A showdown over traditional throat singing divides China and Mongolia


Hanggai, a Beijing-based band whose sound is a modern take on Mongolian folk music, on stage in Shanghai earlier this year; the band’s members include ethnic Mongolians and Han Chinese. By endorsing such culture, the Chinese government hopes to head off ethnic strife. (Frans Schellekens/REDFERNS)
August 10, 2011

For nearly two decades, Odsuren Baatar, a master of Mongolian throat singing, has been visiting China to teach his craft — making the human voice soar, quiver and drone, its pitches in eerie unison like a bagpipe.

When he first started going there, his students were all beginners, because nobody in China knew much about throat singing. But they were eager to learn, and, after years of sharing his techniques, Odsuren took pride in having helped promote an art form prized here in Mongolia as a singular national treasure.

His pride, however, turned to dismay and then anger when he saw a copy of a video that China had quietly submitted to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: It featured one of his former students pitching a bid by Beijing to have throat singing registered by the United Nations as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity,” with China getting the credit.

“I was in shock. I taught them and then they say it is theirs,” Odsuren said.

Throat singing — a fiendishly difficult practice that musicologists know as overtone singing — has often attracted interest, sometimes covetous, from outside Mongolia. The Russian region of Tuva, which borders Mongolia, tried briefly in the 1990s to brand it as Tuvan and impose a licensing system on throat singers.

Frank Zappa, the late American musician, jammed with a throat-rock ensemble called ­Huun-Huur-Tu, and folk music aficionados around the world have long marveled at how a good throat singer can produce two or more distinct pitches simultaneously in an otherworldly mix of melody and tone.

But China has proved the most zealous fan of all: Its pitch worked, and the country got UNESCO to list Mongolian throat singing under China’s name.

Sitting in a dingy Soviet-style apartment, the 63-year-old teacher showed photographs of himself in happier times with his pupils in China and fumed at the betrayal: “I don’t like people lying and claiming something that everyone knows is Mongolian.”

A listing by UNESCO doesn’t bring any money or copyright privileges, but it does confer bragging rights — and it helps China reinforce cultural claims viewed as essential to holding together a vast territory populated on the fringes by ethnic minorities of often uncertain loyalties. That includes a population of ethnic Mongolians, most of them in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, which was hit by a wave of unrest in May and further protests in June fed by resentment against the area’s majority Han Chinese.

By claiming — and controlling — culture, the Communist Party has sought to keep such tensions in check, not only in normally placid Inner Mongolia, but also in far more protest-prone regions such as Tibet and Muslim Xinjiang.

“Throat singing is part of China’s splendid general culture because Mongolians are one of China’s ethnic groups,” said Li Qiang, director of Inner Mongolia’s Song and Dance Academy, the institution where Odsuren taught. Arguments over who actually developed throat singing and where, Li added, aren’t important because what matters today is who can best protect the art: “Right now, we are strong and capable enough to do that.”

In 2009 and 2010, more than a quarter of all items inscribed by Paris-based UNESCO on its cultural heritage roster were from China.

Cecile Duvelle, head of ­UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage section, said in response to written questions that a listing does not mean an item “belongs to the state” or that China’s cultural heritage “has more or less value,” but she added that the organization “is nevertheless discussing this unbalanced situation.”

Many of the items under China’s name are clearly Chinese, such as Peking Opera, acupuncture, dragon boat festivals and Chinese calligraphy. But also listed as Chinese are the epic of Manas, a poem that Kyrgyzstan considers the cornerstone of its national culture, as well as Tibetan Opera, and a Korean farmers dance.

A culture grab?

When the United Nations first adopted a Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003, the idea was to promote diversity and help indigenous peoples protect their heritage.

Exactly which “practices, expressions, knowledge and skills” are put on UNESCO’s list gets decided by a U.N. committee made up of officials from 24 member states. And no country has been more active than China in nominating entries — to the chagrin of Mongolians, Kyrgyz, Tibetans and others whose culture is in part now registered as being from China.

Scholars with no dog in the fight also have been taken aback by a system they complain is driven by bureaucratic process and power politics as much as concerns for cultural authenticity.

“I was very surprised to find the Chinese khoomei (throat singing) nomination,” said Mark van Tongeren, a Dutch musicologist who served as an expert on a UNESCO review panel. “For me, it seemed obvious this was a tricky one.”

Li, the Song and Dance Academy director, denied any attempt by China to annex Mongolia’s heritage, insisting that Inner Mongolia had its own throat singers long before Odsuren started teaching in China. “We prepared well, and we showed enough evidence (to UNESCO). No wonder we got it.”

Odsuren acknowledged that the area that is now Chinese Inner Mongolia did have throat singers in the distant past but said the art died out there long ago, a claim supported by China’s official Xinhua News Agency, which reported in 2006 that throat singing “was lost more than 100 years ago” in China. Odsuren thinks this should have made China ineligible for a UNESCO listing because the tradition was not “transmitted from generation to generation” as required by the 2003 convention.

Li, for his part, said that although it looks “on the surface” that throat singing had vanished in China, and “we thought so at first,” it had in fact survived among Chinese nomads.

Under Mao Zedong, who ruled China from 1949 until his death in 1976, the Communist Party took a dim view of “minority” cultures. It still frowns on cultural activities it doesn’t control, but is now eager to develop — and lay claim to — songs, dances and other art forms that it hopes will help cement the loyalties of Mongolians and other minorities.

Ancient tune

Throat singing is generally accepted to have originated in the west of what is now Mongolia. It is thought to have originated among herders mimicking the sounds of animals, water and the wind. The practice developed alongside animist beliefs that all natural objects have souls or spirits whose power humans can harness through mimicry.

Throat singing was spread by the explosive conquests of Genghis Khan and his descendants, one of whom, Kublai Khan, took control of China in 1271. Mongolia, which later fell under China’s sway, became an independent state in 1921, but, with a population of only 2.8 million today, it is deeply wary of its 1.3-billion-strong neighbor and longtime rival to the south.

When news of UNESCO’s decision to endorse China’s claim reached Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, Odsuren was pilloried in the local media for selling out Mongolian culture. China’s UNESCO video included not only his former pupil — who declined to comment — but also footage of Odsuren during one of his visits to Inner Mongolia.

“I suffered for a whole year. There was a lot of commotion here about how I sold throat singing to the Chinese,” Odsuren said.

The furor calmed after Mongolia submitted its own entry for throat singing and, in November, secured a spot on UNESCO’s list. The register now has two throat singing entries, one for China, one for Mongolia.

“We already have our place on the list,” said Li, the academy director in China, who is an ethnic Mongolian. “It’s not the time to argue over which one is authentic.”

Odsuren said he’s over his anger and doesn’t bear any grudge toward Chinese Mongolians who now claim for China an art that he taught them.

It’s not easy, he said, being an ethnic minority in China, particularly in Inner Mongolia, where Mongolians are far outnumbered by Han Chinese and under pressure to prove their allegiance. “They have to do this kind of thing to get ahead. They’ve got to serve the strong.”

Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

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