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.
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.