Mongols in China

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Mongols in China

LOCATION: China (primarily Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region)
POPULATION: 5.81 million
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: China and Her National Minorities


The expression "Mongol" originated from a tribe called Mengwushiwei in the Chinese book Jiu Tang Shu (The Ancient History of the Tang Dynasty), written in the 10th century. It seems the term was transliterated "Mongol" for the first time in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). It gradually became the common name of many tribes. The east bank of the Erguna River (in central Inner Mongolia) was the cradle of the ancient Mongol people. Around the 7th century, they started to move toward the grassland in the west. In the 12th century, they dwelled in the upper reaches of Onon River, Kerulen River, and Tola River, east to the Kente Mountains. They made up a tribal group in which a large number of aristocrats gradually emerged from the nomads. Their leader, Temujin, was a powerful man whose strength came from the loyalty of his army and his own ability to command it. He conquered the other tribes and set up the Mongol empire. He took the title of Genghis Khan, Mongolian writings were created, and laws were codified. From 1211 to 1215, Genghis Khan expanded his territory to Central Asia and to the southern part of Russia. From 1227 to 1241, his successors swept west as far as Vienna. From 1253 to 1258, the Mongolian cavalry pushed deep into the Middle East. Before long, the occupied territory split into independent countries, including the Chinkai Empire, the Chagatai Empire, the Ogedei Empire, and the El Empire. In 1260, Kubilai (grandson of Genghis Khan) became the fifth supreme Khan and founder of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), which had its capital in China (in present-day Beijing). He destroyed the Southern Song Dynasty in 1279 and established China as the center of his immense empire. After the fall of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368, the Mongols suffered from internal division and conflict for a very long time.

Lamaism, the Tibetan form of Buddhism, entered the Mongolian society in the 16th century. Th ereafter, it had a strong impact on the Mongolian culture and socio-economic situation for centuries.

Under the influence of Soviet Russia, a revolutionary government was set up in 1921. Three years later, a large part of the traditional homeland of the Mongols became the People's Republic of Mongolia, established with the support of Soviet Russia, but it did not receive diplomatic recognition from many countries for decades. 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 5.81 million in 2000. They are mainly concentrated in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, but many also live in autonomous prefectures and counties in Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. There are also Mongol communities scattered in Ningxia, Hebei, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Beijing. The territory of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region covers some 460,000 sq mi, 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 13th century. Kubilai Khan ordered a Buddhist monk from Tibet to reform an ancient writing system, which had been used to record oral literature but had ultimately been abandoned. The Mongolian writing system was revised several times by native Mongol linguists so as to conform to the spoken language. The Mongols in Xinjiang have used a variant of the Mongolian writing system since the 17th century.


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 was defeated and all their people were killed, except two men and two women who escaped death by sheer luck. They went through many hardships and ultimately took refuge in a remote, thickly forested mountain, where only a narrow winding trail led to the outside world. This was a place with plenty of water and lush grass. Th ey married. Many years later, the population grew to such a size that the land could not produce enough grain to nourish all the people. They had to move but, unfortunately, the narrow trail was obstructed. However, an iron mine was found by surprise. They cut down the trees, killed bulls and horses, and made a number of bellows. Then, they exploited the mine. Th is way, they not only opened an outlet to the outside world but also got plenty of iron. A vast expanse of grassland awaited them. They are the ancestors of the Mongols. To commemorate their heroic undertakings, the Mongols used to smelt iron at every year-end.

Some myths about the flood and sun-shooting are Mongolian versions of Chinese or Tibetan mythology.


Originally, the Mongols believed in Shamanism. The shaman is a witch doctor, a dream reader, and an intermediary between the living and the spirit world; he is also skilled in divination and astrology. Up to the present, the remnants of Shamanism, such as sacrificial offerings to ancestors and reverence for the sun, moon, and nature, still exist.

Lamaism brought about a strong influence from Tibet, such as the integration of religion with politics. Built here and there, Lamaist temples became independent manors possessing land, livestock, and manpower. The Mongols gradually turned to Lamaism. They sought the counsel and help of the lama for every aspect of their life: migration, marriage, childbirth, disease, and death. During the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), the number of lama increased to almost one third of their population. Since the lama were not engaged in material production and not allowed to marry, the economic and demographic development of the society was greatly inhibited. Since 1949, Lamaist beliefs and practices have decreased drastically.


The Spring Festival (lunar calendar; 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 tailor new clothes and store large quantities 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 yurt and begin their dinner at midnight. Th ey offer toasts to the senior persons, eat and drink extravagantly, and listen to storytelling all night long. Early the next morning, they dress up and call on relatives' and friends' homes. They kowtow to the senior persons. According to their custom, it is the duty of the son-in-law of the host to propose the toasts, which are never refused. Heated with wine, they dance while singing.

The Feast of Genghis Khan is April 23 (lunar calendar; Western calendar, between May 17 and June 16). On this occasion there are commemorative activities, exchange of commodities, theatrical performances, and sport games.

In June or July of each year, the Mongols celebrate a special ritual, called Aobao, which seems to go back to an ancient shamanistic practice. Aobao is a kind of altar or shrine made of a pile of stone, adobes, and straw, believed to be the dwelling of the gods in shamanism. During the ritual, tree branches are plucked into the Aobao, which is surrounded by lit joss sticks. 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 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 herdsmen, 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 funeral in the wilderness. In the west nomadic area, 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 drops down 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 is then invited to recite the scriptures and pray for the dead. A donation is necessary. In case of the burial in the ground, the deceased is wrapped in white cloth and put in a plank cabinet or in a wicker basket, then buried.


There are no inns in the boundless grasslands, but one can always count on the Mongols for help. Th eir hospitality displays the lavishness that is characteristic of nomadic peoples. The master of a yurt will put up a stranger for the night. He offers milk tea, mutton, and wine. Surrounding the guest, the whole family will show its concern by making detailed inquiries. Upon leaving, the guest will be accompanied for quite a distance and then told the direction of his destination. If a herdsman calls at his friend's home, the host will offer his snuff-bottle to the guest, who will offer in turn his bottle for exchange. Each takes a sniff at the bottle of the opposite side and then gives the bottle back.

The Mongols in Yunnan have a special custom called "to meet the firewood-cutter." When it is about the 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, showing loving care for the family member engaged in hard labor.


The yurt is the traditional housing of the Mongols. It can be dismantled and transported on horseback, thus being suitable for nomadic life. The yurt is like a cylinder covered by an umbrella. The wall can be split into several pieces. Each is about 2.75 yards long and 1.5 inches high, made of long narrow pieces of wood arranged in networks. To set it up, one connects the separate pieces into a cylinder, which is covered by an umbrella-like roof also made of separate pieces. The wall exterior is covered with large pieces of felt, which are tied together by ropes. Only a round skylight and a doorframe toward the southwest are left open. The yurt may be as small as 4 yards in diameter, but the large ones may house hundreds of people. Stationary yurts are common in semi-nomadic districts and are mostly made of wood and adobes. In agricultural areas, the Mongols usually dwell in one-story houses like the Chinese, within the confines of a village. The Mongols living in towns and cities have, to a large extent, adopted the Chinese way of life.

The Mongols are adept at horse riding. Whenever they can ride instead of walking, they do so. Recently, however, bicycles, motorcycles, and cars have entered Mongol towns and villages, transforming the mode of transportation.


A Mongolian family generally consists of a man, his wife, and their young children. The sons, after wedding, move out of their parents' home. However, their yurts are relatively close to each other, so that they may move together with their parents in search of new pastures. In semi-nomadic districts, one finds large families, including parents, sons, and their spouses.

The Mongols are monogamous. The family is dominated by the man, but herdsmen usually consult their wives when matters arise. 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 wedding" has been prevalent among the nomadic and semi-nomadic Mongols. The bridegroom, accompanied by relatives, rides to the bride's yurt. He finds the door slammed in his face. After repeated requests, the door is finally opened. He presents a hada (a 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 her pet name in childhood. He drinks at her house all night long. The following day, the bride leaves the yurt first. She rides a horse and circles the yurt three times, then speeds along to the bridegroom'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 usually wear a worn-out 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 a silk waistband. Knives with beautiful sheaths, snuff-bottles, and flint are worn as pendants at the waist. Long leather boots are often worn. All these items are related to the nomadic style of life. Mongolian peasants wear a cloth shirt, underwear and robes, or cotton-padded clothes and trousers. Felt boots are worn in winter. The old habit of wearing a waistband has been retained. Men like black or brown hats. 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 with milk tea. Butter and salt are always added to the milk tea. Beef, mutton, and noodle soup are eaten for lunch and dinner. They drink the milk of horses, cows, and sheep, as well as brick tea and wine. Rice and flour are the staple foods of the peasants. Common dishes include dumplings, steamed stuffed buns, and meat pie.


According to data collected in 1978, there were 15 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, which may be divided into two different groups. One is prevalent in pastoral areas, slow in tempo and free in rhythm. The other is popular in semi-nomadic districts, with quicker tempo and regular rhythm. Haolibao is a style of singing performance, very popular in Mongolian areas. The melody is rather fixed, but the words are impromptu, usually inspired by a sudden event that touches the singer. Songs are usually sung by two singers in an antiphonal style but sometimes by a single performer. 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 well the nomadic styles.

Literature in the Mongolian script includes a heroic epic "Life of Jiangger" written in the 15th century and a "Historical Romance" written in the 19th century.


Most of the Mongols are engaged in livestock husbandry, raising mainly sheep, cows, and horses. Mongolian horses, small and tough, serve the herdsman for transport, as a source of milk, and as subject of dance and songs. The Mongols develop a reverence for horses from childhood. It seems the expression "flying horse" is of Mongolian origin.


In addition to horse racing and arrow-shooting, wrestling is one of the favorite pastimes of the Mongolian men. After a day of work, kids, young fellows, and male adults under 50 frequently gather before the yurt and wrestle under the sunset. For a match, they wear a black vest and sing as they wrestle.


Movies and television have become popular and widespread over the last decades. 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 disseminate the Mongolian language and cultural productions in cities, towns, and even in the pastoral areas.


Snuff-bottles are treasured among the Mongolians. Th ey are made of gold, silver, copper, agate, jade, coral, or amber, with fine relief of horse, dragon, rare birds, and animals. Another artifact is the pipe bowl, made of five metals, with delicate figures and designs. Supplemented by a sandalwood pole and a red agate holder, it is considered very precious. A Mongolian saying states: "A pipe bowl is worth a sheep."


One notices a strong trend among the Mongols to engage in trade. An urgent problem facing the Mongols at present is how to stabilize livestock husbandry and how to introduce scientific methods to breed the livestock. As breeding livestock is the mainstay of the Mongolian society, the modernization of their traditional mode of production is one of the keys to economic success.


The Chinese constitution states that women have equal rights with men in all areas of life, and most legislation is gender neutral. However, there are continued reports of discrimination, sexual harassment, wage discrepancies, and other gender related problems. The gap in educational level between women and men is narrowing with women making up 47.1% of college students in 2005, but only 32.6% of doctoral students. Mongols have achieved higher-than-average levels of education when compared to the national minorities of China.

China has strict family planning laws. It is illegal for women to marry before 20 years of age (22 for men), and it is illegal for single women to give birth. The Family Planning Bureau can require women to take periodic pregnancy tests and enforce laws that often leave women with no real options other than abortion or sterilization. Though minority populations were previously exempt from family planning regulations, policy has changed in recent years to limit minority population growth. Today, urban minority couples may have two children while rural couples may have three or four.


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—by C. Le Blanc