Friday, December 19, 2008

Book review - “ The Role of Women in the Altaic World”

“The Role of Women in the Altaic World” edited by Veronica Veit.
Published by Harrassowitz Verlag, 2007.

The publishing house of Harrassowitz Verlag has released a very important volume of great scholarly value for researchers interested in the role of women in Altaic-nomadic societies from the earliest periods. Titled, “The Role of Women in the Altaic World” this work presents a copious series of well documented essays edited by Veronica Veit. These articles collectively survey a broad range of Altaic nomadic states including Mongol, Turkic, Manchus and the position they historically accorded women – which is refreshingly far more empowered in many instances than those of their sedentary counterparts.

Secenmonke’s article, “The Role of Women in Traditional Mongolian Society” illuminates the mythical monsters in ‘Gesar’s Tale’ which are tamed by the wise sisters of Gesar and provide him “with sense and wisdom in order to appease warfare on earth.” Secenmonke cites passages from the ‘Secret History of the Mongols’ and other historical sources to demonstrate the high status of women in traditional Mongolian society and introduces legendary Mongolian queen-regents Mandukhai Secen and Juggen Khatun who rose to power during periods of crises.

In the article titled, “Compared With the Women the…Menfolk have little Business of their own.” – Gender Division of Labour in the History of the Mongols” by Barbara Frey Naf, we learn about the relatively equal sharing of work duties among Mongol nomads. Naf ‘s contemporary observations made during visits to Mongolia from 1980 to 2001 are counter-balanced by her citations from13th century sources which bear out the importance Mongols placed on women and men having the ability to cooperatively address tasks that range from felt-making, assembling and disassembling gers, herding, butchering animals and calving. The author establishes the central role that Mongol women have historically held and provides them with “ a high degree of self-reliance and to their having a very strong influence on decision-making processes at family level.”

“Manchu Women of the Early Stage: Fantasy and Reality” by Alessandra Pozzi takes us into the world of the Manchu court intrigues and customs from the dynastic founder Nurhaci to Yongzheng. We learn about the Manchu requirement that Manchu royalty had to marry within their own community which also required that after their husband’s death the widow had to “follow in-death” and take their own lives. This custom was finally abolished by the enlightened rule of Emperor Kangxi in 1688 who also put in place several other reforms that were iconoclastic and farsighted. The powerful role of Manchu women was probably best epitomized by the Empress Dowager Cixi who dominated the Manchu court till 1908.

Mark I. Gol’man’s article “The Mongolian Women in the Russian Archives of the XVIIth Century” unveils a treasure trove of historical gems that document the prominent involvement of Mongolian noblewomen in Mongol-Russian diplomatic interplay. These documents are being published by the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in four volumes and cover the period from 1667 to 1756.

Beginning with Secin Khatun (Nomakhu Holaci), the mother of Altan Khan the Mongol sovereign who ruled till 1657, Gol’man depicts the elaborate reception she provided to all Russian envoys traveling to the Mongol rulers’ court. In one instance when a Russian envoy named Drushina Ogarkov showed her disrespect she had the Czar punish and publicly whip Ogarkov followed by his imprisonment in Tobolsk. The Secin Khatun was not only present at important political negotiations with the Russian delegations but she also advised Altan Khan during these proceedings and apparently influenced his stance that Mongolia remain independent in the face of Russian pressure.

Gol’man brings home the critically important role that Mongol queen-regents played in political history including Altan Khan’s wife Akhai Khatun who negotiated directly with the Russian envoys after Altan Khan’s death. She declined a Russian proposal to make the Mongol court a subject of the Moscow Czar, “declaring proudly that the Mongol rulers and Mongol people had never been anyone’s subordinates.”

“The Role of Women in the Altaic World” is heartily recommended for its depth of spirited scholarship on this important subject which provides essential perspective and understanding of the tumultuous and vibrant dynamics of Altaic societies gender relations.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mongolia Wins its First Olympics Gold Medal

Tuvshinbayar Naidan after Winning Olympics Gold

BEIJING (AP) — Mongolia won its first gold medal in Olympic history Thursday, with Tuvshinbayar Naidan beating Kazakhstan's Askhat Zhitkeyev in men's 100-kilogram judo.

Naidan, who upset Athen's Olympic champion Keiji Suzuki of Japan in his opening bout, scored a waza ari with just under two minutes remaining, then added on two yuko to seal the victory.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Child Jockey’s Rise on the Steppes of Mongolia

A Child Jockey’s Rise on the Steppes of Mongolia


Published by The New York Times July 11, 2008

Children as young as five ride in horse races in Mongolia. Jockeys at a race in Khui Doloon Khudag, Mongolia.

Photo by Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

KHUI DOLOON KHUDAG, Mongolia — The boy rode the stallion in a trot around the camp, cooling it down after a long gallop across the steppe. He was humming his favorite Mongolian hip-hop songs, by groups like Tartar, Flash and Guy 666.
Nearby, in the family’s round felt tent, the boy’s father ran a wire from a satellite dish to a big-screen television. His mother paced around in high-heeled boots.

“When I’m in the city, I miss my horses,” the boy, Munkherdene, 13, said. “When I’m in the countryside, I miss my friends and games. I really miss my PlayStation.”

Such is the life of a city slicker turned child jockey in the wilds of Mongolia.

Munkherdene and his family, who like most people here go by their given names, are among a growing number of Mongolians from the traffic-choked capital, Ulan Bator, trying to get back to their nomadic roots. The boy’s father is a successful businessman, importing electronics, bicycles and mining equipment from Japan. But like many affluent Mongolians these days, he also breeds racehorses.

“This summer, I was going to send him to Singapore to improve his English,” the father, Enkhbayar, 49, said of his son. “But he decided to stay with me to help with the horses.”

Horse racing is becoming an industry across the same Central Asian steppes where Genghis Khan and his warrior hordes once galloped. The biggest race of the year takes place this weekend 30 miles west of the capital.

It is part of the annual Naadam Festival, a gathering that matters more to Mongolians than the Olympics. Children as young as 5 ride in races that can be dangerous, with hundreds of horses thundering across the open plain at once, running at speeds approaching 50 miles per hour. All told, more than 1,800 horses will race over the weekend.

As the competition intensifies, businessmen are importing larger horses from foreign lands to breed with the small Mongolian horses, the prize money is getting heftier and owners are transporting horses to competitions in trucks and trailers rather than riding them.

Other traditions are changing, too. Horse racing is among what Mongolians call the “three manly sports”(alongside wrestling and archery), but female jockeys have started to appear.

At its heart, though, horse racing is still as rustic an experience here as drinking fermented mare’s milk, and as deeply embedded in the culture.

Munkherdene and Enkhbayar spend their summers traveling across the country from race to race, sleeping in the family’s richly appointed traditional tent, or ger, one that cost thousands of dollars and elicits approving looks from passers-by.

“The best thing is the air, and horse riding, and when it rains,” Munkherdene said one evening, as a double rainbow arced across the plains following a twilight thunderstorm.

The family drove out to the electric-green grasslands of the raceground on Tuesday from their apartment in Ulan Bator. For this occasion they set up two gers, one for sleeping and another for cooking. Their eight racehorses were tethered to posts, brought here by a half-dozen men hired as trainers.

The family owns more than 100 horses, which they keep in Tov, a rural province that surrounds Ulan Bator. The horses graze on property where Enkhbayar’s grandparents once lived. His father, who worked in the capital for a state-run publishing house, took him there during the summers, teaching him to ride and care for the animals.

Now he is doing the same for his son.

“Horse owners usually don’t let their sons or daughters race their horses,” Enkhbayar said. “But I let my son start racing three years ago. It’s important to have him inherit the knowledge of horses from me. He’ll continue to train horses.”

When a cold wind blows across these plains, as it does even in the summer, Enkhbayar puts on a thick brown robe called a del. A broad man with a dark, creased face and a wispy goatee, he could play the lead role in a biopic of Genghis Khan.
“Now, there are lots of differences between city and country people,” he said. “For example, my son’s classmates want to ride horses in the countryside, but they’ve never tried before. They’re like foreigners because they don’t understand animals.”

Enkhbayar, a father of four, watched as Munkherdene jumped off the stallion and hitched it to a post. He seems like any 13-year-old boy from any world capital. Last month, he stayed up late to watch matches of the Euro 2008 soccer tournament. He wears a red Manchester United shirt. His favorite PlayStation games are NBA Street and FIFA Street.

Munkherdene turned away in disgust one night when a man slaughtered a goat and a sheep outside the family’s kitchen ger. Every teenage boy in the countryside learns how to do this.

“I’ve never done it,” he said. “Sometimes I even want to beat the man doing it.”

His family is one of dozens that set up gers at midweek here, on the raceground called Khui Doloon Khudag, which means Navel of the Seven Wells.

Some of the families are nomads arriving from hundreds of miles away with simple plastic tents and one or two racehorses. Others bring dozens of horses and erect elaborate gers larger than a typical Manhattan studio apartment. (They take several hours to set up.) By Thursday, the place had become the Mongolian equivalent of a state fairground. There were restaurant gers and souvenir gers and trading gers.

Until the 20th century, horses were in the blood of all Mongolians. Their language has more than 70 words to describe the animals’ coloring. When a great horse dies, its skull is placed atop a cairn on a mountain, and Mongolians make offerings at those sites. Mongolian horses are short and stubby, but that is exactly what helped Genghis Khan conquer half the known world. His warriors could leap on and off their horses in the middle of battle. They also learned to whirl around and shoot arrows while riding away from their enemies.

“My friends always ask me so many questions about horses,” Munkherdene said. “I was 8 or 9 when I first rode a horse. I was very eager to ride a horse, and if someone didn’t let me ride, I’d cry. My father had fast horses, racing horses, and I’d gallop on them. My father would get very angry.”

A racehorse costs anywhere from $300 to more than $80,000, Enkhbayar said. One of his favorite horses is Jiinst, the stallion that Munkherdene was riding. Jiinst’s father was a prize-winning stallion, and Enkhbayar bought Jiinst for breeding purposes when the horse was just 2 years old.

Some businessmen buy larger horses from abroad — Russia, the Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, China — for breeding purposes. “We have a belief that stallions and mares, if they’re from far away, they’ll produce fast horses,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter if horses are from foreign countries. But the problem with foreign horses is taking care of them in the winter.”

Prize money can be big by Mongolian standards. The top prize at Naadam is 1,000,000 togrog, or $870. Prizes at smaller, more select competitions can be even larger — a sport utility vehicle, for instance.

Enkhbayar said his horses had won more than 10 medals. Half are pinned to a swatch of red cloth he keeps in the ger. None of the 10 were won by his son, however.

On Tuesday night, while munching on sheep organs, Enkhbayar was weighing whether to let his son race this weekend. Had Munkherdene grown too heavy? Would he slow the horse down?

The next morning brought more concerns. A heavy rainstorm had swept across the plain. Enkhbayar and his horsemen threw plastic tarpaulins over the eight racehorses.

“If it rains a lot, I worry,” he said. “The horses could catch cold. Their noses might run.”

The normal training routine is to gallop the horses once a day to make them break a sweat. Heavy rains can prevent that, and it had rained seven of the last nine days. By midafternoon, blue sky began peeking through the clouds. And Enkhbayar had decided that Munkherdene would ride in what was likely to be his last chance to race in Naadam.

“If I place in the top five, I’ll be so happy,” Munkherdene said. “Maybe I’ll cry.”

Enkhbayar had other hopes. Next year, he said, his 4-year-old son would start learning to ride.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Siberian, Native American Languages Linked -- A First

Siberian, Native American Languages Linked -- A First

From National Geographic News

John Roach
for National Geographic News

March 26, 2008

Since at least 1923 researchers have suggested a connection exists between Asian and North American languages—but this is the first time a link has been demonstrated with established standards, said Vajda, who has studied the relationship for more than 15 years.
Previous researchers had provided lists of similar-sounding and look-alike words, but their methods were unscientific. Such similarities, Vajda noted, are likely to be dismissed as coincidence even if they represent genuine evidence.
So Vajda developed another method. "I'm providing a whole system of [similar] vocabulary and also of grammatical parallels—the way that verb prefixes are structured," he said.

Dying Tongue

His research links the Old World language family of Yeniseic in central Siberia with the Na-Dene family of languages in North America.
The Yeniseic family includes the extinct languages Yugh, Kott, Assan, Arin, and Pumpokol. Ket is the only Yeniseic language spoken today. Less than 200 speakers remain and most are over 50, according to Vajda.
"Within a couple of generations, Ket will probably become extinct," he said.

The Na-Dene family includes languages spoken by the broad group of Athabaskan tribes in the U.S. and Canada as well as the Tlingit and Eyak people. The last Eyak speaker died in January. Vajda presented the findings in February at a meeting of linguists at the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks. Vajda established the Yeniseic-Na-Dene link by looking for languages with a verb-prefix system similar to those in Yeniseic languages. Such prefixes are unlike any other language in North Asia. "Only Na-Dene languages have a system of verb prefixes that very closely resemble the Yeniseic," he said.

From there, Vajda found several dozen cognates—or words in different languages that sound alike and have the same meaning.
The results dovetail with earlier work by Merritt Ruhlen, an anthropologist at Stanford University in California who Vajda said discovered the first genuine Na-Dene-Yeniseic cognates. Vajda also showed how these cognates have sound correspondences. "I systematically connect these structures in Yeniseic with the structures in modern Na-Dene," Vajda said. "My comparisons aren't just lists of some look-alike words … I show there is a system behind it."

Marina Irikova, who lives in Kellog village in Siberia, is one of only 200 people who still speak Ket, part of an Old World language family called Yeniseic.

Johanna Nichols is a linguist at the University of California in Berkeley who attended the Alaska meeting where Vajda presented his research.
With the exception of the Eskimo-Aleut family that straddles the Bering Strait and Aleutian Islands, this is "the first successful demonstration of any connection between a New World language and an Old World language," Nichols said.

Mother Tongue

Vajda said his research puts linguistics on the same stage as archaeology, anthropology, and genetics when it comes to studying the history of humans in North Asia and North America. However, the research has not revealed which language came first. Neither modern Ket nor Na-Dene languages in North America represent the mother tongue.

For example, some words in the Na-Dene family likely represent sounds of the mother tongue more closely than their Yeniseic cognates. Other words in Yeniseic, however, are probably more archaic. Based on archaeological evidence of human migrations across the Bering land bridge, the language link may extend back at least 10,000 years.

If true, according to Vajda, this would be the oldest known demonstrated language link.
But more research is needed to determine when the languages originated and how they became a part of various cultures before such a claim will be accepted, according to UC Berkeley linguist Nichols.
"I don't think there is any reason to assume the connection is [10,000 years] old … this must surely be one late episode in a much longer and more complicated history of settlement," she said.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


" MY BEAUTIFUL JINJIIMAA " Directed by Ochir Mashbat.

"My Beautiful Jinjimaa" is a moving, emotional Mongolian film about the deep love and great sacrifices of a handicapped man for the love of a woman and her child. "My Beautiful Jinjimaa" takes us into the life of a Mongol family struggling with the harsh emotional realities of personal tragedy while trying to preserve their fragile existence in the extreme cold of Mongolia's bitter winter.

This well directed film by Ochir Mashbat, epitomizes the new Mongolian cinema which address the social divisions between modern urban Mongolians and the traditional values of Mongol nomadic culture. The main actors Natsagdorj Battsetseg, Purevdorj Tserendagva, and Dorjgotov Gantsetseg draw out strong emotion with their compassionate expressions of enduring love.

Now available at Amazon: "My Beautiful Jinjimaa"

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Khadak DVD Released on March 4th, 2008


Scene from Khadak

Scene from Khadak

The 'Khadak' DVD was officially released on March 4th, 2008.

'Khadak' has already won important honors internationally including Batzul Khayankhyarvaa and Tsetsegee Byamba who has just won Best Actor and Best Actress in Singapore at the First Asian Films Festival on December 4th. Tsetsegee was in attendance and received the Swarovski statues on stage at the Raffles Hotel.

'Khadak' Website:

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mongolian Art Lecture at Rubin Museum of Art - March 6th, 2008

"Ger" by Tsegmed, 2002

The Rubin Museum of Art will present a lecture titled, "Nomadic art of the Mongols" by Orna Uranchimeg-Tsultem on Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 1:00pm. Orna Uranchimeg-Tsultem's specialty is the art of Mongolia and Tibet.

She studied the modern art of Mongolia prior to her present PhD studies at UC Berkeley. As an assistant professor at the Mongolian University of Arts and Culture, she has curated Mongolian exhibitions internationally and published on Mongolian modern art. Since 2002, she has been the curator of the largest existing collection of Mongolian modern art, at the Khan Bank in Mongolia. She is currently a PhD candidate in History of Art at UC Berkeley.

This event is free with admission to RMA, and free for RMA Members.

Location: Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17th Street
New York, NY 10011

Event Date/Time: Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 1:00pm to 2:00pm.

Contact - 212.620.5000

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mongol Cultural Impact on Hollywood and Entertainment Media

The impact of Mongol culture and history on modern popular culture can be seen in several instances in contemporary art, Hollywood films, literature, news media, video games and other arenas of popular culture.

From the borrowing of traditional Mongolian costumes, facial makeup and hairstyles by George Lucas and costume designer Trisha Biggar for the Star Wars films to video games based on Chinggis Khan and his conquests, Mongolian culture and history occupies a distinct place in modern cultural history.

Genghis Khan Video Game circa 1989
Chinggis Khan inspired Nintendo platform video game by Koei Corp., Japan.

Genghis Khan II Video Game circa 1994
Sega Genesis platform video game by Koei Corp., Japan.

Director George Lucas was inspired by Mongolian traditional regal hair-styles, facial makeup and costume designs which his costume designer, Trisha Biggar, then incorporated into the costume, makeup and hair-style designs for the Star Wars film character Queen Amidala.

Portrait of the wife of nobleman Nasantogtokh by Sonomtseren, circa 1900.

Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala in Star Wars film.

Mongolian princesses in Maidar celebration in Mongolia, circa 1900. AMNH Library.

Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala in Star Wars film.

Two Mongolian Women looking a Magazine, Forty Miles north of Urga, 2nd Expedition, Photo by Yvette Borup Andrews, 1919, AMNH Library.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Mongol Cultural Impact on Modern Art and Culture

The impact of Mongol culture and history on modern popular culture can be seen in several instances in contemporary art, Hollywood films, literature, news media, video games and other arenas of popular culture.From the borrowing of traditional Mongolian costumes, facial makeup and hairstyles by George Lucas and costume designer Trisha Biggar for the Star Wars films to book jacket covers by designer Tibor Kalman, Mongolian culture and history occupies a distinct place in modern cultural history.

Advertisement for Brunello Cucinelli

Book cover, title "(Un) FASHION"

by Tibor Kalman and Maira Kalman.

Published by Harry Abrams
ISBN: 0-8109-9229-9

This book titled, " (un) FASHION " by Tibor Kalman and Maira Kalman is a global photographic survey of native fashion-sense and presents indigenous peoples from almost every corner of the planet dressed in traditional costumes in their cultural context.

Tibor Kalman was considered a design genius in his time, whose fascination with the creative ways people around the world choose to adorn themselves is vividly on display in this book, and on the book cover, which shows a Mongol couple dressed in traditional Mongol del looking quite stylish in the Gobi desert.

Artwork titled: "Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan"

Artist: Cai Guo-Qaing

Shown in 1996 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Materials: 108 sheepskin bags, wooden branches, paddles, rope, 9 Toyota engines, cover page and excerpts from periodicals.

Dimensions: 350 x 1986 x 261 cm

( This artwork was comprised of ) “a gigantic boat made of logs and inflated sheepskins ineffectually powered by a brace of Toyota engines. Cross-wiring temporal references to conjure all manner of Asian invasions - from the Mongols, who used similar sheepskin devices to ford rivers, to Japanese cars - this dragon's immobility belied its roar, though its grandiose scale amounted to a sort of theatrical efficacy. Unfortunately, the circus-like ambiance of the exhibition as a whole emphasized that grandiosity rather than the work's humor or bizarre material presence.”

Quote from Barry Schwabsky on Highbeam Encyclopedia, 1997.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Tofa People

Tofalaria - The Land of the Tofa People

The Tofa are an ancient minority people living across from the northern-most parts of Mongolia between Tuva and Buryatia. Numbering only a few hundred now, the Tofa as a people might become obsolete within the next decade according to some scholars. Their language in now spoken only by a few dozen elderly Tofa and will most likely die out with them. The ancient Tofa traditions of herding reindeer and hunting for food and hides is part of a way of life that has reached the end of its road in a final meeting with modernity.

Tofa Hunter, photo by Vladimir Sorin
Photo courtesy: Cultural Survival Quarterly