Mongolian Folk Songs - Gradually Dying Away?

Yaru can sing popular songs in Chinese to great effect but her real preference is for traditional Mongolian folk songs that she sings to guests in a big restaurant in downtown Hohhot.

"I'm proud to sing Mongolian songs," says Yaru. "And it's much better singing them in the original than in a version translated into Mandarin Chinese."

The 27-year-old, an ethnic Mongolian who grew up on the grasslands in northeastern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, has been working for three years at the Caoyuancheng restaurant where servers dress in traditional Mongolian costume and customers eat in compartments shaped like Mongolian yurts.

As rapid economic development transforms the vast, resource-rich autonomous region, hundreds of thousands of people over the past decade have done what Yaru did and move to towns or cities from pasturing and farming areas in pursuit of a better life.

But they are also increasingly aware of the efforts needed to ensure the survival of their language and culture in a modern world where the lifestyle is vastly different from centuries-old nomadism.

China has about 5.8 million ethnic Mongolians, 4.2 million of whom live in Inner Mongolia which has a total population of 24 million. The rest mainly live in northeastern Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, and northwestern Gansu and Xinjiang provinces or region.

In traditional yurts -- now very rare -- and in Mongolian family houses, portraits of Genghis Khan -- the man who united Mongolian tribes eight centuries ago and ruled an empire that stretched from Southeast Asia to Central Europe -- are commonplace.

Ethnic Mongolians in the region regard him as a hero.

Every year, thousands of Mongolians from all over China and from Mongolia attend grand sacrificial rituals at the Genghis Khan Mausoleum, located in Erdos City, some 200 kilometers southwest of Hohhot, the regional capital.

The mausoleum, rebuilt in 1956, contains sacrificial tablets. It has become a gathering place for Mongolians to offer sacrifice to the spirit of Genghis Khan.

"I have not attended such rituals yet, but I will some day,"

said Yaru, for whom Genghis Khan is a brave, wise man.

The sacrificial rituals, with a history dating back 780 years, are now presided over by the descendants of the Mongolian tribe of Dalhut, who were once Genghis Khan's garrison army.

Nowadays, more Mongolians in the region prefer to give their children Mongolian names, rather than use three-character names standard among Han Chinese. Some Mongolians have even started to reconstruct their family trees.

"Offering sacrifice to ancestors, giving children Mongolian names and building family trees, all these phenomena indicate that ethnic Mongolians are keen to protect and pass on their cultural legacy to the generations to come," said Bao Siqin, director of the Literature Studies Institute of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Regional Academy of Social Sciences.

According to Bao, also an ethnic Mongolian, his current surname Bao is a simplified form of his original Mongolian surname Borzhijin while Siqin means "clever" in Mongolian.

More Mongolians have begun to send their children to schools with classes taught in Mongolian to ensure they do not forget their language.

"The number of classes taught in Mongolian in our school has risen to 12 from seven in 2001," said Dalai Duren, headmaster of Xing'anlu Ethnic Primary School in Hohhot. "The school has seen anannual increase of nearly 100 students studying Mongolian."

The school has now 1,200 students, and 98 percent of them are ethnic Mongolians. Each of them enjoys a monthly living subsidy of 30 yuan (3.8 U.S. dollars) from local governments. China encourages schools in autonomous regions to have classes taught both in the language of the ethnic minority groups and in Mandarin Chinese.

Preferential policies in schooling for students of ethnic minorities are also an attraction, according to Dalai Duren. The school has seen more mixed-blood children -- one parent a Han and one a Mongolian -- enroll and study in Mongolian.

Namula, the school's doorman, said his eight-year-old grandson studies in Second Grade classes taught in Mongolian. "I want him to master both Mongolian and Chinese," he said.


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