Cultural Objects and Tradition in Post-Socialist Mongolia

Pacific Prospective features the research of graduate students.

Memo #233

By Matthew King – king.w.matthew [at] gmail.com

Since the end of Mongolia’s socialist period (1921-1990) the country has been experiencing a “cultural revival”. Post-socialist nationalism permeates private and public life, and deeply colours the way “traditional” culture is imagined. Once religious prohibitions were lifted in the early 1990s, newly constructed Buddhist temples and their monastic populations emerged as sources of authority. Lams (monks) performed rituals to protect Mongolians and the Mongolian state from the uncertainties of the new democratic and capitalist era as much as provide spiritual benefits.

In recent years, there has been a turn to cultural theme parks centred around mammoth statues of the icons of cultural revival, such as the 40m tall Tsonjin Boldog, a multi-million dollar statue complex of Genghis Khan completed in 2008. Once opened, guests can dine in gourmet restaurants (with contemporary takes on nomadic fare, such as horse lung soup) or browse through an archaeological museum in the statue itself before retiring to surrounding yurt camps. A newer, even grander project focuses on the Buddha Maitreya (the future Buddha of our age). A 108m-high pagoda and a 54m-high statue will, by their completion in 2020, act as centerpieces to what the builders promote as “a complex of religion, culture, and tourism higher than the Statue of Liberty” some 60 kms south of the capital, Ulan bator.

In the early years of the post-socialist period, newly built temples and monasteries organized Mongolian society according to clear boundaries between monastics and laity. By contrast, more recent developments in the Mongolian cultural revival have largely dissolved such boundaries. This, it seems, is part and parcel of a more mature capitalism, where access to the potent (and more thoroughly commodified) symbols of traditional Mongolian culture have been opened to any ticket buyer. The use of such sites is advertised using very recent ideas of recreation and spiritual renewal.

In Mongolia today there is wide public distrust of foreign exploitation and weariness of the gross social inequalities that have attended Mongolia’s spectacular entrance onto the open market. How the cultural revival evolves as part of these new turns in what is still a young post-socialist history is still an unfolding story.

Matthew King is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Toronto.

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Genghis Khan as theme park at the Tsonjin Boldog.

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