How Mongolia Matters

Simon Wickham - Smith

Mongolia’s critical placement, in the enveloping grip of Russia and China, has long been a source of discord and challenge, as much intellectual as military or political. The attraction of the Soviet Union following that country’s revolution to those who wished to develop Mongolia as a more modern and progressive nation, was in part that it was not China, and now that China and Russia are seeking to prove themselves in 21st-century discourses such as science and technology, in financial investment and mining, Mongolia again finds itself as a quiet but important player in the Asian polity. But this pales somewhat, of course, beside its significance on the world stage at key moments over the last eight centuries, and it is upon a deeper understanding of this significance that the essays in How Mongolia Matters are focused.

How Mongolia Matters, in fact, is a Festschrift for Morris Rossabi, who has contributed greatly to scholarship geared to explaining Mongolian history through recourse to original documents and to painstaking multi-perspective research. In his introduction, Rossabi bemoans the mythology which ‘enshroud[s]’ Mongolian historical scholarship, and rightly claims that ‘the overturning of these myths is essential if an accurate portrayal of the role of the Mongols and Inner Asians in history is to be produced’ (p. 2).

The 10 essays which make up this book, indeed, seek to overturn some of these myths though focusing on specific aspects of Mongolia’s history, from (roughly) the Chingissid period to its current democratic post-Soviet incarnation. They range in theme from the Tumu incident of 1449, in which the Oirats captured the Ming Emperor (in Chapter 1 by Johan Elverskog), to post-Socialist Mongolia as a nuclear-free zone (in Chapter 10 by Jargalsaikhan Enkhsaikhan), from the Mongols’ efforts to prevent a rider’s leg from making contact with the horse’s flank (in Chapter 8 by Pamela Kyle Crossley) to the influence of the Mongols upon jurisprudence and legal systems (in Chapter 6 by Bettina Birge). The breadth and depth of the scholarship here is such that this volume could provide an interested reader with a good overview of the contribution of the Mongols to the development of Asian and Eurasian sociopolitics.

Two papers in particular caught my eye. The first is James Millward’s analysis of the Manchu, Mongol, and Tibetan translations of, in Millward’s most apposite clarification (p. 21), ‘not so much...what the ancient Chinese meant as what the Qing Court meant when it used’ the Chinese term huairou yuanren (怀柔远人) during the Qianlong period. As someone who works with these three languages, but not with Chinese, I was struck by Millward’s insightful and creative use of these translations to explore the way in which the Qing translators rendered the already ambiguous idea of huairou yuanren in equally ambiguous terms, employing ‘similar ambiguities between soft and hard, spontaneous and induced approaches to achieving the accommodation of these people [the Mongols, Tibetans and Manchus] from far away’ (p. 31). While I would quibble that perhaps, for the Qing, the Manchu language during the Qianlong was not especially distant, either geographically or emotionally, as Millward is suggesting, his point about the powerful effects of translation is well made. If support is needed for the value and suitability of New Qing History, and for the refocusing on the documentary, historiological and linguistic study of the Qing from the viewpoint of sources in languages other than Chinese, and from actors other than the Han, then this short article offers precisely that.

The second essay which I wish to discuss is Yuki Konagaya’s ‘Modern Origins of Chinggis Khan Worship’, which revisits the thorny question of how Chinggis Khan’s place during the turbulent decades of the 20th century is to be understood. Though she modestly refers to ‘the minor but tangible evidence’ (p. 154) which she has unearthed in support of the fact that, in Inner Mongolia during the 1940s, the Japanese honored Chinggis Khan, and that ordinary Mongolians were focused more on Tibetan Buddhism than on Chinggis Khan, these are interesting findings nonetheless. Konagawa’s use of portraits of, and songs about, Chinggis Khan focuses attention on how culture responded to his image, and she nicely contrasts this with the tragic circumstances surrounding D. Tömör-Ochir’s promotion of the 800th anniversary in 1962 – catalyzed by his own experience, whilst hospitalized in China, of preparations for that country’s own impending commemoration –  of Chinggis Khan’s birth, which was likewise founded on image management, in the form of postage stamps, books and public celebrations. More such research is needed to develop a clear idea of how Chinggisid imagery was developed and manipulated on both sides of the Mongol–China border during this period, and how this has been handled in recent years. Certainly, in my own realm of modern Mongolian literature, there is great thematic and stylistic variation to be explored in literary works about Chinggis Khan written after 1990, and this is clearly replicated in the use of his image in advertising, the arts and culture and, of course, in politics. Konagawa’s contribution, then, is a most welcome stimulus to further study of this important subfield.

The social and political machinations which form the hub around which this collection revolves is complex and, at times, fraught, yet these are exemplary essays, presenting the historical material, and its ramifications, in ways both accessible and illuminating. This, fittingly, is very much in keeping with the spirit in which Morris Rossabi has always presented his own work. In conclusion, to redirect Michael Brose’s opening tribute to Rossabi to those represented here, this book is not only well-researched and well-considered, but is welcome for its ‘deep analytical insight spun out in persuasive, accessible prose, and always favoring an approach that looks, if even slightly, outside the box’ (p. 69). Would that all books dealing with complex areas of humanities inquiry be so expertly presented.