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Traditional Mongolian Writing Is On All Signs In China’s Inner Mongolia As A Language Struggles To Survive

Traditional Mongolian script is written everywhere right next to Chinese in Inner Mongolia, but that’s no guarantee that anybody is going to read it.

“There is Mongolian writing on every sign,” a friend in Ordos, Inner Mongolia pointed out to me. “It’s not like big Chinese, little Mongolian, they are both the same size,” she added.

It was true, on pretty much every surface where language was written there was Mongolian and Chinese. Generally speaking, it appeared as if preference was even given to Mongolian, as it was standard practice for it to be written above or to the left of the Chinese.

This is mandated by law. All street signs, commercial outlets, and government documents in Inner Mongolia must be written in both Mongolian and Chinese. In terms of spoken language, all announcements on public transportation must be bilingual, and there are also three Mongolian TV channels.

Needless to say, there are no signs saying “Speak the People’s Language” — meaning Standard Mandarin — here.

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The Mongolian script was created with the beginning of the Mongol Empire. Around 1204, Genghis Khan captured a Uyghur scribe, who was given the task of adapting the Uyghur alphabet — which itself was adapted from the Syriac alphabet — to write Mongolian. Like so, it is a true alphabet, with separate characters for each consonant and vowel.

I asked how this written script has survived here when it has even disappeared from the State of Mongolia to the north.

“In the schools here people learn Mongolian too.”

“Are the schools taught in Mongolian?”

“No, they are taught in Chinese, but there are classes for Mongolian.”

From what I can tell, the Chinese government makes a show of wanting minority groups to maintain their traditions and ethnic identity and be Chinese too. It’s a mish-mash of apparently mutually exclusive movements that isn’t seen as a contradiction among Han Chinese. But whatever the case may be, the influence of the dominant culture in China is sending many minority cultures into decline. As is often the case, the government shows one face while the reality is very different.

mongolian-script

Though there are roughly as many Mongolian speakers in Inner Mongolia as there are in the State of Mongolia, Han Chinese outnumber ethnic Mongolians 5 to 1, which is causing the language and culture to be diluted in a tide of Chinese. With the ability to speak Mandarin, many young Mongols are letting their traditional tongue go into decline. As language is a big part of cultural identity everywhere, and this no small concern in the region.

Though there is a broader movement in China of young people walking away from tradition, no matter if they’re Han or from a minority group. More often than not, they are moving towards a similar rendition of globalized culture. So Mongolian youth are part of the same transition as their Han counterparts, as the upcoming generation becomes more and more culturally amorphous.

No culture has any defense against its members walking away from it.

From Southern Mongolian Watch:

As more Mongols lose their language, arguably the last stronghold of their “nationality” status, they are becoming a depoliticized and deterritorialized “ethnic group” in an increasingly primordial, multicultural “Chinese Nation.”

When it comes down to it, the requirement to have Mongolian script posted on signs is pretty much a fake smile to the region’s minorities. Enghebatu Togochog, of the Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center, told a reporter from McClatchy that, “It is said that it is an official language. But in meetings, they don’t use Mongolian,” he said in a telephone call from New York, where the group is based. “If you want to send a letter and you address it in Mongolian, they won’t deliver it. It’s really useless.”

So while in Inner Mongolia all signs and public announcements are written in Mongolian, there’s no guarantee that anybody is going to read them.

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Filed under: Changing China, China, Disappearing Traditions, Language

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3490 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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3 comments… add one

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  • Franklin Carnes March 12, 2014, 11:15 pm

    This is a great article, thank you for sharing. What about the policies on using Tibetan script and Uyghur script, are they similar to that of Mongolian?

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    • VagabondJourney March 12, 2014, 11:43 pm

      Not positive, but I assume it’s the same. In other minority areas where the people still have a traditional script it’s also on signs like in Inner Mongolia.

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  • Jeff June 17, 2015, 5:42 am

    Informative article, thank you. It’s a beautiful script. I hope people find ways to preserve the language and culture, despite the incentive to globalize.

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