Mongols (Mongolians) are a legendary ethnic group with a long history. For thousands of years, they and their ancestors roamed as nomads and conquerors across the vast steppes of Central Asia and Mongolia. From there "the nationality on horseback", as they are known in China, rode forth and shook heaven and earth and swept over Europe and Asia, fighting valiantly with clever tactics and tenacity. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences ~]

Mongols at least superficially have been absorbed and assimilated into the larger Han Chinese population. Many Mongols speak little or no Mongolian as a result of being educated in Chinese school systems — a fate Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs fear is befalling them. Few Mongols live as traditional horsemen and herders. Most made the move from yurts to brick homes decades ago and wear traditional robes only on special occasions. “Most of our people have moved away from the old way of life,” the Mongolian punk-folk-singer Ilchi said, “After moving to the cities, many of us have gradually been subjected to a very strong cultural invasion by an oppressive culture...Everyone surrounding you speaks Chinese,” Ilchi says. “No one speaks Mongolian. If you don't speak Chinese, you can't survive. It's unavoidable. The Beijing government claims we are happier than we were before.

Mongols (pronounced MAHN-guhls) are also known as Mengwushiwei and Menggu (in Chinese) and Monggol (in Mongolian). A number of groups found in Mongolia, the former Soviet Union and China—including the Buryats, Kalmuks, Oriats and Daurs—are regarded as Mongols. There also a number of Mongol tribal groups living mostly on Inner Mongolia (Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region,IMAR). Among these are the Barga. Alshaa, Ordos, Tumed and Oriats. The Barga, Khiangan, Juu Ud, Khorchin or Jirem, Chakhar, Shiliingol, Alshaa, Ordos, Turned, Daurs, and a small community of Buryat Mongols live in the Inner Mongolia. Oirat (or Deed) Mongols live in Qinghai Province and in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The range of Inner Mongolian culture extends from northeastern Manchuria (125° E) westward to Ala Shan league (MENG) in western Inner Mongolia (80° E). A north-south geographical projection extends in the south from the Ordos Desert, 37° N, northward to Shilingo league. [Source: William Jankowiak, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

Mongol Population in China

Mongols are the tenth largest ethnic group and the ninth largest minority in China. They numbered 6,290,204 and made up 0.45 percent of the total population of China in 2020 according to the 2020 Chinese census. Mongol populations in the past: 5,981,840 and 0.45 percent of the population in 2010 according to the 2010 census; 5,813,947 and 0.46 percent of the population in 2000 according to the 2000 census; 4,802,407 and 0.42 percent of the population in 1990 according to the 1990 census; 3,402,200 and 0.34 percent of the population in 1982; 1,965,766 and 0.28 percent of the population in 1974; and 1,462,956 and 0.25 percent of the population in 1953. Total fertility rate of Mongols according to the 2010 census was 1.26 compared to 1.14 for Han Chinese, 1.6 for Tibetans and 1.18 for Manchu. The population of the country Mongolia is 3.278 million (2020), [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

In 2010 there were about 4.2 million Mongolians living in Inner Mongolia (about three times as many as in 1949) and 20 million Chinese (35 times as many as in 1949). In 2002, Mongols constituted 11.2 percent (2,681,000 Mongols) of Inner Mongolia's 23,790,000 total population. Between 1960 and 1990 the average annual rate of growth was 2.6 percent, with a rate of only 1.3 percent while rural areas and 4.2 percent in , and urban areas. Between 1912 and 1990 the Han population of Inner Mongolia increased from 1.2 to 17.3 million. Mongols now make up about 17 percent of Inner Mongolia's population of 25 million people. In 1985, Inner Mongolia restricted Mongolian families to two children, or (in the case of farmers) three if the first two children are girls. [Source: William Jankowiak, Ian Skoggard, and John Beierle, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

Inner Mongolia is an ethnically diverse region. Besides Mongols, there are Daur, Hui, Ewenki, Oroqun, Koreans, Tibetians and Tu ethnic groups. Han Chinese make 79 percent of the population of Inner Mongolia, followed Mongols at 17 percent, Manchu at 2 percent, Hui (Chinese Muslims) at 0.9 percent, and Daur at 0.3 percent. Feelings between Mongols and Han Chinese vary between "mild antagonism to overt hostility. Most Mongols regard themselves as loyal citizens of China."

Where Mongols Live in China

The Mongols have an independent country, Mongolia, but almost as many of them live in China, where they are one of the larger minorities but are still outnumbered in their traditional homeland by Han Chinese. The land of the Mongols is known for its boundless pastures, blue skies, white clouds, green fields, red flowers, flocks of sheep and tent camps heavy with the aroma of meat and milk. An ancient Mongolian ballad goes: "The open country is vast, grasses bend in the rustle of wind and flocks and herds come into the sight."

Mongols in present-day China they have traditionally occupied the lands that stretches from the Great Wall in the south to the Gobi Desert in the north and from Xingan Mountains in the east to Henan Mountain in the west. Today, they live mainly in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, which covers some 460,000 square miles (1,191,300 square kilometers), mostly hilly grassland and desert, and some prefectures of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and Qinghai and Gansu Provinces. Others are distributed over Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Henan, Ningxia, Hebei, Sichuan, Beijing and Yunnan. [Source: William Jankowiak, Ian Skoggard, and John Beierle, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

The Mongolian people living in Xinjiang were formerly known as Oirat or Ojila. Their population comprises around 170,000 people. They are divided in three main tribes: 1) The Zhungar tribe, which has been living in Xinjiang many centuries; 2) the Turgut, that came back from the Volga River at the end of 18th century; and 3) the Chahar tribe who moved from Inner Mongolia and Hebei province. [Source: Ethnic China *]

About two thirds of the Mongolians that live in China live in Inner Mongolia. The other half are scattered throughout northwest China. Average disposable income of Inner Mongolia is around $7,000, one of the highest in China and on par with Beijing. Among the Chinese, Mongols have a reputation for being heavy drinkers. Some, Chinese say, drink heavily while they are working. Chinese police say that many prostitutes in China are from Inner Mongolia.

History of the Mongols in China

The collapse of the Manchu (Qing) dynasty in 1911 resulted in the formation of autonomous regions in Outer Mongolia and among the Buryats in Siberia. In the 1930s the Japanese formed a new government (Meng-Jiang) in central Inner Mongolia, headed by the Mongolian prince Demchigdonggrub (Dewang). The Japanese army withdrawal in 1945 enabled Soviet-Mongolian military units to enter Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. It was not until after the Soviets had rejected political unification that the majority of Inner Mongolian leaders agreed to back the Chinese Communist party. [Source: William Jankowiak, Ian Skoggard, and John Beierle, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

The socialist transformation of Inner Mongolian society resulted in favoring agriculture over herding. It also produced different interpretations over how best to achieve this goal. One group favored gradually introducing reforms and the other urged rapid change. Rich herders reacted to new socialist policies by killing their herds.

Mongol nationalist movements can be divided into three periods: 1911-1913, 1925-1929, and 1931-1947. The first pan-Mongolian movement, led by nobles, tried to reunite with Outer Mongolia. In 1925, an Inner Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party sought independence for Inner Mongolia under the influence of the Third Communist International. The third autonomous movement was led by Prince Demcgugdibgrob (De Wang), who in 1931 organized a provincial government in the Shing Gol region. That movement which also received support from the Japanese, who had occupied Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia, ended with Japan's defeat in 1947. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) China's doubts about the loyalty of Inner Mongolians resulted in Inner Mongols being accused (falsely) of trying to revive the separatist Inner Mongolian Revolutionary Party (nei REN DANG ). This accusation resulted in the government establishing an internal organization charged with the tasks of identifying, arresting, imprisoning alleged members of the subversive movement. In the end, between 10,000 to 100,000 Mongols were killed (the estimates vary according to the source), with hundreds of thousands of Mongols arrested. An unintended outcome of the Cultural Revolution was to heighten ethnic antagonism that continues to this day.

Mongol Language in China

Yuan Dynasty seal

Mongols speak an Altaic language. Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, Manchu, Uigur, Turkish and other Altaic, Tungusic and Turkic languages are Altaic languages in the Ural-Altaic family of languages. Some linguists believe they are related. Other believe they share similarities because of the borrowing of words by traditionally nomadic peoples. Ural-Altaic languages include Finnish, Korean and Hungarian. The languages of the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols and Uyghurs are so similar that they can easily communicate with each other and often eat and party together when they live near one another. Mongol is difficult to learn and speak. Travel writer Tim Severin wrote sounds “like two cats coughing and spitting at each other until one finally throws up..” Some of the more guttural sounds sound like someone is having difficulty breathing.

In Mongolia, Mongol is the official language. In Inner Mongolia, Mongol and Chinese (Mandarin) are official languages. Mandarin and Mongolian can be found on many government publications and on all public signs and state administrative office buildings. Chinese is clearly predominant. In the 1990s, around 33 percent of the Mongolian population did not use Mongolian as their primary language. In the cities even fewer people used Mongolian and the percentages are much lower now. China is now trying to stop the teaching of Mongolian in schools and this has aroused much anger among some Mongols.

Spoken Mongol has clipped tones. In Mongolia, the largest and most important dialect is Khalkha. Oirat is the only other major dialect. By contrast in Inner Mongolia there are a number of dialects, often localized to a certain region. In the central area people speak the Chahr-Shiliingol, which is closely-related to standard Khalkha; in the northeast Inner Mongolia. Barga and Buriat are spoken. The major dialects in the southeast, northeast and southwest, respectively, are Khorchin (Kkhorcgin), Alxa (Alshaa) and Ordos, The Oirat and Kalmuck dialects are spoken in northwest Xinjiang, Qinghai and western Mongolia. Chinese divide the Mongol language into three dialects: Inner Mongol, Weilate, and Baerhu - Buliyate (also mid-dialect, western dialect and northeastern dialect if divided according to regions). Western scholars use different names. With the exception of the Daurs, who speak a separate language in northeastern Inner Mongolia, the dialects are more or less mutually intelligible. [Source: William Jankowiak, Ian Skoggard, and John Beierle, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

In the early 13th century, under Genghis Khan, the Mongols created a vertical script based on the Uyghur script, which was also adopted by many Turkic-speaking peoples and is related to the alphabets of Western Asia. It looks like Arabic written at a slant. The Uyghur script was the official script in Inner Mongolia in China maybe it still mainly in name only.

Jianli Yang and Lianchao Han wrote in The Hill: “During the two legislative sessions in the May 2020 National People’s Congress delegates from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region sought the state council’s approval to recognize the Mongolian language as one of the national minority languages of China. This demand also was raised in 2019's two sessions. The Chinese government has hesitated to approve this, despite its disinformation about protecting the rights of minorities. [Source: Jianli Yang and Lianchao Han, The Hill, July 29, 2020]

Mongol Religion in China

Mongols have traditionally been Tibetan Buddhists and shamanists. While the Communists in Outer Mongolia clamped down hard on religion, in Inner Mongolia in China, ovoo shrine ritual festival and other religious observances were allowed to continues as important community event. In the early 1950s there were over 50,000 lamas and 2,000 temples and ecclesiastical organizations in Inner Mongolia in China. But during the Cultural Revolution all but two of Inner Mongolia's 2,000 temples and shrines were destroyed. With the exception of Mergen (near Baotou), there are few active Mongolian language Buddhist monasteries in Inner Mongolia. In the southwestern Ordos region the Chinggis Khan Memorial draws Mongols from throughout Inner Mongolia in China. In Inner Mongolia, ovoo-shrine rituals continue to practiced. The ovoos are thought to be inhabited by local spirits and deities. Some Mongols have shrines in their homes dedicated to Mao and Genghis Khan. There is also a small community of Mongolian Muslims in the Alshaa Banner in western Inner Mongolia. [Source: William Jankowiak, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

Delegates at the Inner Mongolia People's Congress

Shamanism is the traditional religion of the nomads and horsemen that occupied Mongolia. Mongols have traditionally believed that shaman had the ability to “soul travel” and cure the sick. This belief helped them deal with the unexplained aspects of their natural world and its unanticipated hardships. Shamanism is still practiced by the Mongols and practiced by minorities such as the Tsaatan, Darkhad, Uriankhai and Buryats.

Mongols believed in shamanism in ancient times.They believed that medicine men-like shamans had the power to communicate with the gods, heal the sick and predict the future. The supreme Mongol deity was Tengri, the ruler of heaven. The Mongols believed that mountains were bridges between heaven and earth. Even today some Mongolia discourage the digging of wells and mines because they don't want to disturb, the spirits in the earth.

Today, many Mongols practice the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism was introduced from Tibet to Mongolia in the beginning of the 13th century, when the red hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism began to find its followers among the Mongol rulers. In the 16th century, many feudal lords as well as herdsmen shifted to the Yellow Hat sect of the Dalai Lama. In the second half of the 16th century it became the state religion of the Mongol Princes. The Mongols have used Tibetan Buddhism as way of unifying Mongols and creating a sense of nationalism. It has incorporated many shamanist symbols and rites.

Tibetan-style “Sky burials” are not very common but they are coming back. They are performed mostly in the Ujemchin districts of Shilingol (Xilin Gol) in Inner Mongolia and among the Oirat (or Deed) Mongols living on the Haixi Prefecture of Qinghai. Most Mongols are buried in community graveyards, In urban areas in China they are usually cremated. During Mongol wakes friend bring gifts of whiskey and sweets.

Shaman in an Inner Mongolia Mining Town

Reporting from Xi Wuqi city in Inner Mongolia, Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “Erdemt is a 54-year-old former herder (who, like many Mongols, only goes by one name), and as a shaman, he is considered an intermediary between the human and spiritual worlds. Although he is new to the role – he became a shaman in 2009 – thousands of people, all of them ethnically Mongol, have visited so that he could decipher nightmares, proffer moral guidance and cure mysterious ills. His patients pay him as much as they wish.[Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]

Tibetan monks in Inner Mongolia

“Erdemt's hometown Xi Wuqi, a city of 70,000 flush against the grasslands, was built to help sustain the mining boom. The tiny Han-owned boutiques that line its broad, well-paved thoroughfares are so new that their interiors smell like fresh paint. Five years ago, its residents say, it was little more than a cluster of one-storey red-brick homes. ^^^

“Shamanism is among the world's oldest religions, dating back as far as the paleolithic era, and many of Erdemt's clients see him as an embodiment of a timeless order that was devastated by the boom. "In the past, living a pastoral life was the purest way to be in touch with nature – to absorb its energy," said Nisu Yila, a professional Mongol wrestler in Xi Wuqi, as he sat on the shaman's living room couch wearing a traditional deel robe and a cowboy hat. "But bit by bit, that kind of life began to disappear. And we began to panic." The shaman, he said, reminds him of what China's Mongols have lost. "He's like a short cut," he said. ^^^

Experts say that this sentiment – the desire to reconnect with a forgotten past – is nearly ubiquitous in China, a natural byproduct of rapid change. "Because of modernisation, and now urbanisation, traditional culture is vanishing and being replaced by western culture, and under such conditions, people realise that these things are worth protecting," said Tian Qing , the head of the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Centre and a prominent adviser to the government on cultural affairs. "Right now, Chinese society is like a pot of soup, and it's boiling over the top. Have you ever cooked? You think that's not going to hurt you? People here get psychological problems. There's pressure. There's difficulty. And so they look towards religion for comfort." Tian quoted a Tang dynasty poem to underscore his point: "Even a prairie fire can't destroy the grass; it just grows again when the spring breeze blows." ^^^

Shaman Ritual in Inner Mongolia Mining Town

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “The shaman of Xi Wuqi city wakes before sunrise on a Wednesday morning in June, piles his family into his silver Peugeot, and drives out beyond the city's boxy mid-rises, past miles of strip-mines and coal refineries, and to the foot of a broad kelly-green hillside on the grasslands. He hikes to the top, removes his trainers and button-down shirt, and dons a black robe and a feather headdress. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]

“Then he gets to work. The hill is on the shaman's ancestral land, and he climbs it once a year to summon his ancestors; to express his desires, and to hear their demands. For the two hours he delivers a thunderous performance, rife with drum-beating, horn-blowing, the jingle of bells and the clanging of cymbals. His wife and son scatter sheep's milk and rice liquor beneath variegated prayer flags. They throw handfuls of confetti to the wind. ^^^ "I saw a spirit riding a white horse with a flowing mane, and he told me right now, your ability as a shaman, your energy, your magic, they've improved very quickly," the shaman said that afternoon, sitting in his two-bedroom apartment chain-smoking cigarettes, a Chinese news broadcast running mute on his flatscreen TV. "He said right now, you've already arrived – you can commune with the spirit of any river, or any mountain." ^^^

“While Erdemt's social role may be timeless, his professional duties – the therapy-like sessions and ebullient rituals – are inexorably modern. He provides solace to white-collar job seekers and helps local officials assess the spiritual implications of approving new mines. He understands that there are lines he cannot cross. ^^^

Becoming an Inner Mongolia Shaman

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, Erdemt “knew nothing of shamanism as a child. He spent his formative years in a felt-lined tent on the grasslands, frequently skipping school to help his parents herd. During Mao's Cultural Revolution, the religion was dubbed "feudal superstition" and banned. One of his neighbours was beaten for practising it openly, and decades of silence followed suit. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]

The shaman grew to middle age. He married and had two children, both of whom learned to rear sheep before they were packed off to university. The coal boom came suddenly, and in 2007, his pastures began to wilt; a summer hailstorm decimated his livestock. Newly destitute, he considered his options and moved to Xi Wuqi, where he found a part-time job unloading trucks. His wife bought buckets of sheep's milk and processed it into dried yogurt, a traditional Mongol snack, which she sold to local markets. They were desperate to return to the grasslands. ^^^

“Around that time, Erdemt began to have strange dreams, he says. Some involved tigers; in one, snakes writhed around his body. He discovered within himself an extraordinary aptitude for prediction, allowing him to foretell chance encounters with old friends. One day in 2009, he quit his job and took a bus to Ordos, a gleaming new city in the area's arid west which, like Xi Wuqi, was built to accommodate the coal boom. There, amid empty skyscrapers and vast, dusty boulevards, he met a friend whose brother owned a brick factory in Mongolia; the brother knew a master shaman in the country's capital, Ulan Bator. Erdemt applied for a passport, hopped on a cross-border train, and showed up at the shaman's house carrying his suitcases. For 27 days, he memorised ancient texts and fine-tuned elaborate rituals; he returned to Xi Wuqi carrying a sheepskin drum, confident about his future. The decision has served him well, he says. Moving back to the grasslands is no longer a priority.” ^^^

Perils and Attraction of Being an Inner Mongolia Shaman

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “Despite his success, Erdemt's status as a shaman in China is uniquely precarious. He's an emerging religious figure in an officially atheist state, an expression of ethnic pride amid roiling ethnic tensions, and an embodiment of the distant past in a rapidly changing present. His China is one of resource extraction, mass migration and cultural upheaval. It is a constant exercise in compromise and restraint.”[Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]

“"The government, they don't formally acknowledge me the way they acknowledge other religions," he says. "But as long as I don't do anything illegal – or at least, what they'd consider illegal – they won't limit me." Pamphlets and broadcasts are strictly out of bounds. Although he's careful to couch his ethnic sentiments in benign terms, he refuses to see Han clients. Most of them see his services as an investment, he says. They're angered by weak returns. ^^^

“Erdemt's son Bao Lidao, a bespectacled 26-year-old with ruddy cheeks and an explosive laugh, is experiencing a quarter-life crisis. After graduating from university in the region's capital city, Hohhot, Bao took a government job mediating between land-hungry railway ministry officials and the nomads they sought to displace. The position overwhelmed him. The nomads were fickle – they'd be seduced by sizable compensation packages one day and reticent the next, aware that the cash was, unlike their land, ephemeral. Last year, he took a secretarial job with the Xi Wuqi government, and he finds the position stultifying. "These people, although they drive good cars, they eat well, they live well, they wear nice things – I feel their hearts are empty," he said. ^^^

“Bao wants to be a shaman – for weeks in a row he'll dream of flying, which he takes as a cosmic sign. Yet his father, like so many in China, is a pragmatist. "He thinks it'd be best if I find my own career," said Bao. "Even if I don't become a shaman, I'll still be a shaman's son, and I'll dedicate myself to researching shamanism, developing the field. I think this is my life's mission." ^^^

Mongol Holidays in China

The Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), between January 21 and February 20 on the Western calendar, is an important holiday for the Mongols, as it is for all people in China. C. Le Blanc wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, “In preparation for this holiday, the Mongols make new clothes and store large amounts of mutton, wine, and dairy products. On the eve of the lunar New Year, all members of the family sit cross-legged in the center of the ger or yurt (a framed tent made of felt or hide) and begin their dinner at midnight. They offer toasts to the elders, eat and drink a great deal, and listen to storytelling all night long. Early the next morning, they dress up and call on relatives and friends at their homes. Dancing and singing are part of the celebration. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009 ++]

“The Feast of Genghis Khan is on April 23 on the lunar calendar, set according to the phases of the moon. On the Western calendar, it falls between May 17 and June 16. On this occasion, there are activities to commemorate Genghis Khan, exchanges of goods, theatrical performances, and sports games. |~|

The Nadam Festival is a traditional holiday of the Mongols. Nadam means recreation and play. It is a happy festival of the herders, held annually on a selected day in the summer or in the fall.In June or July of each year, the Mongols celebrate a special ritual, called Aobao. This holiday seems to go back to an ancient shamanistic practice. Aobao is a kind of altar or shrine made of a pile of stone, adobe bricks, and straw. The Aobao is believed to be the dwelling of the gods. During the ritual, tree branches are tossed into the Aobao, which is surrounded by lit joss sticks (similar to incense). Wine and horse milk are sprinkled over the mound, and mutton and cheese are placed on it as sacrificial offerings. While performing the ritual, the shaman (witch doctor) dances and enters into a trance. Wrestling and horse racing follow the religious ceremony. |~|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) "Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China", edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company; 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, BBC, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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