Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Rebirth of Chinggis: A laowai's glimpse at 21st century Mongolia

The glistening image of Chinggis Khan
Ulaan Baatar- Sandwiched on a plateau between global powers Russia and China, it is easy for an American ignorant of the region to imagine the sparsely populated Mongolia as a marginal nation that will forever be coerced in the shadow of its giant neighbors.  Of course, Mongolians remember that, at its height, the Mongol empire was the largest land empire, stretching from Bulgaria to Korea. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Mongolian national identity has been rising like a 130 foot steel image of Genghis Khan (known locally as Chinggis Khan).

Mongolian religious art and culture culture, from what I can gather, appears to be a rich mix of traditional shamanistic practices and buddhist influences from afar as Tibet and India.  The art and iconography of Mongolia's buddhist temples, ritualistic masks and traditional dress is intensely colorful, powerfully violent at times, erotically sexual at others, and suprisingly psychodelic.  

Masked dancers of the Tumen Ekh National Song and Dance Ensemble.

Other ethnicities, including the Kazakh, add layers of different traditions, designs, art and rituals.  With a semi-nomadic herding tradition, the basic unit of social organization is the Ger, a home that can be built in 60-90 minutes and taken apart in half as much time with materials that can be shipped on the backs of camels or horses.  
Twin gers of relatively affluent Kazakh herding family with wind turbine and solar panel (on right ger just above and to the side of the entrance.  Their herd of sheep is visible in the distance to the viewers left.)

Southwestern Mongolia is also believed to be where throat singing began.  The singing styles based on the harmonies of the singers voice of resonant overtones in the throat and mouth are essential parts of Mongolian art, and even the chanting styles of Buddhist monks I saw in the Gandantegchinlen Monastery (pictures not included).  
Throat singing with the Tumen Ekh ensemble.  I'm afraid I failed to save the names of the singer or the musicians.

This style of singing has become famously associated with Mongolia's northern neighbor, the Tuva Republic (part of Russia), from the documentary Genghis Blues in which blind American blues singer travels to Tuva for the first time to win the Tuvan national throat singing championship (a clip is on Youtube, forgive the German subtitles).

Tall Shadows
The standard English language historical text in the Mongolian Museum of National History, as well as the bookstores and gift shops of Ulaan Baatar, is Baabar's History of Mongolia: From World Power to Soviet Satellite, printed in a joint venture by Cambridge University Press and Mongolian national publishers.  

Baabar describes how the 1911 Mongolian independence became possible with the the imminent collapse of the Qing dynasty which had dominated Mongolia as a foreign power.  With the Bolsheik revolution to the Northwest, both Russian White Guard and Chinese nationalist troops invaded in 1917.  This era included a Russian dictator with a ragtag army of soldiers from Eastern Europe to Japan named Roman Ungren von Sternberg whose wikipedia page is just too bizarre for me to comprehend.   

While the national government failed to raise enough support and troops to throw out the invaders, several rebel groups organized into the Mongolian People's Party enlisted the aid of the Soviet army, starting a series of events that would shape the future of the Mongolia for the next 70 years.  With military might came political advisors.  After the Czarists and the Chinese were defeated, a process of sovietization of the society over the next generation collectivized farms and other property in 1928.  This was wildly unpopular with many Mongolians, particularly the nobility and Buddhist clergy.  Disorganized rebellions were easily put down with Mongolian-Soviet military power into the early 1930s, coinciding with a war against the Japanese over control of parts of Mongolia.  With Soviet propanda against Japanese spies, a whole generation was purged.  Climaxing in 1937 with mass murder of almost the entire Buddhist clergy and the execution of the exiled prime minister Genden who refused to carry out the purge, no level of Mongolian society was spared the purge.

This history seems to be an important part of the Mongolian national consciousness.  A Museum of Political Persecution was founded documenting much of this.  But, with the exception of the bullet riddled skulls excavated in 2003 from a Soviet mass grave in Mongolia, the museum is poorly organized for an English-speaking audience.
Bullet riddled skulls excavated in 2003 from a Soviet mass grave in Mongolia.

Zorig and the New Mongolia
Soviet control of Mongolian affairs continued into perestroika, but in the late 1980s several organizations, particularly the Union of Mongolian Composers, created space for students and young adults to openly discuss politics and the future of Mongolia.

From this energy sprung the Mongolian Democratic Union, which organized protests and open letters, some carried in the press, calling for elections with a multiparty system and basic political freedoms.  The coming out party for this movement, described well in an excerpt of Mossabi's Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists, was a small but boisterous December 10 1989 Human Rights Day Protest in Sükhbaatar square.  Though Rossabi argues that the demonstrations reflected divisions within the ruling Mongolia People's Revolutionary Party, the government did not respond to the demands, the protests swelled in size and became increasingly rowdy, immortalized by the photo of Sanjaasürengiin Zorig, the "Golden Magpie of Democracy," calming the crowd as it seemed about to lay seige to government offices.  The confrontation ultimately climaxed in a March 1990 hunger strike demanding that the entire politburo of communist leadership resign, arrange for multi-party parliamentary elections and separate Mongolian government functions from MPRP party functions.  By mid-April Mongolia had entered a new phase in its history.
Infamous photo of Sanjaasürengün Zorig from Mongolian newspaper reports from early 1990.  I am unable to find the photographer's name.
Sükhbaatar Square now is a center for congregation for young and old; bicycle, roller blade and power wheel

During my first moments in Mongolia, reading the cyrillic script and overhearing fragments of conversations in a language where I could barely distinguish the syllables, there was something extremely foreign and somewhat intimidating in the Mongolian language.  I imagined that the Klingon language might have been modeled after Mongolian, carrying its history of conquest under the Mongol empire and representing a Soviet styled nemesis of the USA-like Federation of  planets.

Of course, that impression reflected more on my ignorance than on the Mongolian language.  Though written in cyrillic, it is not at all a slavic language.  Several alphabets pre-existed the use of cyrillic, famously including the alphabet introduced by Zanabazar shown below whose first symbol is on the Mongolian flag.  
Part of Soyembo alphabet introduced by Zanabazar in the 17th century.

Another alphabet was used in the pre-soviet area, and was elegant enough to be used on typewriters.  

However, at that time illiteracy, especially among herders, was the norm.  As part of the literacy programs devised under soviet advisors in the 1930s, the cyrillic alphabet was adapted and taught all across the country.  The result was a linguistic as well as economic and cultural Sovietization.  While the traditional scripts are still studied, as are Tibetan and Sanscrit in this Buddhist country, they are still only marginally used in public context outside of the monasteries and universities.

Post-Soviet Discontent
Though Mongolians are apparently quite proud of the peaceful transition from Soviet domination to a new Mongolian national identity, the post-Soviet era has also been wrought with disappointment, corruption and inequality.  There is a palpable tension in Mongolia, a mix of frustration and aggression that is simmering underneath the apparent economic growth and outward political stability.

The post-Soviet transition to democracy also left Mongolia's economy without the Soviet support it had become dependent on.  Before 1990, the exchange of Mongolian Tugriks to the American dollar was about 10:1.  Now that ratio is above 1300:1.  The period of privatization was heavily directed by foreign lending institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and Asian Development Bank, resulting in a defunding of education and health care.  The mining sector was being increasingly exploited by foreign corporations with relatively small benefit to the Mongolian economy.

The "end of the romantic phase of post-Soviet Mongolia" occurred in 1998 when Sanjaasürengiin Zorig was stabbed to death in his apartment the day he was nominated as the candidate for Prime Minister.  His widow speculated that the still unsolved crime was related to corruption in the privatization phase that Zorig refused to participate in or allow.  

I met a highschool English teacher who was skipping work at school to make money as a guide to foreign tourists because of the difference in money.  She hoped to give up teaching and help her sister start and run a hostel.  Our driver says he was a doctor trained in women's health, (though he also claims to have been a gun and drug runner with the Mongolian mafia in 1990s until he was shot at and decided that wasn't the life for him).  He says he gave up working as a doctor in order to work for a tourism agency for better pay and lifestyle.

This distortion of economic incentive is not the recipe for good social and economic development.  Despite the apparent boom of construction in Ulaan Baatar, as numerous cranes tower over the city, many construction sites are half-finished shells with no signs of active construction.  Some streets are coming apart, and there is a strange sense of growth and decay at the same time.  The national recreation park contains a new amusement park with rides and bumper cars, but the rest of the park around it seems like a scene out of the depressing "Return to Oz" movie.

While the poor outskirts of most modern cities like Mexico City are defined by the shanty town, Ulaan Baatar is wringed with Ger districts of new rural to urban migrants in search of work.  Particularly bad winters at the end of the 1990s led to an increase in poor immigrants and a rush of homeless children, many of them living in the sewer, a number of them involved in prostitution.  Since then more orphanages and NGOs such as Save the Children have been addressing the problem but it continues.  Violent crime and property crime also appear to be on the rise.

The ecology and economy of the Ger show similar dichotomies.  Some gers have wind turbines and solar panels to charge the batteries they run their household electronics off of.  Those with substantial herds can burn the dung for energy, but they also apparently burn and dump the trash, much of it plastic.  The drainage ditches and roadsides of Mongolia are sadly decorated with plastic wrappers, drink bottles, and broken glass.

Mongolian Fascism and the Duality of the Swastika (Khas)
The failures of the post-soviet democratic leadership to provide economic stability for Mongolia have occurred in the context of simmering resentment towards Mongolia's Soviet experience and socialist ideals and animosity toward foreign interests profiting in Mongolia.  This has created fertile ground for what would seem an unlikely location for the rise of Nazi-inspired Fascism.
Photo: Dan Chung of The Guardian newspaper

Youth fascists have been involved in increasingly common incidents of violence targeting inter-racial couples, homosexuals, transsexuals, foreigners (especially Chinese) and Mongolian women associating with foreigners.  NPR describes a recent "song by a band called 4 Zug. The title: 'Don't Overstep The Limits, You Chinks.' It is a violent, hate-filled tirade against Mongolia's massive neighbor, China."  After shopping for a made in Mongolia hat and jacket at the "Black Market" of Naran Tuul, I met one such shaved head youth wearing a German cross pendant around his neck throwing a punch in my direction. 

Many have pointed out the irony of a Mongolian political philosophy respectfully modeled after the racist Nazi policies that targetted Mongolian POWs for execution.  Perhaps more interesting is how Hitler's rebranding of the swastika, a Hindu and Buddhist symbol, as a Nazi emblem gives fascism a strange symbolic connection to the pre-Soviet Mongolian buddhist tradition.

The symbol, called a "Khas" in Mongolian appears not only in traditional design, but in traditional games and on the first Bank Note of the Republic of Mongolia in 1921. 
It was explained to me to be something like a spiritual compass rose, taking in energy from the four cardinal directions and unifying it into oneness.
Though my Mongolian is woefully inadequate.  I believe this book states that traditionally the Khas was part of a spiritual machine that kills fascists.

So Much to Say: I've Said too Much
Its impossible for me to do justice to the Mongolian experience with 5 days and no Mongolian education.  The future of Mongolia remains in contention, poverty remains rampant while social services like transportation, education, health care and child care are in ruins.  While a sparsely populated country, the lack of clear ecological policies are going to catch up with the Mongolian environment.  The youth movements, in tension between the democratic revolutionaries of the previous generation and the rise of Mongolian hip-hop culture, are significantly influenced by fascism, but its impossible for me to appreciate other influences and the dynamic between them all.

As I return to work in Beijing, I can't help but fantasize about interesting possibilities for a health worker collaborating with Mongolian doctors and researchers to push the standards of Mongolian health care...

ed. note: The phrase laowai is an anglicization of the Chinese 老外 (lao wai = old foreigner).  See the 1st post from China for more.

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