Mongolian literature

Mongolian literature

Mongol literature has been greatly influenced by its nomadic oral traditions. The “three peaks” of Mongol literature, the Secret History of the Mongols, Geser and Jangar[1], all reflect the age-long tradition of heroic epics on the Eurasian Steppes. Mongol literature has also been a reflection of the society of the given time, its level of political, economic and social development as well as leading intellectual trends.


Ancient States Era (630 BC-1204 AD)

The ancestors of the Mongolic peoples are the Bronze-Iron Age Donghu (630 BC-209 BC) mentioned in the Shiji of Sima Qian as bordering north of the State of Yan. Their culture was basically nomadic and thus could have included the regular singing of heroic epics to the accompaniment of early forms of xiqin and dombra. This could have been part of a larger oral tradition that included myths, wisdom sayings and uliger not much different from present Mongol ones. The Xianbei (209 BC- 4th century AD), descendants of the Donghu, were said to have had a runic-like script for writing on strips of wood. A 3rd century Xianbei song called the “Song of the Xianbei Brother (A-kan)” has been preserved in Chinese translation. Many Mongolic words from the Toba/Tabgach era (386-534) have come down to us in Chinese transcription, such as ho-lan (many), wu-lien (cloud), e-zhen (owner), a-kan (brother), shi-lou (mountain), chi-na (wolf), ko-po-chen (to hedge), to-po-chen (sole of foot) and ta-wu-sun (dust). However, these are all fragmentary and no substantial written materials from the Xianbei Tabgach have been discovered yet that would deserve the name “literature”.

The Khitan of the Liao Dynasty (907-1125) had two scripts, the Large and Small scripts invented in the 920s. Compared to the other Xianbei Mongolic peoples they have left a relatively more substantial amount of written material, including lengthy inscriptions found on rocks and in tombs, that are currently being deciphered and researched. It is thought that the Old Uyghur alphabet, derived from Syriac, was still used by Nestorians and Buddhists within the major tribes of Mongolia until the time of Genghis Khan although no work has survived.

Imperial Era (1204-1368)

This period starts with the adoption in 1204 of the Uyghur-based Mongolian script as the official script of Genghis Khan’s emerging Mongol Empire. The Mongol works that survive from this period reflect the prosperity and diversity of the global empire linked together by an efficient communications system. Yet they represent only a fraction of what would have existed then, since the majority of the works from this period has either not been found or has been destroyed amid the convulsions following the fall of the empire. Examples of lost works include the "Altan Debter", "Ikh Tovchoo" and "Great Yassa".

Significant works and writings in Mongol language from this period include: the Secret History of the Mongols (1240), Stele of Yesunkhei (1225), Text of Guyuk Khan’s Seal marked on a letter to the Pope (1241), Decree of Ogedei Khan (1240), Stele of Mongke Khan (1258), Parchment writings of the Golden Horde (1240s), Letter of Arghun to Philip the Fair (1289), Letter of Oljaitu to the King of France (1305), Letter of Arghun to Pope Nicholas IV (1290), Praise of Mahakala (1305), Commentary on the Bodhicaryavatara (1312), Banzragch sutra (early 14th century), Subashid sutra (1290s), Poem of Muhammad al-Samarqandi (1290s), Alexander Romance (13th-early 14th century), New Testament and Psalms translated by Giovanni da Montecorvino (1310s now lost), Altangerel sutra (1330s), Buddhist dedicatory inscription at Tsavchaal Boomt (1345), Book on sacrifice to the Big Dipper (1330s), Achlalt Nom or Xiao Jing (1307), Edicts of the Yuan Emperors from Kublai Khan to Toghontemur (1279-1368), Stone inscriptions at Karakorum (early 14th century), Writings unearthed at Turfan (early 14th century) and Square script inscriptions (1279-1368).

The legal writings of Mongolia in the form of edicts, decrees and laws are generally written in a special type of formulaic language. They might be termed legal literature.

The Secret History of the Mongols, originally written in the Mongol script, is considered the foundational classic of Mongol literature. In addition to its prose sections, the Secret History contains many sections of poetry. “The Wisdom of Genghis”, “The Defeat of the 300 Taijuud by Genghis Khan” and “The Wise Debate of the Orphan Boy with the Nine Generals of Genghis” are considered works of the 14th century that were later copied into historical chronicles of the 17th century.

The Parchment writings of the Golden Horde contain poems expressing the longings of a mother and her far-away son (a soldier) for each other. It is a unique remnant of literature of the common people.

Translation work was most productive during the Yuan dynasty. Choiji Odser produced many excellent translations and commentaries in Mongol of various major Buddhist sutras including the Bodhicaryavatar, the Banzragch sutra and the Twelve Deeds of the Buddha. He also composed poetry like the Praise of Mahakala as well as the work on Mongol grammar called "Zurkhen tolit". Other prominent lamas of the Yuan dynasty also translated works like the Subashid and the Altangerel sutra (translated by Sharavsenge). The Classic of Filial Piety (Xiao Jing) was translated as well as the New Testament and Psalms.

The short four-line Poem of Muhammad al-Samarqandi about wisdom (“Bilig nigen dalai buyu, Gokhar tendeche gharayu, Bilig-un yoson-i, Bilig-tu kumun medeyu”) and the Mongol fragments of the Alexander Romance are reflective of Mongol contact with the Muslim West. In the mid-13th century a Persian scholar called Iftikhar-eddin Muhammed translated the stories of Kalila and Dimna (of the Panchatantra) from Persian into Mongol.

Dark Ages (1368-1576)

After the fall of the Yuan dynasty the punitive expeditions of the Ming put a definitive end to the imperial era in Mongolia, which entered into a Dark Age lasting two centuries until the “Third Introduction of Buddhism” in 1576. No significant Mongol work survives from this period, as of present. It is however known that the Mongol script was still taught to children in gers and that some of the Mongol manuscripts found at Olon-sume date back to this period. During this period the relatively advanced political, economic and social structures of the Mongol Empire had collapsed. Karakorum was razed to the ground in 1380 and Mongolia was reduced to a state not much different, if not worse, than that of the 12th century when it was a nomadic version of the European Dark Ages. Within Ming territory, however, works in Mongol were printed, including the Hua-i-i-yu dictionary (1389), the Chinese transcription of the Secret History of the Mongols (1386) and a tantric manual in Chinese, Tibetan, Mongol and Sanskrit (1502).

Renaissance (1576-late 1700s)

After Dayan Khan (1464-1517?/1543?) restored political unity and reestablished the Genghisid line as supreme in Mongolia, the Third (and more thorough) Introduction of Buddhism beginning in 1576 led to further consolidation of unity among the formerly shamanic Mongol tribes. This, and the weakening of the Ming in the late 16th century, allowed the Mongols to enter a period of cultural Renaissance wherein numerous works of literature of many genres were created, including numerous fictional, historical, linguistic, legal and medical works. The Mongolian Renaissance continued under the Qing dynasty (1691-1911) and the rule of Bogd Khan (1911-1921). Despite the vast Communist persecutions of the 1930s with the destruction of most monasteries, a great many of these works have survived. The literary Mongolian language that developed during this period is today called Classical Mongol language, while that of the Imperial era and Dark Ages is called pre-Classical Mongol language.

The Kanjur and Tanjur, the translation of which started in the Imperial era, were completed in the Renaissance era. A complete Mongol collection called the "Golden Kanjur" (1628-1629) was published during the reign of Ligdan Khan in 113 volumes. Later, this version was edited and reprinted in 1718-1720. The Tanjur was finally completed in 1741-1749 and printed in 225 volumes. The oldest written version of the immense epic Geser, the Mongol version decreed by Kangxi, was printed in Beijing in 1716. The "Story of Endurel Khan" was published in 1666 and is a prominent work of fiction. Tsogt Taiji composed his popular poem in 1621 which was later written on a rock surface in 1624. This poem, which still exists, contains reflections about the basic unity in nature and human love.

Post-Renaissance (late 1700s-1921)

In the 19th century, there was a trend of critical thinking with Injanashi and Danzanravjaa satirizing the worldly pursuits of the Buddhist clergy as well as the excesses of the nobility. Prince Tokhtokhtor produced a book on practical advice concerning management of the traditional economy. Jimbadorji produced the "Bolor Toli", an encyclopaedia concerning detailed geographical information and observations about different countries, in 1833.

Revolutionary literature and "Socialist realism" (1921-1989)

In 1921 the establishment of the Provisional Government of Sukhbaatar led to a radical change in Mongol society as the country abruptly entered the modern, industrial world. The close alignment with the Soviet Union meant that socialist realism would be the dominant literary style for the following decades. Important pioneers of modern Mongol literature were D. Natsagdorj (1906-1937), S. Buyannemekh, and Ts. Damdinsüren. Successful writers from the post-war period include S.Erdene, Ch.Lodoidamba, or S. Udval. Literary topics were often taken from countryside life, from the times of Mongolia's struggle for independence and the communist revolution, or from the Second World War. Many of B.Rinchen's works deal with Mongolia's older history. One of the most popular poets of the time was dissident poet R.Choinom who served a sentence for his works.

Liberal literature (after 1989)

Perestroika and democratic processes of late 1980s stimulated Mongol writers to seek new forms of expression breaking the pillory of "Socialist realism". Distinctive representatives of the post-Soviet epoch were B. Lhagvasuren, B. Galsansukh, O. Dashbalbar, D. Urianhai, Sh. Gurbazar, Ch. Galsan, Ts. Khulan and others.


  1. ^ as distinguished by academician Ts. Damdinsuren

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