ANU Students in Mongolia 2018. Post No. 4 ‘Echoes of Civilisations’

Echoes of Civilisations: Representing Mongolia’s Cultural History

By Ruben Seaton

Photo: Ruben Seaton. Temples at Erdene Zuu.

The open fields surrounding Kharkhorin (or Karakorum) have seen some remarkable moments in human civilization. Spending time at Erdene Zuu monastery and the site of the former capital of the Mongol Empire provided time to think about the country’s long and rich history. It also prompted questions about how we remember culture.

In the 13th century, Kharkhorin was the centre of the rapidly expanding Mongol Empire. It was a hub for trade, manufacturing, and the exchange of ideas across cultures. Visiting a site of such significance, I was expecting to be able to identify where the beautiful tree sculpture once stood and where mosques existed alongside a church. However, not for the first time on this study tour, my presumptions were misguided.

It was an odd scene: an elevated white concrete platform jutted out from the green landscape, disingenuously representing where the Great Hall once stood in the southwest corner. There was no recovered stonework to be seen; apart from the information boards near a turtle statue, situated beyond the temple on the grassland steppe, there was little to suggest we were standing in what was once the capital of a great empire.

In a strange way, it reminded me of the Shelley poem Ozymandias: a statement of grandeur which had been reduced to less than rubble thanks to human hands and mother nature. Bricks and materials from the city were repurposed to be used for building a monastery. The gradual deterioration of Kharkhorin, through centuries of dry summers and cold winters, was there to be seen.

Buddhist spiritual memory had also been disrupted, but in a profoundly different way. Erdene Zuu monastery and museum was a beautiful but troubling presentation of a rich spiritual history of over 400 years.

Within our intensive course we had been told about the execution of lamas and destruction of holy sites. Back at the library in the ANU, I flicked through a book called ‘Soviet Terrorism in Mongolia’ and thought that the word choice may have been a bit of an exaggeration. However, for me it was then that I really thought about the significance of the actions of the Soviets. High-level monks were killed; mid-level monks were put in jail and low-level monks were sent for ‘re-education.’ From 1937-1944, Erdene Zuu was essentially a ghost town, with monks and visitors too intimidated to return. Looking at the eerie open spaces within Erdene Zuu’s walls, due to the destruction of buildings and monuments, the reality seemed both stark and cruel.

Photo: Ruben Seaton. Dragon decoration.

A thought about sacred and culturally significant sites in Mongolia in general. Coming from Australia – even from the few days I spent in Beijing before arriving – we are used to seeing national monuments and sites maintained in a particular manner: perfectly manicured gardens, shiny displays, new paint jobs. While visiting sites such as Gandan Temple, the Bogd Khan Palace and Erdene Zuu, it was common to hear comments from our class group about the long grass, creaky verandahs and peeling woodwork. The logic behind these observations is understandable: If these sites are so important, why not take better care in presenting and maintaining them?

In thinking about this, I think it’s important to be mindful of imposing our own lived experiences and expectations on other cultures. Sure, the appearance of the sites could be due to lack of attention, or a lack of funds for repairing buildings. But it is more likely is that employees, volunteers and worshippers simply have a different conception of what is important in a sacred or significant site. The aesthetics of a building may be far less important than the spiritual value of what it houses or represents. Keeping short grass probably isn’t a priority for a pastoral nomadic people who rely on livestock to keep pastures low; old and faded paintwork may be a sign of authenticity, not disregard.

I arrived in Ulaanbaatar thinking that the best way to explore a new country was by jogging through its streets and parks, not dawdling through old buildings. However, visiting these sites and reflecting on their significance has been a poignant reminder of what was, of what has been lost and what is being remembered.

 

Photo: Ruben Seaton. Stupas at Kharkhorin.

Further Reading:

The History of the Mongols Podcast: ‘Karakorum’

https://podtail.com/no/podcast/the-history-of-the-mongols/karakorum/

 

New York Times: ‘Bringing a Monastery Back to Life’

https://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/20/arts/20iht-monk20.html

 

William of Rubruck’s Account of the Mongols: ‘XVII: Description of Karakorum’

https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/rubruck.html#karakorum

 

ANU Students in Mongolia: Post No. 1. ‘Mining & Dining’

As part of an ANU Mongolia Institute course, twelve students traveled to Mongolia to participate in the intensive study tour ‘Modern Mongolia: challenges to the environment, economy and empire’, coordinated by Prof. Li Narangoa and Dr Jack Fenner. MongolInk will feature a series of posts written by students during their field experience in Mongolia in July 2017. The first post is by Savanna Pilgrim.

Visiting Baga Nuur mine. Photo: Savanna Pilgrim

Mining & Dining: Thoughts about female employment in the Mongolian mining sector from the Baga Nuur cafeteria

I was lucky enough to be a part of a group of ANU students who visited Mongolia on a winter school field trip, exploring the country that is modern Mongolia. On July 5, as a group, we made our first trek out of the big city of Ulaanbaatar towards the yet-to-be explored Mongolian countryside. After an hour of driving our view of green mountains and valleys was interrupted by what some in the group dubbed ‘Mongolia’s Uluru’, or what is otherwise known as the Baga Nuur mine. We were visiting the mine site, one of the country’s largest, to learn more about mining within Mongolia and the ways in which it has been relevant to the economic development of Mongolia in the past, in addition to how it will be important in the future.

 

As a part of the trip, we had each chosen a research area to explore, of which mine was female participation and equality in Mongolia’s post-socialist era. The relevance of this topic was clear to me when we were dining with the Mongolian miners in the mine’s cafeteria; whilst the room was bulging with male miners there appeared to be very few female miners. The reality of the gender divide of workers at the mine was made clear later in our tour when a guide informed us that, of the mine’s 1100 employees, only 150 of them were women. That is a participation rate of one female to seven males.

 

Female employment and participation in the Mongolian mining sector is interesting to considering for a number of reasons. Both historically and contemporarily Mongolia is a country that is typically discussed as having high gender equality. In many respects this is true, particularly in equal employment and education access terms. Women make up over 60% of university students, and go on to dominate fields, such as medicine and legal practices (Rossabi 2005). Mining, however, is very different. In 1999, the Mongolian Labour Law was enacted and Article 101.1, which prohibited female employment in a number of ‘dangerous’ sectors, including mining. This law was in spite of Mongolia’s 1999 signing of and commitment to the United Nations’ Convention Against Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in which economic rights are specifically codified (Ellis & Ellison 2015). This deprivation of employment rights within the mining sector is significant given that Mongolia’s mining sector is the nation’s fastest growing and highest paying industry. The mining sector currently makes up over 80% of the nation’s exports and 30% of government revenue, whilst miners make 2.5 times the national average monthly wage (Mongolian Economy Journal 2014). The ban on female participation in the field specifically excludes women from access to this area of flourishing growth and employment, based on a view of needing to keep women ‘safe’ (Khan 2013).

 

The Labour Laws in regards to female employment were reversed in 2008 by Mongolia’s federal parliament (Khan 2013, 8). This theoretically granted women greater access to the mining industry and the large-scale economic benefits the sector provides. Yet, despite the opening of economic opportunities, the female employment rate in the Mongolian mining sector is only currently between 5-10%. This is despite the fact that university graduates in geology (the main group employed in the mining sector) are overwhelmingly women (Ellis & Ellison 2015). Why is there such low female representation in the sector? International Labour Organisation (ILO) research suggests that women are not encouraged to work in mining, despite the economic benefits it could have, due to ongoing social pressure for women to be protected from ‘unsuitable’ and ‘unsafe’ jobs. Furthermore, ILO studies show that mining companies in Mongolia claim they prefer male candidates for jobs and prefer women to fill service, support and administrative positions (Khan 2016).

 

Given Mongolia’s reputation, as being a largely gender equal country, it would be encouraging to see action taken to rectify this ongoing issue of lack of female employment within the mining sector. Khan (2013) suggests the industry should: 1. Enforce the Law on Gender Equality (2011), 2. Promote a healthy and safe workplace environment for all individuals, 3. Enforce sexual harassment laws and create awareness of respect for gender equality, and 4. Create a mandate for companies to report employment practices and policies. Through such changes it could be possible for increased gender equality to occur within Mongolia’s mining sector.

 

With Mongolia’s mining sector predicted to only continue to grow in the decades to come, it would be disappointing and limiting to continue to see a lack of female employment in a sector where women have the rights and skill capacity to work. It will be interesting to see what changes occur in the future.

 

SOURCES:

Ellis, E. & Ellison, M., 2015. “Women in mining: will Mongolia’s proposed new Labour Law encourage greater participation by women?” https://www.expertguides.com/articles/women-in-mining-will-mongoliasproposed-new-labour-law-encourage-greater-participation-by-women/arlillic (accessed 7 July 2017).

Khan, T., 2013. Mongolia: Raising Female Participation in the Large Scale Mining Sector (No. 16499). The World Bank.

Mongolian Economy Journal. 2014. “Average Wage stands at MNT 760 000” http://mongolianeconomy.mn/en/i/6014 (accessed 7 July 2017).

Rossabi, M., 2005. “Women in Modern Mongolia” http://asiasociety.org/education/women-modern-mongolia (accessed on 15 June 2017).

Susanna Pilgrim is a fourth year Bachelor of International Relations/Arts student. She also works at the ANU as the Coordinator of the ANU Learning Communities, a student-led group, which seeks to engage both the ANU and broader Canberra communities in ongoing community-focused learning and development opportunities. 

 

 

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.

International workshop ‘One Health: health and wellbeing on the grassland steppes of Mongolia’

Group photo outside The Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Group photo outside The Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
Prof. Li Narangoa opening the proceedings during the One Health workshop. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Prof. Li Narangoa opening the proceedings during the One Health workshop. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop presenters and participants, including Dr Natasha Fijn filming in the foreground with the national Mongolian television network in the background. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop presenters and participants, including Dr Natasha Fijn filming in the foreground with the national Mongolian television network in the background. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Medical practitioner from Inner Mongolia, Chigekhitu, speaking on Mongolian Traditional Medicine. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Medical practitioner from Inner Mongolia, Chigekhitu, speaking on Mongolian Traditional Medicine. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Workshop participant responding to Dr Fijn's presentation.
Workshop participant responding to Dr Fijn’s presentation. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar
Prof. Tserentsodnom with venerable monk from Ganden Monastery, Mongolia. Photo: Itgel Chunuunbaatar.
Prof. Tserentsodnom with venerable monk from Ganden Monastery, Mongolia. Photo: Itgel Chunuunbaatar.
Group photo with Director of the Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Prof. Tserentsodnom.
Group photo with Director of the Museum of Mongolian Traditional Medicine, Prof. Tserentsodnom. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
A banquet after the International Mongolian Traditional Medicine Conference and One Health Workshop.
A banquet after the International Mongolian Traditional Medicine Conference and One Health Workshop.