Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Naadam Festival

We declare the 2016 Naadam Festival open!” boomed the loudspeakers. And with that, the fireworks went off, leaving a trail of magenta, teal blue, yellow, and green smoke in their wake. The performances and sporting competitions were set to begin. This announcement kicked off one of the many 2016 Naadam Festivals that will take place across Inner Mongolia this summer. Most of the festivals occur in July and August, but some participants compete in June and even during the winter months. There isn’t one single Naadam Festival, but rather many at all different levels: village, banner, and league. While Naadam is a national holiday in Mongolia, it is also recognized in China.

The word “Naadam” means “three games of men.” The “three games” refer to horse racing, wrestling, and archery. In past competitions, only men were permitted to compete, but today women are allowed to participate in horse racing and archery. Contemporary wrestlers are still male, however. The Naadam Festival has existed for centuries, with its likely origin being sporting competitions that followed weddings and religious events. It is also possible that it has existed since 1220 just after Genghis Khan, who held the festival for the first time, conquered the Khwarezmian Empire, located in modern-day Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Qing Dynasty administrative divisions also hosted the festival in China. Today, thousands of people from all over Inner Mongolia gather at various Naadam Festivals to watch the games as a form of entertainment.

The legacy of Genghis Khan was certainly present during the festival that I attended this summer. During the opening ceremonies, men on horseback in colorful robes of bright blue carried long spears with three curved points, very reminiscent of a trident. “That’s Genghis Khan’s traditional weapon,” Saikhan, my travel companion, told me. He went on to say that it is the “spirit of the Mongolian people.” While driving throughout the grasslands and small towns of the middle of Inner Mongolia, I saw reproductions of the spear everywhere, lending credence to what Saikhan said.

During the time of Genghis Khan, wrestlers were considered heroes and often married the daughters of noblemen. No marriages took place during this festival, but I still had the opportunity to observe the distinction set aside for modern-day “heroes”: colored wreaths that demonstrate how many competitions the wrestler has won. We gathered on the grass in the middle of track in a circle around the competitors. A number of matches occurred simultaneously, and referees stood by each pair of wrestlers to call each one. A wrestler lost when any body part other than the hands or the feet touched the ground. A good strategy, I observed, is to attempt to trip one’s opponent, as that makes for an easy victory.

Immediately to the left of the wrestling competition, the archers set up their targets. Naadam as it was celebrated during the time of Genghis Khan tended to focus primarily on archery. Each archer, in bright blue and purple costumes, drew his bow high into the air while a judge yelled briefly to indicate that the archer is aiming and will let the arrow fly. It can be dangerous to be a spectator, and the judge had to yell for several people to cross behind the target quickly so that no one would be injured. After the archer has released the arrow, several judges examined its landing place to determine the archer’s place in the lineup.

It was difficult to catch a full round of all the events, as a number of them happened at the same time. After Saikhan and I left the archery field, we returned to the track to catch the next lap of the third round of the horse race. I’m able to get right up against the fence and see the horses and their racers up close as they whizzed by. At that point, they were quite close to one another, so no there was no clear winner yet. The winner of the first round was quite an accomplished rider, as according to an announcement, he finished 0.8 kilometers (0.5 miles) ahead of his closest competitor.

Naadam has also seen some modern developments in recent years. Saikhan told me that while Naadam has generally had an additional emphasis on musical performances, the festival is now an opportunity to invite well-known singers and musicians to perform. A throat singer performedthe first female throat singer I had ever seenalong with a group of morin khuur (horse head fiddle) players. In addition, there is a commercial aspect to the festival. Just outside of the stadium, vendors sold everything from Inner Mongolian milk products to grilled seafood to stinky tofu. The products weren't simply Mongolian, but rather represented different parts of China.

The Naadam Festival that I observed in July 2016 was really a mix of old and new. Old sporting events that evoked the memory of Genghis Khan and new performances and food tents similar to modern outdoor fairs anywhere. It was a privilege to experience firsthand a key part of Mongolian culture. 

Allison Quatrini, Ph.D. Political Science 2017
2016 Sigur Center China Summer Research Fellow 

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