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Crisis of Cultural Identity in Mongolian Nomadic Civilization


It is the matter of honour for me to attend such a gathering of distinguished scholars, who are discussing one of the important issues facing the contemporary world crisis of cultural identity and to share my own ideas in this regard.

Today, at the turn of the twenty-first century all human societies have become increasingly interlinked with one other through global markets and the spread of a universal consumer culture. The need of development, which probably every country faces, gives a need in modern technology from the available source, i.e., from the West. This, on the one hand makes possible the development of the backward societies and accumulation of material wealth, on the other hand, this process results in an increasing homogenization of all human societies, regardless of their origin or cultural inheritances. This process dictates unescapable unification of education pattern, replacement of traditional institutions like tribe clan or family by new economic units, in some cases resulting in progressive modernization or Westernization of many societies.

I am not against modernization, but against the modernization with the increasing effect of Westernization, eroding the traditional values in many eastern societies. The effect of Westernization or, I would rather say, Europeanization one can clearly see in the example of the Mongolian nomadic civilization.

Before deliberating on the crisis of cultural identity of the Mongolian nomadic society I would like to dwell on the formation and description of this type of society.

Around the third millenium bc the vast region from today’s Central Asia till the Korean peninsula in the east, from the forests of Siberia to the valleys of Yellow River, was inhabited by number of cattle breeder tribes. The type of economic activity, characteristic to these tribes, was dictated by the natural conditions, in which they had to exist as a major part of the region is steppe or low altitude hills. At present when we speak about the nomadism in central Asia, we will have to make one major distinction for the muslim nomadic societies in the Central Asian Republic of the former Soviet Union and Chinese Turkestan and Buddhist nomadic culture, comprising Mongolia, some regions in Russia and China.

The vast area of Buddhist nomadic civilization with dominance of Mongol-speaking people had its own cultural identity, born of the speciality and peculiarity of their existence and due to many historic, social circumstances. This civilization, mostly misunderstood by the Western audience, or I would say by the settled societies, claimed to be barbarians without any cultural heritage or tradition, had its own highly developed culture and quite sophisticated technology suited to their own living conditions. Their cultural and technological inheritance was denied publicity mostly because the scholars from the settled societies could not understand that these are simply different societies, living in different circumstances with completely different measures.

The formation of Mongolian nomadic culture can be divided into three different steps of development. These are:

1. Early period of nomadism (struggle for dominance in the region by the Turkic and Mongol tribes)

2. The period of unified Mongolian State

3. Adoption of Buddhism.

Early Period of Nomadism

The period starts from the third millenium bc and lasts till the twelfth century ad. During this period the Great Steppe was inhabited by the tribes of Mongol and Turk origin, who were co-existing and struggling for the dominance over the region. In the third century bc the Huns established their hegemony over the region thus laying the foundation of Mongolian nomadic culture. Besides having enough achievements in the field technology (they had quite sophisticated scientific observations on nomadic cattle breeding) they were successful in creating a unique culture (they had the script called Orkhon Enisei Script, similar to Runic scripts). The Huns were defeated in the first century ad by another tribe of Mongol origin, Xianbis. From the first century ad till the twelfth century a number of tribes established their dominance over the great steppe region: Xianbis (Mongol origin) from first to third century, Niruns (Mongol origin) or Jou Jians fourth-sixth century, Turks sixth-eighth century, Uighurs eighth-ninth century, Kirgizs ninth-tenth century, and Kidans (Mongol origin) from tenth to twelfth century.

This was a period of intermixing of Mongol and Turkic speaking culture, both sides acquiring many customs, traditions and cultural achievements of each other. The Empire of Kidans has a special place in this period. The Kidans, a tribe of Mongol origin who established the hegemony over the Great Steppe in the tenth century, later retreated to the Chinese territory, losing their control over the nomadic Mongolian tribes. In China they established the Empire of Lyao but were assimilated in the settled Chinese culture and underwent physical sinification. But during the dominance of Kidans in the steppe region they established two Academies of Sciences and adopted two scripts as their State scripts: one based on Chinese script, Ikh, and the other based on the Uighur script, designed for the nomads. Later the Uighur script was adopted by Mongols and some other tribes of Turkic and Tungus origin.

This period gave to the Mongolian culture not only sophisticated military science, which later was successfully elaborated by Genghis Khan, but also the veterinary and quite sophisticated agriculture science. There is evidence that the Mongols started to conduct selection among their horses in order to get the best breed and many other examples could be cited here.

The Period of Unified Mongol State

The great Statesman and leader Genghis Khan, born Temujin, united all Mongol tribes in the valley of Tuul, Orkhon and Onon (known as Mongols of three rivers) and conducted a series of conquests, bringing the tribes of Great Steppe under his leadership.

Besides the great conquests, the name of Genghis Khan is connected for Mongols with the acquisition of their own national and cultural identity. He gave to the Mongols their State script based on the Uighur script and first Constitution Ikh Yassa, and the most important, starting from that time Mongol tribes found their identity in single national unit.

The Great Empire, comprising vast territories with both settled and nomadic population, was created during the rule of Genghis Khan and his immediate Successors. China, Central Asia, Persia, Middle East and Russia were brought under the control of the Mongols. To rule such a great empire, populated mostly with hostile defeated nations which limited and outnumbered the Mongols heavily (Historians believe that the population of Mongolia was around 400 thousands while China had estimatedly 65 mln and Russia 20 mln population), was not possible without well-thought and thoroughly designed system of governance. The basis of such governance was the preservation of its own identity over the conquered nations. In fact the nomadic identity of the tribes, inhabiting the vast territory of the Steppe region with its stronger identification against the national, as the nomadic culture provided such varying degrees of identity, proposing settled population as alien to the nomadic one, which was promoted by the Mongol rulers, has played a greater role not only in governing but also in conquering other settled nations. The Mongol conquest had been successful, among other things, for the military discipline of the Mongol armies or the policy of fear and repression so much exaggerated in historiography, as the majority of the Mongol cavalry consisted of the tribesmen, who were only yesterday conquered by Genghis Khan, not only of the Mongol origin but also Manchu, Turk and Tungus origin. But why they showed so a high degree of obedience to their commanders and won battles after battles in alien territory far from their motherland in hostile environment, conquering numerically superior nations? After the death of Genghis Khan his grandson Batu was given only 4000 cavalrymen and Batu raised an army of hundred thousand soldiers from the conquered territories to fight and defeat the Russian kingdoms and European countries. Only the death of Great Khan Ogodei was the reason for his return to Mongolia. According to the common logic his army must have revolted against him and killed the negligible amount of Mongol cavalrymen, half of which were left behind to guard the headquarters. But they did not revolt, rather they fought with dedication to put their conqueror in control of Russia and Europe. The only possible explanation is that the tribesmen identified themselves with the nomad Mongols and the settled population of Russia and Europe were alien to them more than their suzerain Mongols.

The tribal community, divided by the language and origin, had one unified identification in the way of living, cultural heritage and technology. During the great Empire many scholars from the conquered nations were working the academies of sciences founded by the Mongol rulers, thus enriching the knowledge of the Mongols by the achievement of other civilizations. It was the Mongols, who introduced paper currency to the world, it was the Mongols, who brought canon to Europe, it was the Mongols, who laid down the principles of the modern postal system. The cultural achievements of the Mongols were enriched by the achievement of the other settled civilizations.

Already from the third generation of the Mongol rulers the Mongols lost their single cultural identity, some of them adopting Islam, some Christianity, some Buddhism etc. The feeling of national unity and identity was still high, as when the soldiers of Khubilai Khan refused to fight against provincial ruler Khaidu on the ground that they did not wish the slaughter of their fellow countrymen, but the religious and cultural alienation was stronger. So Muslim rulers of Central Asia were fighting against the Christian Mongols settled in Russia and the discipline which united the Mongols fell down and the Mongols started to fight against each other. The Mongol Empire as a single unit came to its end and the Mongols settled abroad were absorbed by the local population in the absence of their own identity and from the past glory of the Empire only nostalgia of belonging to the Great Genghis Khan continued merely as a slogan. By the fourteenth century the last Mongol Empire in China Yuan Dynasty had fallen and the outnumbered and alienated Mongol tribes had to confine themselves again to the Steppe region of Mongolia.

Adoption of Buddhism

By the fourteenth century military power of the Mongols faded and they lost the feeling of cohesive cultural identity among themselves. The virus of communalization by religious criteria has spread all over the Steppe and the same tribes living on the same steppe ceased to consider each other as the same, because one was Muslim and the other was Buddhist. The Golden Order ruling over the Siberia, Russia and part of Central Asia stopped to consider themselves to be part of the Empire and its Muslim rulers started to look more to west and southward. The Chagatais and the Nogais faced the same situation. Even the Mongols in Mongolia had been divided into three parts by the tribal criteria and were engaged in bloody war.

Neither military power nor nomadic identity feeling played a role anymore and the Mongol Khans felt that there should be something, which would keep the Mongol tribes feeling homogeneity between each other.

Buddhism was chosen to be a State religion. The choice of Indo-Tibetan version of Buddhism was not incidental. Buddhism had succeeded to unite Mongol tribes spiritually and assisted the great degree to the Mongol rulers to counter the threat posed by the Christian, Russia and China.

Introduction of Buddhism to Mongolian society had positive impact at that time. Buddhism has become one of the most important criteria of Mongolian nomadic identity and also Buddhist monasteries have turned into the unique cultural centres of the society. Monasteries kept quite big libraries where not only Buddhist texts, but also many books related to the traditional science and history were preserved. A lot of traditions and customs of the Mongols were enriched by Buddhist meanings and already by seventeenth century the Mongol speaking Buddhist nomads were quite different from the Muslim nomads both by religion and language.

Buddhism was the final touch in the formation of the nomadic Mongol society and a society with distinct characteristics of nomadism appeared in the country.

The distinct characteristics of the nomadic Mongolian society were:

1. A special, peculiar way of life, customs and tradition were formed due to the nomadic way of life, providing clear distinction from the settled population of both Russia and China. The Mongols elaborated not only agricultural science, fitted to the nomadic civilization, but also bred a special type of cattle suited for the nomadic way of life. The Mongolian livestock does not give plenty of milk or meat as in the settled civilizations, but all milk, meat and other outcomings were available in equal proportions. The livestock was fully prepared to live in the extreme natural conditions of the country. Only by the 30s of this century with the introduction of settled civilizations’ achievements, like cattle fences and preparation of fodder, the original Mongolian type of cattle started to lose their characteristics.

2. Special customs were developed connected with the nomadic way of life: gatherings in connection with the felt making, hair cutting of a baby, songs to make cattle to accept the rejected baby etc. With the introduction of Western or European science of cattle breeding these customs started to fade away.

3. A special type of dwellings called ger, was developed by the Mongols: wooden structure dismembered in one hour, brought to other place and fitted in two hours.

4. The calendar designed to fit the nomadic way was designed with a number of holidays fully suited to the need of their way of life. The main events of this calendar were Tsagaan sar, or the Mongolian new year (usually after the new year the cold of the winter comes down), Hansh Day (the day, on which all animals start to wake up after winter sleep and all plants start to blossom etc.).

5. The Mongols developed their script, originally acquired from Uighurs, but developed to the extent that suited all the dialects of the Mongolian language (In fact the Mongols used a dozen scripts out of which only the Uighur script has survived due to its highly developed structure).

6. The Mongols kept a tradition of written history, tradition of respecting the books. The best silk was used to wrap the books, no Mongol would allow himself to step or sit on a book. World famous books like Secret History of Mongols, Golden History and Crystal Mirror were written by the Mongols.

7. Buddhist religion gave to the Mongols not only the clear distinction from the neighbours, preserving the nation from Christian Russia, Confucian China and Muslim Central Asia, but also Buddhist monasteries were turned to the cultural centres of the Mongols. Most of the educated people lived in the monasteries, creating cultural valuables. Between the nomadic herdsmen and the settled monasteries a special type of symbiosis developed, which at the first instance looked like a religious relationship, but had deeper roots for the meaning of the way of life of society. The Nomads were supplying food, money and other items and supporting the monasteries financially, while the monasteries were acting in their turn as preservators of the tradition and keepers of the intellectual well-being of the nomads.

By the beginning of the twentieth century and after the establishment of the communist regime in Mongolia, the nomadic way of life had undergone serious changes. First of all, systematic campaign to eliminate monasteries were brought on by the authorities, subsequently resulting in a near total elimination of the monasteries (out of 700 monasteries in 1921 only one remained in 1989). With the decline of the monasteries many customs and tradition, which had provided the cultural distinction of the Mongols, faded. The Uighur script was changed to the Cyrillic, cutting off the new generation from the cultural heritage of the previous generations and transforming the logic of language. Many historical manuscripts were ignored under the name of the campaign against religion. The new gregorian calendar was enforced and many holidays which earlier were celebrated by the Mongols were banned. Even the Mongolian new year was declared a holiday only for the herdsmen. With the introduction of European agricultural science the traditional structure of the livestock was deformed. Whether these transformations were made intentionally or unintentionally is a different question to be considered, but definitely these transformations severely affected the traditional Mongolian society.

City culture was actively propagated, resulting in the spread of consumer attitude among the nomads. Today the city population and countryside nomad population look like arrivals from two completely different civilization. In the cities the Europeanization was carried out systematically and successfully.

Only by the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties, as a result of democratic changes in the country, the Mongols were able to address these questions freely. Nowadays many things are attempted to discover and revive the old cultural and traditional heritage. The religion is on the way to revival: only during the last three years the number of monasteries has reached 100.

The Government is taking steps to reintroduce the Uighur script. In fact the English language and Uighur script are now facts for everybody. Also many efforts are being made to revive the customs and traditions lost by our generation.

One thing is clear. Despite all these efforts it is now impossible to revive fully the old traditional society. Nowadays the most important question is how to find a proper combination of modernity and traditionality in Mongolian society. The Mongols should revive the nomadic technology, fitted to their own way of life, old traditions and customs and cultural heritage, which provided distinction from other civilizations, but on the other hand, they should adapt themselves to the challenges of the twenty-first century and realities of the modern world in order to find their own place in the fast modernizing world community. How well it is done only the time will show.


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