“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Featured Synopsis

Title: Legend of Mongolia (蒙古往事)
Language: Chinese
Author: Ran Ping (冉平)
Publisher: New Star Press (新星出版社)
Contact: Jackie Huang (jhuang@nurnberg.com.cn), Andrew Nurnberg Associates

Legend of Mongolia is a fictionalized biography of Genghis Khan, the leader who united the fiercely independent tribes known today as the Mongols, thanks to his iron resolve, military savvy, shrewd alliances, and willingness to shed blood.

Written mainly in Chinese prose, the book is peppered with original poems by the author, Mongolian words, and citations from an enigmatic 14th-century work, Secret History of the Mongols. What emerges is a stark and personal view of Temüjin, the man who became the Khan of Khans, as envisaged by writer Ran Ping.

A Han Chinese who neither speaks nor reads Mongolian, the author has arguably molded the very image of Genghis Khan among contemporary Chinese through a TV series based on his screenplays (“Genghis Khan,” 26 episodes, 1991), the script for an award-winning movie (“Genghis Khan and his Mother,” 1997), and more recently this popular novel, Legend of Mongolia, short-listed for the Mao Dun Literary Prize in 2008.

The saga proceeds chronologically from the union of Temüjin’s parents (Yesügei kidnaps the beautiful Hoelun), to Temüjin’s eventual designation as Genghis Khan, undisputed leader of the Mongol Empire. Detailed descriptions of key factual events in Temüjin’s lifetime (1162-1227) form the backbone of the work, and a host of characters (33) and feuding tribes and clans make their appearance, including the Naiman, Merkit, Tatar, Kerait and Onggirat.

Temüjin’s gradual concentration of power in his own hands over several decades of bloody battles with competing tribes and clans is a constant. In contrast to most other fictional and historical works that highlight Genghis Khan’s successful military campaigns further afield, like those against the Jin Dynasty in China and the Khwarezmid Empire to the West, Ran Ping focuses almost entirely on conflicts between Mongolian tribes.

In fact, the lack of contemporary written records means that any biography of Genghis Khan necessitates considerable artistic interpretation. The only still-extant document about Genghis Khan’s rise and reign is the Secret History of the Mongols, and it is a transliteration from the Mongolian into Chinese characters; the original has been lost.

To add a gloss of historical veracity to the work, Ran Ping frequently quotes from the 282-chapter Secret History of the Mongols. Some 25 Mongolian terms, rendered in Chinese with brief footnotes 中文链接, also add a tad of exotic flavoring to the narration.

Legend of Mongolia is essentially a “psycho-biography” of Genghis Khan played out against the backdrop of an almost endless series of bloody campaigns against tribes and leaders who are the object of Temüjin’s enmity. Along the way, we learn how he evolves into a devoted husband yet at times paranoid father, a cunning military strategist who can learn from a crushing defeat, a prescient leader who orders the creation of a Mongolian script, and the determined if violent unifier of the proto-Mongolian tribes.

The tale is recounted by an omniscient narrator, but the sole characters whose innermost thoughts are detailed are those of Temüjin and his childhood blood-brother (anda) and life-long political and military rival, Jamuka.

What may appear to our eyes as stark, even primitive concepts of fate, revenge, manhood and loyalty to a strict code of ethics are the motifs that drive Ran Ping’s Genghis Khan.

Mongol Shamanism and belief in Tengri (the “sky god”) and fate figure prominently throughout the novel. Temüjin is born with “a blood clot grasped in his hand,” a traditional sign of future greatness. Genghis Khan frequently consults his Shaman Kuokuochu before taking key decisions, and it is Kuokuochu who informs him that Tengri has decreed that it is Jamuka’s destiny to die at the hands of Genghis Khan.

Revenge is a primary motivator for Genghis Khan throughout his lifetime: his first military campaign against the Tayichi’ud clan is to avenge the way its leader Talihutai abandoned Hoelun and her family after Yesügei’s death. Temüjin annihilates the Tatar almost 30 years after his father is poisoned by a Tatar. “The desire for revenge is unrelated to time,” Temüjin thinks to himself. “It does not decay; as long as it remains in one’s heart, it is fresh.”

For Genghis Khan, manhood means being honest with oneself. Yesügei takes Temüjin to visit the Onggirat clan in search of a bride for his son. At night, wolves encircle their camp. Is Temüjin afraid? He denies it. “Son, you needn’t be ashamed of your fear,” remarks Yesügei. “A man incapable of fear is not a genuine bator (hero).”

And a real man is obligated to protect his reputation. When Temüjin’s wife is kidnapped by Tuotuo, leader of the Merkit, Hoelun immediately informs her son what must be done. “Temüjin, I tell you: unless you take back your wife, you cannot walk upright on the grasslands. Your brothers, companions, the common people—no-one will have confidence in you.”

The historical importance of Genghis Khan’s exploits aside, if there is any single theme in the novel that compels the reader to continue reading—battle after battle—it is likely the diabolical relationship between Genghis Khan and his childhood friend and anda, Jamuka.

Historically speaking, Jamuka and Temüjin were members of different Mongol tribes who eventually became deadly competitors for the title of Khan. But Ran Ping’s interpretation of their competition is a fascinating one. He paints a portrait of two intimate friends who became sworn blood brothers when still children, and then throughout their adulthood—despite frequently warring against one another—do their utmost to maintain the anda’s strict code of ethics.

This contradiction is at the heart of the novel, and makes for some of the most compelling insights into the mindset of Genghis Khan and his lifetime enemy. Each passionately desires to eliminate the other in order to achieve maximum political power, but each is also unwilling to do so in an underhanded manner.

Both Temüjin and Jamuka suffer emotionally from their estrangement, but it is their destiny. When a seeming misunderstanding first drives Temüjin to part ways with his childhood friend, he consults his Shaman. “Am I fated to become enemies with my anda, say you?” “It is Tengri's wish that I say so,” replies the Shaman.

Even just prior to the famous “Battle of 13 Wings” when Jamuka is certain of victory over his Temüjin, Jamuka remains loyal to him in a strange way. “My poor anda… if you die in battle, I will personally bury you on the banks of the Onon River. If anyone betrays you, I will put him to death for you. Any honor that comes to me shall be yours as well.”

In the end, Jamuka is betrayed by his companions and delivered bound to Temüjin. The first thing Temüjin does is execute those who have deceived his blood-brother, for he abhors betrayal. Jamuka requests his own death, for he knows that there can be only one sun over the Mongolian sky, and Temüjin honors his request with a traditional execution in which not a drop of Jamuka’s blood is spilt.