What’s wrong with the Naadam festival in Mongolia? – The Diplomat
Every year, Mongolians from all walks of life join in an annual celebration of their sovereignty and cultural identity through a festival called Naadam. Rooted in ancient tradition, the festival is a uniquely Mongolian way of communal celebration that includes traditional wrestling, archery, horse racing and knucklebone shooting.
But this year, due to popular protests and social media activism under the hashtag #NoNaadam, the festival was canceled for the first time in over a century. The arguments for and against the holding of the festivities and the broader social discourse reveal issues deeply rooted in the heart of Mongolian society.
Although the official reason for the cancellation is the “risk of further spread of COVID”, public anger both at the cost of the celebrations and the government’s lack of pandemic preparedness was the main trigger for anti-Naadam sentiments. Despite the country’s high vaccination rate, government neglect and double standards applied in circles of power have proven fatal. In early July, Mongolia had one of the highest numbers of new coronavirus cases per capita in the world. The pro-Naadam arguments on the significance of the festival for the nation’s cultural heritage heritage fell on deaf ears, but in turn exposed two fundamental problems with the Mongolian nation-building project.
Like Mongolia’s path to independence, the role of the Naadam Festival has evolved over time. After 1911, when the nobility of Outer Mongolia maneuvered to restore their independence from the crumbling Qing Empire, a Buddhist ritual of Danshig offerings was transformed into an annual ritual. celebration of the independent status of Outer Mongolia, thus laying the foundations of the Naadam in its modern form. The Danshig Naadam, as it was called, was held in the last month of summer from 1912 to 1923; then the new communist rulers of Mongolia decided they wanted a different type of Naadam.
In 1921, Mongolia was invaded by a regiment of the Red Army which, helped by a few hundred Mongolian revolutionaries, drove Baron Ungern von Sternberg from Urga, present-day Ulaanbaatar. After installing the eighth Jebtsundamba Khutuktu (alias Bogd Khan) as head of the new constitutional monarchy, the revolutionaries held a “Naadam” on July 11. Between 1922 and 1924, July 11 was celebrated as the “military nadadam.” After the complete suppression of Danshig Naadam in 1923 and the death of Bogd Khan in 1924, the July 11 celebration became the country’s only “national” Naadam.
In Democratic Mongolia, successive governments have tried to adapt the Naadam to the new interpretation of its political reality. In 1990, the National Naadam and the Danshig Naadam were held, the latter being dedicated to the 750th anniversary of “The Secret History of the Mongols”, the fundamental chronicle of Mongolian history. In doing so, Naadam’s two winning wrestlers enjoyed title promotionsalluding to the equal status between Danshig and National Naadam.
Therefore, the official rank-granting status was retained only by the “National Naadam”, while Danshig Naadams were only held occasionally until 2015. In that year, the Danshig Nadaam was relaunched as an annual event, held in August, dedicated at the first Jembtsundamba Khutukhtu, Zanabazar. In the eyes of many who celebrate Danshig Naadam, it is the most authentic and legitimate version of Naadam, and some Mongolians would like to see it replace the July 11 festivities.
The July 11 date of the National Nadaam emphasizes the importance of the events of 1921 over that of the 1911 Revolution; the 1945 independence referendum, which ended the question of China’s recognition of Mongolian sovereignty; or the democratic revolution of 1990 and the subsequent withdrawal of Soviet troops from Mongolia. The date is even more puzzling given that the Naadams are ostensibly dedicated to the “founding of the Mongol state in 209 BC, the Great Mongol Empire in 1206, the restoration of national independence in 1911, the people’s revolution of 1921 and the democratic revolution” – but all the above events are celebrated on the anniversary of the withdrawal of the Tsarist White Army from Urga by the Red Army. Even then, in 1921, Mongolia’s declaration of independence took place on September 14, the day before Baron Ungern’s trial and execution in Novosibirsk.
Thus, competing versions and narratives of the Naadam, and the state’s failure to refashion the national holiday based on a lucid interpretation of Mongolia’s history, have contributed to lackluster commemorations of the sovereignty and cultural identity of the country. For a country that suffered greatly from Stalin’s purges and only ceased to be a Soviet satellite after its democratic revolution in 1990, neither the monarchist history of the Danshig nor the association of July 11 with the communist era are not appropriate. If the meaning of Naadam is to celebrate the independence and freedom of ordinary Mongols, a date like July 29 – commemorating the first free and fair legislative elections of 1990 – might be more appropriate and meaningful.
Naadam and the “new ethics”
Along with the question of its date, over the past decade the socially and culturally nefarious role of the Naadam has increasingly come to the fore. In particular, the continued use of child jockeys, as well as nepotism and moral corruption in wrestling tournaments, repelled spectators young and old. Moreover, the Naadam experience of ordinary Mongols versus the increasingly ostentatious performances of “Mongolia” by the new rich, has led many to call it a celebration designed for the new “nobility”.
This year, just after the government canceled Naadam, the UN office in Mongolia issued a statement urging the government to ban the use of underage jockeys. Child jockeys, who often come from disadvantaged households, are subject to educational deprivation, growth suppression and health risks. Every year a number of jockeys, some as young as five, die or be left with lifelong injuries. This is aggravated by the informal register of horse ancestorswhat many believe allowed racing to develop into a particular Mongolian tool of corruption. Since many stable owners are politicians and influential businessmen, in the minds of many Mongols, horse racing resembles a feudal-era practice, with the nobility treating both children jockeys and horses as consumables for entertainment and status symbolism. .
Tournament wrestling, in turn, lost its prestige due to extreme forms of nepotism and lack of reform, which produced taller but more predictable wrestlers. the rules that allow high-ranking wrestlers to choose their opponents allow for technical results that often fall within the framework of provincial patronage. Thanks to the Naadam, this provincialism and corruption is spreading every year and is seen as an integral and innate part of Mongolian cultural identity.
Today, many ordinary residents of Ulaanbaatar prefer to catch snippets of smaller, easily accessible rural Naadams, while using the vacation for domestic travel. Watching Naadam in the capital, on the other hand, means asking around for tickets to the opening ceremony, which are always unobtainable, or enduring the underserved scrum of horse racing in the Khui Doloon Khudag valley, where the situation on the finish line always seems to risk an imminent scramble.
The experience of stable owners, politicians and the new rich, on the other hand, is very different. In the days leading up to the Naadam, high government offices are busy with calls “awarding” the opening ceremony tickets to various connected people. At horse races, the privileged hang out in the stables of the new rich, which look more and more like aristocratic summer tents, and somehow find a way to follow the horses in luxury SUVs while increasing the risks for horses and jockeys.
In all its beauty and absurdity, the Naadam is a microcosm of the flawed Mongolian nation-building project, and the societal ills that plague it continue to spread as a structural value system rooted in identity National of Mongolia. The pandemic has dampened the government’s plans for a grand Naadam on the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Revolution, but the underlying issues that undermine the Naadam’s raison d’être and push away spectators remain. The pandemic pause is a good opportunity for Mongolians to reflect on these issues.