Ulan Bator, Mongolia – Chinese state officials arrived here this week to mark the 65th anniversary of diplomatic ties, and the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on Friendly Relations between the two states.
The arrival of President Xi Jinping on Thursday saw the signing of accords in areas of energy, mining and infrastructure. With Mongolia’s economy experiencing a steady decline in foreign investment, the agreements are set to expand two-way trade to US$10 billion by 2020, according to published reports.
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The two countries also signed cultural accords this week, with plans to further develop collaboration in areas of palaeontology and cultural-heritage preservation. Joint efforts will take place over the next three years to train law enforcement in further efforts aimed at curbing illegal archeological digging and export.
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“Mongolia and China’s cultural relationship is very consistent and long-term,” Mongolian Culture Minister Tsedevdamba Oyungerel told Al Jazeera. “If economic, banking and railroad ties are new, then our cultural discussions are the continuation of the stable, older relationship. Our cultures, however, are very unique.”
Mongolia’s culture minister also pointed to recent restoration efforts as evidence of growing cooperation between the states, such as those in June to repair the 10th-century ruins of an ancient urban settlement, the Kherlen Bar, in Mongolia’s far-eastern Dornod province.
Yet questions of cultural heritage and national identity are especially sensitive in Mongolia, where anti-Chinese sentiment is not uncommon. Some criticism centres upon China’s continued possession of some cultural, and at times, intangible artifacts that are felt here to be indelibly Mongolian. Notably, this includes several pages of the original manuscript of The Secret History of the Mongols, a 13th-century account of the life of Chingghis Khan.
Oyungerel briefly raised the question of whether the manuscript would be returned with her Chinese counterpart at a jointly held press conference earlier this week. “These are areas where we will continue to seek cooperation,” the culture minister said.
China’s Minister of Culture Cai Wu, however, would not be drawn out on the question of whether the pages would be returned. Instead, he would only say that “China respects the traditions of Mongolia’s long history.”
Cultural history: Cooperation and contention
Similarly, China’s inscription of traditional Mongolian throat singing into the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2009 continues to rankle in Mongolia, where the performance art is considered a national treasure.
“Khoomei has been created, possessed and transmitted among Mongolian people,” China’s nomination read, citing its continued practice in China’s Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang Autonomous regions.
The decision sparked outrage in Mongolia, where local officials later submitted their own request that UNESCO recognise throat singing (this time, as ‘khöömei’) separately, under a single Mongolian inscription.
There is ever continued resentment of China regarding the arts in general.
In what turned out to be a successful bid, Mongolia noted, while the governments of China and Russia were “paying notable attention” to the development of the craft, that it was very clear about the art’s “original Mongolian authenticity”.
Mongolia-based ethnomusicologist Andrew Colwell described the contentious registration as “a rallying point for anti-Chinese sentiment” in Mongolia.
“There is ever-continued resentment of China regarding the arts in general,” he told Al Jazeera, via email. “There is a constant contest among Outer Mongolian, Inner Mongolian and also Tuvan ‘khoomeii’-ers to gain the most visibility and rally the most students, researchers and foreign organisations.”
Despite this, Mongolia’s culture minister was quick to allay fears that China has any intention to appropriate the cultural heritage of “foreign” states, instead she highlighted areas of successful collaboration.
Oyungerel pointed to the 2008 UNESCO cultural inscription of the traditional folk “long song”, or “Urtiin duu”, under the auspices of both Mongolia and China. Similarly, the two countries “would like to learn about restoration techniques and policies from one another … We have the same worries – how to preserve rare cultural heritage without destroying it.”
“This shows that the more we culturally connect with one another, the more we help the understanding between our two countries,” she explained. “The more the [Mongolian] public is educated about UNESCO policies, the less nervous they become. These give equal conditions to all countries, so that all countries have the same rights, no matter how large or small.”
“This gives us lots of room to understand each other,” Oyungerel said. “We don’t wish to encourage too much nervousness between our two countries.”
Cultures looking inward
Despite their divergent histories, both states seem to recognise that official culture-heritage efforts serve bilateral relations as well as domestic audiences, further promoting a distinctive – if populist – sense of national identity.
In Mongolia, “even those who think that they are very nationalistic, they often don’t know who to erect a ger [yurt], or how to ride horses”, Oyungerel said. “I tell the public, if you really love your culture, then bear our national heritage … If we detach ourselves from our culture and only become nationalistic, this does not help to keep Mongolia ‘Mongolian.'”
Chinese journalists and China's cultural ministry asked about how Mongolia feels about its Russian roots. We say that this is our part of our history, part of our background - and we are happy to keep it like so.
While in China’s case, some have argued that cultural-heritage preservation is presented as a distinctly unifying approach in a vast country of multiple, varying ethic groups.
“Certainly, this revolves around Chinese minority politics,” Colwell said. “The more Han Chinese revere its minorities’ arts and culture, the more these minorities ‘play’ into Han authority.”
While in Mongolia, officials have instead placed particular focus on a “renewal” of domestic cultural efforts. “We are more concentrated on who we are, what heritage we have, and what our role is in preserving that culture,” Oyungerel said. “We are more concentrated on preserving our culture than we are, arguing with outsiders.”
Mongolia, China … Russia
China’s state visit to Mongolia comes ahead of a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin in coming days, leading some to question the nature of Mongolia’s relationship with its neighbouring states.
“With the core Chinese culture we have a different background,” Oyungerel explained. “Although a lot of Inner Mongolian culture is a lot like Mongolian culture.
“We also have the same, if different, cultural relationship with Russia. With Russia, we have much more of a professional Russian school background in our professional arts – painting, opera and ballet.
“Chinese journalists and China’s cultural ministry asked about how Mongolia feels about its Russian roots. We say that this is our part of our history, part of our background – and we are happy to keep it like so,” she said.
Mongolia remains aloft “in the middle”, Oyungerel added. “Mongolians have a lot of broad cultures to draw from, from both our neighbours. Our peoples understand each other more easily as a result.”
In years to come, Oyungerel said she hopes that joint cultural-heritage efforts “will help us to reconnect with our past, and our future, in a more humane way, rather than with aggression”.
“Both China and Russia are our neighbours, and in that respect, our futures are tied,” she said.