Mongolian literature

by György Kara

Mongolian literature, the written works produced in any of the Mongolian languages of present-day Mongolia; the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China; the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China; and the Russian republics of Buryatiya and Kalmykiya.

Origins through the 19th century

Written Mongolian literature emerged in the 13th century from oral traditions, and it developed under Indo-Tibetan, Turkic, and Chinese influence. The most significant work of pre-Buddhist Mongolian literature is the anonymous Mongqolun niuča tobča’an (Secret History of the Mongols), a chronicle of the deeds of the Mongol ruler Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) and of Ögödei, his son and successor. Written in prose, it features alliterative verse, myths, legends, epic fragments, songs, eulogies, dialogues, army regulations, and proverbs. Internal evidence indicates that it was composed no earlier than 1228, the year before Ögödei’s enthronement; it may have been completed in 1252, the year after the election of Möngke, grandson of Chinggis Khan, as khagan (“great khan”). Its original Mongol script version was transcribed in Chinese characters in the late 13th century, but large portions were copied in Lubsangdandzin’s 17th-century Altan tobchi (“Golden Summary”). Likewise, the Mongol original of the history of Chinggis Khan’s campaigns was lost, but its Chinese translation survived. His sayings, which were preserved in Rashīd al-Dīn’s 14th-century universal history and, by oral transmission, in Mongol chronicles of the 17th century, also gave rise to a strong stream of moralistic literature, which soon became enriched with Indo-Tibetan elements. An example of this literature is a Mongol version, translated from Tibetan by Sonom Gara perhaps in the late 13th century, of Sa-skya Pandita’s Legs-bshad (“Aphorisms”).

Buddhist works translated mostly from Tibetan and certainly with the aid of extant Turkic versions brought new forms and subjects to Mongolian literature. The monk Chosgi Odsir added a commentary to his prose translation of a long Buddhist poem, which was printed with his benediction (in alliterative quatrains) in 1312. To his disciple Shirab Sengge belong a life of Buddha and the Altan gerel (“Golden Beam”), a sermon of Buddha. Turks transmitted to the Mongols a version of the Alexander romance, a legendary account of the life of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great. Other medieval Mongol writing includes letters sent to popes and European monarchs, imperial and Buddhist inscriptions (including one on a gate of the Great Wall of China), and fragments of the secular poetry of the Golden Horde. An inscription (1340) by a Mongol prince of Yunnan province in China is both an intimate confession about himself and a document about his donation to a Buddhist shrine. The Chinese Confucian canonical work Xiaojing (“Classic of Filial Piety”), which includes quotations from the Shijing (“Classic of Poetry”), was also translated into and printed in Mongol.

In the 16th and 17th centuries a struggle for unity among the Mongols and efforts to renew their Buddhism revived literature. Chronicles such as Erdeni-yin tobchi (1662; “Jeweled Summary”) by Saghang Sechen, a prince, and Lubsangdandzin’s Altan tobchi united Buddhist and Chinggisid traditions. To the cult of Chinggis Khan, which kept alive his sayings as well as legends about him, also belongs Ere koyar jagal (“The Two Dappled Steeds”), an anonymous allegory about freedom and loyalty that is thought to date from the 17th century. Over the course of some 400 alliterative quatrains, Erdeni tunumal sudur (c. 1607; “Jewel Translucent Sutra”), an anonymous biography of Altan Khan, relates the story of his wars with the Ming dynasty and his alliance with the Dalai Lama. A rock inscription (1624) preserved a uniquely personal poem by the Chinggisid prince Tsogtu about his aunt, whom, the poem recounts, he misses because he is separated from her. The poem contrasts their spatial separation and their differences with their unity in compassion and suffering.

The Mongols also embraced and adapted the Tibetan epic of Gesar Khan, probably in the late 16th century. One of the orally transmitted Mongol versions of the story of Gesar Khan’s victories over various monsters (mangguses) and other enemies was the first form of the epic to be printed in Mongol, in 1716. It became a source of inspiration for several heroic epics, including the Abai Geser Khübüün of the Buryat people. (This epic, of some 20,000 verses, and other heroic Buryat songs were first recorded in the early 20th century by the scholar Tsyben Zhamtsarano.) Jangar, the national epic of the Kalmyk people, is a loose chain of heroic songs that reflect the belligerent past of the western Mongols. It dates from perhaps the 16th century; a version of it was recorded and published for the first time in 1910.

The monk Zaya Pandita Namkhaijamts (Oktorguin Dalai), an Oirat man of letters, created a new literary language rendered in a new alphabet, known today as Clear Script, which dates to 1648. The alphabet narrowed the gap between writing and speech. A long afterword in verse to his translation (1644) of the Tibetan apocryphal work Maṇi bka’-’bum shows his poetic verve. His disciple Ratnabhadra wrote a biography of him that is also an invaluable source of western Mongol history.

The full translation of the Tibetan Buddhist canon was completed in the 17th century and printed by order of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty in more than 330 volumes in the early 18th century. These and other translations refined the literary language and conveyed many elements of Indian lore. Such 18th-century writers as Mergen Gegen Lubsangdambijalsan and Chahar Gebshi Lubsangtsültim combined Tibetan and Mongolian mores in verse and prose. Rashipungsug’s Bolor erike (1774; “Crystal Garland”) and several other histories were produced under the Qing dynasty, which had begun to take control of Mongolia in the 17th century.

The Buddhist priest and poet Rabjai (Dandzinrabjai) wrote religious and worldly songs and moralistic poems. He skillfully used folk songs as well as literary forms derived from the Mongol written tradition. He also composed a musical drama, Saran Kököge (“Moon Cuckoo”), based on the Tibetan story of a prince confined to live as a bird preaching the Buddha’s truths. A 19th-century Tumet nobleman, Wangchingbala, started Köke sudur (“The Blue Chronicle”), a historical novel that depicts the rise and fall of the Yuan (or Mongol) dynasty during the 13th and 14th centuries. Injannashi, his son, finished his father’s novel and wrote two others, all in the style of contemporary Chinese popular novels. To Köke sudur he added Tobchitu tolta (“Brief Summary”), a long essay that outlines his views on history. He also wrote numerous poems. Gularansa and Gungnechuke, his siblings, were also poets. Ishidandzinwangjil’s Altan surgal (“Golden Teaching”), an extensive guide to ethics composed in alliterative stanzas, is a late example of this poetic genre. At the turn of the 20th century, the Ordos scribe Keshigbatu composed songs and poems that deal with love and politics. He also wrote a concise history of the Mongols and a versified reader for children.

The 20th century and beyond

The 20th century saw the publication of many new literary works in Mongolia as well as in Buryatiya and Kalmykia in Russia and in China’s Inner Mongolia and Dzungaria (in Xinjiang) regions. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Buryat literati such as Khotsa Namsaraev, Bazar Baradin, Tsydenzhap Dondubon (Ts. Don), and Solbone Tuya (Petr Damdinov), among many others, began to publish new poetry, plays, and short stories and novellas. The Buryat monk Agvan Dorzhiev, who served as a diplomat under the 13th Dalai Lama, described his life and travels in Asia and Europe in Mongol verses (1921). In Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, in 1934 the revolutionary leaders Darijawiin Losol, Gelegdorjiin Demid, and Khorloghiyin Choibalsan (Choyibalsang) published their voluminous Mongol arad-un ündüsün-ü khubiskhal-un angkha egüschü bayigulugdagsan tobchi teüke (“Short History of How the Mongol People’s National Revolution Began and Evolved”), a prose narrative with passages in verse. It describes the formation of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party and its struggle against the Chinese and White Russian forces for Mongolia’s independence in 1921; the party would control the country’s government for much of the 20th century. Later editions altered and abridged the text, and the names of Choibalsan’s coauthors eventually disappeared from the title page—just as the men themselves did, as a result of purges driven by Choibalsan.

Until the middle of the 20th century, the Mongols and Buryats used Mongol script to write a language known as Classical, or Literary, Mongolian. The Kalmyks began to use the Cyrillic alphabet to write their language in 1925. After ephemeral experiments with romanization, separate Cyrillic orthographies were introduced in Buryatiya (1938) and Mongolia (1946). The eastern Mongols in China continued the Classical tradition, with the Oirat of Dzungaria keeping Clear Script with some modifications.

Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj (Nachugdorji), one of the founders of modern literature in Mongolia, introduced new genres and subjects through, for instance, his patriotic poems Minii nutag (“My Motherland”) and Tüükhiin shüleg (“Verses on History”), both on revolution and tradition, as well as through Erkh chölöö khüsekhüi (“Longing for Freedom”), one of the poems he wrote in 1932 while in prison; Uchirtai gurwan tolgoi (1934; “Three Fateful Hills”), a tragedy; Lambugain nulims (“The Lama’s Tears”), a novella about a monk ridiculed by his mistress, who is a courtesan; and Shuwuun saaral (“The Bird-Swift Ash-Grey Horse”), an idyllic prose poem about a boy’s travels to his girlfriend’s camp. In a long poem that is partly alliterative and partly in blank verse, he described his long journey from Ulaanbaatar to Berlin (1926). His poetry advocated the adoption of Western medicine and modern health care in Mongolia. Many of his contemporaries—such as Shirnengiin Ayush (Ayusi), Sonombaljiriin Buyannemekh (Buyannemekü), and Mördendewiin Yadamsüren (Idamsürüng)—died during the purges directed by Choibalsan in the late 1930s. Tsendiin Damdinsüren (Damdinsürüng) wrote poems on nature (e.g., Dzugaatssaar mordson-ni [“Went Out for a Walk”]) and short stories (e.g., Soliig solison-ni [“How Mrs. Change Was Changed”] and Gologdson khüükhen [“The Unwanted Girl”]). He also rewrote (1943) Natsagdorj’s Uchirtai gurwan tolgoi, adding to it a happy ending. In a folk-style benediction he exalted Choibalsan, whose prison he survived. During a period when government censorship had slackened somewhat, he also edited a large anthology of traditional Mongolian literature (Monggol uran jokiyal-un degeji jagun bilig [1959; “The Best of Mongol Literature: Hundredfold Wisdom”]). Byambiin Rinchen was a patriotic dissenter best known for poems such as Ber tsetseg (“Young Lady Flower”), an antiwar poem, and for short stories such as Mangaa Doogiin etssiin dzüüd (“The Last Dream of Monster Do”), about a cruel prison guard. Rinchen was also a screenwriter—he wrote the script for the film Tsogt taij (1944; “Prince Tsogtu”)—and a novelist. He published several volumes of folk poetry and shamanist lore that he had collected.

Modern historical novels began to appear in Mongolia and Buryatiya in the 1950s. Chimit Tsydendambaevich Tsydendambaev’s novel about a 19th-century Buryat scholar (1952) was among the earliest such novels in Buryatiya. Among the most prominent Mongol examples of the genre are Rinchen’s Üüriin tuyaa (1950–55; “Rays of Dawn”), a trilogy about Manchu rule, the theocracy, and revolution; Donrowiin Namdag’s Tsag töriin üimeen (1960; “Revolt of Time and Power”); Chadraawaliin Lodoidamba’s Tungalag Tamir (1962; “The Limpid Tamir River”); Shagdarjawiin Natsagdorj’s Mandukhai, which takes its title from the 15th-century Mongol queen who is its heroine; and Sengiin Erdene’s Dzanabadzar (1985), about the first reincarnate lama of northern Mongolia.

Erdene, Sonomiin Udwal, Dembeegiin Myagmar, Sormuunirshiin Dashdoorow, and others wrote innovative short stories. Jargaliin Baramsai’s satirical prose on the vicissitudes of urban life was met with sharp disapproval. Poetry underwent a renewal that was led by Choijiliin Chimed, Begdziin Yawuukhulan (a versatile author whose lyric oeuvre includes alliterative poems inspired by the Western sonnet form), Mishigiin Tsedendorj, Dendewiin Pürewdorj, Mishigiin Shirchinsüren, the rebellious Renchinii Choinom, Tangadiin Galsan (who was exiled for one of his sharp four-line poems), and Shagdariin Dulmaa. Among dramatists, Choijamtsiin Oidow became best known for Dalan khudalch (“The Trickster of 70 Lies”), a comedy based on a folk tale; it was similar to the play Budamshuu (1954) by Tsyren Galzutovich Shagzhin, Oidow’s Buryat contemporary. Lamjawiin Wangan won his fame with plays dealing with modern life. Namdag and Myagmar also wrote for the theatre.

Throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, Mongolian authorities controlled all spheres of culture, and literature had to serve the ruling party’s interests. But the tides of political repression and censorship gradually withdrew, leaving more and more space for individual expression. Freedom of the press emerged after the resignation of the leadership of the People’s Revolutionary Party in 1990 and the subsequent dismantling of the country’s socialist system. In the 1990s numerous suppressed works were printed, and an array of works across numerous genres made the Mongolian literary palette much more colourful than ever before. At the turn of the 21st century, lengthy multivolume anthologies were being compiled by two writers, Lodongiin Tüdew and Oeled Chahar Ligden, who were attempting to capture the richness of 20th-century Mongolian literature. The latter, working in Inner Mongolia, also published in 1993 a novel on the grim years of the Cultural Revolution.

Among other writers of Inner Mongolia, the Chahar poet and essayist Saichungga (Sainchogtu) began his career while living under Japanese occupation, which ended there in 1945. He then moved to Ulaanbaatar, where he embraced communist ideas, and later returned to Inner Mongolia, where he became a leading author.

The poet Kögltin Dawa (David Kugultinov) is perhaps the most recognized of 20th-century Kalmyk writers. A politician who had previously been a soldier and a labour camp detainee, he wrote lyrics that, late in his career, attained great thoughtfulness. Some of his poems were collected in English translation in Horizons (1977). The novelist Badmin Aleksei (Aleksei Badmaev) related the fate of his people in Altn shorad dargddgo (1964; “The Gold Does Not Perish in Dust”).

  • Recommend Us