Making Fierce Mongolians into Babies

Xilinguole grasslands, Chinese Mongolia

Without refrigeration, Mongolian herders eat like their ancestors: meat, air-dried milk hardened into twists & flakes, yogurt that seems rancid to our fussy American palettes. Fruits and veg are too pricey, the growing season too dry and short. During our visit this summer, we were served onion grass (pickled, to last), what grows in the lawns of NJ.


It’s minus-50F in winter so there’s no problem then.
But we visited this hot summer. All night, wonderful lamb dinner leftovers sat on the table, mid-yurt. In the morning, we declined as hosts, guide, and the herders–tough cowboys–cut the old meat into salted butter tea.

We were near this hill, a pilgrimage spot, which Genghis Khan declared sacred, helping him to victory when he prayed there. Its image symbolizes proud heritage–nationalism, wounded ethnic pride today–as Chinese coal mining encroaches and settlers buy up the grasslands. We climbed it in a few minutes. A carpet shows its beloved image.

Traditional saddle, pride of herders

Life we saw was rugged, simple. One family where we stayed had this small windmill generator, enough for light but not refrigeration.

Our guide said he descends from the “Golden Family,” in English the Golden Horde (from orde, Turkish for ‘people’). “A Mongol brought Tibetan Buddhism out of Tibet and across China,” he said.

“We have a culture, and belief.” (Tibetan Buddhism, he meant–also called Lamaism). “Our Chinese friends have no culture, no belief–they pursue power.” He told this to my son. “I’m sorry, but if you know this,” he said, “it’s better for your future.”

Corrupted local Mongolian local officials had become millionaires, he said. Meanwhile, “We have no rights.” He compared his people to Native Americans. I was thinking that, too, of the Plains Indians, whom we visited in 2008. And as the AIM (American Indian Movement) was born on Pine Ridge, our daring guide was willing to mention the Inner Mongolian Democratic Party of the 1960s, an independence party. He alleged that China killed 150,000 to eradicate it (1960-1980), purging separatists. I don’t know if it’s true or not. Many perished during the Cultural Revolution years. He said the remnants left for America, Germany, Finland.

He is a horsehead fiddler and we talked to its sad lovely strains on an iPod, playing a song called ’60 Trees.’ “When my grandpa sings this song, tears come out. It describes the feeling, how they love those trees.”

I mention the anger, bitterness, nationalism, as lead-in to how Mongolians are packaged, souvenir-ized, at the airport and gift shops. You don’t have to be a semiotician to see what’s going on with the depiction of this fiercely proud, historically mighty people:

Infantalizing images

No threat from these cutie pie babies

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2 comments on “Making Fierce Mongolians into Babies

  1. […] witnessing the desecration of the grasslands in Inner Mongolia, the ever-worsening disappearance of language and culture as resource-rich area is mined and settled and overtaken, it’s impossible not to read that […]

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  2. […] We’ve written here about Chinese (Inner) Mongolia (2012, the time of these photos). The haunting music, devastating impact of mining, the demeaning commercial imagery. […]

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