One-time nomads hang on to traditional celebrations

Updated: 2013-08-28 07:55

By Zhang Yuchen in Xilinhot, Inner Mongolia, and Yang Fang in Hohhot (China Daily)

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 One-time nomads hang on to traditional celebrations

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

 One-time nomads hang on to traditional celebrations

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. Photos by Cui Meng / China Daily

 One-time nomads hang on to traditional celebrations

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

 One-time nomads hang on to traditional celebrations

Young people always enjoy the Nadaam festivals.

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

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 time-honored 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.

Bokh qin

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 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.

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One-time nomads hang on to traditional celebrations

(China Daily USA 08/28/2013 page7)