ANU Students in Mongolia 2018. Post No. 2 ‘Reading Between the Lines’

Reading Between the Lines: The Adoption of Cyrillic and the Continued Role of the Traditional Mongolian Script

By Rebecca Rich

I was recently fortunate enough to participate in the ANU’s second iteration of the Modern Mongolia course, a winter-based study tour which saw sixteen students delve into a wide range of topics impacting Mongolia today. Throughout our time in Mongolia we also dipped our toes into the Mongolian language. Under the tutelage of Dr Bat-Ireedui, one of the writers of the Lonely Planet’s Mongolian Phrasebook and Dictionary,[i] we learnt some basic phrases and tackled the Cyrillic script. During these lessons it occurred to me that upon first arriving in the country it would be easy to mistakenly assume that Mongolia has always utilised this alphabet in written communications. Once you scratch the surface, however, and look beyond the Cyrillic coating on the buildings and menus within the city you will find that Mongolia did not always adopt this script and that the change to Cyrillic is rooted in Mongolia’s political past.

The Traditional Mongolian script as displayed at the Genghis Khan Statue Complex. Photo: Rebecca Rich.

First originating in the 12th century, the Mongolian script is comprised of 26 letters consisting of seven vowels, two diphthongs and 17 consonants. The script is a vertical one and is written from left to right, derived from the Uighur alphabet and linked to the Tibetan script.[ii] Following the formation of the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR) in 1924 and under the influence of the Soviet Union, the MPR successfully and officially adopted the Cyrillic script in the 1940s.[iii]

Over the course of several lectures we heard of the many detriments of Soviet influence in Mongolia during the period of the MPR; however, one of the main benefits that was reiterated throughout these lectures was the literacy rate of nigh on 100 percent. Through this lens it is easy to see that although the Soviet Era severely limited the political freedoms of the people, education of the expanding population was a focal point and it greatly improved during this time. For this reason Mongolians still harbour feelings of gratitude and view the period when the country was a satellite state of the Soviet Union with mixed feelings.

Following the democratic revolution in Mongolia during the early 1990s and the rise of the sovereign state now simply called Mongolia, it was debated in parliament whether Mongolia would dispose of Cyrillic and readopt the Traditional Mongolian script to echo the dissolution of the MPR. However, this ideology was short lived as it would cause a large portion of the population to become illiterate overnight, untenable for a country that prides itself on its literacy rate.[iv] Furthermore, due to the recent adoption of the Cyrillic script it is largely phonemic: that is the written script represents the sounds of the spoken language. Albeit similar to the development of English, the Mongolian language has adapted over the centuries—with one letter representing several vowel or consonant sounds—making mastery of the Mongolian script much more difficult than Cyrillic.

Although the Cyrillic script is adopted throughout the country, in parts of central Mongolia, as well as within the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, the Traditional Mongolian script—also known as the Old Mongol script—is still utilised as the main script for writing in Mongolian. Furthermore, after the democratic revolution, the script became a compulsory subject in schools and its popularity has been steadily increasing. It remains to be seen whether or not the traditional script will play a larger and more official part in everyday Mongolian life in the future, but I believe it is fair to say that even if Cyrillic continues to be used for practical purposes, with the traditional script so closely tied to Mongolian identity it will certainly not be rendered obsolete.

 

Road sign with Cyrillic script.

[i] Bat-Ireedui, Jantsan, et al. 2014. Mongolian: Phrasebook & Dictionary. Lonely Planet.

[ii] “Mongolian Alphabet.” Encyclopædia Britannica Accessed 24 October, 2016. www.britannica.com/topic/Mongolian-alphabet.

[iii] Yukiyasu, A. 2006. “Integration and Separation of ‘Language’: Language Policies of Mongolian Peoples in the USSR and Mongolia, 1920–1940.” Reconstruction and Interaction of Slavic Eurasia and its Neighboring Worlds, Osamu, L. and Tomohiko U. (eds.) Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University, pp. 309–34, http://srch.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/coe21/publish/no10_ses/11_arai.pdf.

[iv] Franck, B. 2010. “Sounds and Scripts of Modernity: Language Ideologies and Practices in Contemporary Mongolia.” Inner Asia 12(2): 231–52.

ANU Students in Mongolia: Post No. 3 ‘Kharkhorin or Karakorum’

Kharhorin or Karakorum

By Abhijeet Swami

Since the 1990’s there has been discussion to shift the capital of Mongolia to Kharkhorin from the current over-polluted capital of Ulaanbaatar. Historically, Kharkhorin was the centre of empires that had a significant impact across Eurasia.

The plain on which Kharkhorin (earlier Karakorum) is situated extends 30 kilometers or more between two east-west running ridges. No landform obstructs the sun as it travels along its length. The Orkhon river follows the base of mountains to the north. It is summer and the grass is plentiful. Availability of grass, water and space made the Orkhon valley an appropriate site for the encampment of an army, or for the establishment of a large city. It is not surprising that this valley is a place of ceremonial significance and that Mongols and nomadic leaders desired capital cities and empires to be built there.

Southern bank of the Orkhon and floodplain. Photo: Abhijeet Swami.

Turkic people first established a tradition of rule from this valley in the early 8th Century. Mortuary monuments to the Turkic leader Bilge Khaghan and his younger brother and commander Kül Tegin were found about a ‘day’s ride on horseback’ north of the ruins of Karakorum’.[i] Uighurs established the next empire (744-840) in the region and their capital, Khar Balgas, was also less than a day’s ride on horseback from Kharkhorin.

Kharkhorin became an imperial city in the second half of the 13th Century.[ii] Permanent buildings were established around 1235 and did not cease being built until the 1250’s. For longer than a decade, 1500 workers were building the city walls, until they were dismissed by Mongke Khan in 1251, who then ‘resettled’ 500 craftsmen families to build a palace.[iii] When Friar William arrived from France in 1254, although he was not impressed by the dimensions of the city or the palace, he saw twelve temples devoted to the faiths of different peoples, two mosques, and a church; as well as grain, sheep and goats, cattle and wagons, and horses being sold at the four gates of the city.[iv] The city became a centre of art production, where ceramic, metal, glass, wood, bone and birchbark objects were produced by artisans from around the empire for use and exchange.

But it was not easy to maintain the city in a place of savage winters and vast distances: freezing and thawing of the ground damaged infrastructure; raw material had to be imported from the far reaches of the empire; and the climate was not suitable for growing sufficient food. Indeed, Ogedei Khan issued a Yasa, which commanded that 500 wagonloads of food and drink should arrive at Kharkhorin every day.[v] This Yasa was a source of grief to generations of oxen, who pulled these big wagons from northern China.

Kharkhorin was destroyed by Ming troops in either 1380 or 1388 after lasting through violent sieges during the intervening years.[vi] Since then floods and rains have moved the earth so that the remnant city is now entirely under ground. When I visit, it is the time when the rains fall but I can see it is still possible to wade across the river. Widespread debris on the south bank and the high-water mark on the north bank indicate that the river can rapidly become deep and fast flowing. Four granite stone turtles, as foundation stones, used to face towards the cardinal directions. One of these turtles survives, as it was moved onto the mountain above Kharkhorin. An information board next to this turtle advises that the turtles were placed there to ensure a long and peaceful life for the city, to seek protection from floods and protection against invading enemies.

Turtle at Kharkhorin. Photo: Einalem (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Moving the capital from Ulaanabaatar to Kharkhorin would be an expression of Mongolian nationalism, while it would also relieve congestion and pollution in the current capital of Ulaanbaatar. Judging by the many permanent structures built on the floodplain, flooding may have become less of a problem today, perhaps due to climate change.[vii] From experience with the worsening conditions in Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts, the Mongolian government could plan to better accommodate future migrants in the city from the surrounding countryside. National debt and a small economy, however, may not allow construction of a socially-inclusive city. Development of Kharkhorin into the capital city at a future date is a possibility, given that it is a suitable place for settlement and connected to Ulaanbaatar by a sealed road. Yet Kharkhorin’s historic legacy alone may not be sufficient to draw migrants, or employment as infrastructure and maintenance will require significant government investment.

 

[i] Skaff, J.K. and Honeychurch, W. 2009. ‘Empire building before the Mongols: legacies of the Turks and Uyghurs’, In W.W. Fitzhugh, M. Rossabi & W. Honeychurch (eds.) Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire, The Mongolian Preservation Foundation and Smithsonian Institution, Seattle, pp. 84-89.

[ii] Erdenebat, U. and Pohl, E. 2009. ‘The crossroads in Khara Khorum: excavations at the center of the Mongol empire’, In W.W. Fitzhugh, M. Rossabi & W. Honeychurch (eds.) Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire, The Mongolian Preservation Foundation and Smithsonian Institution, Seattle, pp. 136-145.

[iii] Pohl, E. 2010. ‘The excavations in the craftsmen-quarter of Karakorum (KAR-2) between 2000 and 2005- stratigraphy and architecture’, In J. Bemmann, U. Erdenebat & E. Pohl (eds.), Mongolian-German Karakorum expedition, Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden, pp. 63-136.

[iv] Rubruck, W. 1990. [13th Century], The mission of Friar William of Rubruck: his journey to the court of the Great Khan Mongke 1253- 1255, trans. P. Jackson, The Hakluyt Society, London, p. 221.

[v] Al-Din, R 1971, The successors of Genghis Khan, trans. J A Boyle, Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 62-63.

[vi] Pohl 2010, pp. 132-134.

[vii] Already Mongolia has warmed by 2.14 degrees Celcius, water bodies have become smaller or have disappeared and there were 57 days of dust storms in 2007, compared to 18 such days in 1960 (Ministry of Environment, nd, Climate change in Mongolia: outputs from GCM, Government of Japan, viewed 6 September 2018, https://www.env.go.jp/earth/ondanka/pamph_gcm/gcm_mongolia_en.pdf).

ANU Students in Mongolia: Post No. 2 ‘Mongolian Horse Racing’

Mongolian Horse Racing: tradition or tragedy?

By Melissa Duffy

Photo: ‘Naadam’ by Paulo Fassina (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Attending The Naadam

According to the Mongolian Tourism Industry, Mongolia is ‘the land of horse riders and horse lovers with at least one horse for every Mongolian, meaning there are over 3 million horses (MTI 2017).

I was fortunate to attend a local Naadam festival event and for the first time witnessed one of the epic Mongolian horse races. Mongolia’s horse races are between 15-30km long, depending upon the age of the horse. Jockeys are often children between seven and twelve years old and the horses must have a high level of endurance and stamina.

I spent quite a bit of time standing back absorbing the atmosphere, watching the Mongolian riders parading around in groups (I assume herding families and friends enjoying the catch-up time), showing off their riding skills and their horses. They were having such a great time just being together and enjoying the community event. The traditional clothing was beautiful, people were relaxed and smiling and even the horses seemed to be ‘talking’ to one another.

When someone got word the jockeys were nearing the end of the 20km race everyone ran or rode to the finish line and waited with much anticipation. A group of young boys and men gathered on their horses. As they were mounted up high they were some of the first to see the racehorses appear over the horizon to which in chorus they started calling loudly. Exhausted jockeys and horses responded to the calls and pushed hard to the finish line.

According to Mongolian tourism, at the National Naadam, the five winning horses from every official race receive awards and medals. The riders receive gifts and the trainers, significant monetary awards and titles. Mongolians do not bet on horse races, it is all about the pride and victory of continuing a long tradition. It is also more about the horses than the riders. Names and titles are important and can indicate if the horses have won a race before. If a horse has won more than four State Naadams, which is very rare, then the horse is said to belong to all the people of Mongolia and given the title State horse.

Environmental challenges linked to Mongolian herding culture, such as harsh winter weather and living conditions, highlight the traditional importance of being a skilled rider to a family’s survival. I therefore thought it was only natural to hear Mongolian children from an early age learn to ride and it seemed like a natural progression that a national sport would be centred on this craft. However tensions arise between the beautiful traditions of Mongolian culture, modern day racing and global human rights agendas.

Photo: Bulgan Naadam, by ‘WhatsAllThisThen’ (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The welfare of the child

As part of our intensive field course, during visits to the Mongolian Red Cross and Save the Children, we were briefed on issues concerning child poverty, child labour, abuse and living standards. Some believe that, around the time of transition to democracy and a market economy, Mongolia’s horse racing tradition has been tainted by greed, corruption and ambition at the expense of vulnerable children and poor families. Many human rights activists are now expressing concern over the rise and proliferation of commercial horse racing involving child jockeys.

An academic article by Rebecca Empson emphasises the accumulation of wealth and the dangers of excess in a market economy in modern day Mongolia and the subsequent increase in morally suspect practices (Empson 2012). To many, Mongolian horse racing is a growing example of a morally suspect practice. International organizations such as UNICEF continue to voice concern over child jockeys in horse racing (Brown 2014). In May 2006, for the first time, the issue of child jockeys was discussed at the National Forum of Child Jockeys, organised jointly by the National Department for Children, National Human Rights Commission and National Sports Committee of Mongolia with financial and technical support from ILO’s International Programme to Eliminate Child Labour (IPEC) (ILO 2006). 

According to the National Human Rights Commission Mongolia (NHRCM) more than 30,000 child jockeys compete in horse races each year (ILO 2006). It is now law that children below the age of seven are no longer allowed to ride in the Naadam, although many children still know how to ride horses by the age of three. In Naadams, officially organised by the Mongolian Horse Trainer’s Association, all trainers are now required to provide riders with helmets, protective clothing and accident insurance. However, there are many reports describing the lack of adherence to such laws in the countryside and a blind eye is often turned when younger riders’ race and things like provision of accident insurance is ignored.

Broken legs, head injuries and facial damage are common and child deaths occur with added risk of being trampled after a fall during a race. With no insurance for jockeys that can no longer ride, already desperate families can be thrown into further economic and psychological despair. According to child rights defenders, children can be hired informally to take part for as little as a bicycle, a set of schoolbooks, or up to 150,000 tugriks (AUSD110) and, while the rider goes uninsured, winning horses may be insured for millions of tugriks (Brown 2014). Ownership of livestock is an important measure of success for rural voters, many of whom continue to lead traditional pastoral lives. Riders are often sponsored by local politicians, who also promote their personal ownership of race horses during their campaigns (South China Morning Post).

I can see that, as a country with strong cultural heritage and identity, it is important to acknowledge Mongolian traditions, but at the same time in my view, exploitation of children is not acceptable and it appears further advocacy is required in Mongolia when it comes to horse racing.

 

References

Mongolian Tourism Industry 2017. Naadam Festival Horse Racing Brochure.

Empson, Rebecca 2012. ‘The Dangers of Excess: Accumulating and Dispersing Fortune in Mongolia’ Social Analysis 56.1 (2012): 117-132.

Brown, Andy 2014. ‘In Mongolia, bringing attention to the plight of child jockeys’ <https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/mongolia_76668.html>, viewed 10 July 2017.
International Labor Organization (ILO), 2006. ‘Mongolian child jockeys- balancing cultural heritage with safety’ < http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_071483/lang–en/index.htm>, viewed 10 July 2017.

Lkhagvasuren, Nomin 2013. ‘Mongolian child jockeys race to danger’ < https://www.news.com.au/world/breaking-news/mongolian-child-jockeys-race-to-danger/news-story/f59f14305c80530ae93e733c753d8773>, viewed 10 July 2017.

Brown, Andy 2014. ‘In Mongolia, bringing attention to the plight of child jockeys’ <https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/mongolia_76668.html>, viewed 10 July 2017.

South China Morning Post ‘Conflicts of interest keep Mongolian child jockeys in the saddle’ <http://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/2077844/conflicts-interest-keep-mongolian-child-jockeys-saddle>, viewed 10 July 2017.

 

Changes in the Mongolian Countryside

 

This year I spent some valuable time filming in the countryside during the Mongolian spring, from March until May. Changes in the Mongolian countryside are not as immediately evident as the rapid development of infrastructure and the polluted and clogged roads of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. When we drove into the river valley I had come to know so well, there were still ger (yurts) dotted in the same sheltered locations, while herds still grazed near the icy riverbanks.

When I was conducting fieldwork in the Khangai Mountains of Mongolia during 2005 and again in the spring of 2007, it was complicated to get into and out of remote herding encampments. The occasional herder had access to Russian motorbikes but they relied primarily on horses to visit neighbouring encampments, to ride to local Naadam festivals during the summer, and to herd the sheep, goats, cattle (including yaks) and horses. I relied on one of the herders with a coveted Russian jeep to get in and out. Often as many as twelve people would pack into the jeep with me, alongside dairy products and animal hides. Upon my return, the driver of the jeep joked about how many people would come along with me for the ride. Now almost every encampment has some form of motorised transport, making them less reliant on their horses.

I felt a stab of nostalgia when I found that the hand-made wooden carts that were used for moving peoples’ belongings during seasonal migrations were now only used as drying racks for dairy products, or left discarded and broken. I was told that Ulaanaa was the last ox used by one of the families I lived with. Ulaanaa, a large red ox, was remarkably complacent (nomkhon) and I would often lead him, with the wooden cart and water barrel, to collect water from the river. Ancestors of the family would have worked with oxen, just like Ulaanaa, for such tasks for centuries, possibly even thousands of years.

With such marked changes within ten years, I realised it was important to record herders riding about on horseback. The communication of a person on horseback is remarkable, as the horse intuitively knows to respond to a herder’s body language but not to the lasso-pole (uurga) held in front of its head, or to vocalisations directed at the herd. For Mongolians that still predominantly herd on horseback, much of the day is spent with an individual horse, following the tracks, signs and occasional vocalisations of the roaming herds across the mountainous landscape.

Spring snowstorms can be lethal for newborn animals. It is important for herders to check the herds and to make sure none are snowbound, or too far away from shelter. The video segment above (see: https://vimeo.com/228131918) was filmed using a GoPro camera fixed onto a young herder’s hat. Monkho must have forgotten his uurga, so uses an improvised stick from a nearby tree to signal to the herd. The calls and whistles differ depending upon whether he is communicating with the yak or horse herd, whether he is vocalising to the herd as a whole, or an individual animal. He says ‘chu, chu’ softly to a young foal when trying to redirect it back to the rest of the herd.

Just as has occurred throughout much of the world, people turn to the ease of motorised transport in favour of working with horses. If Mongolian herders increasingly rely on motorbikes to herd in future, some of the unique modes of communication with their herd animals will inevitably change, and the depth of knowledge relating to such close daily contact with horses may be lost.

Dr Natasha Fijn

Fejos Fellow in Ethnographic Film, Wenner-Gren Foundation (2017)

Mongolia Institute, The Australian National University

The Spectre of Pan-Mongolism

Sitting in the reading room at the National Library of Buryatia on a hot Monday afternoon in late June 2016, a burst of song erupts from down in the small city square of Ulaan Üde outside. People are singing the Russian national anthem because it is Russia Day, a national holiday celebrating the new constitution adopted after the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s. Russia day is not only immensely patriotic, it is genuinely very popular. Thus, there seemed something uncannily jarring when I came across news that in April 2016 a thirty-three-year-old Buryat-Mongolian man from Ulaan Üde, Vladimir Khagdaev, had been charged for threatening the integrity of the Russian Federation by stirring up political dissent online on VK, the Russian version of Facebook. He had been accused of advocating for something which has not been heard in a very long time indeed. The concept of Pan-Mongolism.

Pan-Mongolism was a term coined in the late nineteenth century by Mikhail Solovyev, a Russian mystic. Channelling the expanse and power of the mediaeval Mongol Empire, Solovyev dreamt of a future Eurasian state “from the Altai to Malaysian shores”. In the early twentieth century Central Asia was rocked by the crumbling of the Qing Empire and the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed. Pan-Mongolism came to take on a very different meaning for educated Buryat-Mongols such as Tseveen Zhamtsarano and Elbegdorji Rinchino. It was reappropriated as a post-colonial, nationalist self-determination towards a state that united all Mongolic peoples. A twentieth century Mongol Empire redux. A progressive nation state channelling the legitimacy of the past through western modernisation and communism. Both Japan and the USSR supported such movements during the Russian Civil War. This culminated not only in support from Moscow and the Buryat intelligentsia to provoke communist revolution in Outer Mongolia in 1921. It precipitated the rather bizarre formation of two competing and confusingly similar Buryat-Mongol and Mongol-Buryat Republics around Lake Baikal in 1923. By early 1924 Japan’s interest was withdrawn and the White Russian Mongol-Buryat Republic collapsed. Thereafter both were united into a shared Buryat-Mongol Soviet Republic.

Soviet authorities never really forgot about this strange Mongolic dream. In the late 1930s the USSR became increasingly inward looking, fearing sabotage, spies and nationalist reaction in its midst. Once again the term Pan-Mongolism returned. However, this time it was as a pejorative for a movement that no longer existed, except in the minds of Soviet elites. Zhamtsarano, Rinchino and many others were imprisoned and murdered in 1937 on trumped up charges for being secret Japanese spies bent on an imagined Pan-Mongolist enterprise. Moscow even went as far as to break up the Buryat-Mongol Republic into three separate states. The largest of these was also compelled to drop the word Mongol from its title in the early 1940s to become merely the Republic of Buryatia.

Photo of Vladimir Khagdaev in IXTC article, April 2016. Source: http://www.ixtc.org/2016/04/sledstvennyy-komitet-obyavil-voynu-panmongolizmu/

Once again, in May 1948 accusations of Pan-Mongolism arose when the secretary of Buryatia, Alexandr Kudryavtsev, invited the republic’s academics, media workers and propagandic arm to a special meeting. This was in conjunction with a touted six hundred year jubilee celebration of the mythological epic hero Geser. Although Tibetan in origin and a very common figure throughout Central Asia, Geser possessed an important place in academic understandings of the history of Buryat history and culture. As the USSR attempted to create national communist cultures in its republics, scholars had to prove that there was a history of proletarian revolt against religious and secular authority embedded in their folk literature. Yet, at the same time, studying the evil feudal past of khans and gods left one open to accusations of idealising reactionary ideas.

According to Kudryavtsev’s logic if the Buryat Geser epic tradition was too close to Khalkha Mongolian versions, it was worthless for a genuine national celebration of Buryat culture. It was pure Pan-Mongolism. If it was six hundred years old, as most scholars at the time estimated, then this dated the Buryat Geser to the period of the Mongol Empire. This would equally make it Pan-Mongolist feudalist nonsense. A popular idea at the time was that Geser might even represent a mythologised version of Chingis Khan. Chingis was the absolute bete noir of figures such as Kudryavtsev. Nothing was worse than this mediaeval, mass-murdering barbarian. But the worst factor was this. The idea that Geser was the Buryat national epic had been developed by Mongolist Nikolas Poppe, who had defected to the Nazis in 1941. Poppe’s intentions were reimagined by paranoid authorities as part of a “Hitlerite spy” network of Nazis trying to provoke nationalist reaction among the Mongolic peoples. Pan-Mongolism once again. Geser was doomed.

It was not until 1989, at the thawing of the USSR under perestroika that Buryat academics began to consider even collective Buryat identity seriously once again. Between 1991 and 1995, during some of the hardest years of the post-soviet transition, a series of Geseriada festivals were held throughout Buryatia and Irkutsk. Pinned to them were appeals for the renewal of Buryat language, culture and of course the reunity of the Buryat-Mongol state that had been cleaved apart in the 1930s. There was a great deal of hopefulness, but after all the celebrations, no Pan-Buryat reunification ever happened. Certainly no one was thinking about anything as ambitious as Pan-Mongolism.

Many Buryat scholars now look back at this Geseriada period very fondly, as a period of nostalgic pride. Yet, Pan-Mongolism doesn’t exist as a serious political movement any more than Pan-Buryat identity might even during the biennial international Buryat folk festival Altargana. Thus, for Pan-Mongolism to reappear once more and to be viewed as a serious threat in 2016 is bizarre. It means that the same old paranoid narratives about Mongol secession from Russia that have coloured the past century continue. Pan-Mongolism as a myth, however fantastical, isn’t quite dead yet.

Image used for the thirteen locations in Buryatia, Irkutsk, Ust’-Orda and Chita in which the 1991-5 Geseriada jubilee took place. Buryaad Ünen newspaper, June 1995.

Part II of two linked blog posts by Jonathan Ratcliffe. Jonathan is a PhD Candidate in Asian History and a member of the Mongolia Institute, ANU.