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Study of Mongolian epics nourishes modern arts

ZENG JIANG and HUA XIA | 2019-11-28
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Chao Gejin, a renowned Chinese scholar, was born in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. He received his Ph.D. in folklore from Beijing Normal University. Currently, he presides over the International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences and the International Society for Epic Studies. Also, he is director of the Institute of Ethnic Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and a CASS Member. He has been serving as the chief expert for the major project “Studies in China Ethnic Culture and Language” supported by the National Fund for Social Sciences since 2010. Chao is proficient in oral traditions, focusing on Mongolian epics, and his papers have been published in journals across the world. His major works include the book Oral Poetics: Formulaic Diction of Arimpil’s Jangar Singing (2000), and the field study report “Heroic Songs of the Past: Fieldnotes on the Oirat Mongolian Epic Tradition” (2004).

Great epics have circulated around the vast and desolate grasslands for hundreds of years. Chao Gejin comes from the grasslands, and the culture there has had a profound impact on his trajectory and studies. Recently, Chao sat down with a CSST reporter to look back on his experience living on the grasslands in his early years and his insights into the study of Mongolian heroic epics.
CSST: As a scholar from the grasslands, what comes to your mind when you think of grasslands and grassland culture? How has grassland culture influenced your life and academic efforts?
Chao Gejin: I grew up on the campus of Inner Mongolia University. After graduating from high school, I joined a commune in Xilin Gol League, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and started my grassland life. I developed a better knowledge of grassland culture as I lived with Mongolian closely. What first struck me about the grasslands was the desolate landscapes and the harsh life. The windy weather and sand storms of spring, the bleakness of fall and the frigidness of winter made life very difficult.  In summer there was a dense greenness everywhere, during which time the weather was comfortable, the animals were well-fed and the shepherds smiled brightly.
Livestock sometimes fell sick; anthrax is highly contagious. Veterinarians and herdsmen spent many years controlling the spread of Brucellosis. Skin diseases can mottle the fur of those seemingly beautiful camels, and make them suffer a lot. Horses, known as the Mongolian god of beauty, also need the utmost care, otherwise, they could get saddle sores or become crippled. Other types of work were not easy and occasionally dangerous, such as digging wells, cleaning sheep feces, running medicated baths and shearing wool. 
This period of experience has had a huge impact on me. I didn’t go to the countryside voluntarily, but the experience led to my current career orientation and professional choice. I think those days have shaped my character and attitude towards life so that I have a better understanding of the primary level of society. It fostered my independence and persistence. At that time, the information transmission was underdeveloped. When encounting a hard choice, you had to decide for yourself because there was no time to discuss it with family. 
The harsh environment and hard life also made me stay calm in the face of multiple difficulties and challenges. In the beginning, I was a student from an urban area, but I soon became an accountant for the production team and engaged in various forms of labor, thus becoming one of them.
The experience on the grasslands pushed me to choose folklore and folk arts as my profession.
CSST: Which part of your current study is related to grassland culture?
Chao Gejin: My research has many connections with grassland culture. For example, I have been working on Mongolian epic research in recent years, and it has a lot of intimate links with grassland culture. In addition, academic considerations and policy discussion concerning the protection of intangible cultural heritage also touches upon grassland culture, but such study needs further attention.
The experience of living on the grasslands laid the bedrock for my study. This holistic perspective is essential to knowing grassland culture. The understanding and interpretation of folk culture also requires such a comprehensive vision. The external cultural phenomena correlate with the inner spirit and they are inseparable. For example, the Mongols, in their traditional thought, should care for grasslands and vegetation such that violators will be severely punished. This is not merely survival wisdom drawn from the experience of the shepherds’ life, but the belief system behind it that everything has a soul.
CSST: Please briefly introduce the epics that are circulating on the grasslands. Can you introduce the value and significance of Mongolian epics?
Chao Gejin: Regarding the epics circulating on the grasslands, the herdsmen who have lived there for thousands of years created and passed on a considerable number of heroic epics. In terms of content, these epics fall into two main themes: marriage and campaign. Their plot structures are either single plots or compound plots. From the perspective of length, there are short, middle and long epics. These heroic epics are geographically maldistributed on the grasslands, gathering around multiple places. Senior scholars call this form of distribution the system of inheritance centers, such as the Barag-Buryat system, the Oirat system and the Khorchin system. The three major epics of Chinese ethnic minorities are now prominent. Of them, Gesar is shared by the Mongolian and Tibetan people and Jangar is a Mongolian epic. Therefore, Mongolian heroic epics occupy half of the genre.
In terms of value and significance, Mongolian epics are the crystallized poetic wisdom of the Mongolian people and an encyclopedia of Mongolian nomadic culture. They display the peak of the Mongolian oral traditions and the collective expression of the herdsmen’s artistic creativity. It is a form of large-scale oral poetics that carries the ideas, thoughts, emotions, art, values and ethics that people have formed in production and daily life for hundreds of years.
It is the call of the times to describe the courage and ideals of the Chinese nation to overcome difficulties and realize the great rejuvenation by using heroic epic language, refinement and patterns. The great spiritual temperament and artistic charm of Mongolian heroic epics will provide nutrients and experience for new artistic creations.
CSST: In your opinion, what are the research weaknesses of Mongolian epics? What areas should be future focuses?
Chao Gejin: The study of Mongolian epics is at the forefront in the field of Chinese epic research, but it has many shortcomings compared with the comprehensive study of grassland culture. As far as Mongolian epic research is concerned, there is a shortage of professionals. Also, many scholars in this field lack comprehensive training and professionalism, and they have participated little in academic exchanges with their foreign counterparts. The scholars should double down on overcoming these shortcomings. 
The study of grassland culture has made great progress in recent years such that several major works have come under the eyes of readers covering the areas of history, language, animal husbandry, folk culture and art. However, as higher standards are adopted, we need to continue our efforts to improve the current situation, such as a lack of influential works in the world and the absence of large-scale works of comprehensiveness and great thinking. We also need more works that macroscopically depict and dissect the characters of the people of the Mongolian Plateau.
Nomadic culture is an important human cultural pedigree. It is necessary to examine the nomadic culture in a panoramic view of human culture. It is a hardship to clarify the features of the Mongolian plateau culture if we fail to compare it with the nomadic cultures that appeared in Central Asia and North Africa or with cultures relying on farming, fishing and hunting. Such a comparative study will face multiple challenges. Mongols’ literacy rate has been not high for a long time. Few documents are available now. Furthermore, the records and compilation of field ethnography are underdeveloped. These factors are hindering scholars from conducting a comprehensive study in more depth.
​edited by MA YUHONG