ALTERNATE NAMES: Mengwushiwei
LOCATION: China (primarily Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region)
POPULATION: 4.8 million
The term "Mongol" originated from a tribe called Mengwushiwei in the Chinese book Jiu Tang Shu (The Ancient History of the Tang Dynasty), written in the tenth century. Mengwushiwei was changed to "Mongol" for the first time during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). It gradually became the common name of many tribes. The Mongol people originally lived along the east bank of the Erguna River in central Inner Mongolia. Around the seventh century, they started to migrate toward the grassland in the west. In the twelfth century, they lived in the upper reaches of Onon River, Kerulen River, and Tola River, east to the Kente Mountains. Their tribal leader, Temujin, was a powerful man whose strength came from his ability to command his loyal army. He conquered other tribes and set up the Mongol empire. He took the title of Genghis Khan. From 1211 to 1215, Genghis Khan expanded his territory to Central Asia and to the southern part of Russia. His successors swept west as far as Vienna and deep into the Middle East. The occupied territory soon split into numerous independent countries. In 1260, Kublai (grandson of Genghis Khan) became the fifth supreme Khan and founder of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). He destroyed the Southern Song Dynasty in 1279 and established China as the center of his huge empire. After the fall of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368, the Mongols suffered from internal division and conflict for many years.
In the 1920s, a large part of the traditional homeland of the Mongols became the People's Republic of Mongolia, established with the support of Soviet Russia. The other portion of the former Mongolian homeland remained within the Chinese border and was called Inner Mongolia. After 1949, it became the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
The Mongols living in China numbered 4.8 million in 1990. They are mainly concentrated in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Many also live in autonomous regions in Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. There are also Mongol communities scattered in Ningxia, Hebei, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Beijing. The territory of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region covers some 460,000 square miles (1,191,300 square kilometers), mostly hilly grassland and desert.
The Mongol language belongs to the Altaic family, Mongolian group. There are three dialects. The writing system was created in the thirteenth century AD . Kublai Khan ordered a Buddhist monk from Tibet to reform an ancient writing system. The system had been used to record oral literature but had ultimately been abandoned. The Mongolian writing system was later revised several times by native Mongol linguists so as to conform to the spoken language.
A large number of Mongolian myths are related to the origins of the Mongol people. One of their more important myths describes a tribe called Mongu fighting with other tribes for many years. Finally, the Mongu were defeated. All their people were killed except two men and two women who, by sheer luck, escaped death. They went through many hardships and ultimately took refuge in a remote, thickly forested mountain. Only a narrow winding trail led to the outside world. This was a place with plenty of water and lush grass. They married. Many years later, the population grew so large that the land could not produce enough grain to feed all the people. They had to move but, unfortunately, the narrow trail was blocked. However, an iron mine was discovered. They cut down the trees, killed bulls and horses, and made a number of bellows to use in making iron into tools. Then they began to work the mine. They not only opened an outlet to the outside world, but they also got plenty of iron. They are the ancestors of the Mongols. To commemorate their heroic undertakings, the Mongols used to smelt iron at the end of every year.
Originally, the Mongols believed in shamanism. The shaman is a witch doctor, a dream reader, and an intermediary (go-between) between the living and the spirit world. He is also skilled in divination (predicting the future or reading signs in nature) and astrology. Remnants of shamanism still exist, including sacrificial offerings to ancestors, and reverence for the Sun, Moon, and nature.
Lamaism, the Tibetan form of Buddhism, entered the Mongolian society in the sixteenth century. It had a strong impact on the Mongolian culture for centuries. Mongols sought the counsel and help of the lama (priest or monk) for every aspect of their life: migration, marriage, childbirth, disease, and death. Since 1949, Lamaist beliefs and practices have decreased drastically.
The Spring Festival (or lunar New Year, on the Western calendar, between January 21 and February 20) is an important holiday for the Mongols, as it is for the other nationalities of China. In preparation for this holiday, the Mongols make new clothes and store large amounts of mutton, wine, and dairy products. On the eve of the lunar New Year, all members of the family sit cross-legged in the center of the ger or yurt (a framed tent made of felt or hide) and begin their dinner at midnight. They offer toasts to the elders, eat and drink a great deal, and listen to storytelling all night long. Early the next morning, they dress up and call on relatives and friends at their homes. Dancing and singing are part of the celebration.
The Feast of Genghis Khan is on April 23 on the lunar calendar, set according to the phases of the moon. On the Western calendar, it falls between May 17 and June 16. On this occasion, there are activities to commemorate Genghis Khan, exchanges of goods, theatrical performances, and sports games.
In June or July of each year, the Mongols celebrate a special ritual, called Aobao . This holiday seems to go back to an ancient shamanistic practice. Aobao is a kind of altar or shrine made of a pile of stone, adobe bricks, and straw. The Aobao is believed to be the dwelling of the gods. During the ritual, tree branches are tossed into the Aobao, which is surrounded by lit joss sticks (similar to incense). Wine and horse milk are sprinkled over the mound, and mutton and cheese are placed on it as sacrificial offerings. While performing the ritual, the shaman (witch doctor) dances and enters into a trance. Wrestling and horse racing follow the religious ceremony.
The Nadam Rally is a traditional holiday of the Mongols. Nadam means recreation and play. It is a happy festival of the herders, held annually on a selected day in the summer or in the fall.
Depending on local custom, the Mongols practice cremation, burial in the ground, or hold a funeral in the wilderness. In the western region (where herders travel in search of pasture), the last form of burial is the most common. The body of the dead is placed in an open, horse-drawn cart and carried over rough terrain until the corpse falls off the cart due to the bumps. Then the body is laid in the wild. It is believed that when it is eaten by wolves or vultures, the soul of the dead rises to heaven. If the body is still there after a week, it is regarded as unlucky: the soul was not accepted in heaven. A lama (priest) is then invited to recite the scriptures and pray for the dead.
There are no inns or hotels in the boundless grasslands, but one can always count on the Mongols for help. Their hospitality displays the generosity that is characteristic of nomadic peoples. The master of a ger or yurt (house) will put up a stranger for the night. He offers milk tea, mutton, and wine. The whole family shows concern by asking detailed questions. Upon leaving, the guest will be accompanied for quite a distance, then told the direction of his destination.
The Mongols in Yunnan have a special custom called "to meet the firewood-cutter." When it is about time for someone to return home after cutting firewood for a whole day, one member of the family will go ahead to meet the tired person halfway. In this manner they express loving care for the family member engaged in hard labor.
The ger or yurt is the traditional housing of the Mongols. It can be taken apart and carried on horseback, thus being suitable for nomadic life. The yurt is round with an umbrella-like cover. The qana (walls) are made of lattice similar to an expandable baby gate used in Western homes. The wall sections are held together with leather lacing. The roof ring is a usually a large hoop to which the wall sections and roof poles are attached. The door is usually constructed of wood, and is always positioned to face the southwest. The threshold is believed to hold the spirit of the household, and it is considered a great insult to the owner of the house to step on the threshold.
The exterior is covered with large pieces of felt tied together by ropes. Only a round skylight and a doorframe toward the southwest are left open. The yurt may be small as 4 yards (3.6 meters) in diameter, but much larger ones may house hundreds of people. Stationary yurts are common in seminomadic districts. Most of them are made of wood and adobe.
In agricultural areas, the Mongols usually dwell in one-story houses like the Chinese, within the boundaries of a village. Mongols living in towns and cities have, to a large extent, adopted the Chinese way of life.
Horseback riding is the traditional mode of transportation. Recently, however, bicycles, motorcycles, and cars have become more common in Mongol towns and villages.
A Mongolian family generally consists of a husband, a wife, and their young children. The sons, after marrying, move out of their parents' home. However, they live nearby and may travel with their parents in search of new pastures. In seminomadic districts, families often include parents, sons, and daughters-in-law.
The Mongols are monogamous. The family is dominated by the man, but herders usually consult their wives about major decisions. Furniture, clothes, and ornaments brought to the family by the wife during the wedding ceremony remain her own property.
A custom of "denying entrance on marrying" has been common among the nomadic and seminomadic Mongols. The bridegroom, accompanied by relatives, rides to the bride's yurt (house). He finds the door slammed in his face. After repeated requests, the door is finally opened. He presents a hada (ceremonial silk scarf) to his parents-in-law on entering and is given a banquet with a whole lamb. After the meal, the bride sits with her back to the others. The bridegroom kneels behind her and asks what her nickname was in childhood. He drinks at her house all night long. The following day, the bride leaves the yurt first. She circles the yurt on horseback three times, then speeds along to the bride-groom's house. The bridegroom and his relatives ride after her. The door is also slammed in her face and is only opened after repeated requests.
Mongol dress varies with the environment and the seasons. In winter the Mongols living in pastoral areas (where domesticated animals are herded) usually wear a sheep fur coat with silk or cloth on the outside. In summer, they wear loose robes, usually in red, yellow, or dark navy, with long sleeves and silk waistbands called bus. Knives with beautiful sheaths, snuff-bottles, and flint are worn as pendants at the waist. (Snuff, a tobacco product, is either powdered and inhaled, or ground up and held between the cheek and gums. Flint is a hard stone used for striking a spark to start a fire.) High leather boots with the toes turned up are often worn.
Mongolian peasants wear a cloth shirt and robes, or cotton-padded clothes and trousers, along with a waistband. Felt boots are worn in winter. Men wear black or brown pointed hats, and some of them wrap their heads with silk. Women wrap red or blue cloth on their heads and wear a cone-shaped hat in winter.
The main traditional foods of the Mongols include beef, mutton, and milk products, supplemented by grain and vegetables. Roasted mutton and yogurt are popular. Breakfast usually consists of stir-fried millet tea with milk. Beef, mutton, and noodle soup are eaten for lunch and dinner. Mongols drink the milk of horses, cows, and sheep, as well as tea and wine. Rice and flour are the staple foods of the peasants. Common dishes include dumplings, steamed stuffed buns, and meat pie.
There are more than a dozen universities and colleges, more than 80 technical schools, about 5,000 middle (junior and senior) schools, and 30,000 primary schools in Inner Mongolia. The cultural and educational level of the Mongols is higher than average among the national minorities of China.
There are quite a number of Mongolian folk songs. They may be divided into two different groups. One is common in pastoral areas, slow in tempo and free in rhythm. The other is popular in seminomadic districts, with quicker tempo and regular rhythm. Haolibao is a popular style of singing performance. The melody is rather fixed, but the words are impromptu (spontaneous), usually inspired by a sudden event that touches the singer. Matouqin ("horse-head stringed instrument") is a traditional instrument of the Mongols. The Chopstick Dance and Winecup Dance, soft and gentle, are frequently seen during festivities. The Horse Dance and Saber Dance, bold and generous, reflect the nomadic styles.
Literature in Mongolian includes the heroic epic "Life of Jiangger," which was written in the fifteenth century, and "Historical Romance," written in the nineteenth century.
Most Mongols are engaged in livestock husbandry, raising mainly sheep, cows, and horses. Mongolian horses, small and tough, are used for transport and as a source of milk, and they are the subject of dance and songs. The Mongols develop a reverence for horses from childhood. Most children love horseback riding, and participate in games and races on horseback.
The three main sports in Mongolia are horse racing, arrow shooting (archery), and wrestling. After a day of work, children, teenage boys, and male adults under the age of fifty frequently gather before the yurt (house) and wrestle. For a match, they wear a black vest, heavy boots, and sing as they wrestle. There are no weight classes, and the object is to knock the opponent off balance, causing his to touch one knee and one elbow to the ground.
In archery, the Mongolian target is made of a row of small woven leather rings about 10 feet (3 meters) long. Some of the rings are painted red. In the last few decades, women have joined in the competition. Men shoot 40 arrows from about 215 feet (75 meters), and women shoot 20 arrows from about 180 feet (60 meters).
Movies and television have become popular and widespread over the last decades of the twentieth century. Publications, broadcasts, drama, and films in the Mongolian language are flourishing. The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region boasts a state-of-the-art film studio. Cultural centers and libraries promote the Mongolian language and cultural productions in cities, towns, and even in the pastoral areas.
Snuff-bottles are treasured among the Mongolians. They are made of gold, silver, copper, agate, jade, coral, or amber, with fine relief (raised carving) of horses, dragons, rare birds, and other animals. Another artifact is the pipe bowl, made of five metals, with delicate figures and designs. Supplemented by a sandalwood pole and red agate holder, the pipe bowl is considered precious. According to a Mongolian saying, "A pipe bowl is worth a sheep."
Urgent problems facing the Mongols are how to stabilize livestock husbandry and how to introduce scientific methods to breed the livestock. Breeding livestock is the mainstay of the Mongolian society. The modernization of their traditional way of making a living is one of the keys to economic success.
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