Cultural Unity and Mongol Identity

Mongolia Table of Contents

Implicit Nationalism

The result of Mongolia's economic development and urbanization was a population that was, on the one hand, increasingly and unprecedentedly divided by occupation, education, residence, and membership in well-defined and fairly rigid status groups, but that was, on the other hand, less clearly distinguished from that of other economically developed and urbanized countries. If being Mongolian meant living in a ger in the midst of a sheep herd and being good at riding horses, then the Mongolian identity of those who lived in highrise apartments, rode buses, and worked at desks or in factories where knowledge of the Russian language was required was problematic. Mongolian nationalism, clearly a politically sensitive topic, continued to be a strong although implicit force in Mongolia. The Mongol language, the cultural trait most obviously shared by all Mongolians, continued to be fostered. Much effort was devoted to translating foreign literature and textbooks into Mongol, and teams of Mongolian scholars carefully replaced Russian loan words with new terms developed from ancient Mongol roots. The goal appeared to be to ensure that Mongol did not become a dialect restricted to shepherds or preschool children and that the educated elite did not speak mostly Russian or Russian-influenced Mongol.

Apart from the significant omission of Buddhism and the Buddhist church, much of traditional Mongol culture was studied, preserved, and transmitted to the younger generation as a source of national pride. In early 1989, party general secretary Jambyn Batmonh told a Soviet interviewer that the harmful errors of the 1930s included destruction of the monasteries and with them the priceless cultural heritage of the Mongolian people. In 1989 the party called for overcoming indifference to the national cultural heritage, and efforts were under way to change the negative evaluation of Chinggis, who had been condemned as a bloodthirsty and aggressive conqueror of, among other places, Russia. Higher secondary schools began teaching the traditional Mongol script, replaced by Cyrillic in February 1946. In early 1989, the trade union newspaper Hodolmor (Labor) called for mass production of the traditional Mongol gown, the deel, and suggested that all Mongolian diplomats wear it.

Promotion of Traditional Festivals

Although the Buddhist church was suppressed in the 1930s, much traditional custom and celebration survived in the 1980s, with either the encouragement or the acquiescence of the government and the party. The Mongolian new year festival-- Tsagaan Sar (the White Month)--is celebrated at the same time as the Chinese lunar new year, although contemporary Mongolians deny any Chinese origin or influence. In the 1960s, the government designated it as Cattle Breeders' Day and stopped celebrating it as an official holiday. In 1989, as part of the party's efforts to reaffirm traditional culture, Tsagaan Sar again became a public holiday. The festival retained its prerevolutionary character as an occasion when relatives come together to reaffirm their ties, and juniors honor their elders. The Mongolian government sponsored the summer celebrations of Naadam, the traditional Mongol sports of horse racing, wrestling, and archery. Naadam celebrations were held in every somon, in every aymag seat, and in the great stadium in Ulaanbaatar on National Day, July 11. The celebrations attracted large audiences and were one of the few occasions for the normally dispersed pastoralists to gather in large crowds, renew old acquaintances, and make new friends. Wrestlers, archers, and riders dressed in traditional costumes, and a large bowl of ayrag, fermented mare's milk, was poured over the head of the winning horse in a form of libation practiced on the steppes for more than 1,000 years. Each wrestler was accompanied by a herald or bard, who chanted verses extolling his hero in a centuries-old format. There was a hierarchy of contests, with the winners at one level going on to the next, so that the national Naadam in Ulaanbaatar brought the champions from all over the country. The winning wrestler was a national hero, and, while the contests had no obvious political content, they provided an opportunity for the political elite and the ordinary people, the herders and the urbanites, to reaffirm their common Mongolian identity and culture.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress