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  Impressions from Southern Mongolia

By Oliver Corff

Mongolische  Notizen  -  Mitteilungen der
Deutsch-Mongolischen Gesellschaft   

Bonn, Germany

          Now  I  have already returned from my voyage to _Owor Mongol
          _Oortoon  Zasax Oron, and I must confess it was a joyful and
          sad  journey.  It  was  joyful because despite a lack of any
          formal  introduction I was received and treated like a noble
          guest, and though my Mongolian is far from being acceptable,
          people were happy that I made these efforts. The treatment I
          got deepened my respect for the Mongolian people in the sen-
          se  that  there  was no sermon in it as you may encounter in
          Japan or China when it comes to being "polite", but you will
          certainly  have  your  own experiences and views. My journey
          was a sad one, because global warming did not spare the semi
          desert  of  Ordos with winter temperatures now between -10 C
          and  -5  C, and I saw a continuing process of desert in pro-
          gress  against  (and with) man's efforts. I saw the complete
          incompatibility  of  Mongolian  and Chinese lifestyles which
          led to a ruinous struggle for natural resources; I saw their
          respective  economic  models  collide  (and as such, collide
          with all their ecological implications). I watched how a na-
          tionality  is  de facto deprived of a number of basic rights
          while at the same time holding the formal guarantees of tho-
          se  rights  in  their  hands;  and  I saw how men, women and
          children, Mongolian and Chinese alike, suffer from the envi-
          ronmental  pollution that a merciful and progressive govern-
          ment  seeking advances in the life of the citizens it is en-
          trusted with did not spare so far.

          After  these highly emotional words I should go into detail.
          The main point of friction(s) is that the Central Government
          in Beijing seems to regard Inner Mongolia pretty much as its
          backyard  with  little respect for the people who live there
          and  the form of administration these people are entitled to
          (Autonomous  Region).  The Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region
          has  been  inundated  with Han-Chinese settlers in two ways.
          The  first  is  technical  personnel which came with the big
          steel  plants and other industrial projects. There is little
          objection  or  hostility  among the Mongolians against those
          persons as it is widely accepted that a) their jobs are use-
          ful und b) there is not enough qualified Mongolian personnel
          to fill the same positions while c) their number being fair-
          ly  low  in  comparison  to  the  group which poses the main
          threat,  partly planned, partly wild peasant settlers who do
          not  respect a single of the laws of nature in the carefully
          balanced  and  sensitive  ecosystem of the steppe and desert
          areas.  The  settlers come to the steppe and open the ground
          for  grain  fields.  In the first year, the yield is respec-
          table,  in  the  second year, it is acceptable, in the third
          year,  it becomes even less, and after four or five years of
          continous  exploitation  the  field must be abandoned becaus
          fertility  stops completely. As the nature (familiar to you,
          I  think)  of  the  ground does not permit ploughing without
          destruction  of the soil, the place, once green steppe, then
          a fertile field for a few years, will finally and inevitably
          turn  into  a  desert.  This in turn accelerates the natural
          process  of  desertation having being active for a number of
          years.  Steppe,  due  to  its plant cover, can at least hold
          some of the sparse water of rains and rivers, while a desert
          lacks  this  capacity  which should be a common fact. As the
          ground  does not hold water any more, other plants have dif-
          ficulties to survive, and in dying, the ground loses its in-
          tegrity  while  more  water  is  lost. The Han settlers care
          little  for  this.  Driven  by immense overpopulation in his
          homelands,  he  abandons  his piece of earth and proceeds to
          the  next  one,  making path for more deserts to follow. The
          Mongolian herdsmen in turn see the areas for their livestock
          shrink, and what worked for hundreds of years, the change of
          meat  from  livestock in the North against grain from fields
          in  the  South,  has  been toppled by the Chinese settlement
          policy,  thus ruining natural resources and eventually risk-
          ing  the  survival  of  huge populations. So far, of course,
          there  is  no  direct threat, as China as a whole manages to
          survive,  but population is now at 1.1 billion with no limit
          in sight. I even dare to think that a huge and sudden cut in
          population  in consequence of a natural disaster is the only
          way  to make people REALLY think of their environment, but I
          have serious doubts that the ecological pendulum while swing
          back in a time that man still experiences.

          In  addition,  there  is  a number of ores, precious stones,
          rare earths, metals and other resources that are valuable to
          the  Central  Government.  So,  the  construction  of infra-
          structure  is  a natural consequence of the Government's ef-
          fort  to  ensure the access to the resources, but Mongolians
          who  have to acknowledge that nothing of this existed before
          1949  say  these  efforts were not made for them but despite
          them,  as  they do not enjoy any progress in life that could
          be  linked  to  the exploitation of the resources. They have
          the  deep feeling that all the efforts were and are made for
          the  government's  sake,  and not for the communities living
          there.  Furthermore,  as  some  other properties of the area
          (low  population density, far distance away off any big cen-
          ter, out of the reach of world opinion) are extremely useful
          say for nuclear tests, an alarming number of cancer (leucae-
          mia)  cases is reported from some of the western parts (Ala-
          shan  Aimag)  of Inner Mongolia. This has to be studied more
          deeply. Another very sad fact is worth investigating is that
          the mortality rate linked to certain forms of cancer is much
          higher in the supposedly healthy grasslands then in the hea-
          vily  polluted  industrial centers, and again, the mortality
          rate of Mongolians linked to cancer is much higher than that
          of  the  Han  population.  The latter two facts, though, are
          mainly due to a very unbalanced diet which consists of a big
          intake  of animal fat, red meat, strong alcohol, and absence
          of  green vegetables and vitamin C on the side of the Mongo-
          lian population in the countryside. Unfortunately, in winter
          the  air pollution in  Huhhot is extremely severe, something
          mainly  due to widespread use of coal for heating, and defi-
          nitely also due to the use of very primitive burning devices
          where  coal  burns at low temperature. Sometimes in the eve-
          nings,  one  can  see the sky, but there is a thick fog that
          impedes sight within less then 50 or 100 meters.

          Also,  due to its space and sources of coal and ore, part of
          the  central region of Inner Mongolia around Huhhot and Bao-
          tou  has  been  transformed into a huge industrial base with
          steel  and  aluminium production, the environment protection
          lagging  far  behind the development of the production faci-
          lities.  In  addition  there  are the sensitive climatic and
          ecological conditions which make all the pollution even less
          digestible to nature.

          At  least  partially, the allegations made here are substan-
          tiated by what I was told in a conversation with two govern-
          ment  officials unidentified here when we discussed the use-
          fulness  of  the Qinghai-Tibet railway being under construc-
          tion  now.  They  said  that there is nothing to go after in
          Tibet (m. tend, yum baixgui; ch. neibian meiyou shenme dong-
          xi)  so  that  it  were ultimately useless to construct this
          railway,  while  Xinjiang Uighur Region and Mongolia were SO
          RICH  (m.  tend ix olon yum baina; ch. neibian, dongxi duo),
          according to their words), being well worth the enormous ef-
          forts of constructing transport links.

          Away from ecological and environmental problems there is an-
          other  serious  issue  which  is felt by the Mongolians as a
          grave  burden  on  their  lives. It is the language problem.
          Even in the remotest village (sum; cun) with a population of
          say  5000 persons, Mongolians are outnumbered by Han Chinese
          so that they form a minority within their own Autonomous Re-
          gion.  This  alone, if it were in an acceptable scale, could
          be  got  along  with, but in Huhhot, maybe 80% or 90% of the
          population are now Han (no exact figures available). One re-
          sult  of  this  distribution is that Mongolian as a language
          proves  to  be of little use as the majority does not master
          it.  Shops and other commercial facilities have their boards
          written in Chinese and Mongolian (the latter not always cor-
          rectly  worded  or  spelled),  but as soon as one enters the
          establishment and looks - for instance in a restaurant - for
          a menu written in Mongolian one can be sure that there is no
          such.  An  overwhelming  majority of bookshops and newspaper
          stalls  carries  only publications in Chinese; one has to go
          to the one and single (official) Mongolian language bookshop
          in  town,  plus the (official) sales department of the Inner
          Mongolian  Publishing  House,  plus  one  privately operated
          small  bookshop  that  specializes in Mongolian publications
          (both  as  a language and as a topic), plus the single-shelf
          wide sections of some other bookshops in order to find some-
          thing written in Mongolian. Equally little promising are the
          printing  quantities of most Mongolian books which according
          to  contents  vary between several hundred and significantly
          less than 10000 volumes per publication. A similar situation
          can  be  observed with the wireless mass media. Both televi-
          sion  and radio carry daily broadcasts in Mongolian, but the
          accumulated  time  of  Chinese language broadcasts outweighs
          the  time  of  Mongolian  language broadcasts several times.
          Also,  though  the national TV newsreel broadcast in Chinese
          every  day  has a international news unit in it, there is no
          segment  covering  international  news in the Mongolian lan-
          guage  newsreel.  The daily broadcasts of Mongolian language
          programs  are  said  to be a big improvement over the recent
          years  when Mongolian language programs used to be broadcast
          only every second day.

          Mongolian language textbooks, so far, are full of either in-
          doctrinatory  or discriminatory texts, such as: Inner Mongo-
          lian  Autonomous  Region is an inseparable part of our great
          motherland  China  (which  is a very similar diction to that
          concerning  Taiwan). There is absolutely no direct threat to
          that  one  may  doubt this case, but still these phrases are
          numerous.  In one textbook there are a number of situational
          dialogues with typical settings in which a herdsman who tra-
          vels  to Huhhot and is refused acceptance to a hotel because
          he  has  no  letter  of introduction, or he cannot buy grain
          products because he has no special purchase document for ra-
          tioned products. Of course, there is the objective situation
          that  all  over  China in cities these documents were or are
          required  in  order  to obtain certain services or products,
          but  it happens in nearly any of those situations that it is
          the Mongolian citizen who lacks these documents because (and
          that is the message of those stories) he refuses to integra-
          te into the Han Chinese society.

          In  Huhhot,  many Mongolians and their children cannot speak
          their mothertongue anymore, or speak it only in very limited
          way.  The  main language is Chinese, and at least during the
          60's,  Mongolian  was burdened with a huge number of Chinese
          loans  and  loan translations. This is now reduced, and many
          awkward  words are now being replaced by their proper Mongo-
          lian  counterparts  - nonetheless, pronouncation differences
          aside,  there is now a visible gap in the lexicon of "Inner"
          and  "Outer"  Mongolia  (Or  Southern and Northern Mongolia,
          using  Mongolian  instead of Chinese terms) which makes com-
          munication  on the simpliest topics of everyday life someti-
          mes  pretty  complicated.  Only a few Han Chinese attempt to
          learn  the  Mongolian  language.  One Han official who heard
          that  I try to learn Mongolian asked bluntly what use it had
          (xue  Mengguyu  you  shenme yong?  - yaagaad Mongol xel surj
          baina uu?). A standard Mongolian primer for the introduction
          to  the written Mongolian language has been printed in 2,000
          volumes  only. The loss of language contributes to a loss of
          identity and - in this case - is of a particular significan-
          ce,  as  according to Chinese legislation, the right to make
          use  of the "minority" language in the Autonomous Regions is
          legally  protected  and any Mongolian has the freedom to use
          Mongolian in any situation of life.

          Daily  life questions of minor importance can turn into "na-
          tionality questions" in Huhhot. As one professor told me, if
          a Mongolian buys something in a Han operated shop (most com-
          mercial  establishments  are run by Han Chinese), and has to
          find  out  that  the  ware he buys does not meet its quality
          standards,  then  any  complaint about it inevitably carries
          undertones  of  nationality  frictions,  and situations like
          that can be encountered daily and everywhere.

          On behalf of the Han Chinese, there is little concern or af-
          fection for the Mongolians (and other nationalities) who are
          traditionally  considered to be barbarian, of primitive cul-
          ture and virtually lacking any civilization. So far, the de-
          spise  continues, and, very interesting, many Chinese (who I
          talked  to) who are interested in foreign affairs and filled
          with  national  pride  when  it  comes to the place of their
          country in the world, react with horror and disgust when any
          topic concerning Mongolians is touched. This is all the more
          incomprehensible  as the Mongolian population comprises some
          millions in comparison to the 1,100 millions of Han Chinese.
          Especially when it comes to issues as independency movements
          or  nationality  uprises  (both are no topic in Inner Mongo-
          lia),  Han  Chinese  are extremely afraid and overreact in a
          manner  which  is by no means supported by the actual amount
          of "danger".

          As  a result of this irrational fear, any social grouping of
          Mongolians is considered with great suspicion, and in a spe-
          cial  case to be mentioned here, a choir conductor of a Mon-
          golian  folk music ensemble seeking official recognition for
          his  group  (guaranteeing  the right to perform, etc.) faces
          the  choice  of  either admitting Han nationality singers to
          his  group and/or performing Mongolian folk songs singing in
          Chinese  or being refused official recognition. If he conti-
          nues  to  keep  a  purely Mongolian ensemble performing only
          Mongolian songs, he will be denied recognition and must con-
          tinue  his activities on a leisure time basis. Any other ac-
          tivities,  even  New  Year gatherings, although being legal,
          have to be kept on a very low profile in order not to be re-
          garded as some kind of "anti" activity.

          Another  significant issue is the official historiography on
          Mongolian  topics and Chingis Khan. In many Chinese publica-
          tions  he is made Chinese ("Zhonghua minzu de weida de erzi"
          -  great  son  of the Chinese people) and the Mongolians and
          other  nationalities  are  turned into Chinese nationalities
          even  at  times when they were definitely seperate political
          entities  ("Wo  guo gudai shaoshu minzu zhi yi" - one of the
          old  national  minorities of our country). In a similar con-
          text  has to be seen that a so-called Chingis Khan Mausoleum
          was  erected  in the Ordos region in 1957. Speaking in tech-
          nical terms, this is already a mistake, as his grave is (due
          to  Mongolian  rites)  unknown. The place actually is a wor-
          shipping  place for his soul and NOT a mausoleum. The Mongo-
          lian term ONGON means exactly a place for worshipping souls,
          has  a  number  of shamanist connotations and refers only in
          third or forth meaning to the mausoleum of an eminent person
          -  nonetheless  this  was translated into Chinese as "ling",
          meaning  mausoleum.  In  a  second  distortion, this Chinese
          "ling"  is then translated into the Mongolian BUNXAN (mauso-
          leum)  when  it comes to Mongolian texts written in Cyrillic
          letters and apparently destined for readers in the Mongolian
          People's  Republic.  Even a number of Mongolians resident in
          the neighbourhood of the worshipping place believe in it be-
          ing the mausoleum of Chingis Khan.

          As  far  as  the building of this mausoleum is concerned, it
          consists  of  a  strange mixture of Han Chinese architecture
          blended with domes being said to be shaped like yurts and of
          "typical  Mongolian  style". A Mongolian cap does not turn a
          Chinese into a Mongolian, and strictly speaking, there is no
          such  thing  as  "Mongolian  architecture", as most of solid
          buildings  used by Mongolians in history, mainly monasteries
          and residences of the aristocracy, were modelled after Tibe-
          tan  or  Han Chinese patterns. Nonetheless, this "mausoleum"
          has  been  made  a 'Focus Cultural Relic under State Protec-
          tion',  certainly  not  for its age or historical value as a
          masterpiece  of  architecture, and obviously serves Chinese,
          not  Mongolian purposes. This impression is further reinfor-
          ced  by a special object on display there. One of the copper
          torches  to  carry  the  'Holy  Fire'  of the XI Asian Games
          through  China  was  donated  by the General Secretary Jiang
          Zemin,  including  his  calligraphy. To continue the talk on
          architecture, a number of public buildings constructed after
          1949 are made of  standardized modern average concrete buil-
          dings, adding a round cap with glazed tiles, the whole thing
          then  being  dubbed  as 'typical nationality style' ("ju you
          minzu tese de jianzhu fengge"), a style certainly not inven-
          ted and baptized as such by a Mongolian, with no building in
          this  style existing in the Mongolian People's Republic. Re-
          turning  to  the  Chingis Khan Ongon, it should be mentioned
          that  the  place and the tribe residing here have a long hi-
          story  in worshipping Chingis Khan. There is a simple, small
          stupa  two  miles away of the present building which used to
          serve  as a worshipping place in former times, but according
          to  the  director of the Chingis Khan Mausoleum Research In-
          stitute,  the  old  place was regarded to be of bad fengshui
          (geomantic qualities) and buddhists, taoists and shamans all
          recommended  the  choice  of a new site, the place where the
          present building is located.

          So  far,  I have not really been able to draw the picture of
          the "happy minority" dancing and singing as it is frequently
          used in the Chinese media, and I feel that there are not ma-
          ny  Mongolians  in the region who feel like singing and dan-
          cing  at any given time. While admitting that part of my de-
          scriptions  may  be biased, I am aware that at least for the
          Mongolians,  living  as a "national minority" in an "Autono-
          mous  Region"  is  not  really  helpful when it comes to the
          point  of  personal identity and national pride. This may be
          one  reason  why  I  found  such a wide-spread admiration of
          Chingis  Khan  (besides religious reasons) and was congratu-
          lated many times on behalf of the unification of Germany.


          This  highly personal and subjective text (originally a part
          of  a  letter)  was  written in February 1991 after a longer
          visit  to  Southern  Mongolia.  It  was first circulated in-
          formally  in  its  present  form  and  only later edited and
          translated  into  German. In German it was published in 1993
          by  the  "Mongolische  Notizen  -  Mitteilungen der Deutsch-
          Mongolischen Gesellschaft", Bonn.




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