The Secret History of Star Wars

This is a blog post was written as part of the ANU’s ‘Modern Mongolia’ field course held in Mongolia in July 2019.

The Secret History of Star Wars: Padmé Amidala – Queen, Senator or Mongolian princess?

By Georgie Juszczyk

Note: This blog also contains spoilers for the star wars movie franchise.

The Star Wars franchise is big. Really big. Its box office earnings alone total an estimated $9.323 billion. That is without accounting for the television shows, video games, books, graphic novels and merchandising (think the ‘Baby Yoda’ plush toys about to be released in 2020) that comprise the behemoth franchise.

Part of this success is its incredibly detailed world-building. This includes everything from the ‘Cantina Bar’ song, to the intricate lore that underlies each character and their back story, to the costumes.

Particularly famed, is the character Padmé Amidala and her ensemble of fantastic, rich raiment. She is the love interest of Anakin Skywalker, as well as Queen and Senator of Naboo (the planet is the scene of the climactic battle in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace). Her character is one possessed with dignity, strength, and royalty (although if you were really nerdy, you would know that she is not technically of royal blood, as Naboo elects their monarchs).

In one crucial scene, where Senator Amidala is beseeching the Galactic Senate on Coruscant to aid her ailing country, she is seen wearing a particularly striking gown and headdress (pictured below).

For detailed pictures of the costume in question, click here.

The costume designers for this piece have since confirmed that they looked at Mongolian, Tibetan and other traditional Asian fashion styles as inspiration for the costume. Red is a lucky colour in many Asian cultures, the powdered white face is a reference to the esteemed Japanese geisha and is a signal of wealth, and the headdress and voluminous sleeves is a common feature of the Mongolian del and Korean hanbok. (Some say that the spacious sleeves in the Mongolian del are indicative of the shape of a horseshoe).

Most striking, however, is the headdress. The construction is mounted on a ‘close-fitting metallic gold cap’ constructed from copper, plated in gold and other coloured jewels. It is directly inspired by the Mongolian headdress used by women from the Khalkha Mongols tribe, one of the largest ethnic groups in Mongolia today (they comprise an estimated 86% of the modern Mongolian population).

In the Secret History of the Mongols, said to be the oldest surviving literary work of Mongolian history, the anonymous author explains that this odd configuration for women’s hair, styled in place by sheep-fat, represents cow horns. It is a reference to the myth that Khalkha Mongols ‘were the fruit of a love affair between a nature spirit and a cow’, while the jewellery, which accents the protruding ‘horns’, are indicators of wealth.

The use of the headdress for Padmé’s character is also likely to be a nod to the Mongolian tradition of ‘warrior queens.’ Mongol history is peppered with accounts of these fierce women, who ruled the Mongol empire alongside and often in lieu of their male counterparts.

For example, Börte, Chinggis’ Khan’s first wife, capably ruled the Mongol homeland while Chinggis was busy conquering. When Chinggis’ second son and heir to the empire died, Töregene assumed complete power, and relied on Fatima (another incredible woman) and two other female governors, to rule successfully before handing over the empire to her son Guyuk. Referencing such an impressive lineage only bolsters Padmé’s regal credentials.

Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation?

Yet while Star Wars designers certainly reference this legacy in Princess Padmé’s portrayal, it is not clear that they give adequate credit to it. Are these visual imitations of Mongolian history cultural appropriation or appreciation?

Disney, for example, is no stranger to controversy when it comes to questions of cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism. On the one hand, drawing inspiration from the world around you is an important part of the creative process. Nods to certain cultures and their individual experiences can be uplifting, as well as an enriching part of the creative work in question.

On the other hand, the Star Wars franchise makes no effort to mention or reference the experiences of the Mongol culture, other than simply borrowing from the ‘strength’ and unique look of Mongol heritage. Some have gone further, saying that modern movies’ practice of turning to Asian cultures in order to make something seem foreign and ‘exotic’ (George Lucas himself describes Amidala as ‘exotic’ multiple times) is problematic, and potentially laden with ‘Orientalist’ undertones. Instead, they argue, these cultures should be normalised, celebrated, or only authoritatively represented by the custodians of that culture.

So, is this reference to the Mongol legacy laced with admiration and a positive sign of cross-cultural communication that should be encouraged? Or is it an example of an incredibly powerful franchise failing to pay adequate respect to the content, which contributed to that success? At what point does history end and ownership of the creative process begin and are the concepts mutually exclusive? Should Padmé be rightly portrayed as Queen, Senator or Mongolian princess?

 

Four Minutes that Changed a Nation

This is a blog post was written as part of the ANU’s ‘Modern Mongolia’ field course held in Mongolia in July 2019.

Mongolian wrestling relates to judo and sumo as sports. Image credit: Linh Vien Thai, 2003.  CC BY-ND 2.0.

By Maxim Wiggins, ANU.

It’s the 29th of June 2008, the year of a Mongolian election. The country is gripped in political deadlock, as its two main political parties engage in a bitter dispute concerning the recent parliamentary elections. Crippling inflation and the misuse of mining wealth dominate debate in this nation of staggering wealth inequality. The ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MRPR) having won in a landslide, face allegations of corruption from the Democratic Party (DP) involving double voter registration. The DP, believing foul play is involved, refuse to concede defeat, despite contradictions from international electoral observers.[1]

It’s the 29th of June 2008, the year of an Olympics. It’s been 44 years since Mongolia first entered the Olympics in 1962, and the country is yet to win a gold medal. At this time, the country has never won a gold medal, a source of constant frustration for the passionate nation.

It’s the 29th June 2008, 430 kilometres away from the capital in the small village of Saikhan, 1400 metres above sea level, Naidan Tuvshinbayar a 24-year-old Mongolian judoka jogs around the verdant, rich hills near his training centre, preparing for his first Olympics in Beijing. With a squat stature and powerful frame, he grapples a fellow compatriot in his training centre.

Two days later, a peaceful protest gathers in Sukhbaatar Square. A place remembered as being the symbol of Mongolia’s non-violent democratic revolution. The crowd become increasingly unruly, violent chants emerge from young men throwing rocks at the MPRP headquarters. As Police respond with tear gas, rioters become destructive, resisting authorities, setting fire to buildings and overturning vehicles. The Central Cultural Palace building erupts into flames, destroying more than 1,000 pieces of artwork.

Unaware of the chaos, Naidan quietly continues his preparations for the games, quietly continues to jog around his training centre and quietly hones his skills.

On the same day, Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar declares a state of emergency, enforcing military law in Ulaanbaatar’s streets. This is the first time such a declaration had been made in Mongolia’s history. The DP refuse to attend the opening of the new parliament, boycotting all future sittings indefinitely.

The country is in gridlock and its people ashamed at the outbreak of violence.

Mongolia needs a hero.

Fast-forward a month. Beijing welcomes the Olympics. In the glow of the Beijing Science and Technology University Gymnasium, Naidan shocks the previous Olympic champion in his first-round of the judo match. He starts to build momentum, slowly, winning two fights with sudden defeats, including his semi-final. Willed on by a partisan crowd and an entire nation, in four minutes he overcomes Kazakh fighter Ashkat Zhitkeyev to win Mongolia’s first ever Olympic gold medal.

Ulaanbaatar is again set alight, but this time in celebration. Fireworks dominate the skyline and car horns echo into the night. A day later, the two parties’ leaders lock arms at the square in front of the Chinggis Khan statue, singing the national anthem in a unique display of national pride as Naidan is granted the honour of being a Mongolian Labour Hero. Two weeks later, DP representatives reversed their decision of boycotting the parliament and allowed themselves to be sworn into its new session.

The sports fanatic that I am, I am fascinated when visiting foreign countries about the role sport plays in their culture and national psyche. From a sporting perspective, Mongolia perplexes me as a small country with a physically active herding population. Not unlike its painful transition from a soviet to a democratic society, it is in the midst of a sporting transition. Trying to balance both traditional and international sports in a place where many live below the poverty line is no small feat.

Coming from Australia where sporting heroes and achievements are etched into our national folklore, Mongolians place a far higher value on their nomadic sports. The Nadaam Festival and its three traditional “manly sports” is the most anticipated festival in the country, with hundreds of competitors competing in archery, wrestling and horseracing. This links with their nomadic lifestyle, as these skills were an important part of survival in the face of warfare and conflict. However, as the motorbike has started to replace the horse, global sports are starting to encroach on the previously more traditional competitions. Basketball courts reside under dilapidated apartment blocks, recently installed synthetic football pitches allow for all-year round play; this is not to mention the strong Mongolian Olympic sports of judo, wrestling and shooting which have maintained their popularity. Although its sporting infrastructure is significantly in need of funding, its growth emphasizes Mongolia’s transition to greater integration into the international sporting community.

A couple of lessons can be learnt from Naidan’s triumph. Mongolia struggles to have its voice heard between the two immense geopolitical powers of China and Russia. It needs leaders of strength, independence and integrity to navigate its difficult position in the region’s politics. Mongolians take immense pride in the success of their countrymen and women in the sporting arena. It shows them that they can compete with their international rivals in both a sporting sense, giving them hope for this success to translate into other areas. This does not necessarily translate into success, as seen through the exploitation from foreign countries and growing wealth inequality. For me, however, it highlights the power of sport as a tool for future generations of Mongolians to combat current adversities.

Mongolians have always been a strong and resilient people, they now need to learn to believe in themselves as a strong and independent nation.

References

https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/08/world/asia/08mongolia.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/sports/14iht-olyjudo14.15302568.html

https://www.bbc.com/sport/olympics/18075876

https://www.olympic.org/tuvshinbayar-naidan

https://www.ijf.org/news/show/the-legend-lives-on-as-naidan-wins-gold

Mongolia in 2008: From Mongolia to Mine-golia Asian Survey Vol. 49, No. 1 (January/February 2009), pp. 129-134 (6 pages).

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/08/world/asia/08mongolia.html

 

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 2018, Post No. 3 ‘Eagle Hunting’

Eagle Hunting: Marketization of Traditional Practice

By Lucy Xu

Photo: Christopher Michel (CC BY 2.0).

The 6000-year-old tradition of eagle hunting in the far west of Mongolia is a fascinating aspect of Mongolian culture that first drew me to the country. I did a little background reading on eagle hunting before coming to Mongolia on the ANU study tour, and was aware that there are now fewer than sixty ‘true’ herders who hunt with eagles left[i]. Imitation eagle hunters have been cropping up across the country, capitalizing on a growing tourism industry. I witnessed this at popular monuments like the Zaisan Memorial, and along major roads. The changes in attitude toward eagle hunting culture, provides a lens for studying the impact of environmental and economic transitions in the modern century.

 

Eagle hunting, or falconry, is practiced in the rugged Altai Mountains by ethnic Kazakhs, but was once practiced across Mongolia among nomadic and noble families alike. Hunting is generally passed down from fathers to sons, but not exclusively so, with daughters also allowed to participate. Hunters capture chicks from their nests at the top of cliffs, selecting females (as they are larger and fiercer) with the strongest claws and eyes, to train with them for around six years. They live and hunt together for another five or six years, before the eagle is repatriated back into the wild to breed and continue the line of hunting birds. Done in its traditional form, this practice is sustainable, with minimal ecological impact.[ii]

 

In 2010, UNESCO inscribed eagle hunting as a practice on the Representative List of Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Eagle hunting was commended as an ancient cultural practice and in order to safeguard its legacy.[iii] The annual Golden Eagle Festival was initiated to ensure continued visibility of the tradition, in a manner that ensures adherence to certain levels of ethical and humane treatment, but the practice has become susceptible to exploitation.

 

Environmental challenges, particularly the changing climate (with harsh summers and catastrophic winters, including severe weather conditions known as dzud), as well as overgrazing of Mongolian lands in recent years has meant a loss in livestock numbers and a decrease in biodiversity. The impact of Mongolia’s economic transitions have meant that more Kazakh families send their children to the cities to earn incomes to supplement pastoralism, leading to an influx of herders seeking employment in the city, or to take advantage of opportunities facilitated by the burgeoning mining industry.[iv]

 

The small, but growing tourism sector, has spurred the exploitation of eagle hunting as a form of business, capitalizing on the market brought by tourists and travellers. As a result, imitation eagle hunters, often not upholding the customary process and violating ethical standards of treatment, have flourished as informal trade. The marketing of Mongolian values and customs can also be witnessed across other areas, as a result of increasing tourism.

 

During my time in Mongolia, I wish I had been able to see the unique bond of trust and companionship shared between a Kazakh hunter and the golden eagle. Instead, in the heart of the city, beneath tourist destinations, and along the highway, I witnessed shadow imitations of the practice. Eagles were chained to posts, often in the heat without shade or water. Tourists were told to ‘shake their arms’ to make the eagles spread their wings for stability and to look more impressive for the camera. It was heartbreaking to see such conditions and the departure from fundamental values connected with eagle hunting that makes it so rare and precious.

 

[i] Denhoed, Andrea. ‘The Golden-Eagle Hunters of Mongolia’ The New Yorker (20 October 2015) https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/the-eagle-hunters-of-mongolia

[ii] Carney, Matthew. ‘Is this teenage Mongolian girl one of the last eagle hunters — or the first of a new breed?’ ABC News (2 May 2017) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-05-02/mongolian-girl-keeps-ancient-eagle-hunting-tradition-alive/8481956

[iii] Ali, Hajar. ‘An Insight into the Life of the Kazakh Eagle Hunters’ Culture Trip (22 November 2016) https://theculturetrip.com/asia/mongolia/articles/kazakh-eagle-hunters/#

[iv] Stamboulis, Dave. ‘Mongolia’s 6,000-year Tradition’ BBC Travel (28 September 2016) http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20160926-mongolias-6000-year-tradition

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.