Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia | East Asia

Why the World Should Care About Language in Inner Mongolia

At stake is an 800-year-old script with a multicultural lineage emanating from the golden era of the Silk Route.

By Sonam Ongmo and Saglar Bougdaeva for
Why the World Should Care About Language in Inner Mongolia

Genghis Khan as depicted in a 15th century manuscript.

Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France

On August 26 China passed a law to sideline teaching in the Mongolian language in the region of Inner Mongolia (also referred to as Southern Mongolia). This measure, which sparked immediate protests, will create irreparable losses not just for ethnic Mongolians, but also for many cultures around the world.

What is at stake here is not just the spoken language, but an 800-year-old script with a multicultural lineage that emanated from the golden era of the Silk Route.

Mongolian, as a language, is still widely spoken in independent Mongolia, but the “Mongolian script” was largely lost after the Russians introduced Cyrillic in the 1940s, when Stalin sought to control the country as a buffer against China. This makes the Inner Mongolians, who are currently under Chinese rule, the last custodians of the script. For academics, historians, linguists, and cultural aficionados, the Mongolian script holds the key to historical links between cultures that were forged during the Silk Route era and earlier. Understanding this connection might help people realize that this is not Mongolia’s fight alone.

For decades, China’s ongoing efforts to assimilate its minorities had it cracking down harshly on the religions, and languages of Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Mongolians. These are all largely nomadic cultures that were propagators of multicultural exchanges at the height of the Silk Route era.

Like the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, who have been struggling against Chinese hegemony, Mongolians have been protesting since August, but punitive measures taken by the Chinese government leave Mongolians with little choice but to concede.

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“This is the final blow to our culture,” said Enghebatu Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.  “The world should know that it is not simply a language issue. This strikes at the very heart and existence of our national identity. If we lose our language we lose everything. We’ve already lost political autonomy, our nomadic way of life, and our environment. This is cultural genocide.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, in the independent state of the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR), a democratic revolution in 1990 pushed for a switch from Russian Cyrillic to the old Mongolian script. That idea, however, received little interest and gained no traction. Parents saw it as a hindrance to their children’s future prospects at the time. But the recent protests in the Inner Mongolian region have made Mongolians in the MPR realize what they failed to in 1990. The significance and threat to their cultural, intellectual, and literary heritage is now being viewed through a new lens.

“Public opinion in MPR has changed drastically since China’s crackdown on Inner Mongolia,” said Otgonsuren Jargaliin, an outer Mongolian teacher, linguist, and environmental activist. “Mongolians now see the urgent need to preserve and protect this ancient script and not take it for granted. They now appreciate that 80 years of Cyrillic is not on par with 800 years of a writing that is our lineage and ancestry.”

She pointed out that as recently as last week MPR National Television was now carrying subtitles not only in Cyrillic, but also in the old Mongolian script, which was a new development.

The Mongolian Script

The story of the Mongolian script starts with Genghis Khan. In 1204 he appointed the Uyghur scholar Tatatunga to develop a unifying script after he established his empire. The new Mongolian script was adapted from an old Uyghur script.

The Uyghurs today are Turkic-speaking Muslims, descended from the Uyghur Khaganate, a nomadic kingdom in Mongolia, which was predominantly Manichaean and then later Buddhist. It lasted from 744 to 840 CE. It was while they were Manicheans that the Uyghurs adopted their script from the Sogdians. By the 16 century, however, the Uyghurs had transitioned to the Arabic script and were no longer using their own.

The Sogdians, meanwhile, were the remnant traders of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire, who capitalized on economic opportunities along the Silk Route from the fourth to ninth centuries. Like many Silk Route traders, they exported not just material goods but fashion, culture, religion, arts, and language. Their script had its roots in Aramaic.

The Uyghurs replaced the Sogdians as custodians of the script from the eighth to the beginning of the 13th century, when Genghis Khan introduced it to his new empire, the largest contiguous one the world had ever seen. As the lingua franca of the Mongolian Empire, the script was used widely connecting east with west, the Pacific to the Mediterranean.

The history of the script, therefore, offers a well documented evolution of a writing that originated from the ancient Mesopotamian civilization, and traveled across time and cultures through the Silk Route. The script’s history tells us how people from vast geographical backgrounds were connected, often not out of choice, but nevertheless linked through trade and travel. It shows us how our ancestries and heritages are all interlinked and interconnected.

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The indigenous nomadic tribes from different cultures, along with traders from different regions and countries, brought a broader understanding of a socio-cultural world through their free movement along the Silk Route. Unlike China’s nationalistic ideology, they were not confined to a specific religion, nationality, ethnicity, language, or geographical boundary. This was what promoted cultural connectivity and created an era of great cultural exchange.

Today China is trying to recreate its idea of a Silk Route through its “One Belt, One Road” foreign policy and economic strategy, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative. But what China fails to recognize is that the success of the original Silk Route was due to its recognition and acceptance of the many cultures it spanned and encountered. Cultural legacies were embraced and valued rather than wiped out along the way in the name of uniformity. The Belt and Road Initiative can’t replicate the success of the Silk Route if it persecutes the very people and cultures, like the Mongolians, that made the original routes last for centuries.

The irony is that, in trying to recreate the Silk Road through its nationalistic lens, China may once again end up with something that is just another “Made in China” imitation.

Saglar Bougdaeva is a Kalmyk Mongolian. She has a Ph.D. in sociology from Yale, has an undergraduate degree in Mongolian-Tibetan-Mandarin linguistic studies from St. Petersburg University in Russia. She currently teaches at City University of New York. 

Sonam Ongmo is a Bhutanese journalist. Follow in Twitter @SonamWongmo