Magazine article Geographical

Little Mongolia: Transplanted 2,000 Kilometres from Their Native Land Three Quarters of a Millennium Ago, the Mongolians of Xinmen Village in China's Yunnan Province Have Held on Tightly to Their Ancient Heritage. but as China's Economic Boom Brings Modernity to This Remote Rural Settlement, Their Grip Is Beginning to Loosen

Magazine article Geographical

Little Mongolia: Transplanted 2,000 Kilometres from Their Native Land Three Quarters of a Millennium Ago, the Mongolians of Xinmen Village in China's Yunnan Province Have Held on Tightly to Their Ancient Heritage. but as China's Economic Boom Brings Modernity to This Remote Rural Settlement, Their Grip Is Beginning to Loosen

Article excerpt

As the minibus hurtles towards the village of Xinmen across the flat, arable lowlands some 130 kilometres south of Kunming in China's Yunnan province, I can see little out of the ordinary, just row after row of neat farming enclaves.

The only clue to the village's unusual past comes at its entrance, where a statue of a white horse built in 2003 commemorates in both Chinese and Mongolian the 750th anniversary since Kublai Khan, Genghis's grandson, rocked through this settlement en route to firm up support in the distant parts of his Asian empire. Kublai left behind a garrison in the village, and to this day, it remains ethnically Mongolian.

The Mongolians came from the grasslands to the north during the 13th century. In the beginning, they had no idea how to farm, so they fished in nearby Qilu lake, but as the lake reduced in size, they learnt how to till the land.

The adaptation of this proud race, separated by more than 2,000 kilometres from their origins, is remarkable. The nomadic traditions of the Mongolians have disappeared, agriculture has been embraced and, accommodation-wise, yurts were dispensed with years ago. Likewise, long gone are the traditional long coats seen throughout the Mongolian Steppe, as these are hardly ideal for the muddy paddy fields and the temperature climate.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the distinction between Mongolian and Chinese in this settlement of 7,000 has become increasingly blurred, thanks to intermarriage and changes in education. Although severely persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, the Mongolians have become very close to their Han Chinese neighbours.

Nowadays, young people in the village typically call themselves Chinese; something that horrifies many of the village's elders, such as frail, wizened octogenarian Yang Guifeng, who looks after a temple that deifies the Khans--Genghis, Monkhe and Kublai. 'I am Mongolian, not Chinese'she says adamantly in Mongolian; like many of the village's over-50-year-old inhabitants, she doesn't speak a lick of Mandarin. 'Genghis, Kublai and Monkhe are still the greatest leaders and gods in all Chinese history;

Yet Kublai himself is contested by both Chinese and Mongols as a national hero--both countries firmly believing he is their own. It was Kublai, after all, who inherited the largest empire in the world and went on to double it, to the point where he controlled one fifth of the world's inhabited land area, including China. In 1271, he became the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, the name still used for the Chinese currency, and he was responsible for creating the capital, Beijing.

The Mongols' era of primacy in Yunnan was to be brief. In 1381, the Yuan Dynasty came to an end, and Emperor Hong Wu invaded the province with an enormous army of Han soldiers, decimating the Mongolian military strongholds. The remaining Mongols congregated around present-day Xinmen, which is actually an agglomeration of five connected villages.

Mongolian hasn't been taught at school in Xinmen since 1995, although parents continue to educate their children about the language and history of their forebears in the evenings at home. Back in 1980, five beautiful girls were selected from the village to learn Mongolian culture and language in the country's capital, Ulan Bator, for five years. They now teach in the village.

'I am worried about our community's education; says an elderly woman, clad in bright garb, between delicate mouthfuls of fish and rice. 'The young know less and less about our history and culture. I desperately do not want us to become simply a part of Han culture, so I try to teach at home as much as possible"

Every three years, the traditional Nadam Mongolian sporting tournament is held. The whole village eats and celebrates together, women and men dancing dressed in crab and shrimp outfits, giving thanks for the harvest. …

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