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7.8.2 Watercolor of Genghis Khan

Ink and colour on textile based on an original Chinese painting with green brocade surround.

unknown, ca. 14th century
British Museum

Watercolour of Genghis Khan based on an original Chinese painting with green brocade surround, unknown date. © The Trustees of the British Museum. 1990,1020,0.14.

Many nomadic groups lived on the Eurasian steppe. They spoke various languages and had their own religious beliefs and leaders. Families formed clans in which everyone was related to one another, and the clans formed larger groups, under the leadership of the strongest clan. They often fought against other clans and groups and raided settled lands around them. In 1162 a boy named Temujin was born on the Mongolian plains near Lake Baikal. Temujin's father was from a royal clan, but he was poisoned by an enemy when Temujin was nine. Temujin spent his teenage years fighting clan rivals in order to survive, until he became the leader of his clan and then the leader of all the Mongols. Temujin led the Mongols to defeat the other groups of nomads and united them under his rule. He made men of different clans fight side by side, and he would not allow them to fight each other any longer. When he became leader of all the nomadic groups in 1206, he was given the title Chinggis Khan. Next, Chinggis Khan led the Mongols to conquer neighboring peoples. Chinggis Khan was a genius at military strategy and won almost every battle, even against much larger armies. How did Chinggis Khan make the Mongols more powerful than they had been before? This portrait of Chinggis Khan is a copy of a Chinese painting from the fourteenth century. Compare his appearance and dress in this Chinese painting with the appearance and dress of his ancestor Qabul Khan, shown in Source 5, and the Mongols, shown in Source 4.

Chinggis Khan, born Temujin (1162 – 1227), was one of the most famous and successful conquerors and strategists in history. Persecuted as a child, he defeated his rivals and consolidated the nomadic groups, creating a unified Mongolia. Student answers will vary, but they could emphasize Chinggis's ability to unite and organize previously divided people as well as his talent for military strategy. Chinggis Khan used the Mongol archery and horsemanship skills described in Source 1 to create an unbeatable cavalry, which he then led on campaigns not only to raid but also to conquer states and empires. He and his successors created the largest contiguous land empire that has ever existed, spanning from the Pacific Ocean to the Adriatic Sea, and established the Pax Mongolica across that area. His grandson Kublai Khan conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty there. Since the Chinese portrait was painted more than a century after Chinggis's death, it is not his likeness, but rather a representation of him following the traditions of Chinese portraits. Chinggis appears in a robe like a Chinese scholar's robe. His features are Chinese, especially the wispy beard, which to the Chinese was a sign of an older intellectual scholar official. Have students closely compare the differences between this and the Mughal portrait in Source 5 and the European illustration in Source 4.