One-time no­mads hang on to tra­di­tional cel­e­bra­tions

Horse­back rid­ing, archery and wrestling still at­tract crowds, re­port Zhang Yuchen in Xil­in­hot, In­ner Mon­go­lia, and Yang Fang in Ho­hhot

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

This is the qui­etest sea­son in the north­ern pas­ture­lands of the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion. The grass­lands are al­most de­serted, so un­ex­pected rain­storms will only be heard by wan­der­ing herds and flocks. The rea­son is sim­ple — ev­ery­one is at­tend­ing the big­gest party in the dis­trict.

Evlegt­set­seg was the only per­son in the fam­ily tent, called a ger. Apart from lambs and calves chew­ing on grass nearby, the 40-some­thing was alone, but she would have been at­tend­ing the gath­er­ing if we hadn’t shown up.

Dur­ing late July and early Au­gust, many mem­bers of the Mon­go­lian eth­nic group rush to their lo­cal pas­tures to watch and par­tic­i­pate in the big­gest event in their cal­en­dar, the an­nual Nadaam fes­ti­vals, a se­ries of cel­e­bra­tions held in a num­ber of time­honored lo­ca­tions.

Each fes­ti­val is a two- or three-day event. Fol­low­ing an open­ing cer­e­mony fea­tur­ing singers and dancers, the au­di­ence pre­pares to see how the com­peti­tors per­form in the “three manly skills”: horse­back rid­ing, archery and tra­di­tional Mon­go­lian wrestling.

In the past, the no­madic peo­ples of the re­gion car­ried their gers, cook­ing uten­sils and other necessities to their lo­cal Nadaam, pitch­ing their tents and mak­ing a tem­po­rary home for the du­ra­tion of the fes­ti­val.

Evlegt­set­seg’s clos­est neigh­bors, if the word can be used for peo­ple liv­ing around 160 kilo­me­ters away, were all at the gath­er­ing too. By the early part of Au­gust, ap­prox­i­mately 20 Nadaam of vary­ing sizes had been cel­e­brated across the re­gion. They are the high point of the lo­cals’ year. “I am still in the ger but my heart is at the Nadaam,” said Evlegt­set­seg.

‘Three games of man’

The cel­e­bra­tions, which are some­times known as the “three games of man”, are cel­e­brated across the length and breadth of In­ner Mon­go­lia. As sum­mer reaches its mid­point and the breed­ing sea­son comes to an end, the no­mads will gather to­gether, just as long as there are games and con­tests, how­ever big or small.

Un­like their an­ces­tors, those in at­ten­dance nowa­days usu­ally ar­rive in ve­hi­cles rather than on horse­back. Horses are now usu­ally only used for graz­ing or shep­herd­ing the flocks.

Taivan­huar, 34, the head of Bul­gan Sum­lin Yalalt Gacha, an ad­min­is­tra­tive di­vi­sion equiv­a­lent to a vil­lage, re­mem­bered the days when he rode on horse­back to visit his neigh­bors. “Ev­ery­one on the grass­land, male or fe­male, old or young, is a good rider, so this is a cel­e­bra­tion of the no­madic peo­ple,” he said, adding that the fes­ti­vals also draw an in­creas­ing num­ber of tourists.

How­ever, this no­madic group is grad­u­ally set­tling down and most peo­ple now live in per­ma­nent dwellings. China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) aims to set­tle the no­madic pop­u­la­tion, around 1.16 mil­lion peo­ple, re­main­ing on the 400 mil­lion hectares of grass­land by 2015.

De­spite the life­style changes, the peo­ple are at­tempt­ing to con­tinue liv­ing in strict ac­cor­dance with tra­di­tion, in­clud­ing cul­tural events such as Nadaam, which have been listed by the Min­istry of Cul­ture as im­por­tant as­pects of the re­gion’s in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage — which in­cludes songs, mu­sic, drama and hand­i­crafts. Each Nadaam mainly con­sists of the “three games” that are still prac­ticed daily, even though their pop­u­lar­ity has de­clined slightly in the past few decades as moder­nity has en­croached on the tra­di­tional life­style.

Tra­di­tional Mon­go­lian wrestling, called bokh in the lo­cal lan­guage, sym­bol­izes strength and courage. It’s the most pop­u­lar sport at the fes­ti­vals.

One of its defin­ing fea­tures is the dance the com­bat­ants per­form as they en­ter or exit the arena. The dance has both a phys­i­cal and spir­i­tual as­pect; it helps the wrestlers show their re­spect for na­ture and their op­po­nents, while pro­vid­ing a good warm up for the mus­cles be­fore the bout be­gins.

Bokh, which means “strength, sol­i­dar­ity, dura­bil­ity”, is part of the lo­cal cul­ture. The peo­ple learn the in­tri­cate moves dur­ing child­hood when they be­gin wrestling on the grass­land.

With a his­tory of nearly 2,000 years — bokh was des­ig­nated a mil­i­tary sport by Genghis Khan — bokh’s de­vel­op­ment has been shaped by the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.

The wrestlers, known as bokh qin, dress in a spe­cial waist­coat called a jodga, usu­ally hand­made from cow and camel hide or deer­skin. Me­tal studs made of cop­per or sil­ver are set in the

A HOUSE ON THE GO ... LIT­ER­ALLY

waist­coat to pro­vide con­ve­nient hand­holds for the wrestlers. They also ab­sorb some of the im­pact when com­peti­tors are wres­tled to the ground.

Each jodga is dec­o­rated with dragons, phoenixes, lions, tigers, ele­phants and other de­signs that equate the skill, strength and brav­ery of the bokh qin with those of the an­i­mals de­picted.

Bouts are held in a sim­ple, solemn fash­ion. Be­cause it is im­pos­si­ble for a per­son to fight alone, there must al­ways be an even num­ber of par­tic­i­pants, 95 per­cent of whom are no­madic shep­herds. The field can num­ber as many as 1,024 par­tic­i­pants. When the bout be­gins, the wrestlers wave their arms and move into ac­tion, im­i­tat­ing the move­ments of lions, deer and ea­gles.

Bouts are usu­ally held on open fields and fol­low tra­di­tional rules, which means there are no lim­its on the du­ra­tion of the bout or the weight of the com­peti­tors, a prac­tice that leads to the oc­ca­sional mis­match. The sym­bol of honor is the jiang ga necklace, which con­sists of a ring adorned with five dif­fer­ently col­ored cloths. Only wrestlers who have won the com­pe­ti­tion three times are per­mit­ted to wear the jiang ga.

Ujir­baatar, a young bokh qin from East Ujimqin Ban­ner in the Xilin Gol League, be­gan his pro­fes­sional ca­reer seven years ago. The 25-year-old has par­tic­i­pated in as many bouts as pos­si­ble this year, but was un­able to claim vic­tory in the Xilin Gol League’s Nadaam, which fea­tured 140 com­peti­tors. There was no jiang ga for him this time around.

When a wrestler wins a cham­pi­onship, he is el­i­gi­ble to wear the necklace. Ev­ery fur­ther win sees more rib­bons added to the ga, or the ring sec­tion. The greater the num­ber of vic­to­ries, the greater the num­ber of rib­bons the wrestler sports.

His­tor­i­cally, when­ever im­por­tant feasts were held, wrestlers were in­vited to join the fun. The sport was once a key way of de­cid­ing can­di­date rank­ings in im­pe­rial mar­tial ex­ams and, even to­day, out­stand­ing wrestlers com­mand a huge amount of pub­lic re­spect.

Mod­ern de­vel­op­ments

Tra­di­tion­ally, Mon­go­lian wrestling has been the pre­serve of men but, in 1984, a women’s di­vi­sion was es­tab­lished and they were al­lowed to par­tic­i­pate for the first time. Al­though the in­clu­sion of women was orig­i­nally seen as an in­sult to the men, peo­ple seem to have grown ac­cus­tomed to the sight of fe­male wrestlers.

Nashun Chaogtu, has 20 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence of the sport. He said that since the age of 17, he has wit­nessed a great many changes. How­ever, hav­ing made that cryp­tic re­mark, he de­clined to make fur­ther comment.

In the past five or six years, Mon­go­lian wrestling has at­tracted a wider au­di­ence and the sums of money in­volved are now huge by lo­cal stan­dards. On aver­age, a pro­fes­sional bokh qin can earn about 400,000 yuan ($65,000) a year. Dur­ing spring and sum­mer they take part in com­pe­ti­tions, and dur­ing au­tumn and win­ter they train at pro­fes­sional, pri­vate clubs.

In tra­di­tional bokh, a wrestler loses the bout when any part of their body above the knee touches the ground. The sport re­quires good waist and leg co­or­di­na­tion and a wrestler is ex­pected to present a full dis­play of strength and skill dur­ing the bout.

But the sport is chang­ing too. Some bouts at higher or pro­fes­sional level are limited to a du­ra­tion of 60 min­utes. More­over, to aid the de­vel­op­ment of bokh, weight di­vi­sions will also be in­tro­duced at a fu­ture, un­spec­i­fied date, said Bor­ji­gen Chogtu, a se­nior re­searcher at the Pro­fes­sional Bokh League In­sti­tu­tion.

The move will be the lat­est in a se­ries of amend­ments to the sport; since 1982, the rules have been re­viewed and mod­i­fied four times.

At­sag, a civil ser­vant in Xilin Gol League, was en­cour­aged to en­ter a bokh af­ter his work unit of­fered a first prize of 40,000 yuan for the win­ner. How­ever, At­sag re­fused to al­low his only daugh­ter to take part.

A slight weak­en­ing of at­tach­ment to tra­di­tional cul­ture may be the re­sult of many fam­i­lies mov­ing to the ur­ban ar­eas, but many in the eth­nic group are con­vinced that the old ways will be main­tained for many years to come.

“The Nadaam, along with Mon­go­lian wrestling, is rooted in the grass­land cul­ture and is pros­per­ing — no mat­ter what hap­pens, it will last for­ever,” said Bor­ji­gen Chogtu. Wang Kai­hao and Yuan Hui con­trib­uted to this story. Con­tact the writer at zhangyuchen@chi­nadaily. com.cn

CUI MENG / CHINA DAILY

A herds­man demon­strates his eques­trian skills on the grass­lands out­side Xil­in­hot, the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion, dur­ing the re­cent Nadaam fes­ti­val.

PHO­TOS BY CUI MENG / CHINA DAILY

Wrestling is one of the ‘three manly skills’ of the Mon­go­lian eth­nic group. The sport, along with horse­back­ing rid­ing and archery, forms the ba­sis of the com­pe­ti­tion at the an­nual Nadaam fes­ti­vals.

A man dis­plays his skill on horse­back at a re­cent Nadaam held in Xil­in­hot in the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

Young peo­ple al­ways en­joy the Nadaam fes­ti­vals.

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