* The following is an edited excerpt from Bridging The Great Wall: Mongolian Identity and Sinophobia by Tee Tsetsendelger and Zoey Erdenebileg, the editors of Macongolia, and was originally published at the 2019 Mongolian Studies Conference in DC. As it was originally written in response to Franck Billé’s Sinophobia: Anxiety, Violence and the Making of the Mongolian Identity, it contains multiple references to it.
Sinophobia – literally, the fear or hatred of China and Chinese people – is common within Mongolian culture. Even the more liberal-minded aunts, uncles, grannies and grandpas will tell you: “You can marry whoever you want, just not a Chinese.” Sinophobia seems to be deeply ingrained into Mongolian culture, with some citing centuries of ill-will. Others also cite a radical difference between the two cultures, often with the best qualities falling on home turf and the worst qualities in enemy territory. But why? Why is Sinophobia such a big deal in Mongolia? We’ll explore this idea for the next weeks, starting with Sinophobia and its effect on Mongolian women.
You may all remember a certain video that circulated about a decade ago of a woman having her hair shaved by members of Dayar Mongol, a right-wing nationalist group. The “punishment” rendered against the woman was for her alleged sexual relations with a Chinese man. The woman was crying, and the men stood stern.
While this particular incident occurred in 2009, a deep and significant intersectionality between women’s bodies, women’s power and Mongolian nationalism, and by translation, Mongolian identity, has always existed. The very origins of the Mongol nation began with a woman’s body: Chinggis Khan’s legendary destiny was foretold when he was born clutching a blood clot dragged out from the body of his mother, Hoelun.
Despite waves of historical and political change, women have remained consistently tied to national identity through the simple fact that women are able to literally produce future citizens, future Mongols. Therefore, society goes into furor over the nationality of the seed that implants Mongolian wombs.
This idea – that nationalism is carried on the backs of women – is nothing new. It has been pointed out and argued in academic and activist circles for years. However, it takes additional magnitude in Mongolia, where our population is so few. There are a number of implications and unspoken truths that tumble out of this historical intertwining.
Macongolia will be dissecting Mongolian nationalism in a series for the next few weeks, beginning with this week’s premise – who are Mongolian women allowed to marry?
Reproduction and its Discontents – Who Are Mongolian Women Allowed to Marry?
There is a belief that while unions between Mongolian women and Chinese men are generally opposed and looked down upon in Mongolian society, similar unions between Mongolian women and other western, foreign men are generally accepted. Some, like anthropologist and author of Sinophobia: Anxiety, Violence and the Making of the Mongolian Identity, Franck Billé, may contend that this is further evidence of the Mongolian desire to reject the “Asianness” in themselves. “Societal responses…vary depending on the nationality of the foreign spouse,” Billé writes, “and marriage to a European or American tends to be perceived more favorably than to other nationals, thereby reflecting the existing differential between ‘Westerners’ and ‘Asians’”. He continues on to note, “Thus, while Sino-Mongolian marriages are construed as miscegenation and are subject to strong social opprobrium, Eurasian babies are routinely described as cute (hoorhon). Similarly, the presence of Chinese citizens in Mongolia is perceived as a threat, while continued Russian presence does not elicit the same response”.
Billé is correct in his observation, but falters in his conclusion. The phenomenon of preference for “Western” husbands or partners is not symptomatic of Mongolian rejection of their “Asian” selves and identification, but can rather be traced to the unconscious bias favoring the “West” and specifically, the white West. The reality of the current global order forged through generations of colonization favor the imagined “West”, including Europe, America, Canada, and Australia. Note: Russia is also included here.
These countries are thought to be more developed, more advanced and elite, and are also majority white. In other words, what is described here is not so much a rejection of “Asianness”, but rather the reality of the global white male hegemony. Others may argue that these are similar or even the same. However, they are not equivalent, and they have different implications. One implies a rejection of self and continental identity based on racist ideals. The other suggests an acceptance or admiration of “Western” culture that does not necessarily affect Mongolian self-identity.
Here, we also need to address the reality of Mongolian unions with other nationalities. First of all, Mongolians enter into unions with other Asians much more frequently than they do with “Westerners”. In fact, over the last 13 years, the most common foreign marriages were between Mongolians and Koreans, accounting for about 50 percent of the total. There is outcry against unions with foreigners in general, but because unions with other Asians are more common, whether due to more opportunities for meeting or closer geography, they are just the most visible in the public sphere. Thus, they receive the most outlash. This does not explain, however, why marriages and children between Mongolians and Chinese are more lambasted. But this, coupled with conscious or unconscious bias for white “Western” culture, would be a reasonable explanation for why matches with “Westerners” receive more acceptance.
We need to appreciate the diversity of Mongolian-Other unions. Yes, white Western matches are more easily forgiven, and yes, marriages with Chinese are deplored. However, marriages and children outside of those dual spheres also exist and also face great difficulties being accepted in Mongolian society. In Chapter 2 of Sinophobia, Billé brings up the example of the popular girl band, Kiwi, which has two mixed members, Uka (Russian-Mongolian), and Namuun (Brazilian-Mongolian). He cites their popularity as exemplative of Mongolian society’s openness to Western Others while rejecting Asian Others. He writes, “while the prospect of Mongolian girls sleeping (and reproducing) with Chinese men makes many shudder and has been widely employed as a scare tactic, admixtures with other foreigners can be acceptable and even celebrated”. He goes on to conclude, “…the different positioning of non-Chinese (and generally non-Asian) Others is not a mark of muted and resigned acceptance. The violent anti-Chinese sentiments recurrently voiced in Mongolia are fused with celebrations of otherness associated with Western modernity.”
This conclusion fails to take into consideration that the “Western modernity” he notices is almost always white, and he does not consider the various forms of “the Other” and the diversity of unions that exist within Mongolia. He oversimplifies into the West (with whom relationships seem relatively accepted) and the East (with whom marriage and reproduction is highly discouraged and discriminated against). He glazes over the existence of, and the hardships endured by, other communities of erliiz [hyperlink], such as Afro-Mongolians, Latin American-Mongolians, Central Asian-Mongolians, and more. Non-white and non-Asian mixed race individuals, in particular, face significant discrimination in society. In fact, Namuun’s success and acceptance into society is the exception, not the rule.
Moreover, it is worth noting that Kiwi’s member Uka, on the other hand, as a Russian-Mongolian mix, takes center-stage within the group. As a white Western erliiz, she is afforded more acceptance. Thus far, she is also the most successful of the three group members. Billé means to use the example of Kiwi, with particular focus on Namuun and Uka, to show how Mongolians are particularly discriminatory towards his imagined “East” and “Asia”. However, what it actually explains is the depths to which global white hegemony has seeped into Mongolia.
It is clear that at the top of the sperm pecking order for Mongolian wombs is Mongolian. Any deviation from this is frowned upon, with varying levels of acrimony. It is worth reminding ourselves that Mongolia has been and is a highly homogenous society. As such, foreigners and foreign influences are approached with caution, fear and anxiety. As the ultimate Other for Mongolians, China bears the burden of the bulk of this hatred and fear, which is why unions between Mongolian women and Chinese men are so disparaged. Having said this, Mongolia is also not an isolated island – it is influenced by global thought and happening, and this includes an implicit bias favoring white western hegemony.
*Photo Credit: Reuters The Wider Image