Grand spec­ta­cle acle

Tra­di­tional Mon­go­lian wed­dings are known for their out­stand­ing at­tire, mes­mer­iz­ing melodies and daz­zling or­na­ments. But they were head­ing for the pages of his­tory un­til Ts Bi­leg de­cided to act. Wang Kai­hao and Yuan Hui re­port from Or­dos, In­ner Mon­go­lia.

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Col­or­ful rit­u­als of tra­di­tional ra­di­tional Mon­go­lian wed­dingsgs re­vived

If it is grand tra­di­tional Mon­go­lian wed­ding cer­e­monies you want to see, there’s one man you can count on. Since the 1990s, Ts Bi­leg, a 67-year-old from the Mon­go­lian eth­nic group in Or­dos, a city in the south­west of the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­tonomous re­gion, has writ­ten 18 dance op­eras for 15 troupes on the tra­di­tional Or­dos wed­ding — a se­ries of rit­u­als dat­ing back to the time of Genghis Khan, which were listed as na­tional-level in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in 2006.

His shows have been staged in more than 10 coun­tries and re­gions. Nev­er­the­less, the­man is not sat­is­fied with the wed­ding cer­e­monies be­ing recre­ated only on­stage.

“Cul­tural her­itage is meant not only for the stage,” he says. “It has no sig­nif­i­cance if it is not part of peo­ple’s lives.”

Ex­plain­ing how he de­cided to stay close to tra­di­tion when re­viv­ing the cer­e­monies, he re­called when he was trav­el­ing around Or­dos in the 1980s vis­it­ing dif­fer­ent Mon­go­lian tribes to source el­e­ments for his shows, he was of­ten told by peo­ple that he should not cater to mod­ern tastes at the cost of tra­di­tion.

“That was when I de­cided to re­vive tra­di­tional rit­u­als, ”he says.

How­ever, only a few peo­ple who could con­duct tra­di­tional Mon­go­lian wed­dings were still ac­tive then. Those who con­duct the wed­dings must know Mon­go­lian cul­ture and the wed­ding rit­u­als well, he says.

A typ­i­cal Or­dos wed­ding, he says, takes four to five days and is rich with de­tail.

Though he says he at­tended big wed­dings in his child­hood, the tra­di­tion be­gan to grad­u­ally fade away, and the “cul­tural revo­lu­tion” (1966-76) has­tened its demise.

Speak­ing about how he man­aged to pro­duce his dance op­eras, he says: “I man­aged to get hold of a few ref­er­ence books and a few peo­ple from the older gen­er­a­tion.”

Now, to keep the tra­di­tion alive, he has set up train­ing schools. Speak­ing about how long it will take to train the young­sters, he says that while it does not take long to ex­plain the process to the stu­dents, it takes lots of prac­tice — like host­ing many wed­dings — to per­fect the skill.

“We have to en­sure those who want to con­duct tra­di­tional wed­dings are knowl­edge­able if we want to re­vive tra­di­tion.”

To­day, 32 peo­ple can con­duct such wed­dings in Or­dos, and some of them are in their 30s.

For the fu­ture, he plans to have 28 train­ing cen­ters on Or­dos’ grass­lands.

Ex­plain­ing the need for so many train­ing cen­ters, he says this is be­cause of the var­i­ous styles of wed­dings in dif­fer­ent ban­ners, or county-level ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gions in In­ner Mon­go­lia.

For in­stance, in the Ejin Horo ban­ner, where the Mau­soleum of Genghis Khan is lo­cated, the wed­dings of the lo­cal Dar had peo­ple — who have been guard­ing the mau­soleums for the last 800 years — are not os­ten­ta­tious.

How­ever, wed­dings in the Uxin ban­ner are more flam­boy­ant and col­or­ful.

Mean­while, some Ro­man Catholic Church tra­di­tions fea­tured in wed­dings in the Otog ban­ner be­cause of its links with Western mis­sion­ar­ies.

Ex­press­ing hap­pi­ness that old wed­ding tra­di­tions are be­ing re­vived, Ts Bi­leg says: “I’m glad to see tra­di­tional bal­lads are now be­ing chanted at lo­cal wed­dings, and other rit­u­als are also be­ing fol­lowed again.”

Re­fer­ring to an­other tra­di­tion, he says, in olden times, weapons used to be taken to Mon­go­lian wed­dings to fight other tribes in case they sought to cap­ture the brides.

So, as a nod to that an­cient prac­tice, wed­dings in Or­dos now typ­i­cally fea­ture archery con­tests.

But de­spite the ef­forts to re­vive an­cient tra­di­tions, he ad­mits that some parts are dif­fi­cult to fol­low and also un­nec­es­sary given how the world has moved on.

Point­ing to one as­pect, he talks of milk baths.

He says that while these were im­por­tant for no­ble fam­i­lies when it came to wed­dings in the old days, he feels these days this rit­ual is un­nec­es­sary.

“When peo­ple can take a bath ev­ery day, some things can be skipped.”

“How­ever, ba­sic prin­ci­ples can­not be changed,” he warns.

While Ts Bi­leg is mak­ing his ef­fort to pro­tect this her­itage, the gov­ern­men­tis sup­ple­ment­ing his ef­forts in its own way.

Ding Guil­iang, direc­tor of the Or­dos’ mu­nic­i­pal of­fice for the pro­tec­tion of in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage, says: “We launched a pro­gram in 2008 to video or au­dio record all reg­is­tered in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage.”

And the of­fice has recorded four ter­abytes of data so far.

Speak­ing about the preser­va­tion process, he says: “Some of the rit­u­als are be­ing in­te­grated into sou­venirs for tourists, but we are also con­sid­er­ing other ways to pre­serve them.”

Ac­cord­ing to Ding’s of­fice, there were six na­tional-level, 75 au­tonomous re­gion-level, and 135 city-level forms of in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in Or­dos as of June 2016.

And, in Au­gust, the city opened the first ex­hi­bi­tion gallery in In­ner Mon­go­lia fo­cus­ing on in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage.

The gallery, cover­ing 5,000 square me­ters, has given Ding con­fi­dence about his en­deavor.

Speak­ing about the gallery, he says: “In the sum­mer, the ex­hi­bi­tion hall can be a show­case for tourists. And, at other times, it can func­tion as an in­sti­tu­tion for in­her­i­tors of in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage to de­liver lec­tures or train stu­dents.”

Sep­a­rately, be­ing the rich­est city in In­ner Mon­go­lia, Or­dos has stepped up to pro­vide fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives to pro­mote the pro­tec­tion of the cul­tural her­itage.

For in­stance, as of now, each city-level in­her­i­tor of such her­itage gets 5,000 yuan ($749) a year from the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment, which also en­sures that the money is put to good use.

Speak­ing about the checks and bal­ances in place, Ding says: “We have a mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem to make sure they use the money in the work.

“The eval­u­a­tion cri­te­ria is also there. Each in­her­i­tor is ex­pected to re­cruit two stu­dents ev­ery year, and par­tic­i­pate in at least two in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage ex­hi­bi­tions.”

"Cul­tural her­itage is meant not only for the stage. It has no sig­nif­i­cance if it is not part of peo­ple’s lives.” Ts Bi­leg, stage script writer


Top: Lo­cal Mon­go­lians in Or­dos per­form their tra­di­tional chop­stick dance, an in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage item. Above left: A dance opera fea­tures tra­di­tional Or­dos wed­ding cus­toms. Above right: Ts Bi­leg has helped re­vive the tra­di­tional cer­e­monies of the Mon­go­lian eth­nic group.

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