Military History Genghis Khan
David Curtis Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 January 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0154


Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) was one of the greatest conquerors and empire builders in world history. During his lifetime, he unified pastoral nomadic peoples under his rule and then launched devastating attacks against sedentary civilizations in northern China, Inner Asia, Islamic Central Asia, the Middle East, and Russia. His successors continued attacking these regions and eventually conquered them, establishing the Golden Horde over Russia, the Il Khanate over Persia, the Chagadai Khanate over Central Asia, and the Yuan Dynasty over China. Chinggis Khan unified the Mongol people, brought peace to the steppes, founded the most extensive land empire the world has ever known (even larger than the former Soviet Union), and reopened overland trade and traffic from the Levant to the Yellow Sea. His grandson and third successor, Khubilai Khan, defined much of China’s current territorial extent and provincial boundaries. Chinggis Khan used terror as a weapon and had a ruthlessly ferocious vindictive streak; even in the early 21st century, he still deserves his general historical reputation for spectacular brutality and wanton destructiveness toward any person or polity that resisted or betrayed him. (He loved loyalty and detested betrayal with equal parts passion, whether toward himself or others.) Chinggis Khan’s place in history will probably always be controversial and debatable. Like many complex figures in history, he continues to be viewed with a combination of horror, awe, and ambivalence. For Mongols everywhere, he is their nonpareil national hero and unifier. The Chinese generally abhor him and his successors for their brutal conquest of China, even while crediting them for reunifying all of historically Chinese territory for the first time in over 350 years. Russia’s view of him and his successors in the Golden Horde is mostly negative, and the Russians will likely never cease remembering their period of the “Tartar [Mongol] yoke” with bitterness. As Timothy May writes, “The Mongol Empire is world history” (May 2012, cited under Mongol Military, p. 7) To study adequately the life of Chinggis Khan and the Mongol World Empire he founded, one must know several primary source languages (mainly Chinese, Persian, Russian, Latin, and to some extent Mongolian) and several more (English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, and Turkish) to read secondary studies. There can be no stronger testament to the power, extent, and multi-ethnic character of the empire of Chinggis Khan and his successors than the languages required to study it.

The Life and Conquests of Chinggis Khan

Chinggis Khan (originally named Temüjin) was born in the steppes region north of China sometime during the mid-12th century. During his childhood, his father, a tribal chieftain, was poisoned to death by his enemies, and thereafter Temüjin’s tribe abandoned him along with his mother and brothers. A lesser man and mother might have perished alone on the steppes, but the family survived by dint of his mother’s wisdom, an element of destiny or luck, and Temüjin’s own charisma, political acumen, and innate leadership qualities. Temüjin’s basic approach was to ally with the enemies of his tribal enemies, starting on a small scale at first and then allying in succession with larger tribes until, in 1206, he emerged as Chinggis Khan, the grand khan of all pastoral nomads north of China. After 1206 he began attacking and securing the submissions of surrounding sedentary civilizations, starting with the Tangut state of Xia in 1206 and then the Jurchen state of Jin in northern China in 1211. His armies then moved deep into Central Asia and by 1220 had destroyed and conquered the cities in Islamic Khwarezmia (modern Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan). After this he had Mongol lieutenants and their forces cross the Caucasus and into Russia on reconnaissance raids, where they killed six Russian princes. In 1227, now old and on his way back to Mongolia, he attacked and destroyed Xia and its royal family. He died later that year and was buried in a location that was deliberately and carefully kept secret and is still unknown today, despite fairly concerted efforts to locate it during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

  • Biran, Michal. Chinggis Khan. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007.

    A brief and readable biography of the great khan for general readers interested primarily in Chinggis Khan’s importance in the Islamic world. Biran is a prominent and highly gifted polyglot who reads original historical documents in Chinese, Persian, and Russian. This is a brief but very solid work.

  • Dunnell, Ruth W. Chinggis Khan: World Conqueror. Boston: Longman, 2010.

    Brief but serious and useful look at Chinggis Khan’s life and legacy by a noted Sinologist and Tangut specialist.

  • Fitzhugh, William W., Morris Rossabi, and William Honeychurch, eds. Genghis Khan and the Mongolian Empire. Washington, DC: Mongolian Preservation Foundation, 2009.

    An edited volume of brief articles on many disparate subjects, many of them archaeological. Among the many topics covered are the search for Chinggis Khan’s tomb, his religion and genetic legacy, and the Mongol invasion of Japan. Its articles contain useful biographical information.

  • Martin, H. Desmond. The Rise of Chingis Khan and His Conquest of North China. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1950.

    This distinguished study of Chinggis Khan draws the story of the Great Khan’s life from Chinese-language primary sources. There are separate chapters on Chinggis’s army; his youth; his attacks on western Xia and the Jurchen Jin; his conquest of Manchuria; Mukhali, his general; and his legacy and greatness. This work is mainly a detailed account of the khan’s campaigns and conquests in northern China.

  • Ratchnevsky, Paul. Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy. Translated and edited by T. N. Haining. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

    This is probably the granddaddy of all serious biographies of Chinggis Khan in English. Ratchnevsky uses primary sources in Chinese, Persian, and Russian and, of course, reads all of the relevant European languages.

  • Rogers, Leland Liu, trans. The Golden Summary of Činggis Qaγan. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2009.

    A 17th-century literary biography, the Činggis Qaγan-u Altan Tobči is widely regarded among the Mongols as the second great work on Chinggis Khan, after The Secret History (indeed, it contains considerable overlap with that source). It contains a mythical genealogy of the ancestors of Chinggis Khan, a brief chronicle of Yuan history in China, and several patently fanciful passages.

  • Ssanang Ssetsen, Chungtaidschi. The Bejewelled Summary of the Origin of Khans: A History of the Eastern Mongols to 1662. Translated by John Krueger. Occasional Papers (Mongolia Society) 2. Bloomington, IN: Mongolia Society, 1967.

    This 17th-century literary chronicle by Ssanang Ssetsen is a more mythical and fanciful history of Chinggis Khan than either The Secret History or the Altan Tobči. Several editions and translations of it exist, including a later one by Krueger with Igor de Rachewiltz.

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