Arts and Culture of Mongolia

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With Mongolia’s historic shift to a market economy and democratic society, the nation’s approach to the arts changed. The culture and art community was not prepared to face the new trends. This brought a few years of practical collapse of the arts. 
But with the changes, a new approach to national folk music, especially to the disappearing unique songs and music of Mongolian tribes, was initiated on the part of the Government of Mongolia. A project was implemented jointly with UNESCO to audially and visually document the oral music heritage of the Mongols and set up a national fund of recordings, which now resides in the National Archives. The most successful performance groups at the moment are the TumenEkh Ensemble (a private traditional performance group), the State Circus, which travels around the world, and the State Morin Khuur Ensemble, which has also enjoyed international and national success in recent years. 

The flourishing of ballet and classic music development in the 1970s and 1980s was indeed a unique stage in the history of the national arts. Some groups that thrived during socialism are now struggling. The Symphony Orchestra, for example, only plays concerts by reservation. The Mongolian State Philharmonics, an organization founded in 1972 which was the face of Mongolian music abroad, doesn’t serve the same place in the new society which encourages individual ventures. 

There are three fully state-run organizations: State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet, the Academic Theater of National Drama, and State Academic Ensemble of Folk Dance and Music. These operate regularly but are dependent on the state budget. World classics are still displayed on the Mongolian stage regularly, as well as Mongolian productions. In the summer of 2003, a new opera premiered, “ChinggisKhaan”, by B. Sharav. It teslls the story of ChinggisKhaan in his youth, and weaves traditional Mongolian elements with Western classical opera.


Mongolian music is a reaction to our surroundings and life. Caring for a baby provokes melody. Seeing a calf being rejected, its mother is convinced to return by singing. Seeing white gers spread across the green pasture inspires a proud melody. Traveling a long way on horseback, riding sets a pace, the pace delivers rhyme, and here again the song is involuntary. Hurrying to one’s beloved, the heartbeat composes another melody. The sources of song are endless. Birthdays, weddings, national holidays, winning a horse race or wrestling competition, celebration of the elderly, mare’s milk brewing, wool cutting, cashmere combing, and harvest comprise an endless chain of reasons for singing and dancing. 
Through the ages, music has spread around Mongolia through home teaching and festivities. Any family or clan event was a good chance for musicians and singers to gather together. Coming from different areas, most often representing different tribes, people had the opportunity to perform, to learn from others and to take home a new melody or song. In this way, the ancient patterns of various corners of Mongolia have been preserved by local masters for the

whole nation. 
Some specific types of Mongolian song are: 

Labor song. These are melodies sung while working.

The hunter’s call attracts the animal by imitating its call in order to select a specific type of animal and to hunt with certainty, without wounding. 
Various herder’s calls manage the flock by signaling to go to pasture, return home, generate more milking, encourage insemination, bring a mother back to her calf, and so on.

Buuvey song. A buuvey song is a lullaby, or any sweet melody expressing a mother’s boundless love for her baby. “Buuvey… buuvey… buuvey…” is repeated while caressing a child to make him or her sleep. The melody may come from the heart of mother and be improvised. There are also lullaby songs with legends already composed, learned by the family and distributed to other families and generations. 

“Uukhay” or “guiyngoon” song. These are encouraging and provoking calls, connected with seasonal events. As warm days arrive, mare’s milk flows and the horse race training reaches its peak, the “guiyngoon” songs of little riders is heard in every direction. It is followed by songs of victorious winners, be it a rider, a wrestler or archery master. Fans chant the “uukhay!” encouraging song, which roughly means “go ahead”.

Mongol Hoomii. Mongol hoomii involves producing two simultaneous tones with the human voice. It is a difficult skill requiring special ways of breathing. One tone comes out as a whistle-like sound, the result of locked breath in the chest being forced out through the throat in a specific way, while a lower tone sounds as a base. Hoomii is considered musical art – not exactly singing, but using one’s throat as an instrument. 

Depending on the way air is exhaled from the lungs, there are various ways of classifying hoomii, including Bagalzuuryn (laryngeal) hoomii, Tagnainy (palatine) hoomii, Hooloin (guttural) hoomii, Hamryn (nasal) hoomii, and Harhiraahoomi: under strong pressure in the throat, air is exhaled while a lower tone is kept as the main sound.

Professional hoomi performers are found in only a few areas with certain traditions. The Chainman district of Hovdaimag (province) is one home of hoomii. Tuva, a part of Russia to the north of Mongolia, is also a center of Hoomii.

Long song. Another unique traditional singing style is known as Urtiinduu, or long song. It’s one of the oldest genres of Mongolian musical art, dating to the 13th century. Urtiinduu involves extraordinarily complicated, drawn-out vocal sounds. It is evocative of vast, wide spaces and it demands great skill and talent from the singers in their breathing abilities and guttural singing techniques.
Long songs relate traditional stories about the beauty of the native land and daily life, to which Mongolians offer blessings. These feelings are formed into majestic, profound songs, such as “The Pleasure Sharing Sun of Universe”, “The Old Man and the Bird”, “The One and Only Real Love”, “Sunjidmaa, the Beloved”.

Epics and legends. This ancient genre, enriched by generations, combines poetry, songs, music and the individuality of each performer. Singers may sing with or without a musical instrument. These sung stories are told from memory and may have thousands of quatrains. Such long stories are usually performed on a long winter night. 
By combining stories, music and drama, herders organize a kind of home school. The children, while playing various collective games with bone and wooden toys, listen to the songs and learn about history, life and folklore.

“Geser”, “Jangar”, “Khan Kharakhui”, and “Bum Erdene” are classic legend and story songs. Each is a library of folk wisdom and national heritage. 


Traditional Mongolian instruments include:  

morin-khuur” (horse head-decorated 2-string cello)

modontsuur” (string instrument)

yatga” (psaltery-like horizontal string instrument)

limbe” (flute)

shudarga” (3-string sitar-technique instrument)

yochin” (multi-string horizontal instrument with echoing box)

khuuchir” (cittern-like string instrument)

tumurkhuur” or “khulsankhuur” (metal or bambuu leaf resonance based instrument)

buree” (trumpet-like instrument)

bishguur” (cow horn flute)

tsankhengereg” (drum) 


Beginning in the 1920s, the European styles, techniques, and instruments introduced by the USSR radically changed the understanding and views of Mongolians. Musicians, singers, and dancers studied in the USSR, and there were a number of state supported theatres, opera, and ballet troupes. New forms of music introduced include: 

Songs for broad public;


National opera;

Symphonic works;


Philharmonic works;

Film music;

Circus and band music;

Rock Pop Music; 


Mongolian dance began as a ritual performance imitating the movement and manner of deities, mystical creatures and legendary heroes. Shamanist perception of the surrounding world and worshipping of Mother Nature influenced the style of ancient dancing, as well as the shape and pattern of clothing and accessories. 
The great variety of folk dancing has been enriched by clans, tribes and generations of performers. Besides folk dances, there were special palace dances and religious ritual dances. 

Organized professional dance performance dates from 1924. The establishment of the State Central Theater in 1931 opened a new era for professional and career dancing. In 1941, the Army dancing branch was formed, and in 1956 European dance began in Mongolia. The first generation of the Mongolian ballet dancers were trained in the USSR. B. Jamyandagva was the first ballet master of Mongolia and is the father of the national ballet. 

The State Theater of Opera and Ballet was founded in 1963. Since then, over 20 world classics including “Swan Lake, “Nutcracker”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Giselle”, and “Don Quixote”, and more than 20 national classics have been performed on the Mongolian stage by national dancers.

With the democratic changes in Mongolia beginning in the 1990s, a new generation of dancers are introducing modern dance. Despite the strivings of young talents, there are many obstacles to the development of Mongolian modern dance to an international level. They still face lack of experience, financial shortcomings, poor management of foreign relations, etc. 

It is worth mentioning the traditional religious ritual dance “Tsam” as an internationally popular Mongolian performance. It is an ancient mixture of theater, dancing, ritual ceremony and of folk tales. Its uniqueness had been highly appreciated in Great Britain, Germany, France, Skandinavian countries and many other parts of the world.


The ancient religious mask dance, or Tsam, is a significant religious ritual which reflects Buddhist teachings through images. It is a theatrical art performed by skilled dancers wearing magnificently ornamented costumes, which represent characters of different holy figures and devils, animals, and people. 
Through story, music, and dance, the wide range of personalities of the characters are depicted. To symbolize positive and negative attributes, characters from popular stories, and animals such as the Khangarid (lord of flies), lion (the king of wild animal), stag (the beauty among animals), crow (the soothsayer) and various domestic animals are immitated. Furthermore, the colors and decoration of the costumes are clues as to the nature of the personalities of the characters.

Tsam mask dancing is included in the art form called “Doigar,” which embodies independent imagination, one of the ten kinds of wisdom according to ancient Indian philosophy. The Tsam dance ceremony was first introduced to Mongolia in the 8th century, when the famous Indian Saint LovonBadamjunai was invited to Mongolia to sanctify the construction of the first Tibetan Buddhist temple, Samya. From that time, the Tsam dance was performed following the traditional teaching of Nyambdeyan, and during the 16th century, it became popular in Dash-Ihum temple UigienNamjra and other places. Eventually, more than 500 monasteries of the 700 Mongolian monasteries had their own local variations of the ceremony.

There were two kinds of tsam dances. “Mil Bogdo” Talking Tsam died out, but the Gesertsam, famous for its elaborately rich decorations, remained. An example of the Gesertsam was the most popular tsam in Mongolia, the “Jahartsam ” or “ErlegNomun Khan Tsam.” It was first performed in 1811, and told the story of how the disciple Yamandag destroyed the aggressive Erlegs’ mettalic citadels, thus taming them. 

In “KhureeTsam” or the “Tsam of the ErlegNomun Khan,” a total of 108 costumes we worn, including 21 diciples and dieties, such as Congor, Namsrai, Combo, Ochirvaany, Jamsran, Lham, and Damdinchoijoo. This tsam was staged every year on the 9th day of the last summer month, and was an important ceremony.

The person who choreographed the first tsam dance after the establishment of Erdene-Zuu monastery in Kharkhorin (ChinggisKhaan’s capital city) was a Mongolian. Folk art and native wisdom played an important role in the production of the individual Tsam dances. Song and dance, music, decorative arts, and other kinds of folk art are included in the Tsam ceremony. 

Despite the fact that the Mongolian Tsam dance was based on Indian folk art and was popularized in Tibet, it was highly developed in Mongolia. For this reason the Mongolian-Tibetan tsam dance, the Geser and Nomun Khan fancy-dress tsam, and Mil Bogdo’s Talking Tsam will have a permanent position in the history of the world’s theater arts.


Twisted, distorted “snaky people,” or contortionists, perform the type of classical Mongolian dancing probably most familiar to people outside Mongolia. 
The “Bielgee” dance, or dance of the body, is particular to the people of western Mongolia. It is performed to the music of Mongolian national musical instruments, such as the morinkhuur (horsehead fiddle) and the yochin (similar to the xylophone.) Bielgee is traditionally performed on the rather limited space before the hearth, so the dancers make practically no use of their feet. Instead, the dancers principally use only the upper part of their bodies, and through their rhythmic movements express various aspects of their identities, such as sex, tribe, and ethic group. 
 Bielgee is a descriptive dance, actually a pantomime, with the dancer acting several scenes from everyday life of herders, such as milking the cow, cooking, hunting, etc. Originally, Bielgee was improvised, although the themes were set. Only much later did it become strictly regimented compositionally, with a firmly established sequence of scenes. Also, over time, Bielgee was performed in a variety of locations, including festivals in herders’ tents, ceremonies by local dignitaries, and monasteries.
 The first part of the Bielgee dance, called the Elkhendeg, is ritually solemn, with the dancer slowly spreading his arms, gracefully waving his hands and moving his shoulders. In the second part, called the Joroo Mori, the character of the dance suddenly changes. The body rhythmically swaying, the dancer’s movements become light and challenging, in imitation of the gait of a horse.
 Dances imitating the gait of a horse, such as the Shononkhar and Jamal khar, are in general very popular amongst the Derbets, Bayads, Torguts, Khotons and Zakhchins of western Mongolia. Each nationality, however, performs them in its own way. The Bayads, for instance, dance on half-bent legs, with the lower part of the body motionless. The Zakhchins squat as they dance, with the body inclined forward. The ability to dance without using one’s feet at all is the ultimate achievement in the art.
 Another popular Western Mongolian dance is performed with cups. You may come across old men and women in the countryside who will tell you with fascination what magnificent dancers performed it in the past when it was very much in vogue. They balanced cups full of water on their heads without spilling a single drop. The dance varies depending on whether the cups are balanced on the head, hands, or knees. The Derbets, Zakhchins and Torguts dance with the cups on their heads and the backs of their hands, while the Bayads balance the cups on their knees. Significantly, only males danced with cups on their knees. The dancers squatted as low as possible, spreading their legs apart to the width of their shoulders, which was thought improper for females to do. In olden days, the dance with cups on the knees was performed on festive occasions, such as feasts and wedding parties.
 An interesting tradition arose in the past in connection with the cup dance. A group gathering in a ger on a festive occasion formed two teams and held a dancing competition. They usually started with the cups on the palms of their hands. Then they danced with cups on their heads and on their knees, which was much more difficult to do. Those who had spilled the least water from their cups were proclaimed the winners. 
 Each dance is distinguished by extraordinary flexibility, composition, and color. When examining the dances, it is useful to recall that the traditional manner of performing Bielgee and other dances has been handed down from generation to generation and reaches us in a somewhat modified form.


Modern dance emerged in Mongolia in the early 90’s. “Arabesque” dance center and “New Dance” groups are the pioneers of this art form in Mongolia.


Academic Theater of Classical Art established in 1931 in the “State Central Theater.” It was a beginning that would produce one of the biggest professional organizations in Mongolia. Since the 1940s and 50s the theater has been training its own specialists in Mongolia.
 On the 15th of May in 1963 “State Opera Theater” made its opening ceremony with P. Tchaikovsky’s opera “EvgenyOnyegin”.
 Since then, for over 40 years the theater has been carrying the honorable task of presenting national and classic opera and ballet to its public.
 During this time they have performed more than 30 classic and national operas such as: 



“Queen of Spades” by Tchaikovsky,

“Chio-chio san,”




“Othello,” by Pucini,

“Prince Igor” by Borodin,

“Carmen” by Bizet,

“The Barber of Seville” by Rossini,

“The Magic Flute” by Mozart and more than 30 ballets like,

“The Nutcracker,” “Sleeping beauty,”

“Swan Lake” by Tchaikovsky,

“Flame of Paris,” “Fountain of Bahchisaray” by Asaffiev, “Don Quixote” by Minkus, and “Spartac” by Khachiturian.

The theater regularly takes part in competitions and visits other countries with performances. For example, they successfully organized “Mongolian Opera Day” in 1981 in Ulaan-Ude and in Alma-Ata (Russian cities), and in 1999 in UlaanUde. In 2001 there are plans to organize Mongolian opera day in Japan.