Inner Mongolia is changing rapidly and the region’s ethnic minorities are facing difficult choices: assimilate or hold fast to a disappearing culture.
Inner Mongolia went from being an impoverished backwater on the fringes of China to the country’s sixth richest province, and the region’s ethnic minorities are caught in the middle of this boom period. Do they assimilate or hold fast to a disappearing culture?
I saw her riding towards me on a BMX bicycle, she was snapping photos of a rather gnarled up, typical landscape with her mobile phone without stopping. I smiled as she rode by and she ground her bike to a halt. She addressed me in English. I asked her where she was from — from her looks, clothes, and the way she was snapping random photos of a generally unappealing landscape that did not even have people posing in them, I didn’t take her to be Chinese. She laughed and told me that she was Mongolian. Not from Mongolia the country, but Mongolia the autonomous prefecture of China.
We were just outside of Hailar, the main city of Hulun Buir in the heart of the Inner Mongolian grasslands, and she grew up in a Mongolian village on the other side of the row of small hills that were in front of us. This is traditionally the land of herders and nomads, but a steady migration of Han Chinese over the past two centuries has rendered the people of these grasslands minorities. Xiǎo mínzú, small nations, is what the Han call them, and this term is literally correct, as the Han now outnumber all the other ethnic groups in Hulun Buir combined four to one.
She told me that her English name was Queenie, but that she didn’t like it very much and wanted a new one. She was only 18 years old by Western reckoning and still had one more year of high school to go. She told me that she wanted to be a tourist guide to show visitors the Inner Mongolia she loved. I told her that I was a writer hanging out in Inner Mongolia walking down the side of the road looking for something to write about. She appointed herself my cultural liaison, hopped off her BMX, and began walking by my side — both of our desires having been met in full by our meeting.
“More and more Chinese come every year,” she told me with a sign of defeat as she explained how Mongolian culture is being diluted in the surge of Han migrating to the new boom towns of Inner Mongolia.
In recent years, many regions of Inner Mongolia that have traditionally been no-man’s-lands with nothing but sheep, open space, and herders have been transformed into vibrant, get-rich-quick economic epicenters. The discovery and exploitation of vast amounts of coal, rare earth, natural gas, various minerals, as well as the presence of large amounts of space for power plants, wind farms, and dairy operations have economically turned Inner Mongolia upside down. This has has generally been a poorer region on the hinterlands of China, now it’s the country’s 6th richest province and has the per capita GDP purchasing power of Turkey.
This has provoked migrants, eager to cash in on the boom or find a better livelihood, to descend upon Inner Mongolia in droves from all over China, hyper-charging the process of Han cultural and economic dominance.
I asked Queenie if there was much inter-cultural strife, and she told me that there hasn’t been any problems recently. This is a region that occasionally has ethnic flare ups, but, for the most part, the Han, Mongolians, and Manchus — the main ethnic groups — coexist and more or less get along. There really isn’t another option.
She then began talking about the blue skies and clean air here. This time, I countered:
“You say that the air is clean here but there are coal plants everywhere.” From where we were standing we could see four or five looming in the mid-ground and distance.
Queenie thought for a moment and then replied simply that the Chinese like power plants. I couldn’t argue with that.
“We learned how to protect our environment two thousand years ago,” she said. “We know how to live in the grasslands. Now the Chinese come and ruin it. They build houses and factories and power plants on the grasslands. We never did that. We don’t build houses on the grasslands. In that river there used to be so many fish that you could smell them,” she continued as she pointed to the river that we were walking near. “Now not so much.”
It is a habit of the Chinese media and government to blame Mongolian herders for damaging the environment, claiming they allow their herds to overgraze, which contributes to the rampant desertification that’s overtaking parts of Inner Mongolia. This is often used as an excuse to relocate the herders into cities, but the biggest causes of environmental degradation here is all too often government or big business run initiatives, such as the large scale goat herding for cashmere, dairy farming, and running coal plants that require such massive amounts of water that the aquifers beneath the surface are being drained dry, and are no longer able to nurture the terrain.
As I’ve traveled through Inner Mongolia, both in the eastern and western portions of the prefecture, it has become evident that the Han Chinese may have a very different perception of environmental curation than the people who formally inhabited this region. Half built then abandoned buildings and development projects have been discarded all over the place, left behind to decay like ruins. You can see their skeletons protruding up out of the landscape, a reminder that something was tried here that just didn’t work out. It seems to me that China has done to Inner Mongolia what the American redneck does to his backyard: strew it with junk, forget about it.
The nomadic herder is a character in Inner Mongolia that is fast fading into history. Most of the people here have been relocated into cities, the government claiming that it is for their own benefit as they develop or exploit the natural resources of the land they clear of people.
Unfortunately for the Mongolians who live there, Inner Mongolia is positioned on top of rich reserves of coal, oil, gas, minerals and rare earth resources. The prefecture is China’s top coal producer, providing a quarter of the coal the country consumes.
A McClatchy correspondent reports:
“A setback to Mongol ethnic identity has unfolded since 2001 with the forced relocation of some 650,000 nomads and herders from their ancestral pastures to urban areas. Mandated by the government, the “ecological migration” is aimed at reducing overgrazing, which has increased sandstorms. Much of the overgrazing was caused in the 1990s by an inflow of Han farmers who were rushing to raise goats in Inner Mongolia to feed a global boom for cheap cashmere sweaters.”
In this way, Inner Mongolia’s herders have become environmental refugees, themselves being herded by the government into the regions ever-growing cities.
From The Independent:
“China’s policies toward ethnic minorities aim at assimilating them, while facilitating the exploitation of the natural resources found on their territories,” says Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
There’s no doubt that coal mining within the region has led to a major economic revival. But how has this prosperity benefitted the nomads? The government claims to have resettled more than 500,000 nomads in cities and presents this as a move ‘into modernity’. The problem is that the nomads have had no say in the matter. The destruction of the grasslands where they grazed their animals has given them no choice but to move into government housing in the cities.
The ancient conflict between herders and settlers over land rights still plays itself out to this day.
Queenie told me that most Mongolians here now live in cities — or at least in permanent settlements — but many families still have claims to the grasslands. “Mongolians have two homes, one in the city and one in the grasslands.” She said that they live in the cities so their kids can go to school, but some still maintain herds and horses in the grasslands.
She then then invited me to her home in the city. On the way we stopped to visit a monument to the Ewenki people, and indigenous culture that once lived in the forests here and beyond into what is now Russia and Mongolia. The Hailar region is the central location of this culture in China, and Queenie’s grandmother was from this group. Beyond this monument, on the other side of the Hailar river a new city district was being built. Queenie and I looked at a rendition of the plan that was posted on a giant thirty foot high billboard. Even way out here on the fringes of Inner Mongolia, China’s new city movement has extended its tendrils.
I asked Queenie what she thought of this new city, the skeleton of which was already rising up out of the horizon.
“I don’t like it,” she replied. “When a modern city is built our tradition is lost.”
At one point as we walked through Hailar I noticed a Han woman that had a very contorted, confused look on her face. I knew that look well, it’s the one they usually give me when seemingly trying to figure out if I’m human, animal, or object. I can understand this bewilderment to a point: I’m a very foreign looking foreigner who often travels to places that foreigners tend not to go. But this confused and curious woman was not gawking at me, she was looking right at Queenie.
“Are you an ethnic minority?” I heard her ask.
Queenie answered in the affirmative, and told her that she was Mongolian.
In fact, as we walked around town many people took an interest in my companion. “What are you?” they would ask. Queenie would then calmly explain that she was Mongolian.
I couldn’t imagine that this wasn’t irritating. This girl lives in this city, she grew up here, it’s her ancestral home where her culture was once the dominant majority. Now she is a minority, so much so that some of the more recently arrived Han appear bewildered and amused when they meet a real live Mongolian.
“Is that annoying having people ask you what you are all the time?” I had to ask.
“No, I am proud of being Mongolian and like talking with people about it,” she replied passionately.
It was very clear here that there was a huge division of identity between the Mongolians and Han in Inner Mongolia. When Queenie said “Chinese” she exclusively meant the Han; when she referred to herself and her people she’d say “Mongolian.” Technically, she was Chinese — she was born and lives in China — but she did not relate to this designation at all, and seemed to view herself as being part of a distinct cultural entity that is far closer aligned with its diaspora than whatever geo-political entity encompasses it. In a way, Mongolians are like the Kurds in the Middle East: 3 million live in the Republic of Mongolia, another million live in Russia, and the remaining 5 million are in the north of China.
“Do you ever call yourself Chinese?” I asked, wondering if there could ever be a situation where she would claim this broader identity for herself.
“No never, I am Mongolian,” she answered quickly, making no attempt to curb the pride in her voice.
Queenie’s position was very different from the official line here in China. The government tries to use the term “Chinese” to mean the country’s Han majority and all 56 of its recognized ethnic minorities. Or, to put it simply, every culture within the borders of China. But if you mention this to one of these ethnic minorities who has not yet been fully assimilated into Han culture, “bullshit” is the general response: the Chinese are the Han, ethnic minorities have their own titles.
China tries to present itself as a nation — a country where the people are bound together by a singular identity — but it’s not. It’s a country made up of a dominant majority and many different minority groups that mostly exist along the fringes of the country.
The identities of these minority groups scale of being fiercely separate and independent to being virtually assimilated into the broader culture. I’ve yet to find someone who can tell me what or who a Manchu is, as they are basically Chinese today. On the other hand there are the Uiqhurs, Tibetans, and the myriad minority cultures in the south which are different from the Han in just about every way other than living in the same locations. It is in the span between these two extremes that the story of this country’s multitude of ethnicities is told.
Queenie was a part of a growing movement in China where young members of minority groups try desperately to reclaim their distinct cultural identity, heritage, beliefs, and way of life in reaction to the wholesale assimilation that their cultures have been experiencing over the past two generations. They seem to know that they could be the last representatives of their culture that identifies as such, that their way of life, belief, and language is in danger of disappearing for good.
This is perhaps cultural retrofitting in its finest form. I’ve seen it happening in the Tibetan regions of Qinghai, where young adults have started to don the traditional clothes that their grandparents and parents shed long ago and relearn aspects of the culture that they know is slipping away from them. Now I observed this cultural revivalist movement in Inner Mongolia. These youth are swimming upstream with both hands clench around their heritage as though it was a precious family
to hold on to an ethnic identity are left to swim upstream as they try to relearn, revitalize, and share the culture their forebears were able to take for granted.
Though I’ve always had to wonder how deep these movements can really go: the way of life that even these young retrofitters live is so vastly different from that of their forebearers that they can really only pick and chose various cultural elements that they can even hope to preserve. Unfortunately, when many of these elements are put in another living context their meanings are altered, and, all too often, diminished.
As ethnic minority groups hurtle through the 21st century from withing a very powerful and incredibly active dominant majority culture, mass assimilation into the Han way of life is becoming the norm. Many Mongolians now don’t learn their ancestral language, religion, or culture, and this way of life is in danger of fading into history.
An education, a house, a modern life, access to health care, and government subsidies in exchange for coming into the fold. This is the deal that many pastoralist in Inner Mongolia have been given. It is difficult to cast a value judgement on this trade off, it is difficult to find the measuring sticks that can determine if one way of life is better than the other. But in terms of the world that China’s minorities now live in, in many ways cultural modernization is inevitable. The days of the pastoralist are disappearing all over the globe, even in the country of Mongolia to the north, the herders are giving up their old ways and moving into the city.
Cultures change always and forever. Over the past century most all cultures on the planet have been going through a hyper-charged rate of change, and they either adapt to changing circumstances or disappear. It’s not just Han culture that has encroached upon Inner Mongolia but modern, globalized culture, and the effect that it has had is similar to most every other society in the world it has touch. Like any other ethnicity in the country, Han culture itself is facing these same pressures, and is changing and churning with incredible frequency. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of rural Han Chinese have been/ are being relocated to cities, their traditional ways of life disemboweled, their kids fully urbanized, modernized, integrated into the dominant system — just like the country’s ethnic minorities.
The struggle of China’s ethnic minorities to preserve their identity isn’t just a matter of a stronger culture projecting itself over weaker ones, but the frame of globalized culture that’s boxed in and realigned so much of the world. Mongolians in China are free to practice their religion, have their festivals, sing their songs, speak their language. Queenie told me that instruction in school is even done in Mongolian. The problem is that once urbanized and thrown into the fray of modern society these old traditions become less and less meaningful and applicable and they start to fade away.
All cultures are losing their traditional identities, we are all losing our tribal dress, our songs, our foods, our claims to heritage. This is the story of our era.
Cultures can endure repression, subjugation, persecution; what they can’t defend against is their members walking away. Mongolians in Inner Mongolia are as free to be as “Mongolian” as they want to be, but all too often being Mongolian today doesn’t mean living in yurts on the grasslands herding goats. The parameters of their culture have shifted. It was definitely hurried along by the heavy hand of the government, but in reality it was probably inevitable anyway.
If this severing of tradition in exchange for modern culture continues, the PRC may get their projection: a nation of people with no more refined identity than that of the political entity they are citizens of — whether they are from Wenzhou, Xining, Chongqing, Xishuangbanna, or Hohot.
One of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world is rapidly losing it’s vibrancy. “Culture” in China is now portrayed as one-dimensional, shallow renditions of songs, dance, and funny costumes — whether it be of Mongolians in Mongolia, the Naxi in Yunnan, or the Han in some fake water town — played out for tourists.
“There are things I miss about that way of life, but there is nothing I can do about it now,” a former herder in Inner Mongolia told CNN.
“I dream of a day when we wear our traditional clothes all the time, only eat our traditional foods, and live in Ménggǔbāo,” Queenie told me. But she knew it was a dream. She would take the gaokao next year, go to university in a big city, and then . . .
She said that she hopes to return to Hulun Buir and work at preserving and sharing her culture.