genghis-khan-documentary

[Photo: BBC]

GENGHIS KHAN AND THE QUEST FOR GOD: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom by Jack Weatherford completely revises our concept of Genghis Khan. Outside Mongolia (where he is venerated), he’s viewed as murderous, merciless, a monstrously insane warrior king who conquered the largest empire in history.

But Weatherford – a bestselling Macalester College anthropologist – finds Khan was a key influence on Thomas Jefferson and American religious freedom. Here is Simon Winchester (one of David’s favorite writers on China) in a book review last month:

“Though godless himself, [Genghis Khan] favored total religious freedom for his subjugated millions, of many different faiths…[who should] ‘live together in a cohesive society under one government.’ …The Great Khan’s ecumenism has as its legacy the very same rigid separation of church and state that underpins no less than the American idea itself. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment is, at its root, an originally Mongol notion…Many might think this eccentric in the extreme, until we learn that a runaway 18th-century best seller in the American colonies was in fact a history of “Genghizcan the Great,” by a Frenchman, Pétis de la Croix, and that it was a book devoured by both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.”

grasslands-yurts-clouds

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.

grasslands-temple-exterior

The author Weatherford, a hero in Mongolia, lives there half the year with his wife, who is apparently quite paralyzed by MS. I was touched, in an interview he gave, his description of how she is received there:

“In Mongolia there are no special facilities for disabled people; the streets and sidewalks are a jumble of broken cement and open holes. Yet when we step out of our building, hands always appear. No one says, “May I help you?” They simply do it and disappear, expecting no thanks. I never have to ask for help. Every week a few musicians come by to play the horse-head fiddle and sing for Walker, in the belief that music is the best medicine. Pop singers and hip-hop groups have come for the same purpose, saying that it will keep our home warm. People from all over the countryside send us dairy products. Our kitchen is usually full of yogurt, hard cream, curds, mare’s milk, mutton, horse ribs, and wild berries. Lamas, shamans, and healers come by to offer prayers, incense, herbal teas, chants, massage, and other forms of traditional treatments. Even strangers send camel wool or cashmere blankets, shawls, and socks to keep Walker warm. Mongolia has welcomed us with a care and warmth I can scarcely comprehend.”

 

 

Soulful Mongolian Horsehead Fiddle

Mongolian horse head fiddle

We saw Arga Bileg perform — a Mongolian orchestra fused with piano jazz — at the Asia Society last night. The orchestra included three horse head fiddles (above), a magical instrument that emits a horse’s cry.

Legend says a shepherd once received a flying horse he rode each night to his lover. But a jealous rival cut off the horse’s wings. After  it died, in his grief, the shepherd made the first horsehead fiddle in its honor, and all day and night, played poignant songs about — not the lover he wouldn’t be able to see, but his horse. Another fiddle legend says a wicked overlord killed a little boy’s favorite white horse. The white horse’s spirit then appears in the boy’s dream, telling him, ‘Make an instrument out of my body so we’ll always be together.’ And he does.

In both stories, the fiddle sound box is stretched with horse’s skin, its strings are made from horse hair, and horse bones become the fiddle neck. And of course, the scroll is the beloved horse’s head. I’m not an expert, but there are such lutes, of trapezoidal sound box, all around Central Asian steppes – Tuvan, Kazakh, Kyrgyz.

Our guide in Innner Mongolia played it, and also played horse head fiddle on mP3. Talk about great driving music. It is hauntingly beautiful. But only last night did I hear horsehead fiddle accompanied by throat singing. That’s when the singer attains two tones at once – a sound that seems to come from another planet. Imagine that under an uninterrupted bowl of stars on the empty steppes.

In China, we heard another artist perform Mongolian fusion: Sa Ding Ding, a half-Mongolian pop star they call “the Bjork of Asia.’ She acvtually shared the bill with the Black Eyed Peas at a U.S.-China friendship concert the embassy sponsored. She also sings in Tibetan and Sanskrit.

Sa Ding Ding, Chinese ethnic pop influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.

Mongolian folk rock is kind of hip in Beijing. (Someone called it “Chinagrass” i.e. bluegrass, in English). We heard some at an outdoor Beijing indie music festival. Hanggai may be the biggest group; apparently they were Beijing punk rockers who heard throat singing one day, sparking an interest in their (mostly lost) Mongolian heritage.  Now Mongo-rock is part of the scene. Like the folk music we heard in Mongolia, like the Mongolian-jazz fusion we heard last night, Hanggai is also often mournful, open-sky plaintive. This is Hanggai. And this is their best known song, I believe an updated folk song, “Xiger, Xiger.” It’s also here. Like many Mongolian songs we’ve heard, it alternates between fast and slow. When the tempo picks up, a horse begins to gallop.

There is loss and longing here. After 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 into this music.

Being global, it wasn’t only Mongolians in NYC giving a hollering standing ovation to Arga Bileg last night, but a typically varied NYC audience, appreciating the sounds of one of history’s greatest peoples, keeping its culture alive.

NOTE: Thanks for the horse head fiddle pic to an English teacher in Mongolia called “Jim” who writes the Wandering the World blog.  The instrument is found elsewhere (like E. Europe); in Mongolian it’s called morin khuur. In Chinese, matouqin – 马头琴.

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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Grasslands of Chinese (Inner) Mongolia

Wish my lawn looked like this.

Mongolia — one of the great places on earth. You almost have to use superlatives: largest-ever historic conquest. Greatest unexploited mining wealth. Most pristine wilderness.

Mongolia is Inner (a giant province in, + totally dominated by, China) and Outer (a nation , former Soviet satellite). Below these important historical overlays, Russian vs. Chinese, is Mongolian culture and the incredible land.

Inner Mongolia, the Chinese province (pink on the map) is so dominated, its capital city (Hohhot) isn’t even Mongolian majority. Why? As in Tibet, influx of Chinese people consolidates political control, a struggle thru the dynasties — sometimes Mongolian (the Yuan), sometimes Han Chinese. China may hope to spread its overpopulated people from the heartland. But mainly, it’s the extraordinary mining wealth: coal + those coveted ‘rare-earth’ elements that high-tech mfg requires.

KFC, Inner Mongolia (Xilinghot)

The mines meet the grassland in the least-touristed area, it’s not even online or in books–by Xilinghot, county seat, northeast, where we spent 4 days early last month. It is, per a great Economist story, “no pastoral idyll” — especially not in June, 2011 when violence blew up between put-upon local herders and big, honking mining trucks (and “Mongolia” joined “jasmine revolution” as a banned Chinese search term).

Coal makes Inner Mongolia China’s fastest-growing province. A recent article (also in The Economist) calls the mines “devastation” and a “scar”. Yes. We saw those scars, still small vs. the vastness. But in a pristine ecosystem, their impact bleeds widely outward — in polluted air, water table, land. And in another powerful way, it bleeds the people, creating Mongolian powerlessness and anger, quiet and seething, mostly, as Mongolians’ dispossession grows, as land ownership is gradually transferred.

Already Mongolians are only 1/5 of the population, and if your parents choose Chinese school ingfor you (the only route to a non-herding job) you lost your ancestral language: most have.

The too-familiar plight of indigenous people.

Around Xilinghot city — where soldiers amassed last year — and its mines and trucks and railroads, spreads the Xilingole grasslands, the hugest lawn imaginable.

Our young Mongolian guide’s older sister went to Mongolian schools & couldn’t find a job; he took a degree in translation. Angel of a guy, with an endless supply of friends-of-relatives-of-friends, who put us up in their homes (guest yurts — they say “ger,” like girl without the l, ‘Yurt’ is  Turkish) over 3 days.

It’s majority Mongolian here; tradition survives, meaning hardship: no refrigeration, a diet of meat and the animals’ milk, horse-back herders, old Tibetan temples on the range.

Now 28, he herded as a child, for his grandparents. At 13, alone, fending off wolves by setting clothing fires and banging pots, he learned English from listening to the BBC. Then drastic legal limits on herd sizes (sheep, cows, goats) -per-land-owned were imposed, so the family’s herd was lost, their income plummeted, and finally they lost their land.

“The Chinese plant–they’re agriculture. We’re herders,” he said. “Then they dig mines, and at last buy your grassland. This is the steps. Because the Mongolian people aren’t easy to unite,” he said. “Now Mongols are weak.”

Guest yurt, with sink.

There are ribbons of fantastic, new, smooth Chinese roads here, making our trip possible so efficiently, so quickly (Outer Mongolia, you’d need 3 days to drive the horrid roads the distance you cover in a few hours on this side). We zoomed through sweeping horizons of incredible Chinese windmill farms (which our guide, BTW, loves).

We had hot pot in a beautiful, clean provincial capital city, Xilinhot, with a giant well-preserved Beize Tibetan Buddhist temple complex (Mongolians follow the Tibetan brand of Buddhism).

The Chinese give, and the Chinese take away.

Our young guide: “I am Mongol and my culture is lost, but in my heart, it’s strong. Over 60 years we had great changes here. There were 50 Mongol families in my hometown and only 5 families kept the traditions. The world is eating up ethnic people–the world is like this. It’s hard to keep traditional, to keep the old life.”

He said this as he checked his cell (signal always available, middle of nowhere) to see whether Spain was beating Portugal in the Euro Football semifinals.

“We lost our grassland. Every blade is we love.” He said this stroking a blade. “In Mongolia, you have words you must hide in your heart. There are no people to tell,” he said. “Every 800 years, a hero brings together the Mongolian people,” he said (referring to Genghis Khan).

“You’ll see. A hero is coming soon.”

Xilingole: Industry vs. Grassland