bne IntelliNews – Mongolia celebrates the return of Naadam
“The Mongols should be grateful for their history…it’s a resource of who we are and what we’ve been through over the years. I think everyone thinks the Naadam is important.
– Davaasuren, a 25-year-old monk living at Gandagchilen Monastery.
The Naadam Festival in Mongolia, a UNESCO-recognized intangible heritage property, commemorates the “three male sports”: archery, horse racing and traditional Bökh wrestling. Initiated by Genghis Khan in 1206, it became a public holiday in 1922 and has taken place almost every year since – until Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 derailed the tradition. In 2020, the Naadam was held as usual in the provinces, but the national Naadam event held in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, was a closed event with few spectators. Most Mongols had to watch it on TV. In 2021, Naadam was completely canceled.
Naadam is arguably one of the biggest and least known sporting events in the world. It is celebrated throughout the country and brings together tens of thousands of athletes at the regional, provincial and national levels. It is also an opportunity for Mongolians to don traditional clothing and for city dwellers to return to their ancestral homes in the countryside. One wrestler explained that the Naadam is “a vaccine against modernization”.
City dwellers return to their ancestral homes in the countryside to enjoy local Naadam events (Credit: Antonio Graceffo).
When the Naadam was canceled in 2021, hundreds of protesters on horseback and dressed in traditional clothing deel descended on the capital to demonstrate in front of parliament. Some felt that the Naadam should be held because of its great significance as a continuation of age-old customs. Wrestlers, archers and horse racers also wanted the festival to take place as they depend on the Naadam to earn money or clinch prestigious rankings which can have a major impact on their lives. Despite the Naadam’s importance, there has been much online criticism of the protesters, suggesting that the cancellation was necessary to prevent the spread of Covid, and that the government could better spend the Naadam’s budget on Covid relief efforts. .
Part of the support for the cancellation of the Naadam in 2021 also came from the fact that the 2020 event had cost a lot of money even though it was only enjoyed by the elites, their families and their guests. Some people felt that if ordinary people were not allowed to attend, it was better to cancel the event than to use public funds to benefit the privileged few.
Two young riders cross the finish line in a Nadaam horse race in Mandalgovi (Credit: Marc Fischer, cc-by-sa 2.0).
This year, the Naadam will be held from July 11 to 15. After two years without a full Naadam, one would assume that people have learned to live without him and perhaps enthusiasm for the festival has waned. At the same time, Mongolia is modernizing and globalizing rapidly with nearly 69% of the population already living in cities. This raises the question of whether the Naadam is largely a rural phenomenon and whether city dwellers, with higher levels of education and income, and as citizens less likely to ride horses, are still interested in the Naadam.
Interviews with a representative sample of people ranging from young workers to retirees, city dwellers, rural dwellers, wrestlers, archers and monks were conducted on this subject. The conclusion was that although the interviewees differed to some extent in their personal interpretation of the importance of Naadam, they all not only supported Naadam, but assumed that everyone else did as well. This demonstrates how Naadam is an integral part of Mongolian culture.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tries his hand at archery during a small Naadam festival held in Ulaanbaatar in 2015 (Credit: Government of India, Government Open Data License (GODL)).
Nandinsuvd Batchimeg, a 22-year-old accountant in Ulaanbaatar, believes that all city dwellers “feel Naadam is important”. A sixty-three-year-old retiree, Otgonbayar, also said, “Every inhabitant of the city attaches importance to Naadam. They also go to their native house or their family in the countryside [during the event].”
A 45-year-old teacher from Uvs province explained, “When I lived in Ulaanbaatar from 2006 to 2007, I felt that these townspeople also respected their culture, history and traditions as we do. Their lifestyle, vision, perspective and culture might be a little different from ours; however, we live in the same country. I think everyone thinks Naadam is important in Mongolia. She went on to comment on the unifying nature of Naadam, as everyone who speaks the language becomes a group to enjoy Naadam every year, no matter who they are or what they do in life.
Archery in Naadam can be celebrated as one of the “three men’s sports”, but there are also archery challenges for women (Credit: Zoharby, cc-by-sa 3.0).
Some Mongolians see participation in Naadam as cultural preservation and transmission.
Batbileg, a 39-year-old wrestler with the title “Lion of Aimag”, said: “You should always know your history, culture and traditions if you identify as Mongolian. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live, people think Naadam or any other holiday is important because it is made of our history and culture over the years.
Asked about the cultural significance of the Naadam, respondents provided somewhat different answers, which gave insight into the culture of the nation.
Forty-five-year-old archer Boldbaatar sees the Naadam as a commemoration of the strength of the ancestors and an opportunity for him to carry on an ancient tradition. “Thanks to Naadam, I realized how strong our elders were, and we have so many important things to respect. Naadam made me an official archer.”
A Naadam ceremony at the Ulaabaatar National Sports Stadium (Credit: Vidor, wiki, public domain).
Naadam is also a way to educate the next generation of Mongolians about their culture and heritage according to Urin Baasansuren, a 56-year-old retired schoolteacher. “Naadam plays a huge role in teaching our history to the younger generation as it takes place on Revolution Day [commemorating 11 July 1921], which commemorates the independence of Manchu (now part of China). Second, the three men’s games show our nomadic culture from Genghis Khaan [Genghis Khan] era to the present day which is an important part of our nation.”
For the Mongols, the Naadam draws its strength from drawing on ancient tradition (Credit: Thomas Voekler, cc-by-3.0).
The festival also holds patriotic and historical significance to some. Independence is an important issue for Mongolians who resent the fact that many Westerners do not distinguish between the Independent Republic of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, a province of China. Additionally, the partition of Mongolia, the southern half of which is co-opted by China, is a sore point for many.
Nandinsuvd Batchimeg, a 22-year-old accountant who works in Ulaanbaatar, said: “Naadam shows the world that we are an independent country. When I watch the opening ceremony of the Naadam at 9 am, it makes me really proud of our culture, our history and our traditions. Even though there are many problems in Mongolia, I will always love my country. Because this place gives me a place to live, a place to freely express my own opinions without government interference. Mongolians are aware of the cultural repression in Inner Mongolia carried out by the Chinese Communist Party to bring everyone into line with Han Chinese culture, and many are grateful to live in Mongolia where the language and culture continue to thrive.
Several of the interviewees also mentioned that the Naadam was a way of showing Mongolia to tourists and the outside world.
A twenty-eight-year-old monk from Gandagchilen Monastery named Rinchenpuntsag Odjugder remembered the religious significance he and his parents attached to the Naadam when he was a child. “When I was young, I always went to Gandantegchilen Monastery with my parents to pray and feed the doves there during Naadam and Lunar New Year. This is one of the cultural meanings that is close to my heart.” But he also stressed the importance for Mongolia to be a free country. “Furthermore, Naadam shows us how lucky we are to identify ourselves as an independent country. There are many countries that cannot call themselves independent countries, as we know. When I watch the opening ceremony of the Naadam, it brings me to tears, proud of history for a very short time.
The author, Dr. Antonio Graceffo PhD China-MBA, worked as an economics researcher and university professor in China, but now lives in Ulaanbaatar, writing about the Mongolian and Chinese economies. He holds a Ph.D. from the Wushu Department of Shanghai Sports University where he wrote his thesis “A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Chinese and Western Wrestling” in Chinese. He is the author of 11 books, including A Deeper Look at the Chinese Economy, The Wrestler’s Dissertation and Warrior Odyssey. He completed postdoctoral studies in economics at Shanghai University, specializing in US-China trade, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Trump-China economics. His economic reports on China are regularly published in The Foreign Policy Journal and published in Chinese at the Shanghai Institute of American Studies, a Chinese government think tank.