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Useful Notes: Mongolia

"We're the exception!"

A landlocked country sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia is sparsely populated, with fewer than 3 million inhabitants spread over a territory more than twice the size of Texas. It is home to a peaceful people, and hasn't caught the world's attention for good or ill in the past half-millennium. And yet, Mongolia was once the center of an empire that ruled the Old World from the Danube to the Pacific Ocean.

Because of its location in the great Eurasian steppeland, Mongolia has been inhabited by horse-riding nomads since prehistoric times. These nomads, usually divided in rival tribes, were sometimes unified under a strong visionary ruler, and at such times engaged in wars of conquest against the Chinese, their sedentary neighbors to the South. It was in order to protect themselves from such invasions that the Chinese built the Great Wall.

The various empires that arose in Mongolia include the Xiongnu Confederation (a little-understood nomadic people that have long been associated with the European Huns, though recent analysis casts doubt on the connection), the Xianbei Empire, the Rouran Khaganate and the Liao Dynasty. At the end of the 12th century, as the tribes had once again fallen into disunion, a ruthless and ambitious chieftain named Temujin imposed his rule, organized the Mongols into a brutally efficient war machine, and proclaimed himself Genghis Khan. He then embarked on a series of conquests that his sons and grandsons would continue, until most of the Eurasian landmass was under their domination.

The Mongol Empire fell apart, bit by bit, over the following century and, though the Mongol tribes would be unified again on later occasions, they never again managed to conquer so much territory. In the 17th century, the Mongols, who by then had largely adopted Tibetan Buddhism, became the vassals of the Qing Dynasty.

They regained their independence in 1921 as China was in the throes of the Warlord Era, but in short order they fell under the suzerainty of the Soviet Union. For better or worse, the move was a total necessity: even as late as the 1950s, after the Chinese Civil War, maps belonging to the Nationalist Chinese Government identified Mongolia as part of the Republic of China on the basis of being the successor to the Chinese Empire. Between Chinese anxiousness to reincorporate Mongolia and Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the geographically huge but demographically small Mongolian People's Republic owed its continued independence to its role as a Soviet-endorsed buffer between the USSR and China. Mongolian politics and national defense was largely shaped on the basis of counting on this role while stuck between two of the largest countries in the world. During this period, the Mongols were led first by Damdin Sukhbaatar, for whom the capital (Ulanbaatar - "Red Hero") is named. Sukbaatar is generally considered to be the Father of modern Mongolia. Unfortunately, he died of overwork in 1923 (though popular narratives suggest he was poisoned). The other important leader of Mongolia during this period was Khorloogiin Choibalsan, whose nickname "the Stalin of the Mongolia" should tell you everything you need to know about him.

In the 1950s, a small minority of Mongolian leaders, including the leader of the time, Yumzhagin Tsebenbal, pursued the incorporation of Mongolia into the Soviet Union, but this was shot down by the rest of the ruling party and the USSR itself. The arrangement did ensure no further military action taken against Mongolia, even during the Sino-Soviet split.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia became a democracy, but it has found the transition from decades of collectivized economy difficult. These days, it is somewhat famous for its velociraptors (of the fossilized variety of course).

Sometimes one will encounter references to Inner Mongolia and/or Outer Mongolia. "Inner Mongolia" refers to that portion of the traditional Mongolian homelands which is now a province of China. "Outer Mongolia" is what is now the independent nation of Mongolia.

The dishes commonly known as "Mongolian barbecue" and "Mongolian beef" have no connection to Mongolia, and actually come from Taiwan and Chinese Americans, respectively.note 


Works set in Mongolia:

Film
  • The Cave of the Yellow Dog is about a young girl who adopts a stray dog against her father's wishes.
  • The Conqueror is a 1956 Genghis Khan biopic, most famous as a member of the What The Hell, Casting Agency? Hall of Fame. John Wayne played the lead role of Genghis Khan. Yes. John Wayne.
    • It's long suspected of being the film that killed him, due to filming on former nuclear testing areas. Of course, the fact that he was a chain smoker for decades might have played a role as well.
  • Genghis Khan is a 1965 biopic of guess who. It's severely flawed but at least has Omar Sharif giving a much, much better performance than Wayne did.
  • Khadak is a 2006 Belgian film set in Mongolia with an all-Mongolian cast, about a nomadic family which is forced to leave the steppe behind and go work in a coal mine.
  • Mongol is a Russian biopic by Sergei Bodrov about Genghis Khan.
  • My Beautiful Jinjiimaa is a Tearjerker film about a young deaf-mute woman living as a nomad on the steppe.
  • The Story of the Weeping Camel is about a shepherd family trying to save the life of a rare white camel.
  • Urga is a 1991 film about a Mongolian shepherd who befriends a stranded Russian truck driver.
  • Storm Over Asia is a 1928 Soviet propaganda film about a Mongol herder who leads the people of the steppe in revolt against their British Evil Colonialist oppressors.
  • The Way Back, directed by Peter Weir, is about a group of escapees from Stalin's gulag who flee into Mongolia, then have to cross the Gobi Desert on their way to China. It doesn't go well.

Literature

Professional Wrestling
  • Masashi Ozawa, who is actually Japanese, was billed from Mongolia as Killer Khan.

Video Games

The Mongolian flag
The central blue band symbolizes Tengri, chief god of the Turkic pantheon and ruler of the sky, while the red side stripes symbolize the people's ability to thrive in the harsh steppes. At the center of the left stripe is a special character of the Soyombo script; the lower half shows the ever-familiar Yin-Yang symbol, symbolizing the mutuality of opposites, flanked vertically by a pair of rectangles, symbolizing honesty and justice on all levels of society, which are in turn accompanied by downward triangles, signifying vigilance against enemies from within and without, and flanked on both sides by the pillars of The Power of Friendship; the upper half shows the Sun and the Moon, symbolizing Mongolia's wish to exist forever under the skies, and topping the entire symbol is the flame of wealth.
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