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The war you never heard of
Unlike the Tibetans or Muslim Uyghurs, China’s ethnic Mongol population has long been seen as a stereotypical “model minority”, due to the lack of visible instances of interethnic conflict. Earlier this month, however, Chinese Mongols, most of whom reside in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, have strongly protested in opposition to Beijing’s plans to reduce the prominence of the Mongolian language. The government plans to replace Mongolian with Mandarin as the primary medium of teaching for math, history, politics, and literature, although Mongolian language lessons will continue.
The official explanation for the shift to a bilingual education system was to improve the standards of the curriculum and textbooks. Mongols, who make up barely 18 percent of the population in Inner Mongolia, feel otherwise. Enghebatu Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, told the Los Angeles Times that “We feel that language, the last stronghold of our national identity, is about to be wiped out by the new language program. That is why Mongolians feel urgency: If we lose this, we lose everything. We cease to exist.” Christopher Atwood, a professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, also shared his opinion to the press. He explained that “Public schools teaching Mongolian acquired something like the significance for Mongols that Buddhist monasteries have for Tibetans and Islamic holidays and shrines have for Uyghurs. The new policy is seen as a threat to that education, and thereby to the very existence of Mongolian cultural identity.”
On the contrary, Beijing is rejecting all criticism from foreign press and human rights organizations. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying stated during a press conference that “These reports are political speculation with ulterior motives. The common language of a country is a symbol of its sovereignty, and it is every citizen’s right and responsibility to learn and use it.” In neighboring Mongolia, which has close economic ties with China, the move similarly caused a huge public uproar, although politicians are not likely to challenge China on the issue.
To truly understand the situation of Inner Mongolia, we would have to take a look back at history. In 1206, Genghis Khan launched a series of successful military campaigns that resulted in the formation of the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in world history. After Genghis Khan’s death, the empire was subdivided into four kingdoms or Khanates, led by his descendants. One of the khanates, consisting of the Mongol homeland and China, became known as the Yuan dynasty under Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. He set up his capital in present-day Beijing. After more than a century of power, Mongol rulers were overthrown by the Han Chinese rebels in 1368, who then established the Ming dynasty. The Mongol court fled back to their motherland. The following three centuries were marked by turmoil and deterioration in Mongolia, as intense competition for the throne among various factions ensued. Between 1368 and 1634, a total of 22 khans held the Mongolian throne. By the time of Ligden Khan’s reign in the 17th century, Mongols had ceased to function as a unified entity. The last khan, Ligden, only controlled modern-day Inner Mongolia, as the rest of the country was divided into various prince hoods who refused to acknowledge his authority. While Mongol khans were busy clashing with each other, another nomadic tribe known as Manchus were gaining strength in northeastern China. Manchus began forming an alliance with the Khorchin Mongol tribes, subjects of Ligden, through royal marriages. Feeling threatened, Ligden waged war on the Mongol allies of the Manchus but was largely defeated. While retreating westwards to rebuild his forces in 1634, Ligden died of smallpox at the age of 43.
The following year, Ligden’s son, Ejei Khan, was besieged by ten thousand Manchu cavalries in a surprise attack. Weighing his limited options, Ejei decided to surrender. It is believed that Ejei handed the imperial seal of the Yuan Dynasty to the Manchu Emperor and gave up his authority over Inner Mongolia. Left without a leader, the Inner Mongolian chieftains from a total of sixteen clans and forty-nine subclans eventually gave their allegiance to the Manchu Emperor in 1636, hence, becoming part of the Chinese Empire. After losing a large chunk of its southern territory, Mongolia also encountered another powerful enemy on its northern border. As part of its expansion to Siberia, Imperial Russia began annexing Mongol territories around Lake Baikal in the 1640s. The Buryats, a Mongol ethnic people who resided there, had fought against the well-armed Cossacks, but the Russians quickly subdued them with brute force. In 1644, the Qing Dynasty was established as soon as Manchus had completed the invasion of China. After several wars resulted in the death of more than half a million, the entire Mongolian territory was ruled by foreign powers by the end of the 1700s. Russia took over its Siberian branch, while Outer and Inner Mongolia were now part of the Qing Dynasty. To keep promoting division among Mongols, the Manchus introduced the name Outer Mongolia to distinguish northern Mongolia from Inner Mongolia.
In contrast to Outer Mongolians, who enjoyed relative autonomy, Inner Mongolians were under the direct control of the Qing Emperor, due to their geographical proximity to Beijing. Manchus banned them from traveling to Outer Mongolia or from crossing the borders of the land to which they were assigned. In the 1780s, the Qing permitted thousands of Han farmers from northern China, suffering from famine, floods, and drought, to settle in Inner Mongolia. Han Chinese farmed tens of thousands of hectares in Inner Mongolian pastureland, causing ecological disaster and ultimately putting the nomadic way of life in jeopardy. Furthermore, most of those farmers married Mongol women and integrated into society.
While Inner Mongolians slowly absorbed by the Chinese, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. By the beginning of the 20th century, dissent was growing within China. Ordinary Han Chinese felt little loyalty to the Qing rulers, presenting themselves as conquering Manchus from the north. Mass civil disorder had begun in China, and it was growing continuously. In October 1911, the right set of conditions turned an uprising in the district of Wuchang into a national revolution. In several cities, Manchu garrisons had been massacred, and regents had been forced out of office. A total of 18 provinces voted to secede from the Qing. It became clear for Mongols that the Great Qing was on the brink of collapse. In December 1911, Outer Mongolia declared independence and enthroned a Tibetan holy monk as the Bogd Khan of Mongolia. Almost all provinces of Inner Mongolia recognized the Bogd Khan as their supreme ruler. Still, some Inner Mongolian princes rejected the reunification movement, fearing the Manchus may withstand the rebellion. That was a fatal mistake, proven when the Qing Dynasty was replaced by the Republic of China in January 1912. The newly formed state promised its people a strong nation of five races, including Hans, Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, and Uyghurs. The government immediately quashed the rebellions in Inner Mongolia and forced the princes to recognize the Republic of China. The new regime also refused to acknowledge the independence of Outer Mongolia, as they were claiming all territories of the former Qing Dynasty, including Mongol dominated areas. Despite the opposition, Outer Mongolia effectively held onto its independence.
In 1913, the Bogd Khan had sent 10,000 Mongolian cavalries in an effort to unite Inner with Outer Mongolia. The khan’s army was soon joined by the Inner Mongolian cavalry, consisting of 3,500 soldiers. Together they defeated 70,000 Chinese soldiers and took control of much of Inner Mongolia. But Bogd Khan had his back against the wall when Russia refused to sell more weaponry and ammunition. In 1914, running out of bullets, the Mongol army retreated. However, the hopes of the Mongols had not diminished that quickly. In 1931, Northeastern China came under the control of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo. Despite their long-lasting distrust of one another, Inner Mongolian princes secretly gathered in a council chamber at Bailingmiao in 1933. They opted to seek assistance from Japan in their quest for independence. Prince Demchugdongrub, the newly elected leader, made considerable efforts to set up an alliance with the Japanese. After signing a mutual-assistance agreement with Manchukuo, in which Japan promised to provide military and economic aid, Prince Demchugdongrub declared the independence of Inner Mongolia in 1935. With Japanese help, by the time the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in July 1937, Inner Mongolia had built a strong army of 20,000 men in eight Cavalry Divisions. These participated in the Japanese invasion of Suiyuan province.
As fate would have it, by the end of World War II, the independence of Inner Mongolia would come into question once again. On February 4th, 1945, as the defeat of the Nazi regime was within reach, the three prominent Allied leaders convened in the town of Yalta for a week-long summit to discuss the re-establishment of the war-torn nations. During the meeting, Joseph Stalin agreed to assist in the war against Japan. One of the Soviet conditions for its participation, put forward at Yalta, was that after the war, Outer Mongolia would retain its independence. Stalin’s allies, the United States and the United Kingdom consented.
Meanwhile, Marshal Choibalsan, the leader of the Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR), was blindly believing that Stalin would help Inner Mongolia to reunite with Mongolia once the war was over. Therefore, when the Soviets announced the liberation of Inner Mongolia and Manchuria from the Japanese on August 9th, 1945, the MPR readily joined in the war against Japan. Unsurprisingly, half of the 40,000 Soviet Army units fighting the Japanese were Mongolian. Choibalsan himself publicly stated two objectives for Mongolian participation in the war on national radio: first, free Inner Mongolia from imperialism and second, to assist the Soviets. Mongolian soldiers marched with great enthusiasm to help their brothers and sisters in Inner Mongolia. Inner Mongolians, in return, welcomed them and were eager to join the MPR.
Throughout August 1945, Mongolian newspapers highlighted the reunification of Outer and Inner Mongolia, but it was not to be. Stalin understood that the Chinese, who had not participated in the Yalta conference and were not consulted about its decisions, would not be thrilled to recognize MPR’s independence. For him, Mongolian participation in the war was merely a bargaining chip with the Chinese Nationalist Government to secure independence for Outer Mongolia. China’s leader Chiang Kai-shek only gave in after Stalin promised to abandon his support for the Chinese Communist Party and the Uighur independence movement. With the signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance on August 15th of 1945, China reluctantly agreed to recognize Mongolia’s independence. It was stated that this independence would only be in-force within Outer Mongolia’s existing frontiers, and Inner Mongolia would remain a part of China. Choibalsan recalled the Mongolian army later that month with disappointment.
Indeed, there was not much to celebrate as only one-third of Mongolia was now officially independent. The Buryat Mongols, who were subjugated by Imperial Russia in the 17th century, were incorporated into the Soviet Union. Tannu Tuva, a region that historically belonged to Mongolia, had “voluntarily” joined the USSR as an autonomous republic a year earlier. In 1947, Inner Mongolia was overtaken by the Chinese Communists, even before Chiang Kai-shek lost China to Mao Zedong. The independence movement leader, Prince Demchugdongrub, was charged with treason in 1949 and was kept in a Chinese prison until he was pardoned 13 years later. The dream of a united Mongolia had died.
Furthermore, the Mongol traditional script, which has been used since the time of Genghis Khan, was gradually facing extinction. The script was banned in Buryatia since 1933 with the introduction of the Cyrillic alphabet. Tuvans, who used the Mongol script despite speaking Turkic, had also adopted the Cyrillic. Outer Mongolia itself had adopted the Cyrillic alphabet in 1941 under Soviet pressure. Oddly, Inner Mongolia was then left as the sole bearer of the Mongol written language, an honor that they upheld the highest to these very days.
Today, Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region of China, while its brother, Outer Mongolia, is an internationally recognized state. This status quo represents both achievements and frustrations from the perspective of Inner Mongolian nationalism. During the Cultural Revolution of China, at least 22,000 Mongols were killed, and Buddhism, their predominant religion, was crushed. In the last two decades, due to the poor economic conditions and lack of employment opportunities in rural areas, Mongols in China were pushed to urban areas, while Han Chinese miners moved into the grasslands to dig out the rich resources that lie underneath. What we do not hear on the news as much as we should is the fact that the new language program is pushing traditional Mongolian script towards the brink of the abyss. Currently used only in Inner Mongolia, it is the only script written vertically and left to right. The independent country of Mongolia had tried multiple times to reintroduce the traditional script, but it failed. The Buryats and Tuvans will probably never even try to readopt the Mongol script, as most of them are already abandoning their respective spoken languages in favor of Russian. It is no secret that having a different alphabet is a fundamental feature of identity for any language. If the traditional written language dies in Inner Mongolia, it would be a massive loss of identity for all the Mongols around the world.
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