Mongolians Fight to Preserve a Key Part of Cultural Heritage

After China directed Inner Mongolian schools to teach in Mandarin, Mongolia redoubled efforts to revive the national script.

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Mongolians Fight to Preserve a Key Part of Cultural Heritage

Dolgormaa Sandagdorj, GPJ Mongolia

Khulan Tsolmon, 14, an eighth grade student at the Titem school, writes “My Mongolia” in the Mongolian national script.

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MURUN, KHUVSGUL PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Together with her students, Uyanga Damdin recites the words slowly, syllable by syllable: father, mother, great-grandparent, great-great-grandparent.

By drawing “family trees,” with branches representing various relatives, Uyanga and her eighth grade students are learning an unfamiliar language: the Mongolian national script.

As the traditional written language of the Mongolian people, the Mongolian script has existed for more than 800 years, going back to the time of Chinggis Khaan, founder of the Mongol empire. UNESCO has designated it part of Mongolia’s intangible cultural heritage. Yet most Mongolians do not use the script in their day-to-day lives, leaving it at risk of dying out.

But a conflict between the Chinese government and ethnic Mongolians in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of northern China, has brought renewed attention to the script, and revived efforts to save it.

“This is our pride,” says Uyanga, 54, who is learning Mongolian script for the first time herself. “The root of existence for the Mongolian nation is the Mongolian script. I think everyone should be required to learn it.”

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Dolgormaa Sandagdorj, GPJ Mongolia

In her lesson, Uyanga Damdin, a foreign language teacher, instructs her students to create family trees as a way to learn the Mongolian national script.

The controversy began last fall, when the Chinese government instructed schools in Inner Mongolia to teach lessons in Mandarin rather than Mongolian. The Chinese government framed the policy as an attempt to assimilate and unify China’s ethnic minorities, says Battogtokh Baatar, a doctoral candidate and teacher at the School of International Relations and Public Administration at the National University of Mongolia.

Critics have accused the Chinese government of persecuting ethnic minorities and attempting to destroy the autonomous region’s cultural heritage.

Students and parents in Inner Mongolia protested the new policy, according to news reports and images from the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center. But China’s foreign ministry has dismissed the reports of dissent as “political speculation with ulterior motives” and defended the government’s decision to require schools to teach in Mandarin.

“The national common spoken and written language is a symbol of national sovereignty,” Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said at a press conference in September. “It is every citizen’s right and duty to learn and use the national common spoken and written language.”

The controversy has struck a chord in neighboring Mongolia. Thousands of people, including prominent journalists, authors and scholars, have joined the “Save the Mongolian Language” movement, which has lobbied the Chinese government to drop its new policy.

“The Mongolian script represents over 800 years of history and culture for all Mongol nations,” says Zolzaya Nyamdorj, the leader of the group.

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Dolgormaa Sandagdorj, GPJ Mongolia

Uyanga Damdin teaches students in her classroom.

In September, at the beginning of the new school year, Mongolian President Battulga Khaltmaa met with students to discuss the Mongolian script and broadcast a television program in which a student recited a poem by an Inner Mongolian poet about the script – actions widely viewed as implicit criticism of China’s new policy.

The president also has led a series of televised language lessons since December designed to teach Mongolians to use the national script.

“One of the main functions of the president is to support and develop the national language and culture,” he said in one of the televised lectures, emphasizing that the Mongolian script is a symbol of the country’s independence.

Whereas Inner Mongolians have learned and used the Mongolian script throughout history, Mongolia officially adopted the Cyrillic alphabet in 1946. Efforts to revive the national script began in the 1990s, after Mongolia transitioned to a democratic system. Students learn the Mongolian script from sixth grade through 12th grade, but many forget the language later on, as it’s not widely used.

“We have forgotten our national script and do not know it in real life,” says Tuvshinsukh Batchuluun, social science training manager at the Titem school, where Uyanga teaches.

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Dolgormaa Sandagdorj, GPJ Mongolia

A design featuring Mongolian calligraphy is ironed onto fabric at the Titem school, which teaches the national script.

The Titem school has become a stronghold of the national script. In October, more than 100 employees began taking classes in the language online – encouraged by a national policy that urges organizations and communities to learn it.

Now, 90% of them can read the script, 80% can copy it accurately, and more than half can write in the script on their mobile phones with the help of an online dictionary, says Oyuntungalag Oyunchimeg, a specialist in Mongolian language education at the Department of Education, Culture and Art in Khuvsgul province.

Eventually, the department hopes to have 150 Mongolian script teachers give language lessons to the nearly 7,000 civil servants in Khuvsgul province, she says. From there, department leaders hope to see language programs expand across the country.

The Mongolian government plans to have governmental organizations conduct official business in both the Cyrillic and Mongolian scripts by 2025.

“Adults also want their children to learn the Mongolian script,” says Oyuntungalag. “The movement of Inner Mongolians has given a sign for Mongolians to wake up.”

Myagmarsuren Battur, GPJ, contributed reporting for this article.

Dolgormaa Sandagdorj is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mongolia.

Translation Note

Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, GPJ, translated this article from Mongolian.

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