Before the Mongolian people formed into the large ethnic group that it later so famously became, there had been many smaller ethnic groups in the region, such as the Xiongnu, Donghu, Xianbei, Rouran, Turkey, Huihu, Qidan, Shiwei-Daheng and others. Most historians believe that the earliest folk who identified themselves as being Mongols - that is, the people belonging to the set of ethnic characteristics that would later be identifed as being "Mongolian" - stem from the Donghu ethnic group. In any case, in the spring of CE 1206, a powerful Mongolian clan leader of the region, a certain Temüjin, called on all of the other clan leaders in the region to gather at a specific location on the Orkhon River for the purpose of holding an assembly - a kurultai (the Altaic equivalent of the Afghan loya jirga) - to discuss the possibility of uniting their separate territories into one single unit. At this important assembly, two epochal events occurred: the Mongol empire was born and Temüjin was proclaimed it ruler, its Genghis Khan.
During the course of the next half century, Genghis Khan and his immediate successors would conquer most of Asia and the European parts of Russia, and would extend their power into Southeast Asia and parts of central Europe - and they could easily have conquered all of Europe, believe historians, but chose not to pursue this option, for baffling reasons that will probably never be fully elucidated. The grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, finally conquered China in 1279 and established the Yuan Dynasty (CE 1279-1368).
Internal rivalry within the Mongol ruling elite, combined with numerous uprisings in response to the harsh and arbitrary rule of the Mongols, weakened the Yuan grip on China, and in 1368 a revolt led to the establishment of the Han Chinese Ming Dynasty (CE 1368-1644), and the Mongols retreated to Mongolia, where they would continue to do battle with their neighbors to the south, as well as among themselves. Mongolia eventually re-unified, becoming a theocratic (Muslim) state in 1585, but would become a vassal state to China a hundred years later, in 1691, under the rule of the Manchus (the part of Mongolia that would later be designated as Inner Mongolia – see below – had already come under Manchu domination in 1636), who took advantage of a number of factors that had constantly dogged the Ming Dynasty: continued warring against the Mongolians, foreign incursions into China by Western powers, and endemic corruption.
In 1644 the Qing Dynasty (CE 1644-1911), the last dynasty of imperial China, was ushered in under the leadership of the Manchus, who would inherit the same existential problems mentioned above that had dogged the Ming Dynasty.
With China's independence from imperial, though not colonial, rule in 1911 (foreign powers had carved out portions of China during the Opium Wars of the Qing Dynasty, though the British would first relinquish Hong Kong in 1997 while the Portugese would first relinquish Maccao in 1999), the Republic of China was established in 1912, in which the southern part of Mongolia, which thereafter came to be known as Inner Mongolia ("Inner" Mongolia was separated from the rest of Mongolia, which thereafter came to be known as Outer Mongolia, by the Gobi desert), was incorporated into the new Chinese republic, a circumstance which - for good or for evil - probably reflected the actual "facts on the ground" of Inner Mongolia especially, which had been under strong Manchu influence since 1691 (but the new Chinese republic probably also feared a unified Mongolia on its doorstep, now that imperial Chinese control of Mongolia no longer existed). Inner Mongolia became the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region under the People's Republic of China, which autonomous status it continues to enjoy today.
With the emergence of the PRC in 1949, the Chinese government undertook to modernize life for the many ethnic minorities that make up China, including its Mongolian ethnic minority. Today, most Mongols live in modern apartment blocks in urban development centers, in much the same way that people live everywhere in the developed world. However, the Chinese government has become increasingly aware of the necessity of preserving the cultural heritage of the Mongolian people within its borders, including preserving vernacular architecture (i.e., the houses and shops of ordinary people), which, for the Mongols, consists primarily of the ger (called a yurt in Turkish, a related Altaic language), the characteristic domed round tent, which is the traditional dwelling of the Mongol. Many Mongols live in modern urban housing for a part of the year, but switch to the ger at other times of the year in order to tend to domestic animals (sheep, goats, etc.).
The Mongolian ger is practical in every way: it is quickly collapsible and packs away to almost nothing, making it easy to transport; its ground-hugging base and its conical top - which also sheds rain instantly - help keep the ger snug to the ground, even in strong winds; and inside, it is very roomy and ventilated.
The Mongolian ger consists of a wooden, lattice frame, sometimes in sections, which, on location, is erected into a circle and secured with strips of rope, forming a head-high, self-supporting cylinder over which an insulating layer of felt is stretched. The felt is fashioned from the wool of the sheep that the Mongol tends in large flocks, while the wood - entirely unavailable on the treeless steppe - must be purchased in the shops in the valleys below. A door frame and roof poles as well as a canvas outer covering complete the ger. For additional stability, especially during particularly windy weather, a heavy weight is suspended from the center roof poles of the ger, i.e., inside the tent. The ger can be quickly disassembled and readied for transport - by yak or camel, the usual mode of transport on the steppe - to the next destination.
There are a number of cultural restrictions with regard to the ger that visitors should be aware of. For example, there are specific areas within the ger designated for men, for women, for cooking, and for worshipping. One must not approach a ger by automobile, horse, etc., within a certain radius, visitors must not touch the entrance-way, and inside the ger, visitors must not loiter in the kitchen area nor may they touch the center roof poles. Guests may first be seated when invited to do so by the hosts, and male and female guests sit separately, with males to the right and females to the left.
The hat, the caftan ("deel"), the sash, and the stylish, upturned boots form the indispensible nucleus of the Mongolian's outdoor attire. In former times, the hat was a highly personal item of fur and silk, and though its design was primarily utilitarian (especially the everyday hat, or louz, whose four sides, or flaps, could be turned down for added warmth - for example, over the ears), it was typically adorned with whatever trinkets the owner valued, or with pearls or even precious stones, if one could afford them - indeed, the ornamentation on one's hat revealed one's status - and with long, colorful tassels that streamed in the wind.
Today, the Mongolian's hat is more often than not a mass-produced item, perhaps even imported, with the quality accordingly. The hat has always been the most special item of a Mongolian's attire. One does not leave one's hat lying about where it risks being crushed, but places it on a high perch precisely to avoid such mishaps. Such is the importance that has traditionally been attached to headdress in Mongolian culture that a hat must be worn when meeting or greeting non-family members, when entering a ger (though one may be invited to remove the hat once inside), or when in the street, where it is considered indecorous to go bareheaded.
The deel is perhaps the most practical article of clothing of a Mongolian man of the steppe. Besides being the main garment (heavy jackets and the like may serve as outer garments over the deel), the deel can serve as a makeshift tent, a blanket and a screen, or mask, to hide behind, and it's long sleeves can be rolled down as gloves to provide further protection against the sun, wind, or rain, etc. There are summer deel and winter deel, just as deel come in various lengths and in various materials, ranging from leather (skin with or without fur) to cloth. The skin may stem from the lamb, goat, wolf, fox, otter, marten, or from the snow weasel, to name the most common. Cloth deel are generally either of a mixture predominantly consisting of cotton, of rayon, or of pure silk.
The Mongolian's sash is another highly utilitarian item that serves a number of purposes, like all Mongolian attire. A woman's sash is shorter and folded more narrowly than a man's sash, and in some localities a woman ceases to wear a sash at all after she marries, wearing instead a tight-fitting silk vest over the deel, elaborately embroidered and sometimes studded with precious stones. A man's sash, which is generally cinched tightly at the waist, is much longer and is folded into a broad band that can serve as a corset, protecting the wearer's internal organs from excessive jostling while riding. It also serves as a place to stash the indispensible knife and to attach various accessory pouches.
In addition to serving as a place to stash a knife and to fasten pouches, the sash, given the characteristic manner in which a deel is cut, serves as the bottom of a "pouch" that is formed by the sash and the wrap-around portion of the deel above the sash, which offers a vent, or opening, on the wearer's right-hand side, similar to the hand-warmer "kangaroo" pocket on a sweater, but here, a single-vented pocket (a quick look at a Mongolian in a deel with the sash in place will illustrate this "pouch" better than a thousand words - search among the images above*).
Traditional Mongolian boots also serve several purposes related to life on the steppe: they reduce the incidence of snake and insect bite, and they reduce chafing during the many hours spent on horseback. The choice of boot type, or style, depends on the season. Traditional Mongolian boots are generally made of leather, though sometimes they are made of cloth. As Mongolian society develops and the division of labor intensifies, the old method of Mongolian boot-making may give way to more modern, mass-production methods, which itself may well dictate boot styles to a large extent, since the more complicated the method of production, the more expensive the end product.
The traditional accoutrements of the Mongolian male are: the Mongolian knife, a silver drinking bowl, an eating set consisting of a knife-and-chopsticks arrangement in its own sheath (in the spirit of the ubiquitous Swiss Army knife, it may also include a toothpick, an ear scratcher (!), and a tweezer), a flint-and-steel fire-making kit (usually a leather pouch containing the flintstone, and with a sturdy piece of steel along its base for striking the flint, making the pouch in effect a mini leather mitten ending in a firmly-attached piece of steel), silver rings, a snuffbox (today, usually a bottle), a tobacco pipe, a tobacco pouch, a pipe-cleaning hook, and a hada pouch (hada being narrow strips of silk or cotton used as a greeting gift, and though the hada itself is not of great intrinsic value, its symbolic value in this tradition-rich nomadic culture - where everything must be carried not only in or on the horseman's caftan, but carried so as not to interfere with the horseman's free movement - is immeasureable).
The sophistication of these accoutrements and their workmanship ranges from the strictly utilitarian and inexpensive to the outright lavishly artistic and exorbitant, and invariably functions as a status symbol.
The Traditional Accoutrements of a Mongolian Female
The jewelry traditionally worn by Mongolian women include the use of precious metals (gold & silver), pearls, coral, agate, green jade, amber, turquoise, and lapis lazuli as well as other precious and semi-precious stones. Typical women's jewelry include hair pins, ear-rings, necklaces, bracelets (including Xileboqi back-and-headdress bracelets made of finely-worked silver and coral, and worn on the head and/ or the back), rings, and the special silver decorations called Bole that hang on either side of a woman's vest (they are in fact an artistic refinement - a symbolic replacement - of the utilitarian gadgets that in former times hung from a married woman's vest, after marriage had forced her to abandon the sash to which she had formerly attached them). The simpler items of adornment might be worn as part of one's everyday dress, while the more elaborate ones are only worn during festivals and on other auspicious occasions. The quality of materials and workmanship of the female's accoutrements, as with those of a male, serves as a status symbol.
The Mongolian Diet
The Mongolians' nomadic way of life determined their diet, which traditionally consisted mainly of the meat, milk and other dairy products provided by the livestock which they tended. This included mutton, beef and goat, as well as milk and other dairy products from cattle and goats. On occasion horse meat was eaten, but this was generally only at religious ceremonies and during festivals, as the horse enjoys a near-sacred status among the Mongols. These people of the steppe traditionally roast meat over an open fire - or boil it if it is less tender - and bake their bread in special ovens. A goat or a lamb might be roasted whole, or in sections, such as a leg of lamb.
Today, the diet of the Mongolians has been expanded to include vegetables as well as pasta and rice, the former in recognition of the sad fact that the traditional Mongolian diet often leads to struma, or an abnormally enlarged thyroid gland leading to a "swollen" neck, a medical condition caused by the lack of iodine in one's diet, and the latter in order to provide a more carbohydrate-rich diet and perhaps to supplement meat, which is not always as plentiful as one might wish.
Milk remains a staple in the Mongolian diet, however. It is also consumed as: yoghurt; milk wine (i.e., fermented milk, the most prized of which is fermented mare's milk, which can be further fermented into a frothy, beer-like drink called airag); milk tofu (a process involving coagulated, fermented milk, where the dry parts are separated and form into a stiff, tofu-like texture); sour milk (i.e., "buttermilk"); a cottage-cheese like product derived as a "waste product" from the production of certain types of butter; milk tea (aka Mongolian Tea, the most important beverage for Mongolians who live - either all or part of the year - in the traditional manner), which is made by boiling crushed brick tea for a few minutes, then slowly adding milk (1 part milk to 3-6 parts tea) while stirring constantly; and of course as butter itself, which comes in several varieties depending on how it is made and the animals from whence it comes. Sometimes the thick cream of milk is cooled and eaten as-is, with a spoon, or parts of it are skimmed off forming naipizi, or "milk skin", which tastes like a cross between butter and cream, and also eaten as-is.
Mongolian Social Customs
Marriage among China's Mongolian ethnic minority is a matter of strategic planning and careful deliberation, not something to be entered into hastily. When the young couple are of appropriate age, the young man will ask a respected person - usually his father, an uncle, or other relative - to intercede on his behalf, asking the young woman if she is willing to marry him. However, young, eligible women do not give in easily, as there are many factors to be considered. Should this preliminary courtship step prove successful, the young man will bring gifts to the young woman such as candy, cigarettes, wine, and maybe even livestock, and on that occasion, the extended family members of the young bride-to-be gather at her house to observe the ritual. If this step finds favor with the young woman's family and relatives, an announcement will be made regarding the proposed marriage and its date.
In the interim, the engaged couple, with the help of their respective families, go about securing the necessary wedding gifts. Since the number 9 is auspicious in Mongolian culture, 9 gifts will be exchanged on either side. The value of the young man's gifts is generally greater than that of the young woman's - his gifts are usually in the form of livestock, as this forms the basis of a Mongolian family's livelihood - so it may happen that the young man is permitted to offer a lesser number of gifts so long as the value of his gifts exceeds the value of the young woman's gifts (which may necessitate a switch to a cheaper set of gifts on the part of the bride-to-be, so that the equation can go up, as it were).
There is much excitement on the wedding day itself. Prior to the wedding ceremony the couple circle around their new home - a ger - three times for good luck, then jump over a pile of burning wood, the latter of which symbolizes a blessing by the fire god and expresses the hope that the couple's future together will be as bright as a flaming fire. At the wedding ceremony, family and friends sing, dance, and dine. This joyous ceremony continues for another two days, and is perhaps the most important event in the life of the young couple, and is an important event for the parents as well as for the village.
The Presenting of Hada
Hada, a Tibetan word, is a strip of silk used as a greeting gift among both Tibetans and Mongols. It is presented under very specific circumstances only: when welcoming unfamiliar guests in one's home or when encountering a stranger on the steppe with whom a cordial relationship has developed. Hada is usually made from either silk or cotton. Mongolian hada is generally white in color, but shades like light blue and light yellow occur as well. When one is lucky enough to be presented a hada, one should grasp it gently in both hands while bowing slightly, as this is what is expected of one by one's host, who will himself bow. The giving/ receiving of hada, including the act of bowing to each other, is an outward sign of mutual respect, something that is very important in Mongolian culture.
The Passing of the Snuffbox
Passing the snuffbox is an old tradition in Mongolian culture, and is the most common exchange of amenities when people meet. When one is a guest in a Mongolian home, the host will take out his snuffbox, open it - its contents generally being very aromatic and consisting of a blend of tobacco and/ or herbs - and pass it on to the guest. One is expected to pass the snuffbox under one's nose in order to better appreciate the tobacco's aroma. To be polite, one should nod one's head or give another sign of approbation. This shows respect and can serve as the basis for future amicable relations.
The snuffbox itself may be in any of a number of shapes, from the rectangular/ square to the oval to the cylindrical, or in still other shapes, and with engravings whose workmanship reveal the quality of the snuffbox. The snuffbox contains a small spoon made either of gold, silver, copper, ivory, or camel bone.
Trading Pipes for a Smoke
When welcomed into a Mongolian home, a guest is expected to invite the host to smoke, and to offer the host his pipe. The host, anticipating this, accepts the pipe of the guest and fills it with his own tobacco. The host then passes his own empty pipe to the guest, who accepts it and fills it with his own tobacco. Then the two of them each enjoys his own tobacco, but smoked in the other's pipe.
The pipe itself is commonly adorned with silver, with intricate flower motifs engraved into it. The bowl of the pipe is generally made of briar, while the bit, or mouthpiece, may be made of agate or jade. The tobacco pouch is generally made of brightly colored silk, which develops a fine patina over time. A Mongolian's tobacco paraphenalia is truly a thing of beauty, combining artistic expression with functionality.
The Nadam Grassland Festival
Naadam, short for Eriyn Gurvan Naadam ("Three Manly Games") means "Entertainment!" in the mind of the typical Mongolian. The Naadam Grassland Festival of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region is China's Mongolian ethnic minority's most magnificent yearly entertainment event, combining the traditional "Three Manly Games" of Naadam – wrestling, horse racing, and archery – with cultural exhibits and even a livestock fair. >> Read more
* Mongolian attire is so out-of-this-world exotic that French artists working on one of the latest Star Wars films opted to fashion the costume of the prominent character, Queen Amidala, after one of the more stylish examples of a Mongolian female costume, and no one can deny that a well-fitting caftan makes a male look as roundedly dashing as Errol Flynn looked pointedly swashbuckling in The Adventures of Robin Hood.