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The Genghis Khan-troversy

Genghis Khan…A name synonymous with tyranny and bloodshed. A ruthless warrior, who was said, to have killed nearly a tenth of the global population (at that time). In fact, he killed so many people that nature reclaimed back human inhabited lands, allowing for the increased absorption of carbon in the atmosphere, hence cooling the earth. However, the great Khan became the man he was due to his rough childhood and his growing up years in a rather volatile Mongolian political setting. So, was he really a cruel and heartless human being as perceived by many?

Why was he feared?

People perceived Genghis Khan as a ruthless and brutal leader based on his ways of warfare. This could have been the result of the various techniques employed by Genghis Khan which involved both a psychological as well as a physical, blood-shed warfare.

Psychological Warfare

The specific goal of psychological warfare is to gain an advantage by influencing an opponent’s thoughts and emotions. Genghis Khan used this strategy to instill fear in the people living in the land he intended to conquer.

One such example was how he would have massive objects attached to the back of his military horses so that they created dust storms when running. This created the illusion of Khan’s army being much bigger than it actually was, striking fear in the hearts of his enemies. A simple yet ingenious technique don’t you think?


Genghis Khan wanted to remove threats to his leadership and gain access to land with minimum hindrances. During his expansion of territories, he used brutal tactics such as starving his enemies and taking down cities quickly through a siege. During the onslaught, even children were not spared. They were slaughtered viciously, most of whom had their throats slit, and others drowned in human blood.  The great carnage, left behind by Khan's swift-moving army, was enough to create fear in people to be passed down for generations.

On the Khan-trary

However, was there another side to Genghis Khan? What if it was not his true nature to be like that?  Within this brutal and violent barbarian, there was a young boy who went through much hardship growing up. He could only resort to violence because he had no choice but to protect himself and the people he loved. Furthermore, he did not do anything different from other historically-popular conquerors. It was just that at his time, the Mongolian army’s prowess and efficiency were much greater than their opponents, leading to a far greater kill count. This brings us to the question if Genghis Khan was really evil and cruel as he was depicted and perceived to be by the people.

Upbringing shaped his brutal personality

He was said to be destined to be a great leader right from birth as he was born clutching on to a blood clot in his hand. However, the eldest son of Yesugei, the chief of the Borjigin clan and his wife, Hoelun, did not have the best childhood.

Genghis Khan faced numerous hardships and troubles while growing up in the Mongolian steppes and had a very rough childhood. He saw his father die due to poisoning, got kicked out together with his family by his own tribe, had to kill his step-brother to be the family head and even had to rescue his kidnapped wife from rival tribes. After all these, through marriage and alliances, Genghis Khan managed to have his own followers, tribe and eventually, army.  

All these events in his life and whatever lessons he learned from them could have shaped him to become the brutal, violent and aggressive leader as portrayed by history today.  

Never killed without a reason

It was not within Khan’s interest to kill everybody in his path. If people surrendered to him willingly, there was no reason to kill them. He always gave his opponents a choice. If the opponent was not willing to bow to Genghis’s rule, then the Mongol would not hesitate to destroy him and all his subjects. Don’t you think it was rather fair of him to negotiate before acting? Genghis Khan did not tolerate disloyalty and resentment to his rule. That could probably be attributed to his own experiences of the volatile and cutthroat nature of Mongolian politics. Furthermore, killing millions of people and wiping out entire cities was not just something specific to only Genghis Khan. Other conquerors were also known to have caused devastating damages to cities they tried to conquer. Some were even known to kill people for fun!

He did not believe in torture

Ancient rulers were known to resort to torture techniques to mutilate their enemies in order to extract information or for sadistic entertainment. Roman emperors were known to use animals to ravage their prisoners as well as employ various methods to dismember them. The king who embraced non-violence, King Ashoka, had a torture chamber built for his enemies and prisoners prior to his change. However, Genghis Khan did not believe in torturing his enemies. They were usually given a swift death, which would have been a much better end as compared to being tortured to death.

Tolerant and Flexible

Genghis Khan was very tolerating of other religions and cultures. That was one of the key factors for the success and longevity of his empire. Genghis Khan was a believer of ‘Tengrism’, which was a rather shamanistic form of religion. His religion was flexible and did not discriminate against other religions. He allowed the people of his conquered regions to continue practicing their religion (like Islam or Christianity), as long they did not interfere or oppose his rule. His army itself consisted of soldiers from different religions who were willing to fight for the charismatic Mongolian leader.  This lack of discrimination and acceptance did portray Genghis Khan as a man with a heart rather than the cruel leader he was largely perceived to be.

Since most of the historical records were usually by Western historians, it is not surprising for Genghis Khan to be only portrayed as a ruthless tyrant who oppressed people. However, if that is the case, then why do the Mongolian people revere him so much and elevate him to a god-like status? Could the words of these people have fallen on deaf ears or missed a chance in being recorded as part of historical evidence? Perception differs based on what people choose to believe, so dear reader, what do you choose to believe?