Mongolia celebrates the return of Naadam

Mongolia celebrates the return of Naadam
Naadam festival visitors and participants gathering for the big occasion. / Fan111, cc-by-sa 3.0.
By Antonio Graceffo July 7, 2022

“Mongolians should be grateful for their history… it’s a resource of who we are, and what we went through over the years. I believe all people feel that Naadam is important.”

– Davaasuren, a 25-year-old monk living at Gandagchilen Monastery.

Mongolia’s Naadam festival, a UNESCO-recognised Intangible Heritage asset, commemorates the “three sports of men”: archery, horseracing and traditional Bökh wrestling. Initiated by Genghis Khan in 1206, it became an official holiday in 1922 and has been held almost every year since — until Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 derailed the tradition. In 2020, Naadam was held as usual in the provinces, but the national Naadam event put on in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar was a closed event with few spectators. Most Mongolians had to watch it on TV. In 2021, Naadam was cancelled completely.

Naadam is arguably one of the largest, yet least known sporting events in the world. It is celebrated across the nation and encompasses tens of thousands of athletes at the district, provincial, and national levels. It is also a time for Mongolians to wear traditional dress, and for city-dwellers to return to their ancestral homes in the countryside. One wrestler explained that Naadam is “an inoculation against modernisation”. 

City dwellers return to their ancestral homes in the countryside to enjoy local Naadam events (Credit: Antonio Graceffo).

When Naadam was cancelled in 2021, hundreds of protesters on horseback and dressed in traditional deel descended on the capital to demonstrate in front of the parliament house. Some felt that Naadam should be held because of its great importance as a continuation of time-honoured customs. Wrestlers, archers and horse racers also wanted the festival to be held because they are dependent on Naadam to earn money or to pick up prestigious rankings which can have a major impact on their lives. Despite Naadam’s importance, there was much online criticism directed at the protesters, suggesting that the cancellation was necessary to prevent the spread of Covid, and that the government could better spend the Naadam budget on Covid relief efforts.

Some of the support for the cancellation of Naadam in 2021 also came from the fact that the 2020 event had cost a great deal of money even though it was only enjoyed by the elites, their families and guests. Some people felt that if the common people were not permitted to attend, it was better to cancel the event rather than use public funds to benefit a select few.  

Two young riders race cross the finish line in a Nadaam horse race in Mandalgovi (Credit: Marc Fischer, cc-by-sa 2.0).

This year, Naadam will be held from July 11-15. After two years without a full Naadam, one might speculate that people had learned to live without it and that enthusiasm for the festival may have waned. At the same time, Mongolia is modernising and globalising quickly with nearly 69% of the population already living in cities. This raises the questions of whether Naadam is largely a rural phenomenon and if city dwellers, with higher levels of education and incomes, and as citizens less likely to ride horses, are still interested in Naadam.

Interviews with a cross-section of people ranging from young working professionals to retirees, city inhabitants, countryside people, wrestlers, archers and monks were conducted on the matter. The conclusion was that even though interviewees differed to some degree in their personal interpretation of the importance of Naadam, they all not only supported Naadam, but assumed everyone else did as well. This demonstrates how Naadam is integral to Mongolian culture.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tries his hand at archery at a small Naadam festival event held in Ulaanbaatar in 2015 (Credit: Government of India, government open data licence (GODL)).

Nandinsuvd Batchimeg, a 22-year-old accountant in Ulaanbaatar, believed that all city people “feel that Naadam is important”. Sixty-three-year-old retiree Otgonbayar similarly said: “Every city person attaches importance to Naadam. They also go to their birthplace or their family in the countryside [during the event].”

A 45-year-old school teacher in the province of Uvs explained: “When I was living in Ulaanbaatar from 2006 to 2007, I felt those city people also respect their culture, history and traditions as we do. Their lifestyle, vision, perspective and culture could be a little bit different than ours; however, we live in the same country. I think everyone feels that Naadam is important in Mongolia.” She went on to comment on the unifying nature of Naadam as everyone who speaks the language becomes one group to enjoy Naadam every year, regardless of who they are or what they do for a living.

Archery at Naadam may be celebrated as one of the “three sports of men”, but there are archery challenges for women too (Credit: Zoharby, cc-by-sa 3.0).

Some Mongolians see participating in Naadam as a preservation and transmission of culture.

Batbileg, a 39-year-old wrestler holding the title “Lion of Aimag”, said: “You should always know your history, culture, and tradition if you identify as a Mongolian. No matter who you are or where you live, people feel Naadam or any other holiday is important since it is made of our history and culture over the years.”

When asked about the cultural importance of Naadam, the respondents provided somewhat differing answers, which provided insights into the nation’s culture.

Forty-five-year-old archer Boldbaatar regards Naadam as a commemoration of the strength of the ancestors, and an opportunity for him to continue an ancient tradition. "Because of Naadam, I’ve realised how strong our elders were, and we have so many important things to respect. Naadam made me an official archer."

A Naadam ceremony at the National Sports Stadium in Ulaabaatar (Credit: Vidor, wiki, public domain).

Naadam is also a way of educating the next generation of Mongolians about their culture and heritage according to Urin Baasansuren, a 56-year-old retired school teacher. "Naadam plays a huge role in teaching the young generation about our history because it takes place on Revolution Day [commemorating 11 July 1921], which commemorates independence from Manchu (now part of China). Secondly, the three games of men show our nomadic culture from the Chingis Khaan [Genghis Khan] era to the present which is an important part of our nation."

For Mongolians, Naadam draws its strength from tapping into ancient tradition (Credit: Thomas Voekler, cc-by-3.0).

The festival holds patriotic and historical importance for some as well. Independence is an important issue for Mongolians who do not like the fact that many westerners do not distinguish between the independent Republic of Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, a province of China. Additionally, the partition of Mongolia, with the southern half being co-opted by China, is a sore spot for many.

Twenty-two-year-old-accountant Nandinsuvd Batchimeg who works in Ulaanbaatar remarked: “Naadam shows the world that we are an independent country. When I watch the opening ceremony of Naadam at 9 am, it really makes me proud of our culture, history, and tradition. Even though there are many issues in Mongolia, I will always love my country. Because this place gives me a place to live, a place to express my own opinions freely without government interference.” Mongolians are aware of the cultural crackdown in Inner Mongolia carried out by the Chinese Communist Party to align everyone to Han Chinese culture, and many are grateful to live in Mongolia where the language and culture continue to flourish.

Several of the interviewees also mentioned the fact that Naadam was a way of showing Mongolia to tourists and to the outside world.

A twenty-eight-year-old monk from Gandagchilen Monastery named Rinchenpuntsag Odjugder remembered the religious significance he and his parents attached to Naadam when he was a child. "When I was young, I always used to go to Gandantegchilen Monastery with my parents to pray and feed the doves there during the Naadam and Lunar New Year. It’s one of the cultural significances that I feel strongly about." But he also stressed the importance of Mongolia being a free country. “Moreover, Naadam shows us how we are lucky to identify ourselves as an independent country. There are many countries that are not able to call themselves independent countries, as we know. When I watch the opening ceremony of Naadam, it makes me cry, proud of the history for a very short time.”

The author, Dr. Antonio Graceffo PhD China-MBA, worked as an economics researcher and university professor in China, but is now living in Ulaanbaatar, writing about the Mongolian and Chinese economies. He holds a PhD from Shanghai University of Sport Wushu Department where he wrote his dissertation “A Cross Cultural Comparison of Chinese and Western Wrestling” in Chinese. He is the author of 11 books, including A Deeper Look at the Chinese Economy, The Wrestler’s Dissertation, and Warrior Odyssey. He completed post-doctoral studies in economics at Shanghai University, specialising in US-China Trade, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Trump-China economics. His China economic reports are featured regularly in The Foreign Policy Journal and published in Chinese at The Shanghai Institute of American Studies, a Chinese government think tank.


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