. A prominent street, which runs through Ulaanbaatar to the National Sports Stadium where Naadam is held is called Chinggis Avenue, formerly Lenin Avenue.

The Government eventually passed legislation limiting the use of the name by private companies, but the Government itself still employs the memory of Genghis Khan as a national, unifying symbol. Large statues of Genghis Khan, his son Ögedei Khan and Kublai Khan were erected on Sükhbaatar Square in front of the Government Palace.

At the 2006 Naadam, Mongolia celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Mongolian Empire and the glory of Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan imagery played even more heavily in that year’s Naadam and has remained prominent each year since. Every year, the Naadam ceremony opens with a military honor guard transporting the white standard of Genghis Khan, called the State White Standards or Tug Sulde, to the National Sports Stadium.

According to “The Secret History of the Mongols” (the most important and oldest medieval Mongolian text), the Tug Sulde stood in front of the ger (yurt) of Genghis Khan. After the transition to democracy, the white of the Tug Sulde replaced the communist red flags which had once adorned the National Sports Stadium. The colour white is associated with the Great Khan. Consequently, the president walks on a carpet of white felt when he gives his opening speech.

For the nation, Genghis Khan represents a force for good, and serves as a symbol of national power and unity.

The end of the Soviet era restored Mongolia’s relationship with Genghis Khan. With the wave of national pride came democracy, improved economic conditions, and freedom to exercise the Mongolian culture. All of this suggests that it’s hard, if not impossible, to “cancel” an authentic national hero — no matter how unpopular he may be in other countries.

The more than four million Mongolians living across the border in China’s Inner Mongolia are still living in a “cancel culture” which denies them the most basic political freedoms. Recent acts aimed at suppressing the Mongolian culture include a teacher being investigated for displaying the Mongolian flag in a Mongolian studies class, an end to bi-lingual education in some of the local schools, and the jailing of an ethnic Mongolian professor who published a book about Chinese government repression against ethnic Mongolians.

The rebirth of Genghis Khan imagery in Mongolia shows that the great Mongol culture is still strong — strong enough to withstand even a mighty power like the USSR and 70 years of attempts to erase it.

Antonio Graceffo

Antonio Graceffo

Dr. Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China MBA, is a China economist, the author of Beyond the Belt and Road: China's Global Expansion and The Wrestler's Dissertation. He is based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.