views updated May 11 2018


ETHNONYMS: Menggu (in Chinese), Monggol (in Mongolian)


Identification. Mongols live in a number of different countries. The Siberian Buriats and the Kalmuk Oirats on the Volga reside in the Russian Federation; the Barga, Khiangan, Juu Ud, Khorchin or Jirem, Chakhar, Shiliingol, Alshaa, Ordos, Turned, Daurs, and a small community of Buriat Mongols live in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region (IMAR), People's Republic of China (PRC); the Oirat (or Deed) Mongols live in Qinghai Province and in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, PRC; the Khalkha, along with a small population of Buriat and a larger one of Oirats, live in the Mongolian People's Republic (MPR).

Location. The range of Mongolian culture extends from northeastern Manchuria (125° E) westward to eastern Xinjiang (80° E). A north-south geographical projection extends in the south from the Ordos Desert, 37° N, northward to Lake Baikal in Siberia at 53° N. Mongols also live in Qinghai Province and along the lower Volga and Don rivers. There is a small remmant Mongolian community in Yunnan Province in the PRC.

The MPR, nearly four times the size of California, is wedged between Russia, to its north, and Inner Mongolia to the south. Ecologically, Mongols in Central Asia live in a landlocked, arid region. There is, nevertheless, much topographical diversity. In both the MPR and the IMAR there are high mountians; rich, wooded areas with rivers, streams, and lakes; and rolling plains of grass (steppes). The Mongolian plateau is the origin of many important Asian rivers. The Yellow River cuts through northwestern Inner Mongolia. The climate is characterized by warm summers and very cold, dry winters. The climate varies by region. At Ulaanbaatar (in Russian, Ulan Bator), capital of the MPR, the average temperature ranges from 18° C in July to below 0° C in January; whereas in Alshaa County in southwestern Inner Mongolia the temperatures can range from 37.7° C for July to below 0° C for January.

Demography. Mongols constitute 90 percent of the MPR's 1,943,000 total population. In contrast, Mongols constitute only 13.5 percent (2,681,000 Mongols and 60,000 Daurs) of the IMAR's 19,850,000 total population. The population in both regions is expanding. The MPR financially rewards families with six or more children, whereas the PRC, in 1986, restricted urban and peasant Mongolian families to two children. The new policy does not apply to pastoral Mongols.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Mongolian language is similar to other Altaic languages (Turkish, Uigur, Kitan, Jurchen, and Manchu). In the MPR the largest and most important dialect is Khalkha. In the MPR Oirat is the only other main dialect, whereas in the IMAR dialects may be divided into many regions: in the center there is the Chahar-Shiliingol dialect, which is closely related to standard Khalkha; in the northeast Barga and Buriat are spoken; in the southeast the major dialect is Khorchin; in the northwest it is Alshaa; and in the southwest it is the Ordos dialect. The Oirat or Kalmuck dialect is spoken in northwestern Xinjiang, Qinghai, and the western part of the MPR. With the exception of the Daurs, who speak a separate language in northeastern Inner Mongolia, the dialects are more or less mutually intelligible. Historically, the Mongols adopted a Uigur or vertical script under the leadership of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan (1206-1227). In 1946, the MPR formally adopted the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. The Uigur script remains the official script in the IMAR. In the MPR the official language is Mongolian, whereas in the IMAR both Mandarían and Mongolian are the official languages of government publication and documentation.

History and Cultural Relations

Mongols were an insignificant northern tribe until the early thirteenth century. Under the leadership of Chinggis Khan they were transformed into a large nomadic segmentary state. Khubilai (Kublai) Khan established the Yuan dynasty (1260-1368) and shifted the political center of Mongolian power from Karakorum (near Ulan Bator) to northern China (near Beijing). Mongol power declined after the Mongol dynasty in China was overthrown in 1368.

The Manchus, who conquered China in 1644, divided Mongolian territory into the geographical regions of Outer Mongolia and Inner Mongolia. They also reorganized the Mongols into a banner administration system that bound Mongols to a specific locality, thereby effectively curtailing migration. The collapse of the Manchu (or Qing) dynasty in 1911 resulted in the formation of autonomous regions in Outer Mongolia and among the Bargas. As Russia fell into a civil war, China abolished the newly formed regions, and thereby provoked the formation of the first Mongolian political parties. In Feburary 1921 White Russians entered Outer Mongolia and drove out Chinese forces; in July 1921, the Russian Red Army drove out the Whites and installed a "constitutional monarchy." The MPR was officially formed in 1924-Khorloogiin Choibalsan and Sukhbaatar (in Russian, Suke Bator) formed and led the early Revolutionary party, and Choibalsan served from 1939 to 1952 as premier. In the 1930s the Japanese formed a new government (Meng-Jiang) in central Inner Mongolia, headed by the Mongolian prince Demchigdonggrub (Dewang). The Japanese army withdrawal in 1945 enabled Soviet-Mongolian military units to enter Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. It was not until after the Soviets had rejected political unification that the majority of Inner Mongolian leaders agreed to back the Chinese Communist party. The MPR and USSR have several long-term economic and "friendship" agreements. In 1987, the MPR established diplomatic relations with the United States.

The MPR is, ethnically, relatively homogeneous. The Kazaks, who live in the west, are the MPR's largest minority group (4 percent), followed by the Russian and Chinese urbanites (2 percent each). There was considerable resentment of Soviet domination of the MPR. The Soviet Union, however, was also regarded as a useful protector against China, as is its successor, the Russian Federation. Inner Mongolia is an ethnically diverse region. Ethnic relations between Mongols and Han Chinese continue to swing between mild antagonism and overt hostility. Most Mongols in the IMAR regard themselves as citizens of the PRC.


The Mongols have always lived in a variety of dwellings: temporary grass shelters, the standard yurt (ger ) with a wooden latticework frame covered with felt, a permanent dwelling made from adobe brick, and multistory apartment complexes. Because of the fierce north winds, dwellings face the southeast. Today, 51 percent of the MPR's Mongolian population lives in cities, whereas the majority of the IMAR Mongols are farmers. The largest city in the MPR is Ulaanbaatar (population over 500,000). A few other "large" cities with a population of more than 10,000 are Choibalsan, Darkhan, and Erdenet. In the IMAR the three largest cities are Baotou (more than 500,000), Huhhot (491,950), and Wuhai (under 40,000).


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Mongols no longer concentrate on raising horses, cattle, camels, sheep, and goats. Instead there is a preference for sheep, which have the highest market value. Mongols continue to hunt a variety of animals: wild antelope, rabbits, pheasants, ducks, foxes, wolves, and marmots. In the mountainous areas they formerly hunted bears, deer, sable, and ermine.

The Mongols have used irrigation and dry-farm methods for centuries. Mongolian peasants grow barley, wheat, oats, corn, buckwheat, millet, potatoes, sugar beets, garlic, cabbage, onions, carrots, sorghum, and fruit trees (especially apples), and raise pigs and sheep. Among herders a typical diet consists primarily of millet, milk tea, dairy products, mutton, kumiss (fermented mare's milk) and liquor (khar arkhi ). Of the total land area in the MPR, about 65 percent is used for pasturage and fodder. In the MPR, most wheat is grown on state farms and fodder on collectives. With only 15 percent of its labor force employed in industry, the MPR relies on imports from the former Soviet Union for most of its industrial goods. The majority of Mongols living in the IMAR are peasants, with smaller numbers of herders and urbanites. The region is economically subsidized by the Chinese state.

Industrial Arts. Historically, Mongolian artisans were honored and respected. They worked in gold, silver, iron, wood, leather, and textiles. Recently the applied arts have increased in importance because of export demands and tourist preference.

Trade. Historically, Mongols supplemented their economy by trade and raiding. They never developed a merchant class. On a regular basis the Mongols traded animals, fur, and hides for grain, tea, silk, cloth, and manufactured items with Chinese and Russian trading companies. The Mongols also traded with each other during the naadam, which continues to function in the IMAR as a trade-marriage-entertainment fair. Most trade in the MPR is with the former USSR and eastern Europe, whereas most trade in the IMAR is either with other Chinese provinces or with the United States and Japan.

Division of Labor. The gender division of labor is complementary. Among herders, women and children milk, churn butter, cook, sew, and perform child-care duties, whereas the men tend the cattle, horses, and camels, collect hay, and hunt wild game and occasionally wolves. Both sexes tend and shear sheep. In agricultural settings, men construct dwellings and plant, irrigate, weed, and harvest the crops, whereas women cook, clean, sew, perform child care, and assist with the planting and harvesting. In urban settings both men and women work for a wage. Women are responsible for most of the household chores and childcare duties.

Land Tenure. In the MPR, collectivization, after failing in the 1920s, was reintroduced in the late 1950s and has remained the predominant mode of production. In China, collectivization was first introduced in the late 1950s. In the early 1980s it was rejected in favor of the responsiblity system, which extended to both farmer and herder longterm contracts to use the land.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. The kinship system (i.e., relations governed by rules of marriage, filiation, and descent) was strongly patrilineal in the past, but its larger units, the clans and lineages, lost many of their functions to the Manchu administrative institutions. Among herders the ail, a group of households consisting of kin and nonkin that migrated together, formed a discrete social unit. The functions of the ail included mutual help in times of trouble, common kinship rituals (weddings, hair-cutting rites, funerals, etc.), and economic exchange (payment of marriage expenses). Within urban settings, situational use of kinship ties is preferred over other corporate forms of kinship.

Marriage. Within the domestic cycle, there is more importance placed on marriage than on birth or death. Mongols typically married young: for girls it was at age 13 or 14, for boys a few years later. Today Mongolian peasants marry in their early twenties and immediately start a family. Urban Mongols, especially the college-educated, delay marriage until their late twenties and, sometimes, early thirties. Except for urbanites, there is no dating tradition and marriages continue to be arranged. Premarital sex is common among Mongolian herders in the IMAR. Postmarital residence is almost exclusively patrilocal. Birth control is discouraged in the MPR and encouraged in the IMAR. Among peasants and herders, divorce is rare.

Domestic Unit. Historically, the main kinship groups are the nuclear and extended family and the patronymic group (a group of agnatically related men with their wives and children). Within the MPR collective farm the household remains the basic domestic unit. Among the Mongols in the PRC the primary domestic units are the nuclear and stem family.

Inheritance. Until the seventh century and the establishment of Buddhist estates, "property" was defined only as movable property. Wives in Mongolian society had rights to inherit property. Under Communism that right continues to be guaranteed by law. The eldest son inherited part of the family wealth at the time of his marriage, and the youngest son inherited the remaining family property after both parents had died.

Socialization. Historically, cultural transmission occurred informally between parent and child. The common means of discipline are verbal reprimand and corporal punishment. In the MPR, primary education after the age of eight is free and compulsory. Ten years of schooling are required. Ninety percent of the Mongols in the MPR are literate. In the IMAR most Mongols attend primary school. In urban areas, most attend middle school. Very few Mongols attend college.

Sociopolitical Organization

Mongols, throughout Central Asia, lived under governments that promoted a Marxist-Leninist political philosophy with a single, dominant political party. The MPR, the PRC, and the former USSR had a politburo, the chief policy-making body that follows the directives of the Central Committee. In March 1990 the MPR politburo proposed to give up its monopoly on power in favor of a more democratic constitution. In the 1992 parliamentary elections the former Communist party won by a large margin.

Social Organization. Traditionally, Mongolian society was organized around lay and ecclesiastical social classes. Social worth in the present-day MPR and the IMAR is determined by occupation in the command economy. The introduction of market incentives in the IMAR countryside reduced the influence of minor officials but did not undermine the power of the high-ranking officials.

Political Organization. There were six leagues under the Manchu dynasty, which the MPR reorganized into eighteen provinces (aimags ) and thirteen municipalites. In the MPR, a new administrative unit, the sumun, became the county administrative unit. The banner (khoshuun ) level, between the province and sumun, was abolished. In Inner Mongolia, the Guomindang continued the traditional banner system. In 1947, the Communists established the IMAR and continued the banner administrative organization.

Social Control. Mongols did not develop a codified legal system until the thirteenth century. The Mongol legal code included categories ranging from religious to criminal law. These codes lasted until the Communist party came to power. The legal codes developed in both the MPR and the IMAR stress collective over individual rights. Everyday affairs are regulated primarily by social censure.

Conflict. Historically, at the heart of the Mongolian-Chinese conflict there has been the question of land use. Throughout much of the early twentieth century, the migration of Chinese peasants pushed the herders into inferior pastureland. This led to periodic conflict. Ethnic conflict is, more or less, a moot issue in the MPR, whereas in the PRC's autonomous regions it is not. The Han Chinese believe the state's affirmative-action policy provides too many benefits. The Mongols argue that state has not provided enough benefits.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Historically, the primary religions of the Mongols were shamanism and animism. Mongols believed that the shaman had the capability of "soul travel" and could cure the sick. In the sixteenth century Lamaist Buddhism incorporated into its cosmology many shamanistic symbols and rites. Under the Manchus Lamaism flourished. Monastic centers were developed. The 1921 Revolution in Outer Mongolia brought an attack on Buddhism as a superstition. During the Cultural Revolution all but two of Inner Mongolia's 2,000 temples and shrines were destroyed. In the MPR the state has restricted the performance of festivals associated with shamanism and Lamaist Buddhism. In the IMAR, however, the obooshrine ritual festival continues to be an important community event. The oboos are thought to be inhabited by spirits and deities of localities. In the southwestern Ordos region the Chinggis Khan Memorial continues to draw Mongols from throughout the IMAR. There is also a small community of Mongolian Moslems located in the Alshaa Banner in western IMAR.

Arts. Mongolian culture is noted for its epic poetry and music. Modern Russian folk songs and dances, performed in Mongolian, are popular in both the MPR and the IMAR.

Medicine. Diease and sickness were regarded as the result of evil influences and wrongdoing. The most common diseases were smallpox, typhoid fever, bubonic plague, and syphilis. The Russian and Chinese doctors cured syphilis and reduced the occurrence of the other dieases. Modernization has meant increased access to Western medicial facilities. In the MPR women now give birth in hospitals, whereas in the IMAR herders and farmers continue to give birth in their homes. Longevity has increased in both rural and urban areas, primarily due to hygienic and medical development.

Death and Afterlife. After the introduction of Lamaist Buddhism, Mongols switched from earthen burial to "sky burial"the body was left on the steppes to be eaten by wild animals. Today "sky burial" continues only in the Ujemchin districts of Shiliingol and among the Oirat (or Deed) Mongols living in the Haixi Prefecture of Qinghai. In other banners and districts, rural Mongols bury the dead in community graveyards. In urban China they are cremated.


Humphrey, C. (1978). "Pastoral Nomadism in Mongolia: The Role of Herdsmen's Cooperatives in the National Economy." In Development and Change, 133-160. London: Sage.

Jacchid, Sechin, and Paul Hyer (1979). Mongolia's Culture and Society. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Rupen, Robert (1979). How Mongolia Is Really Ruled. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press.

Vainshtein, Sevyan (1979). Nomads of South Siberia. Edited with an introduction by Caroline Humphrey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



views updated May 23 2018




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 (12711368). 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 (12711368). 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.


Dreyer, June Teufel. China's Forty Millions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Eberhard, Wolfram. China's Minorities: Yesterday and Today. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1982.

Lebar, Frank, et al. Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia. New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1964.

Schwarz, Henry G. The Minorities of Northern China: A Survey. Bellingham, Wash.: Western Washington University Press, 1989.


World Travel Guide. Mongolia. [Online] Available, 1998.


views updated May 23 2018


A group of peoples, speaking closely related languages, who during the middle ages ruled over a great part of Asia and of eastern Europe. At present most of the three million Mongols live in the Mongolian People's Republic, in the Soviet Union, and in China.

Political Organization. The Mongolian People's Republic, usually referred to as Outer mongolia, is an independent state covering about 580,000 square miles, with a population of 1,100,000 (1960). Its capital, Ulan Bator, formerly Urga, has a population of 164,000 (1959). In spite of recent and somewhat successful efforts at industrialization, the country's main source of income is cattle breeding and 72 percent of the land is pasture. Since 1956 the Moscow-Peking railroad has passed through Ulan Bator. Within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and in the framework of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (R.S.F.S.R.), the Buriat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, with its capital at Ulan-Udé, has a population of 727,000 and covers 137,007 square miles. Other Buriats are grouped in the autonomous districts of Ust-Ordynsky and of Aginsky. A Kalmuck Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, established in 1935, suppressed in 1943, and reestablished in 1958, belongs to the North Caucasian Region of the R.S.F.S.R. It has an area of 29,601 square miles and a population of 204,000; its capital is at Elista.

Languages. The Mongol languages belong to the Altaic group and are related to the Turkic and Tungusic languages. Among the eastern Mongol dialects Khalkha and Buriat are the most important, for both have evolved

as literary languages. Among the western dialects Oirat and Kalmuck should be mentioned. The so-called Classical Mongol was the literary language used from the 17th century up until the more recent reforms.

History. The first people known to have spoken a Mongol language were the Khitan, who under the dynastic title of Liao ruled over North China from 907 to 1125; they have no known genetic relations with the Mongols proper. The current practice of designating as Mongols such earlier nomadic peoples as huns and avars is unwarranted. The rise of Mongol power is connected with Genghis (more correctly Chingiz) Khan (b. 1167), who "having united all the tribes living under felt-tents" was elected supreme ruler of the Mongols in 1206. A man of extraordinary genius, he organized the Mongols, poor and small in number, into a formidable military machine that, by the time of his death in 1227, had expanded Mongol influence from the Pacific Ocean to the Adriatic Sea. The initial reasons for these wide conquests were economic. Horses were the only raw material the Mongol economy had in plentiful supply, and war was the most efficient and productive way of using them. To secure the products needed by his people, in the form of booty or through taxes levied on subjugated peoples, Genghis evolved a most efficient strategy, based on the extensive use of cavalry. As usual, the political theory that justified such actions was supplied only after the event when it was asserted that Genghis had been chosen by God to rule the world. The conquest of North China in 1211 to 1215 was followed in 1220 to 1221 by the conquest of Iran. In 1223 a Mongol vanguard defeated a coalition of Russian princes on the Kalka River. Under Genghis's son and successor Ögödei (Ogadai; d. 1241) the war in China was continued while Mongol armies invaded Hungary in 1241 to 1242. Another army, sent into Russia, plundered Moscow and destroyed Kiev. But the very size of the Mongol Empire was conducive to its disintegration. The westernmost part, called the Golden Horde, survived in European Russia until 1502. When ruled by Berke (d.1266), who adopted islam, it became virtually autonomous, and its relations with the Il-khans, the Mongol rulers of Iran, deteriorated. During the reign of the great Khan Möngke (Mangu; d. 1259), who ruled from Mongolia, his brother Hülegü (d. 1265) was entrusted with the task of consolidating Mongol power in Iran, and in 1258 he also occupied baghdad and put an end to the caliphate of the abbĀsids. hü legü's wife was a Christian, and in his entourage nestorianism had considerable influence; it was not until the time of Gazan Khan (d. 1304) that the Il-khans finally adopted Islam. Their rule eventually collapsed under the attack of timur (d. 1405) in 1393. The final conquest of China was achieved in 1279 under Möngke's successor Qubilai (Kublai) Khan (d.1294); and under the dynastic title of Yüan, the Mongols ruled over China until 1368. A dominant power in Asia for a century and a half, the Mongols, after the havoc of the initial conquest, brought peace, a good administration, and tolerance to the countries conquered. Their political achievement matched their former military prowess. In the 13th and 14th centuries many contacts were established between the Mongols and western Europe. Thus innocent iv and louis ix of France sent several embassies to them and relations between the Il-khans and the kings of France and England were quite friendly. Several Mongol envoys visited Italy, France, and England, and the adventures of Marco Polo at the court of Kublai Khan became well known even in his own day.

Although by the 16th century the Mongols had lost all the lands conquered, they maintained themselves in Mongolia and in parts of South Siberia and of Turkestan. Much of their energy was used up in fratricidal conflicts between eastern and western Mongols. Under Dayan Khan (d. 1543), Altan Khan (d. 1583), and Ligdan Khan (d. 1634) political supremacy rested with the eastern Mongols, whereas under Galdan Khan (d. 1697) the initiative was in western Mongol hands. By that time the Mongols were trapped between the expanding Russian and Chinese empires, and in 1643 some of the Oirats moved from the Chinese borders to the Volga, where in due course they accepted a Russian protectorate. In 1771, in a memorable migration worthy of the Ten Thousand, the majority of the Oirats returned to China while the rest, called Kalmucks, remain in Russia to this day. Following the Chinese revolution of 1911, the Mongols of Mongolia declared their independence, which had been lost in the 18th century, but it was soon put to the test by various foreign interventions. In 1921, with Soviet help, independence was assured, but Mongolia remained a monarchy ruled by the theocratic supreme lama, Khutuktu Bogdo Gegen, until his death in 1924, when the country was transformed into a People's Republic. In 1961 Mongolia was admitted to the United Nations.

Civilization and Culture. Mongol civilization is of the nomadic, cattle-breeding type, but it has shown itself adaptable to foreign influences. Under Genghis Khan the Mongols adopted the Uighur writing, alphabetic and written in vertical lines from left to right, which has survived to this day, although at present the Cyrillic alphabet is used both in Outer Mongolia and among the Buriats. Originally shamanists, the Mongols were converted to lamaism, the Tibetan form of buddhism, in the second half of the 16th century when Altan Khan accepted the spiritual authority of the Dalai Lama. The bulk of Mongol literature is Buddhist, and the whole Buddhist Canon was translated from the Tibetan. There exists also a very fine collection of original historical literature that includes the Secret History of the Mongols written in the middle of the 13th century and various other chronicles, such as that of Saghang Sechen written in the second half of the 17th century.

Bibliography: Sources. Translation from Mongol. e. haenisch, Die geheime Geschichte der Mongolen (Leipzig 1948). ssanang ssetsen, Geschichte der Ost-Mongolen, ed. i. j. schmidt (Saint Petersburg 1829; repr. The Hague 1961). Translation from Persian. juveynĪ, al al-dn 'ata malek, The History of the World-Conqueror, ed. and tr. j. a. boyle, 2 v. (Cambridge, Mass.1958). Translation from Chinese. li chih-ch'ang, The Travels of an Alchemist: The Journey of the Taoist, Ch'ang-ch'un from China to the Hindukush at the Summons of Chingiz Khan, ed. and tr. a. waley (London 1931). Translation from Syriac. yahb-alaha, et al., The Monks of Kûblâi Khân, Emperor of China, tr. e. a. w. budge (London 1928). Translation from Latin and French. c. dawson, ed., The Mongol Mission: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the 13th and 14th Centuries (New York 1955). marco polo, The Description of the World, ed. and tr. a. c. moule and p. pelliot, 2 v. (London 1938), to be used with p. pelliot, Notes on Marco Polo, ed. l. hambis, 2 v. (Paris 195963). Literature. On modern Mongolia. r. a. rupen, Mongols of the 20th Century, 2 v. (Bloomington, Ind. 1964). On the languages. n. n. poppe, Introduction to Mongolian Comparative Studies (Helsinki 1955); Grammar of Written Mongolian (Wiesbaden 1954). f. d. lessing, ed., Mongolian-English Dictionary (Berkeley 1960). On history. r. grousset, L'Empire des steppes (Paris 1939), best general work. c. m. ohsson, Histoire des Mongols, depuis Tchinguiz-Khan jusqu'à Timour Bey, ou Tamerlan, 4v. (The Hague 183435; reprs. available). h. h. howorth, History of the Mongols from the 9th to the 19th Century, 4 v. (London 187688; "Supplement and Indices" London 1927), detailed but often inaccurate. On relations with the West. p. pelliot, "Les Mongols et la papauté," Revue de l'orient chrétien 23 (192223) 330; 24 (1924) 225335; 28 (193132) 384. d. sinor, "Les Relations entre les Mongols et l'Europe jusqu'à la mort d'Arghoun et de Béla IV," Journal of World History 3 (1956) 3962. On the Ilkhans. b. spuler, Die Mongolen in Iran (2d ed. Berlin 1955). On the Golden Horde. b. spuler, Die Goldene Horde (Leipzig 1943), to be read together with p. pelliot, Notes sur l'histoire de la Horde d'Or (Paris 1950). g. vernadsky, The Mongols and Russia (New Haven 1953). For more recent periods. e. v. bretschneider, Mediaeval Researches from Eastern Asiatic Sources, 2 v. (London 1910). On relations with Russia and China in the 16th to 18th centuries. j. f. baddeley, ed., Russia, Mongolia, China, 2 v. (London 1919). p. pelliot, Notes critiques d'histoire Kalmouke, 2 v. (Paris 1960). n. p. shastina, Russko-mongol'skie posol'skie otnoshen[symbol omitted]a XVII veka (Moscow 1958). l. m. gataullina, comp., Russkomongol'skie otnoshen[symbol omitted]a, 16071636 (Moscow 1959). On civilization and literature. b. vladimirtsov, Le Régime social des Mongols (Paris 1948). a. riasanovsky, Fundamental Principles of Mongol Law (Bloomington, Ind. 1965). w. heissig, Die Familienund Kirchengeschichtsschreibung der Mongolen (Wiesbaden 1959); "Die mongolische Geschichtsschreibung im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert," Saeculum 3 (1952) 21836. Further detailed bibliography on all aspects of Mongol studies. d. sinor, Introduction à l'étude de l'Eurasie Centrale (Wiesbaden 1963).

[d. sinor]


views updated May 08 2018


MONGOLS , a group of tribes from the eastern Eurasian steppe, north of China, which were welded by Genghis (Chinggis) Khan in the late 12th and early 13th centuries into a state that created the largest land-based empire in history. Mongol successor states ruled much of Eurasia well into the 14th century, and smaller states of Mongol provenance ruled more restricted areas even longer. In contemporary sources, the Mongols are often referred to as Tatars/Tartars, and modern day Tatars, although speaking Turkic languages, are of at least partial Mongol descent. The Mongols touched upon and influenced the history of the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Islamic world.

At the beginning of 1260 Mongol forces invaded *Syria, and their raiders reached as far as *Jerusalem, *Hebron, and *Gaza. A report of the arrival of the Mongols in Jerusalem and their depredations in the area is found in the famous letter of *Naḥmanides to his son from 1267. Mongol advanced forces, however, were defeated by the *Mamluks at the battle of ʿAyn Jalut in northern *Palestine in August 1260, and the Euphrates River became the frontier between the two hostile states. Mongol raiders again reached Palestine, including Jerusalem, in 1300 after their defeat of the Mamluks near Homs at the end of 1299. In Western Asia, including the Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe the Mongols eventually underwent a double process of Islamization and Turkification, i.e., conversion to Islam and the replacement of Mongolian by Turkish, the language of many of their soldiers and officers.

The Mongols played an important role in world history, not the least in facilitating cultural contact between east and west Asia, as well as creating the conditions by which western Europe learned about China and East Asia, thereby contributing to European seaborne expansion. Latin Christian writers, such as Matthew of Paris, saw them as descendants of the Ten Tribes. Some Jews themselves in Central and Eastern Europe appear to have harbored messianic expectations of the Mongol advance, which combined with a desire for revenge against the Christians. Again, Matthew of Paris saw the Jews as encouraging and abetting the Mongols. This perceived "cooperation," together with a more concrete understanding of a contemporary messianic upsurge among the Jews, may have contributed to increased antisemitic feelings among Christians.

The situation of the Jews in the Islamic countries conquered and ruled by the Mongols appears to have dramatically improved. Jews, as well as Christians, enjoyed relative religious freedom and the restrictive laws derived from the so-called Covenant of *Omar were abolished for several decades. The activity of the free-thinking Jewish philosopher and scholar of comparative religion *Ibn Kammūna (d. 1285) in *Baghdad can be attributed to some degree to the relatively tolerant atmosphere in the realm of religion introduced by the Mongols. One prominent Jewish personality was Saʿd al-Dawla, who rose to become the wazir of the Ilkhan Arghun in 1289. His efficiency in raising funds is noted in the sources, as are the many enemies that he made. His being a Jew certainly exacerbated the dissatisfaction with him. He was removed and executed in 1291 when his patron was on his deathbed. Another important individual of Jewish origin, albeit one who converted to Islam, was *Rashīd al-Dīn (al-Dawla) al-Hamadānī, who served as the co-wazir to three Ilkhans until his final dismissal and execution in 1318. Besides his success as a senior bureaucrat, Rashīd al-Dīn has gained fame as the author of the great historical work, Jāmiʿ al-Tawārīkh ("Collection of Chronicles") written in Persian, although some parts have come down to us in Arabic. Not only is this the most important extant source on Mongol history, it is perhaps the earliest attempt at writing a comprehensive history of humankind. This may reflect the open atmosphere prevalent under the Mongols, the communication between all of Asia, and the fact that Rashīd al-Dīn himself was living on a frontier of two cultures. In any event, his Jewish origins were not forgotten. After his death, his head was paraded around, and common people shouted: "This is the head of the Jew who abused the name of God; may God's curse be upon him." In spite of these outbursts, there was much to commend Mongol rule to the Jews who came under their control, compared to many contemporary rulers in both the Muslim and Christian countries.


R. Amitai, "Mongol Raids into Palestine (a.d. 1260 and 1300)," in: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1987), 236–55; J.A. Boyle (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 5: The Saljuq and Mongol Periods (1968); W.J. Fischel, The Jews in the Economic and Political Life of Mediaeval Islam (1937); S.D. Goitein, "Glimpses from the Cairo Geniza on Naval Warfare in the Mediterranean and on the Old Mongol Invasion," in: Studi orientalistici in onore di Giorgio Levi della Vida (Rome, 1956), vol. 2, 393–408; P. Jackson, "Medieval Christendom's Encounter with the Alien," in: Historical Research, 74 (2001), 347–69; D.D. Leslie, "The Mongol Attitude to Jews in China," in: Central Asiatic Journal, 39 (1995), 234–46; S. Menache, "Tartars, Jews, Saracens and the Jewish-Mongol 'Plot' of 1241," in: History, 81 (1996), 319–42; D.O. Morgan, The Mongols (1986); J.J. Saunders, The History of the Mongol Conquests (1971).

[Reuven Amitai (2nd ed.)]


views updated May 23 2018



Ghenghis Khan. The Mongols, or Tatars, represented the premier military force in the thirteenth century. A pastoral people of Mongolia, they first conquered northern China and Korea before moving across Siberia to invade Persia and Eastern Europe. The organizer of this powerful

military machine was Temuchin, who took the title of Ghenghis Khan (Mightiest King) in 1206. By the time of his death twenty-one years later he had created the largest contiguous land empire ever seen.

Poland and Hungary. In 1237 Batu, grandson of Ghenghis, raided Riazan and then began to systematically destroy all settlements in northeast Russia. Meanwhile, a second Mongol army under Subotai sacked Kiev and occupied southwest Russia. Subsequent conquests extended Mongol control into Poland and Hungary. In April 1241 a Mongol army of 120,000 men under Subotai inflicted a stunning defeat on a Hungarian army of 90,000 troops under King Bela IV at the Sajo River. (Reportedly, 70,000 Hungarians died in the battle.) Afterward, the invaders sacked the city of Pest.

Golden Horde. The western portion of the vast Mongol Empire became known as the Kipchak Khanate (Golden Horde, a phrase derived from the Tatar words for the color of Batu Khan’s tent) and it flourished until the late fourteenth century, when internal dissension developed among the various khans. Between 1360 and 1380 there were no fewer than twenty-five claimants to the Mongol throne. In 1380 a Russian army under Prince Dimitri Ivanovich defeated a Mongol force at the Battle of Kulikovo Field. The Russian ruler Ivan III (the Great) finally threw off the “Tatar yoke” in the late fifteenth century.

Misconception. Contrary to popular belief, sheer numbers do not represent the secret behind Mongol victories; the real reasons include excellent discipline, a military organization based on the tumen (a division of ten thousand), and mobility. Archers and lancers mounted on fast horses often proved superior to any Russian or Near Eastern foes. Moreover, Mongol soldiers were a hardy lot, capable of living off of mare’s milk and wild game indefinitely.


James Chambers, The Devils’ Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979).

Leo de Hartog, Genghis Khan, Conqueror of the World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).

David Morgan, The Mongols (Oxford & New York: Blackwell, 1986).


views updated Jun 11 2018

Mongols Nomadic people of e central Asia who overran a vast region in the 13th and 14th centuries. In the early 13th century, Genghis Khan united the different tribes in the area and established an empire that stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean and from Siberia to Tibet. Genghis Khan's possessions divided among his sons and developed into four khanates, one of which was the empire of the Great Khan (Kublai Khan) that included China. In the 14th century, Tamerlane, allegedly a descendant of Genghis, conquered the Persian and Turkish khanates and broke up the Golden Horde. By the end of the century, the true Mongol khanates had practically disappeared.


views updated May 21 2018

Mon·gol / ˈmänggəl/ • adj. 1. of or relating to the people of Mongolia or their language.2. (mongol) offens. affected with Down syndrome.• n. 1. a native or national of Mongolia; a Mongolian.2. the language of this people; Mongolian.3. (mongol) offens. a person affected with Down syndrome.


views updated May 29 2018

Mongol a native or national of Mongolia, a Mongolian. In the 13th century ad the Mongol empire under Genghis Khan extended across central Asia from Manchuria in the east to European Russia in the west. Under Kublai Khan China was conquered and the Mongol capital moved to Khanbaliq (modern Beijing). The Mongol empire collapsed after a series of defeats culminating in the destruction of the Golden Horde by the Muscovites in 1380.

The term mongol was adopted in the late 19th century to refer to a person suffering from Down's syndrome, owing to the similarity of some of the physical symptoms of the disorder with the normal facial characteristics of East Asian people. In modern English, this use is now unacceptable and considered offensive.