MONGOLIA CULTURE, ARTS AND LITERATURE

CULTURE AND ARTS IN MONGOLIA

The government has traditionally supported opera, ballet, folk dancing, folk music and circuses. But there is not is much money for these things any more. Many of these art forms were introduced by the Soviets.

Art forms with uniquely Mongolian elements include music, dance, clothing, crafts and literature. Mongolian literature, music and other art forms have traditionally celebrated Mongolia’s animals and land. Art and architecture have been influenced by Chinese and Tibetan culture. Mongolians use a Chinese-Tibetan-style calendar and Chinese abacus.

Traditional Mongolian society was affected heavily by foreign influences: commerce was controlled by Chinese merchants and the state religion — Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism — was simultaneously bureaucratic and otherworldly. Modern society has been shaped by the continued foreign--primarily Soviet-- influence. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

But despite increasing urbanization and industrialization, a large portion of the population lives either by the traditional methods of pastoral nomadism — moving their herds (sheep, horses, cattle, goats, and yaks) from one area of temporary sustenance to another — or in a close symbiotic relationship with the nomads. Despite its hardships, the nomadic life provides Mongols with national values and a sense of historical identity and pride. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Mongolia Cultural Information Resource Center Website: www.mongolart.mn

Mongol Influence on the World

Mongolia and the Mongol people have periodically been at the center of international events. The histories of nations — indeed, of continents — have been rewritten and major cultural and political changes have occurred because of a virtual handful of seemingly remote pastoral nomads. The thirteenth-century accomplishments of Chinggis Khan in conquering a swath of the world from modern-day Korea to southern Russia and in invading deep into Europe, and the cultural achievements of his grandson, Khubilai Khan, in China are well-known in world history. Seven hundred years later, a much compressed Mongolian nation first attracted world attention as a strategic battleground between Japan and the Soviet Union and later between the Soviet Union and China. In the 1980s, the Mongolian People's Republic continued to be a critical geopolitical factor in Sino-Soviet relations. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

But Mongol influence did not end with the termination of military conquests or absorption. Their presence was institutionalized in many of the lands they conquered through adoption of Mongol military tactics, administrative forms, and commercial enterprises. The historical developments of such disparate nations as Russia, China, and Iran were directly affected by the Mongols. Wherever they settled outside their homeland, the Mongols brought about cultural change and institutional improvements. *

Although there never was a "Pax Mongolica," the spread of the Mongol polity across Eurasia resulted in a large measure of cultural exchange. Chinese scribes and artists served the court of the Ilkhans in Iran, Italian merchants served the great khans in Karakorum and Daidu (as Beijing was then known), papal envoys recorded events in the courts of the great khans, Mongol princes were dispatched to all points of the great Mongol empire to observe and be observed, and the Golden Horde and their Tatar descendants left a lasting mark on Moscovy through administrative developments and intermarriage. Although eventually subsumed as part of the Chinese empire, the Mongols were quick to seek independence when that empire disintegrated in 1911. *

Cultural Unity and Mongol Identity in the Soviet Era

The result of Mongolia's economic development and urbanization was a population that was, on the one hand, increasingly and unprecedentedly divided by occupation, education, residence, and membership in well-defined and fairly rigid status groups, but that was, on the other hand, less clearly distinguished from that of other economically developed and urbanized countries. If being Mongolian meant living in a ger in the midst of a sheep herd and being good at riding horses, then the Mongolian identity of those who lived in highrise apartments, rode buses, and worked at desks or in factories where knowledge of the Russian language was required was problematic. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Mongolian nationalism, clearly a politically sensitive topic, continued to be a strong although implicit force in Mongolia in the Soviet era. The Mongol language, the cultural trait most obviously shared by all Mongolians, continued to be fostered. Much effort was devoted to translating foreign literature and textbooks into Mongol, and teams of Mongolian scholars carefully replaced Russian loan words with new terms developed from ancient Mongol roots. The goal appeared to be to ensure that Mongol did not become a dialect restricted to shepherds or preschool children and that the educated elite did not speak mostly Russian or Russian-influenced Mongol.

Apart from the significant omission of Buddhism and Buddhism, much of traditional Mongol culture was studied, preserved, and transmitted to the younger generation as a source of national pride. In early 1989, party general secretary Jambyn Batmonh told a Soviet interviewer that the harmful errors of the 1930s included destruction of the monasteries and with them the priceless cultural heritage of the Mongolian people. In 1989 the party called for overcoming indifference to the national cultural heritage, and efforts were under way to change the negative evaluation of Chinggis, who had been condemned as a bloodthirsty and aggressive conqueror of, among other places, Russia. Higher secondary schools began teaching the traditional Mongol script, replaced by Cyrillic in February 1946. In early 1989, the trade union newspaper Hodolmor (Labor) called for mass production of the traditional Mongol gown, the deel, and suggested that all Mongolian diplomats wear it.

Mongolian Literature

Mongolia has a tradition of epic poetry that was first written down in the Genghis Khan era and is closely associated with its music ( See Music). The canon of Mongolian written literature includes histories, biographies and Buddhist texts on a number of subjects. Some Buddhist sutras are elaborately decorated with gold and jewels. The State Central Library in Ulaanbaatar holds the world’s largest collection of Buddhist sutras.

Mongolia's best known poet and writer is Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj (1906-37). He is regarded as the father of modern Mongolia literature. His best known works include the nationalist poem My Native Land and the play Three Fateful Hills. He served as a secretary in the Stalinist government and died under mysterious circumstances in 1936. The location of his body and grave is not known.

Mongol Literature

History had traditionally been kept alive through oral epics, performed by nomadic bards, until writing was introduced in the Genghis Khan era in the 12th century. Because the Mongol Empire was so vast the Mongols were written about in many languages by numerous chroniclers of divergent conquered societies, who provided a wide range of perspectives, myths, and legends. Much of what has been written about the Mongols was produced by people who came in contact with the Mongols—often enemies or hostile neighbors of the Mongols, who generally did not have nice things to say and were less than objective—not the Mongols themselves. Because many foreign accounts are about the Mongol invasions and were written by the conquered, the Mongols often are described in unfavorable terms, as bloodthirsty barbarians who kept their subjects under a harsh yoke. Mongol sources emphasize the demigod-like military genius of Chinggis Khan, providing a perspective in the opposite extreme.

The most well known Mongolian work is The Secret History of the Mongols. A Chinese copy was found by a Russian diplomat in Beijing a 1866. An original Mongolian copy has never been found. Much of what is known about the Mongols comes from this book, which has been dated to A.D. 1240. Its author is unknown.

Describing a traditional storyteller reading from one of the Mongol classics at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York, Edward Rothstein wrote in the New York Times, “In one of the final events of the recent, a lone Mongolian bard named Burenbayar came onstage and chanted “The Secret History of the Mongols.” He had memorized the 13th-century text during long hours grazing animals on the steppes of Central Asia. And as is true of many ancient sagas, he sang of arms and the man — that is, of warfare and heroism. [Source: Edward Rothstein, New York Times, August 6, 2007]

“His subject was Genghis Khan, a conqueror of many peoples who was both barbarically ruthless and soulfully sentimental, reveling in revenge by tearing out an enemy’s heart and liver with his bare hands while also forgiving, again and again, the bloody treachery of an envious childhood friend. He was at all times a warrior whose goal was conquest and whose demands could not be assuaged, except by victory. Almost every culture has such figures in their past, men like Odysseus, King David, Muhammad and Aeneas, whose triumphs were often attained through extreme, horrific battle. Such founding figures often also display powerful streaks of sensitivity and elevated vision along with prophetic abilities; on their broad chests and battle-readiness rest the later triumphs of their civilizations. But warriors don’t have to display such qualifying attributes; throughout history they are revered. “

Three Greatest Mongol Historical Works

At the beginning of the 13th century, the Mongols created their written language. After that, various kinds of written works in history and literature appeared, one after another, and some of them were handed down to the present. The most famous ones are “Mongol Secret History”, “Mongol Golden History”,”Mongol Headstream”—which together are called the “Three Greatest Historical Works”. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]

“Mongol Secret History” is also called “Yuan Dynasty Secret History,” or “Yuan Secret History.” In the Mongol language, it is called "Manghuotaniuchatuobuchaan". The author is unknown. The book was finished around the middle period of the 13th century. As to the exact year, some say that it was finished in 1228 (Heavenly Stem Five, Earthly Branch One), and others say it was 1240 (Heavenly Stem Seven, Earthly Branch One), and still others say 1252 (Heavenly Stem Nine, Earthly Branch One) and 1264 (Heavenly Stem One, Earthly Branch One). It is the first and greatest historical and literary work written in Mongolian. There are 282 sections in the book, which can be divided into 12 or 15 volumes. This chronological historical work describes all kinds of events that happened on the Mongolian Grassland, including the legends of Genghis Khan, according to the oral stories of the Mongols. At the same time, it depicts Mongol society, politics, economics, class relations, Genghis Khan's life story and historical facts during the rule of Wokuotai (Öködei, Ögödei, the third son of Genghis Khan). ~

“Mongol Golden History” is chronological history written by the a famous Mongolian scholar, Luobizangdanjin. The book was finished around the end of the Ming dynasty and the beginning of the Qing dynasty in the 17th century. Regarded as the most complete history of the early Mongol, it tracks the history of the Mongols from ancient times to the late Ming and the early Qing period. The first part of the book re-records 233 of the 282 sections of the “Mongol Secret History”, and updates it with insights and discoveries that occurred after “Mongol Secret History” was written. The second half of the book makes use of books like “Essentials of Golden History” (See Below) and constructs a thorough record and supplement of Mongol history from Wokuotai to the late Ming and the early Qing period. This book has a Tibetan Buddhist slant as the author was a firm believer in that religion. The book is regarded as an important work in studying Mongolian history, especially that of the Ming dynasty. “Informative Golden History” is also translated into “Essentials of Mongol Golden History”, Aletan Tuopuchi, to distinguish itself from “Essentials of Golden History” (author unknown), generally called “Great Golden History.” ~

“Mongol Headstream”, originally named “Hadun Wenjiaosunu Eerdeni Tuopuchi” in the Mongolian language, is a chronological history of The Mongols. The book was written in Mongol by Sanangchechen, who was an Ordos Mongol scholar, in the first year of the reign of Chinese Qing Emperor Kangxi (1662). Keerke The next year, it was translated into the Manchu language, and then into Chinese, and was named “Mongol Headstream” There are eight volumes in this book: the first two describe the general situation of Buddhism in India and Tibet; the rest record the history of The Mongols. The author referred to seven major sources in both Mongol and Tibetan language, including 1) “Original Meaning of the Essential Sculptures,” 2) “History of the Reign of Khans,” 3) Sublime Annulus Imperial Edict of Dharma History,” and 4) “Ancient History of Mongolian Khans”. He combined information from these sources his own experience and knowledge to write the book, which covers the origin and spread of Buddhism, the origin of The Mongols, the stories of the kings in Yuan and Ming dynasty, among other things. The narratives on Dayan Khan and Anda Khan are especially informative. Although there are some questionable interpretations on the origin of the Mongols and also some mistakes in the events and years, the book is still considered a great contribution to the study of Mongolian history, literature and religion, especially during the Ming and Qing dynasty. ~

Mongol Tuuli, the Mongolian Epic

In 2009, Mongol Tuuli, Mongolian epic was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: “The Mongolian Tuuli is an oral tradition comprising heroic epics that run from hundreds to thousands of lines and combine benedictions, eulogies, spells, idiomatic phrases, fairy tales, myths and folk songs. They are regarded as a living encyclopaedia of Mongolian oral traditions and immortalize the heroic history of the Mongolian people. Epic singers are distinguished by their prodigious memory and performance skills, combining singing, vocal improvisation and musical composition coupled with theatrical elements. Epic lyrics are performed to musical accompaniment on instruments such as the morin khuur (horse-head fiddle) and tovshuur (lute). [Source: UNESCO ~]

“Epics are performed during many social and public events, including state affairs, weddings, a child’s first haircut, the naadam (a wrestling, archery and horseracing festival) and the worship of sacred sites. Epics evolved over many centuries, and reflect nomadic lifestyles, social behaviours, religion, mentalities and imagination. Performing artists cultivate epic traditions from generation to generation, learning, performing and transmitting techniques within kinship circles, from fathers to sons. Through the epics, Mongolians transmit their historical knowledge and values to younger generations, strengthening awareness of national identity, pride and unity. Today, the number of epic trainers and learners is decreasing. With the gradual disappearance of the Mongol epic, the system of transmitting historic and cultural knowledge is degrading. ~

According to UNESCO Mongol Tuuli, Mongolian epic was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because: 1) A living oral expression that is crucial for the cultural identity of the Mongolian people and for the historical continuity of their nomadic lifestyle, the Mongol Tuuli epic plays an important role in the traditional education of younger people living in the communities where it is performed; 2) Although Mongolian singers continue to attach great importance to performing the epic within traditional contexts and in sacred settings, and endeavour to transmit performing techniques to the younger generation in the manner learned from their ancestors, the epic is today at severe risk because of its shrinking social sphere, changing socioeconomic conditions and the weakening of nomadic practices, the difficulties for younger people to master the complex poetic language, and the increasing popularity of mass entertainment media, [Source: UNESCO]

Galsansuh

Bill Donahue wrote in the Washington Post, “Galsansuh, 40, is a self-proclaimed “postmodern Mongolian poet”; the editor of Serious News, a UB broadsheet that rails with anarchist brio against corrupt politicians; and a mogul on UB’s alt-rock scene. It is he who, 15 years ago, gathered the musicians for Nisvanis, a Mongol take on Nirvana. Lean and crew-cut, he speaks in harsh, vitriolic bursts. [Source: Bill Donahue, Washington Post, September 20, 2013 |::|]

“Class warfare,” says Galsansuh, except that I can hardly hear him as Kreator, a German thrash metal band, is screaming on the stereo of his Land Cruiser as we cut through the streets of UB...“Class warfare,” he says again, en route to a Korean restaurant, and I’m a bit bewildered. The underclass in Mongolia is disparate: 400,000 or so herders speckling the steppes and the desert. No one else I’ll meet will speak of uniting them. But there is something absolute about Galsansuh. Driving through UB, he guns it wherever he can. He slams the brakes in advance of a pothole, then swirls right into a dirt alley to skirt a traffic jam and flies along through a parking lot. |::|

“Though he carries himself like a cartoon villain, Galsansuh is powerful, and connected. His good friend Kh.Battulga is a wealthy parliament member, a one-time national judo champion and the lead financier for the gargantuan Genghis statue 35 miles outside town. “Mongolian national hero,” Galsansuh says of Battulga as we settle into the restaurant. “He has no Chinese blood — he is pure Mongolian. And that statue of Chinggis Khan [Ghengis Khan], it’s a tool we need to keep us from becoming part of China.” |::|

“In the meantime, Galsansuh is fighting. He opens his newspaper up on the table now, and all five guys on the front page look fat and pasty, like boiled fish. They radiate bad karma. I recognize one of the shysters as Mongolia’s most recent ex-president, the imprisoned N. Enkhbayar. While he was in office, Enkhbayar secretly financed the construction of the 25-story Blue Sky Tower, a soulless glass building — blue-tinted and shaped like a sail — that sits in downtown UB, looming above the red-tiled roof of an ancient pagoda. |::|

“The Blue Sky Tower is on my Mongolian cellphone — the default screen saver is the glassy and glimmering flank of the tower. I show it to Galsansuh and ask, “Have Mongolians become too enchanted with glitz and material wealth to care?” He is smoking now and clenching the cigarette in his lips, no fingers. “I don’t have time for such silly questions,” he says. He snatches the bill and pays. Then we leave.

Mongolia Art

Most Mongolia art has been inspired by Tibetan Buddhism or shamanism and resembles Tibetan art. Artworks include golden Buddhist icons, Tibetan-style frescos, pictorial applique and shamanist masks and implements. Much of Mongolia’s old art has been lost. The Buddhist destroyed shamanist art as they attempted to make their belief the dominant one. Stalinist purges in the 1930s made ruins of practically all of Mongolia’s 700 monasteries and all the art in them.

Mongolian thankas (Tibetan-style cloth paintings) are made with chalk, glue, arkhi (milk vodka) and minerals mixed with yak skin glue. For the most part they look like Tibetan thankhas except some have some camels in the background. There are some from the Soviet era that feature factory workers and miners.

Art produced the Soviet period was influenced a great deal by socialist realism and Russian impressionism. Many artists studied art in the Soviet Union.

See Separate Articles on Tibetan Art factsanddetails.com and factsanddetails.com and factsanddetails.com .

Zanabazar and Other Mongolian Artists

Zanabazar (1635-1723) is Mongolia’s famous leader from the post-Mongol-empire period. Regarded as the first The Jebtzun Damba, the Living Buddha of Mongolia, he was declared leader of the Buddhists in Mongolia in 1641. He was not only a great political and religious leader he was is also regarded as Mongolia’s most famous artist and sculptor. Trained in Tibet, he created lovely Buddhist paintings and thankas, invented Mongolia’s vertical script, designed great temples, and produced beautiful bronze statues. Some of his loveliest pieces are of goddess Tara. They are said to have been modeled after his teenage lover.

When Zanabazar was three it was deemed he possessed the qualities of a reincarnated saint. At the age of 13 he was sent to Tibet to study under the Dalai Lama. While in Tibet he not only received spiritual guidance he learned the art of bronze casting which launched his career as an artist. He is credited with inventing the Soyombi, Mongolia’s national symbol. He died in 1723 in Beijing. His body was taken to what would be Ulaanbaatar and later was entombed in stupa at Amarbayasgalant Monastery. Zanabazar is an object of art as well as an artist. Images of Zanabazar are seen throughout Mongolia. They are easily recognizable: a monk with a shiny bald head and a thunderbolt in one hand.

Another well known lamas was Danzan Ravjaa, also known as the Great and Horrible Saint of the Gobi. Believed to be the 35th incarnation of Yamsang Yidam, a Mongolian deity, he was a skilled artist and was known for producing plays at monasteries and healing the sick from great distances. He lived in the 19th century. Among the other famous artists are the artist-monk Damdinsuren (1868-1938) and the painter Balduugiyn Shara (1869-1939). The later is known for his paintings of every day Mongolian life.

Mongolian calligraphy

In 2013, Mongolian calligraphy was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. According to UNESCO: Mongolian calligraphy is the technique of handwriting in the Classical Mongolian script, which comprises ninety letters connected vertically by continuous strokes to create words. The letters are formed from six main strokes, known as head, tooth, stem, stomach, bow and tail, respectively. This meticulous writing is used for official letters, invitations, diplomatic correspondence and love letters; for a form of shorthand known as synchronic writing; and for emblems, logos, coins and stamps in ‘folded’ forms. [Source: UNESCO ~]

Traditionally, mentors select the best students and train them to be calligraphers over a period of five to eight years. Students and teachers bond for life and continue to stimulate each other’s artistic endeavours. The rate of social transformation, urbanization and globalization have led to a significant drop in the number of young calligraphers. At present, only three middle-aged scholars voluntarily train the small community of just over twenty young calligraphers. Moreover, increases in the cost of living mean that mentors can no longer afford to teach the younger generation without remuneration. Special measures are therefore needed to attract young people to the traditional art of writing and to safeguard and revitalize the tradition of Mongolian script and calligraphy. ~

Mongolian calligraphy has experienced a rebirth since the democratization of Mongolia in the 1990s, after decades of suppression. However, according to UNESCO Mongolian calligraphy was placed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list because: 1) Mongolian calligraphy provides a sense of identity and historical continuity to Mongolian people at large; revived with the establishment of democracy in the 1990s, the practice has pertinent social and economic functions for its bearers in the contemporary context; 2) The viability of Mongolian calligraphy is at risk because of the limited number of tradition bearers who transmit their knowledge, the absence of appropriate safeguarding policies and the lack of interest by the young generation.

Living Dioramas in the Mongolian Desert

Paris-based Korean photographer Daesung Lee produced a series of “Living Dioramas in the Mongolian Desert”: Rachel Nuwer wrote in The New Yorker, “As part of an ongoing series exploring the cultural effects of climate change...Lee recently set out to capture Mongolia’s transformation. But rather than documenting picturesque pastoralists at home in the Gobi Desert, or the squalor of Ulaanbaatar’s ger district, Lee created and photographed living dioramas that vividly juxtapose the old Mongolian landscape and the new. [Source: Rachel Nuwer, The New Yorker, May 5, 2015 */*]

“The photos in the series, entitled “Futuristic Archaeology,” show billboard-sized backdrops of past or future landscapes erected in the countryside: images of grasslands stand in the desert, cordoned off behind velvet ropes; pictures of sandy slopes are set against a still-lush steppe. Former nomads, recruited with the help of a local environmental N.G.O., enact scenes—of hunting, herding, and, in one case, Mongolian wrestling—in the contrasting artificial and actual scenery. Dressed in traditional deel robes, the nomads seem frozen in time, like displays in a natural-history museum. In one image, an older couple gazes from the confines of their roped-off square at a man, woman, and two small children clad in jeans and T-shirts. The elders seem like otherworldly visitors from the past. The modern family, and the arid sands around them, appear as embodiments of Mongolia’s present and future. */*

Nick Kirkpatrick wrote in the Washington Post, “Lee didn’t want to document as much as he wanted to preserve. To create the museum’s dioramas scientists and artists would spend sometimes months traveling to take pictures and collect specimens before painstakingly creating a picture of a faraway place piece-by-piece, preserving a moment frozen in time. Lee’s dioramas show what would happen if traditional Mongolian culture fades away and is only seen inside a museum. “The nomadic life in Mongolia better alive … I thought that we better preserve the society and the culture,” Lee told In Sight. That culture can then have “function and meaning” instead of being “preserved like a fossil in museum,” he said. [Source: Nick Kirkpatrick, Washington Post, February 18, 2015]

Crafts of Mongolia

Historically, Mongol craftsmen and artisans were greatly respected. After raiding a city the Mongols often rounded up the craftsmen and had them sent back to Mongolia. Traditional Mongol crafts and clothes include ornate silver bridles and saddles, adorned with semi-precious stones, two-stringed musical instruments with green horse heads, decorated and embroidered boots and other items made with leather, fur, textiles, wood, gold, silver and iron.

Jewelry has traditionally been valued as a means of storing wealth, displaying status and expressing beauty. Valuable object have traditionally been passed down to daughters part of their dowery. Amulets were used by shaman in religious rites. The most spectacular pieces were worn by the aristocracy. The most elaborate of these were the thick rope-like necklaces and headdress worn by nobles. Pieces kept by nomads tend to be everyday items such as saddles and belts that could be easily transported.

Some of most awesome examples of Mongolia art are large sculptured, vividly-painted masks worn in epic-scale religious dramas. Many of the most demonic ones are actually connected with divine protection, and their intent is to keep evil spirits away.

The main attraction of the Tsam (Cham) dance for many non-Tibetans and non-Mongolians is the multitude and diversity of the colorful masks. Masks are the embodiment of the Wrathful Deity. While they drive terror and great fear into the hearts of the forces of evil, the masks also provide tranquility and calm to the Buddhist practitioner who is seeking enlightenment through meditation and prayer. Masks that have survived for a long time are considered special and very powerful. They have become venerated in their own right: with pilgrims praying before them, particularly on special days or during religious festivals.

Tsam dance masks are generally about two or three times the size of a normal human head and quite heavy. Because of their weight, awkward center of gravity, sharp-edge issues, and the possibility of chafing and cuts, dancers wear padded caps or folded towels covering the forehead, sides of the face, and even the neck. The favorite head covering is the toque.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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