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Bökh wrestling, and the cultural genocide in Inner Mongolia

Bökh wrestlers open up to Bloody Elbow, saying the People’s Republic of China is trying to erase their culture and violate their rights.

From the 1970s up to today, the People’s Republic of China has had a meteoric resurgence back to global prominence, establishing itself to be firmly part of what many believe to be this new era of world superpowers. The country is breaking free from their Century of Humiliation and back to a historical norm of the Middle Kingdom’s global economic dominance.

Although China’s return to prominence has not been without setbacks. As the eyes of the world become more fixated on the People’s Republic, China has met increasing and continuing justified criticisms for human rights violations, regional aggression, cybercrimes, and general practices that do not fit with modern morality.

Currently, as the global community increases pressure on China for its treatment of the Muslim minority Uyghurs in their Northwest region and the PRC’s clampdown on democratically fueled protests in Hong Kong, China has continued to expand its reach despite rising scrutiny.

The most recent addition to this growing list concerns the PRC’s seeming campaign to violate cultural rights, legal treaties, and history itself within their autonomous region of Inner Mongolia.

In increased attempts to force ethnic minority assimilation to the majority Han Chinese culture under Chinese borders, the People’s Republic has implemented a new policy replacing the 800-year-old Mongolian-language within Inner Mongolian school textbooks, with Chinese Mandarin. This same policy was enacted in the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang in 2017, “where the elimination of local languages in schools have been followed within two decades by forced cultural assimilation and labor camps, as China sheds decades of sponsoring independent ethnicities to bring them under the One China model.”

As a result, China’s new policy has caused mass protests across Inner Mongolia in response, from school children protesting with chants of “Our mother language is Mongolian!” and “We are Mongolian until death!” to parents attempting to pull their children from schools that have caused clashes with police. In one instance, it’s been reported that a student passed away after leaping from a fourth-floor window of a boarding school near the city of Tongliao, as their parents and police scuffled outside.

Across this region, parents and students have refused to attend classes and at least 130 people have already been detained or arrested in response to the protests and “an estimated 8,000-10,000 [ethnic] Mongolians have been placed under some form of police custody since late August,” says the New York-based Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) in a statement, which has included elderly people, pregnant women, and middle school students. Police have even entered Mongolian homes and gone as far as “making them sign pledges to not speak against the bilingual program anymore,” says the Los Angeles Times as fears of cultural genocide spread across Inner Mongolia.

Alice Su, a United States reporter, was “grabbed by the throat and pushed into a cell and held for more than four hours before being forced to leave the area in northern China [Inner Mongolia],” after being taken to a police station by plainclothesmen, even after identifying herself as an accredited journalist and was not allowed to call the U.S. Embassy. Hohhot, the region’s capital, has denied using force or detaining an American reporter.

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Protestors hold banners and wave the Mongolian flag during a protest in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, against Chinese policies in the neighbouring Chinese province of Inner Mongolia on October 1, 2020
Photo by BYAMBASUREN BYAMBA-OCHIR/AFP via Getty Images

Outside of the school’s systems and parents, these protests have also had a profound effect on all levels within Inner Mongolia, including athletes of the region’s national sport Mongolian Bökh or Mongolian wrestling, refusing to compete and protesting the policy as well.

“Every Mongolian is very hurt by the current situation. The wrestlers have lost their original confidence and faith and are unable to concentrate on their lives or careers,” says an Inner Mongolian wrestler, who will be referred to in this article as, Oh.

Individuals interviewed for this article will be given pseudo names and referred to without gender, to protect their safety due to concerns of retaliation from the PRC for speaking out about this policy and unfolding circumstances within the region.

Oh, who has already been threatened with arrest by Chinese intelligence services, says the Naadams (traditional festivals in Mongolia for wrestling competitions) are facing direct threat from the unrest, stating, “Because the government fears a high concentration of Mongolians, there are fewer people and fewer opportunities to attend and hold Naadam. Now, people are more focused on preserving our culture and language than Naadam.”

A second wrestler provided their own opinion about what is happening in Inner Mongolia and will also remain nameless. They will be referred to as Em. Unlike Oh, Em does not have roots in Inner Mongolia and provides an outsider’s perspective as a competitor living in the region but was not born there.

Em states, “The recent protests have indeed affected Naadam. For a few weeks, they canceled all the Naadams to protest. Many of the heaviest protestors are wrestlers from the Xilingol region of Inner Mongolia. This has left an emptiness in the atmosphere that is filled with sadness, depression, anger, and frustration.”

Another Inner Mongolian wrestler, who will be called Aitch, put it in more straightforward terms.

“Wrestlers have stopped wrestling, and most of them feel ‘if we lose our language, what is the point of becoming a famous wrestler? If we lose our culture, our language, then Bökh simply won’t exist one day. So, what is the point?’

“Every part of our culture influences all of our wrestlers and all of them feel a real darkness is coming. We refuse to wrestle and don’t want to put our wrestling jacket on. We refuse to have fun blindly. If we don’t have our language, then we simply won’t have our culture and it will cause Bökh to disappear one day. Bökh and the Mongolian culture are too deeply connected for one to go on without the other independently.”

Aitch has also faced reprisal for involvement in these protests, and is facing termination due to resistance to this new policy.

Chinggis Khaan Khuree Ger Camp
Bökh wrestlers from Inner Mongolia
Getty Images

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

The implementation of this policy is damaging to not only Mongolian culture, but it sets a precedence that could result in “total destruction of language, culture, and identity of all ethnic minorities” within China, said Enghebatu Togochog, director of the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre. “All Mongolians feel that losing your language means losing your children and our future,” says Togochog.

Oh, echoes this sentiment, “Every link of Mongolia is linked with Mongolian culture. Language is the carrier of culture, an important conductor for the transmission of it. If we lose the language, we have lost the most important part of our culture.

“Our biggest fear is losing the grassland, losing the culture, eventually being assimilated, becoming part of the history like the Manchu, becoming displays in a museum,” Oh says. “In the end, no one would know we were there, and worse yet, others would call us Han (Chinese)! We are Mongolians. We have Mongolian culture. We have Mongolian blood! We love our life and we don’t want to accept this ending, so we will stick it out.”

Currently, Inner Mongolia is the only place where the traditional 800-year old Mongol Script, also known as the Hudum Mongol bichig, is still being used and taught. Mongolia, also known as “Outer Mongolia”, adopted a Russian variant of Cyrillic, a national script language used across Eurasia, while Inner Mongolian remains the last vestige of the traditional language of Mongol heritage. If the Mongol Script is replaced by Mandarin Chinese in schools, this piece of the autonomous region’s culture becomes lost within a generation or two with Mongolian children learning Mandarin, over their ethnic language.

“The Chinese government believes the changes, which will see Mandarin-language teaching from the first year of school, a separate Mongolian language course, and the replacement of Mongolian history and politics textbooks with Chinese textbooks by 2023, are necessary to ensure students in the region can compete with the best in Beijing,” says an excerpt from a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, “They will replace the content of Genghis Khan in Mongolian language with Chairman Mao in Chinese in the new textbook.”

If this sounds far-fetched, it isn’t. In a statement by the Associated Press, an exhibition at the Château des ducs de Bretagne museum in Nantes, France, “has postponed an exhibit about Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan citing interference by the Chinese government, which it accuses of trying to rewrite history.” The director Bertrand Guillet stated “the Chinese Bureau of Cultural Heritage had demanded numerous changes, including removing the words “Genghis Khan,” “empire,” and “Mongol.”

Em solidifies the very real anxieties within Inner Mongolia and the general atmosphere of the region by explaining, “The biggest fear I’ve seen here in Inner Mongolia right now, is that the culture will disappear completely. The fear is that they will lose everything, and I don’t believe it’s an overreaction at all. We’ve seen it done already with other minorities. The difference is, we are at a point now where it can be stopped. There’s still hope.”

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Mongolians protest against China’s plan to introduce Mandarin-only classes at schools in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, at Sukhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia on September 15, 2020
Photo by BYAMBASUREN BYAMBA-OCHIR/AFP via Getty Images

MONGOLIA VS INNER MONGOLIA

A distinction needs to be made, to better understand the context of what is happening in this region.

First, there are currently two Mongolian ethnic states. They are Inner Mongolia and Mongolia, also known as Outer Mongolia, who are distinctly different geographic “entities,” that once made up the historic Mongol empire. Over time, however, the two split due to varying circumstances.

After the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, both Mongolia and Inner Mongolia were fully incorporated into the Chinese State in the late 17th century. Then, in 1911, Mongolia (or Outer Mongolia) gained independence from the Qing dynasty before achieving nationhood in 1921, with the support of the Soviet Union. Inner Mongolia, however, remained a Mongol autonomous region under China.

Mongolia is now a completely independent country, while Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region of China, and equivalent to a province. The relationship between the People’s Republic and Inner Mongolia has historically held firm to maintaining rules and laws different from the Chinese mainland, allowing Inner Mongolia’s autonomy... until recently.

GROWING CHINESE AGGRESSION

Criticisms directed at China for violating a region’s autonomy is unfortunately nothing new.

In the 1950s under Mao Zedong, the PRC claimed sovereignty over Tibet and invaded the country. This prompted a series of events that eventually caused the Dalai Lama, an important spiritual and cultural figure for Tibet, and about 80,000 Tibetans to flee to India. Tibet, now another autonomous region of China, has faced similar cultural suppression and erasure of ethnic practices since coming under Chinese control.

After Tibet’s own mandatory Mandarin policy was enacted in 2017, Tibetan minority language schools have almost entirely been eliminated. While in 2020, it has been reported that more than 500,000 Tibetans have been transferred to Chinese training centers as part of a mass labor initiative expanded in the region, enlisting civilians through coercive means.

“The program appears disturbingly reminiscent of coercive vocational training and mass labor transfers imposed by the Chinese authorities in the Uyghur region,” read a report by anthropologist Adrian Zenz.

Zenz’s report also referenced, “accounts of enforced indoctrination, intrusive surveillance, military-style enforcement, and harsh punishments for those who fail to meet labor transfer quotas.”

Currently, China is engaging in an ongoing border dispute with India. This most recent dispute between the two Asian powers began early in 2020 and culminated in a clash last June between sides that left 20 Indian soldiers dead, along with an undisclosed number of Chinese soldiers.

In August 2020, a massive brawl reportedly involving over 500 men and lasting about three hours broke out on the disputed border between the two sides. This clash is believed to have involved the Special Frontier Force, a unit consisting mainly of Tibetan refugees. In the same month, a Tibetan soldier was killed by a landmine. Soon after, in September, “Chinese and Indian officials accused each other’s soldiers of firing warning shots, apparently the first time in decades that guns had been aggressively used along the disputed frontier.”

Not only is China engaging in aggressive actions on its border with India, but it’s also becoming increasingly antagonistic along the South China Sea towards neighbors such as Japan and the Philippines. China sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel in April 2020 and continues naval aggression against American military vessels in the area using signaling, dangerously close maneuvering, and illuminating U.S. ships with fire-control radar, which suggests the imminent launch of weapons.

Protesters use umbrellas as shields during the demonstration...
Protesters use umbrellas as shields during the demonstration in Hong Kong.
Photo by Stanton Sharpe/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In 2019, protests in Hong Kong broke out as a response to an extradition bill directing back to the Chinese Mainland. Hong Kong, another autonomous zone of China, was previously under British colonial rule and returned to China in 1997. Both Hong Kong and China have maintained a “one country, two systems” arrangement since then, giving Hong Kong autonomy from the Communist Party of China, as well as from its governance. This has allowed Hong Kong to enjoy more democratic rights and freedoms than Mainland China, which included freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and a separate legal and judiciary system.

This extradition bill that sparked mass protests, would “allow Hong Kong to detain and transfer people wanted in countries and territories with which it has no formal extradition agreements, including Taiwan and the Chinese mainland...Critics contend that the law would allow virtually anyone in the city to be picked up and detained in mainland China, a country in which judges must follow the orders of the Communist Party...The extradition plan applies to 37 crimes. That excludes political ones, but critics fear the legislation would essentially legalize the sort of abductions to the mainland that have taken place in Hong Kong in recent years.”

The autonomy, freedom, and rights granted by the “one country, two systems,” such as Hong Kong’s civil service, independent courts, free press, open internet (unlike the Great Cyber Wall) were provided by what is known as The Basic Law. The Basic Law is set to expire in 2047 and reincorporates Hong Kong with the Mainland. Still, in June 2020, Beijing enacted the Hong Kong Security Law, which was kept secret from citizens until it was passed. This essentially removed the autonomous abilities of Hong Kong, and allowed for Beijing and the Mainland “broad powers to crack down on a variety of political crimes, including separatism and collusion,” due to its ambiguous nature and has caused mass arrests after being enacted. It has aroused fears that Taiwan is next on China’s list.

And still, this is not the worst of the People’s Republic’s current political trajectory to global prominence. It gets much worse

UYGHUR GENOCIDE

Within yet another autonomous region in Northwest China, are the Uyghurs. A Turkic-speaking minority ethnic group, whose dominant religious practices is Islam. It has been reported that these ethnic minorities to the Han Chinese majority, are being rounded up and detained in unverified numbers and sent to “re-education” and work camps. Some have estimated numbers up to 7 to 10 million Uyghurs have been taken over the past few years and sent to these camps, which include forced sterilization of Uyghur women, banning of religious practices, and overt citizen surveillance.

These “re-education” and work camps have produced incidents like a seizure of a 13-ton shipment of human hair, likely from Chinese prisoners from a shipment originating in Xinjiang and other examples of detention camps and forced labor becoming part of China’s large export economy.

The plight of the Uyghurs has sparked global condemnation and recently caused the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to issue orders to freeze imports from companies that produce cotton, clothing, and computer parts in the Xinjiang region China, with companies like H&M cutting ties as well.

What the Muslim minority of Xinjiang is facing, goes behind just a cultural genocide, but meets the United Nations’ definition of genocide itself.

Rally For Muslim China Uighur In Front Of China Embassy
Thousands of Muslims held a rally in front of a Chinese Embassy, to protest the treatment of Uyghurs in China.
Photo by Donal Husni/NurPhoto via Getty Images

CULTURAL GENOCIDE IN INNER MONGOLIA

Regrettably, the situation unfolding in Inner Mongolia is just another instance of the People’s Republic of China wiping out minority cultures and violating human rights within their borders.

It has happened with Tibet and Xinjiang, and now Hong Kong as well. Even Taiwan, who maintains a separate government, constitution, and outright separates itself as a sovereign nation from the People’s Republic of China, faces continued and escalating border tensions from the PRC, in the Mainland’s bid to reunify the two on it’s path to reclaiming former territory.

As an autonomous region of China, Inner Mongolia is supposed to hold certain rights and privileges as provided by the agreements and laws written between the Mongolian region and the Chinese State. Honoring these have been an ongoing problem for years, culminating in the current escalation of eliminating the ethnic-cultural minority into forced assimilation.

The Mongolian minority has already lost large portions of their heritage and territory over time, pushed to the outer bounds of the region, as Han Chinese populations continue to rise and slowly remove Mongolian influence over time. This has created tensions between the two in the past, including riots in 2011 and 2013.

One prominent example of how this Han influence has impacted Mongolian culture globally is Disney’s Mulan. The real Mulan was from the Northern Wei region and of Turco-Mongolic descent, not Han Chinese.

The Northern Wei dynasty was established by a formerly nomadic group named the Tuoba, a clan of the Xianbei people, who came from northern China and likely spoke either a Turkic or proto-Mongolian language, rather than a native Chinese dialect… “The emperor is an important person in [The Ballad of Mulan], but he’s not called by his Chinese name,” says Chen. Rather than the Chinese title of Huangdi, the emperor is referred to as “Khan,” “Kehan” or “Kaghan,” depending on the translation—a title used to refer to Genghis Khan and other Mongol leaders. Chen also says that the title of the poem and the fact that it is named for the female character reflects the respected status that women held in these nomadic societies…Over time, the story and character’s nomadic and tribal origins have significantly changed from the original. Mulan has been depicted as Han Chinese in adaptations over the last century, and this process of “sinification,” or coming under the influence of Han Chinese culture.

(SP)CHINA-ORDOS-NATIONAL ETHNIC GAMES-HORSE RACING-ARCHERY(CN) Xinhua/Fei Maohua via Getty Images

Another cultural aspect that has been integral to Mongolian culture for the entirety of their recorded history is the Steppe, for which these ancient people honed their horseback riding, archery, and maintained their nomadic lifestyle. Essentially, the wide-open lands Mongols have inhabited for centuries herding livestock.

Em explains this nomadic lifestyle goes beyond just the geography, but a cultural kinship with their land.

“Mongolian culture is a culture that is a true balance between humanity and nature,” Em says. “In all of the aspects that a Mongolian lives in the traditional sense, and how many here still do, it was created with a deep philosophical understanding of how to balance this. How to live without destroying the earth. For example, look at a Ger [Mongolian yurt]. It was made to be easily moved, lightweight and the structure is specifically developed so it doesn’t destroy the grass. It has to be this way for the animals to graze and eat. The Ger walls lift up in case a flood happens and you can just let the water pass by.

“There’s also the Gutal [Mongolian wrestling boots], which have an upward pointed toe. This is done so the boot glides against the grass and doesn’t destroy it either. These are only a few beautiful examples that can show you how much Mongols view the importance of balance between human beings and our planet,” Em explains. “In the West, we have forgotten so much of this and have destroyed the earth in ways that may be irreversible. I believe the West can find balance in their own lives by understanding Mongolian culture a little deeper. Bökh is an art that can truly change and transform grappling internationally, but Mongolian culture can help change the world.”

As nomads, herding has been a way of life for thousands of years. While a lot of the changes are yet to be known for sure, there is a very real fear among Mongolians that complete loss of land and territory is on the horizon.

“Our biggest fears are two things, one is losing our land and the other is losing our language,” Aitch says. “We aren’t scared of anything, not even war, but we are very afraid of our language or our lands disappearing forever.”

Em is also corroborating earlier reports from Inner Mongolia, such as the Guardian in 2015 and petitions from 2013.

“Taking the Mongolian language from schools is only one aspect of the cultural genocide that’s happening. What’s more concerning is what’s coming next,” Em states.

“The government is taking the land and erasing Mongolian culture entirely, except to have it become a show you’ll see at new tourist attractions they plan to build. Which make no mistake about it, it is the next step and it’s already happening. Many of the Mongols here know it. Without any of this, you can’t have Mongol Bökh, you can’t have what it means to be Mongolian.”

Since the 1990s, the nomadic living of Inner Mongolians was drastically reduced and almost completely eradicated since the early 2000s according to Em, “There are only a few Inner Mongolians who can get away with living a nomadic lifestyle and they are only in certain areas. Even land that was once used for nomadic herding traditions is still being divided up. There are fences everywhere. The government only gives land to Inner Mongolians who can prove they lived there for at least 3 generations. You also don’t get to choose what you get either, good or bad land. You got what they gave you. It’s why they have ranches here now and build their Yurts next to them, rather than traditionally traveling with them.”

Of course, in a similar fashion to Hong Kong, Tibet, Xianjing, and Taiwan, China is cracking down and eliminating as much information that it can regarding what is happening in Inner Mongolia.

The LA Times detailed this in a recent report:

“The seat of government in Xilingol [Inner Mongolia], announced via WeChat that parents who did not send their children to school by Sept. 17 would lose access to government subsidies. High schoolers who did not attend classes would be expelled and blocked from taking the college entrance exam. Banks would stop loans for the next five years to any parents who did not comply…A separate government notice stated that parents who did not abide would be placed on an “untrustworthy persons list,” and face restrictions on jobs, special market transactions, cross-border travels, home reconstruction and other actions requiring good social credit standing… A police source within Inner Mongolia told the Los Angeles Times that most students had returned to school, but officers were tracking down people who had posted anything “harmful to the government” online. He shared images of police orders that included people’s names, ID and phone numbers, addresses, and workplaces, and required officers to implement “education and stability control” on the individuals. Several of the individuals were targeted for “stability control” because they’d called for protests or posted messages on WeChat about apparent Mongolian suicides. The Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, a New York-based rights group, said that nine Mongols, mostly teachers, and students, had committed suicide in recent weeks after coming under government pressure.”

MONGOLIA-CHINA-DIPLOMACY-RIGHTS Photo by BYAMBASUREN BYAMBA-OCHIR/AFP via Getty Images

“What Mongols want Westerners to understand is that this is very real and that they need help from the outside world. It’s much worse than most people realize and it’s hard to get the real information out,” Em says about this horrifying news.

“Children were being abducted and locked into schools. Those herdsmen who kept their children from schools were threatened by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and even banks. The CCP told the Mongols they would take away all their rights if they refused this policy or did not allow their children to go to school. Teachers and all the government workers who fought against this policy change were either fired or arrested and many teachers and principals even committed suicide because of the pressure! Still, the CCP continues to lie to the outside world, as if it’s all fake news, and pretends Mongolians are happy with propaganda videos. The PRC has scared the Mongols and is controlling them with deep surveillance, to the point that even if they want to stand up for themselves and their culture, they would have no chance. This is all just one step to a bigger goal. Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia. They’re all the same. Next, and there will be a next, it could be you. China no longer sees a limit to who they can reach.”

The only Mongolian-language social site was shut down in China, and police have also been offering cash rewards for Inner Mongolian protesters. Reports also reveal communication blackouts as part of the government’s tactics.

“400,000 users from Inner Mongolia could not access chat groups on Bainuu. Several days later, the timelines and walls of Bainuu users were no longer available. All posts on WeChat and Weibo on Mongolian language or “bilingual education” were censored, making it difficult for people outside of Inner Mongolia to find information on protests. Over 450 WeChat users are said to have been warned by authorities. The CCP has used this kind of “communication blackout” in Xinjiang and other regions to prevent the mobilization of target groups. At least twenty-three have been detained for “flagrantly insulting a deceased former leader of the country” and for “sharing videos in a WeChat group to obstruct the implementation of the national textbooks policy.”

Bloody Elbow has reached out to the Chinese International Press Center, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, and the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the USA about this issue.

As of this writing, only the Information and Public Affairs Section of the Chinese Embassy have replied to our inquiry, repeating Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Hua Chunying’s September 3, 2020 comments, without adding anything further. In that previous statement, Hua downplayed the issue and denied any wrongdoing from the government.

“The Education Department of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region has released relevant information on unified textbooks. In recent years, the National Textbook Committee has organized experts to compile textbooks in Chinese language and literature, politics and history, which have been used in all primary and secondary schools nationwide since 2017. Starting this year, six provinces and autonomous regions, including Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, have also started using these textbooks. The unified textbooks of the three subjects will not affect the setting of courses of other subjects in schools teaching ethnic languages. The class hours, textbooks, and teaching language of the Mongolian language and literature class will remain unchanged, and the current bilingual education system will not be changed.

The national common spoken and written language is a symbol of national sovereignty. It is every citizen’s right and duty to learn and use the national common spoken and written language. This is true not only in China, but also in the rest of the world. It is enshrined in China’s Constitution, the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy and the Education Law.

The Chinese government, in accordance with relevant laws, promotes the use of the national common spoken and written language in ethnic minority areas, upholds the principle of equality in the spoken and written languages of all ethnic groups, and guarantees according to law the freedom of all ethnic groups, including the Mongolian ethnicity, to use and develop their own spoken and written languages.”

Despite numerous reports, Chinese officials have also repeatedly denied any human rights abuses and wrongdoings against the Uyghurs, stating that “we treat every ethnic group as equal.

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Mongolian wrestlers compete during the traditional Nadaam festival in the Ovorkhangai province
JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

MONGOLIAN BÖKH: IMPLICATIONS

What does it mean for the sport of Mongolian wrestling? At the current moment, just like with COVID-19, wrestlers are slowly integrating back into training and competition. But, unlike the pandemic that has shaped so much of 2020, returning to training is different and impacting wrestlers on a deeper level emotionally.

“Bökh is an important part of Mongolian daily life and is involved in our life from birth to death,” Oh says. “Wherever they are, Mongolian men play and wrestle with each other. It’s how Mongols get closer to one another, there really isn’t any other way like it. It’s an expression and kinship that’s hard to express without experiencing it. It’s very much a cultural thing and there are endless elements of Mongolian culture in Bökh. The spirit of the Mongolian people is reflected in Bökh. Every gesture, movement, and smile of the Bökh’ers has influenced Mongolian culture because it’s not a sport or a game. Bökh is a psychological game. If you want to win a Bökh competition, you cannot only be strong physically but also mentally. You can imagine how our peace of mind has been affected, in something linked so much to our culture and what it does to competing.”

Oh continued, “Most of the wrestlers were in poor condition, mentally and emotionally, because they loved their language and culture, and everyone feels powerless. In ancient times, the status of a wrestler was comparable to that of the gods. Mongols regarded wrestlers as a symbol of wisdom and strength. They were guardians of their homeland in war and in peace. Now, the wrestlers feel unarmed, a bleeding of the heart. They felt very helpless. They could not solve the problem by force to protect our Mongolian language and culture.”

Mongolian wrestlers at the Naadham

Em adds their thoughts to this with, “Mongols all over, especially the Mongols in the grasslands and the smaller towns, are depressed and sad. There’s a hanging feeling of hopelessness. It’s made wrestling difficult to do. People aren’t motivated to train, nor are they mentally focused. Their thoughts are elsewhere, which distracts you from having that ‘feeling’ during a match. Yet, the show must go on and a few Naadam have happened recently and it’s allowed wrestlers to get back to competing, uniting, and sharing a common goal of keeping their culture alive. Wrestling is one way to do this. Winter Training began in October and there is an even greater push to spread the art and culture internationally too.”

The culture and tradition of Bökh predate even the Greek Olympic and is a tradition that has continued for thousands of years within the region, standing the test of time and ingraining itself within Mongolia’s cultural landscape:

“Wrestling has been a part of Mongolian life for centuries. Cave paintings depict two men grappling with one another in front of a crowd. The Secret History of the Mongols, the 13th-century chronicle of Genghis Khan, praises the virtues of the sport.”

This “wrestling culture” has allowed for Mongolians to excel across the grappling arts. Mongolian wrestlers are notorious for their cross-training into different grappling disciplines and competing at the highest level, which has “led Mongolians to compete successfully in other wrestling forms, including Sumo, Judo, Shuai Jiao [Chinese Wrestling], etc. Mongolia’s long-awaited Olympic Gold Medal was earned by Tuvshinbayar Naidan, who proved his success by winning the silver medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics, in the men’s -100 category of Judo at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.” This success is directly related to what is taught, learned, and lived since birth in Bökh and living wrestling.

Along with archery and horseback riding, “Wrestling is the main form of entertainment in the Southern “Inner” Mongolian culture as well as the main sport that all men do at some point in their life,” says Em, who notes this sport has many women participants as well.

“Imagine if there was one thing that helped shape your entire culture for thousands of years and almost everyone does it. Remember in the grasslands, you don’t have much nor is there much to do. So, wrestling whether or not you’re doing it professionally, is just something you do to pass the time and have fun,” Em explains. “Inner Mongolians live a simple life that’s rich in human connection, connection with the earth and sky. This is something that wrestling brings us closer to.”

There is no doubt that if the PRC continues its forced assimilation of Mongolian culture, that this wrestling art will become forever changed. In turn, it can also impact the competitive landscape of Sumo, Judo, Shuai Jiao, Freestyle, and others. Bökh is simply too intertwined within what it means to be Mongolian, for the sport to not feel massive ramifications from cultural turmoil and forced influences from outside traditions.

Miss World contestants enjoy a demonstra Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

The ramifications of cultural genocide are well known throughout history.

If the examples of Native American’s interactions with European powers since Christopher Columbus voyage to the “New World” have taught the Western world anything, it’s that the societal and historical repercussions of cultural genocide are vast and long-lasting. The actions against the autonomous zones within China go beyond simply infringing on tradition or minor assimilation, and extends into deep human rights violations and Orwellian-like rewriting of history.

What is at stake here is not just an 800-year-old script multicultural language that harkens back to the golden era of the Silk Route. It also involves providential civil and legal rights, and more importantly, the basic human rights of an autonomous region with its own deeply rich history, cultural sovereignty, and traditional expressions.

The Mongolian Empire was one of the most impactful cultural forces in human history and helped shape our current world — more than most realize. These wrestlers are an extension of that, and they’re fighting to prevent history from repeating itself and have yet another ancient civilization become a footnote in history.

“We are struggling,” states Aitch, “We need people to understand us and to know about our culture. We need your help to protect our land and to protect our culture. We need our freedom back. We need our independence. Inner Mongolia needs independence.”


While the author is a member of the armed services, this piece is the author’s opinion and does not reflect the opinion of any military or government organization including the Department of Defense and the United States Air Force.

Asian MMA

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