Every year, Mongolians of all walks of life join an annual celebration of their sovereignty and cultural identity through a festival called Naadam. Rooted in ancient tradition, the festival is a particularly Mongolian way of communal celebration that features traditional wrestling, archery, horse racing, and knuckle-bone shooting.
But this year, due to popular protests and social media activism under the hashtag #NoNaadam, the festival has been canceled for the first time in over a century. The arguments for and against the holding of the festivities and the wider social discourse reveal issues deep at the heart of Mongolian society.
Though the official reason for the cancellation was the “risk of further spread of COVID,” the public anger at both the cost of the celebrations and the pandemic unpreparedness of the government served as the main trigger for the anti-Naadam sentiments. Despite the country’s high rate of vaccination, government negligence and double standards applied to the circles of power have proven fatal. By early July, Mongolia had one of the largest numbers of new coronavirus cases per capita in the world. The pro-Naadam arguments about the festival’s importance to the nation’s cultural heritage fell on deaf ears, but have in turn unearthed two fundamental issues of Mongolia’s nation-building project.
Like Mongolia’s own path to independence, the Naadam festival’s role has evolved with the times. After 1911, when Outer Mongolia’s nobility maneuvered to restore its independence from the crumbling Qing Empire, a Buddhist ritual of Danshig offerings was transformed into an annual celebration of Outer Mongolia’s independent status, thus laying the foundation for Naadam in its modern form. The Danshig Naadam, as it was called, was held in the last month of summer from 1912 until 1923; then the new communist rulers of Mongolia decided they wanted another type of Naadam.
In 1921, Mongolia was invaded by a Red Army regiment, which, assisted by a few hundred of Mongolia’s own revolutionaries, chased Baron Ungern von Sternberg out of Urga, modern-day Ulaanbaatar. After installing the eighth Jebtsundamba Khutuktu (aka Bogd Khan) as the head of the new constitutional monarchy, the revolutionaries held a “Naadam” on July 11. Between 1922 and 1924, July 11 was celebrated as the “Military Naadam.” After the complete removal of the Danshig Naadam in 1923 and the death of Bogd Khan in 1924, the July 11 celebration became the only “National” Naadam in the country.
In democratic Mongolia, successive governments have tried to adapt Naadam to the new interpretation of its political reality. In 1990, both the National Naadam and the Danshig Naadam were held, the latter being dedicated to the 750th anniversary of “The Secret History of Mongols,” the foundational chronicle of Mongolian history. In doing so, both Naadam’s winning wrestlers enjoyed title promotions, hinting at the equal status between the Danshig and National Naadams.
Consequently, the official rank bestowing status was retained by the “National Naadam” only, while the Danshig Naadams were held only occasionally until 2015. That year, the Danshig Nadaam was revived into an annual event, held in August, dedicated to the to the first Jembtsundamba Khutukhtu, Zanabazar. In the eyes of many who celebrate the Danshig Naadam, it is the more genuine and more legitimate version of Naadam, and some Mongolians would like to see it replace the July 11 festivities in significance.
The July 11 date of the National Nadaam emphasizes the 1921 events’ importance above those of the 1911 Revolution; the 1945 independence referendum, which put an end to the question of China’s recognition of Mongolia’s sovereignty; or the 1990 democratic revolution and the subsequent withdrawal of Soviet troops from Mongolia. The date is even more perplexing given that the Naadams are ostensibly dedicated to the “foundation of Mongolian statehood in 209 BC, Great Mongol Empire in 1206, Restoration of National independence in 1911, People’s Revolution of 1921 and the Democratic Revolution” – but all the aforementioned events are celebrated on the anniversary of the removal of Tsarist White army from Urga by the Red Army. Even then, in 1921 Mongolia’s declaration of independence happened on September 14, a day before Baron Ungern’s trial and execution in Novosibirsk.
Thus, the competing versions and narratives of Naadam, and the inability of the state to refashion the national holiday based on a clear-sighted interpretation of Mongolia’s history, have contributed to half-hearted commemorations of the country’s sovereignty and cultural identity. For a country that has suffered immensely under Stalinist purges and stopped being a Soviet satellite only after its democratic revolution in 1990, neither the Danshig’s monarchist history nor July 11’s association with the communist era is appropriate. If the meaning of Naadam is to celebrate the independence and freedom of ordinary Mongolians, a date such as July 29 – commemorating the first free and fair legislative elections of 1990 – might be more fitting and meaningful.
Naadam and the “New Ethics”
Alongside the question of its date, in the last decade Naadam’s socially and culturally harmful role has increasingly come to the fore. In particular, the continued use of child jockeys, alongside nepotism and moral corruption in the wrestling tournaments, have pushed away young and elderly spectators alike. Additionally, the Naadam experience of ordinary Mongolians versus the increasingly ostentatious performances of “Mongolian-ness” by the nouveau riche, have led to many call it a celebration designed for the new “nobility.”
This year, right after the government’s cancellation of Naadam, the U.N. office in Mongolia issued a statement urging the government to ban the use of underage jockeys. The child jockeys, who often come from disadvantaged households, are subject to education deprivation, growth suppression, and health risks. Every year a number of jockeys, some as young as five, die or end up with lifelong injuries. This is compounded by the informal horse ancestry registry, which many believe allowed the races to develop into a peculiar Mongolian tool of corruption. Given many stable owners are influential politicians and businessmen, in the minds of many Mongolians, the horses races resemble a practice out of the feudal era, with the nobility treating both the child jockeys and the horses as expendables for the sake of entertainment and status symbolism.
The wrestling tournament, in turn, has been losing its prestige due to extreme forms of nepotism and the lack of reform, which have produced bigger but more predictable wrestlers. The rules that let higher-ranked wrestlers choose their opponents enable engineered results that often fall along the lines of province-based favoritism. Through Naadam, such provincialism and corruption is propagated annually and is perceived to be an integral and innate part of the Mongolian cultural identity.
Today, many ordinary residents of Ulaanbaatar prefer to catch snippets of smaller and easily accessible rural Naadams, while using the holidays for domestic travel. Watching Naadam in the capital, on the other hand, means asking around for the opening ceremony tickets, which are always impossible to find, or enduring the underserviced melee of horse races at the Khui Doloon Khudag Valley, where the situation on the finish line seems always to risk an imminent stampede.
The experience of stable owners, politicians, and the nouveau riche, by contrast, is vastly different. In the days before the Naadam, high government offices are busy with calls “allocating” the opening ceremony tickets to various connected people. At the horse races, the privileged hang out in the stables of the nouveau riche, which increasingly resemble aristocratic summer tents, and somehow find a way to follow the horses in luxury SUVs while increasing the risks to the horses and jockeys.
In all its beauty and absurdity, Naadam is a microcosm of Mongolia’s flawed nation-building project, and the societal ills that pervade it are continuing to be propagated as a structural value system ingrained in Mongolia’s national identity. The pandemic put the brakes on the government’s plans for a grandiose Naadam on the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Revolution, but the underlying issues that undermine Naadam’s reason for being and push away spectators remain. The pandemic pause is a good opportunity for Mongolians to reflect on these issues.