Mongolia honours China conqueror Kublai Khan on 800th birthday

A man stands next to a statue of Kublai Khan in front of the Parliament House on Sukhbaatar Square in Ulan Bator, Mongolia in this Feb 9, 2015 file photo.
A man stands next to a statue of Kublai Khan in front of the Parliament House on Sukhbaatar Square in Ulan Bator, Mongolia in this Feb 9, 2015 file photo.PHOTO: AFP

ULAN BATOR (AFP) - Mongolia celebrated the 800th birthday of epic conqueror Kublai Khan on Wednesday, a source of intense pride in a country trying to highlight its own history after centuries of Russian and Chinese influence.

A week of nationwide celebrations honouring the 13th-century ruler of the largest contiguous land empire in history culminated in Ulan Bator with costumed dancers and musicians performing beneath a giant statue of his grandfather Genghis.

The commemorations were meant to "honour and value the contribution of Kublai Khan to Mongolian and world history", government minister S. Bayartsogt said earlier.

"There was a time when we had to deny our history. However, the new path of democracy Mongolia chose has enabled Mongolian people to restore our history and understand it." The Mongol Empire reached its greatest extent after Kublai conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty in 1271.

Its armies were known for their strategy, tactics, speed - and brutality in the face of resistance. The siege and destruction of Baghdad in 1258 was notable for the monumental scale of the carnage.

After spending most of the 20th century as a satellite of the Soviet Union, which rejected the public honouring of traditional leaders from the pre-Communist era, figures of the Mongol Empire are experiencing a rebirth in popularity.

"Kublai Khan created the map of modern Asia and made China into a world power," author and Mongol history expert Jack Weatherford told AFP.

"Today's world was shaped by Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan; they were the two most important men of the last thousand years."

The National Museum of Mongolia has been displaying artifacts from the era of Kublai Khan and the Yuan dynasty, with ornate weapons, armour and clothing.

"In Mongolia, Kublai is known as Kublai 'The Wise'," said museum researcher Egiimaa Tseveendorj.

"Genghis Khan is known as a military leader, but Kublai was a king who organised an enormous kingdom, not only by conquering it, but with administration, politics, trade, diplomacy, science, religion and production," she added.

"In the period of Kublai Khan the Silk Road, which facilitated trade with the West, experienced a new era of prosperity."

- My name is Kublai

China also claims Kublai Khan as its own, raising hackles in Mongolia, which is wary of being overshadowed by its giant southern neighbour and biggest trading partner.

The site of medieval Xanadu, which ultimately became the summer capital of the Yuan dynasty and is now in China's Inner Mongolia region, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2012 after an application by Beijing.

"We want to correct history," S. Chuluun, director of Mongolia's Institute of History and Archeology, told a local newspaper.

"It's every Mongolian's duty to inform the world that Xanadu is actually a Mongolian creation."

China is home to twice as many ethnic Mongols as in Mongolia, and some gathered early Wednesday to pay respects at a bronze statue near the Xanadu ruins, known as Shangdu in China.

But Kublai's legacy is more complicated in the country, where Beijing stresses ethnic unity, and there were no official celebrations.

Nowadays Mongolia's citizens are looking for a more personal connection to the once powerful khans.

The latest trend is to name children after past rulers and members of Genghis Khan's royal bloodline.

"In the past this was not popular, but for the last 10 years, many Mongolian children have been given the names of past khans or queens," Egiimaa said.

"I think after this year's celebration, Kublai's name will become very popular for new babies."