“Mongols, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Lamas.”
An homage to a song about mammas and cowboys, made famous by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, that was the lead sentence in a 1981 story I filed to the Baltimore Sun from the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.
The government of the People’s Republic of China at the time was cracking down, threatening an aspect of the indigenous culture – in that case the dominant religion, Tibetan Buddhist Lamaism – of the Mongolian ethnic group, for whom the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region is named.
Now, four decades later (although pro-Beijing commentators offer arguments to the contrary), most accounts published outside China suggest the government is still at it – this time focused on rooting out the Mongolian language. “China offers bounty for Inner Mongolia protesters,” goes one headline. “Tens of thousands protest at a Mandarin-only rule being introduced into schools.”
Nail up those wanted posters! Arrest those Mongol protesters! That’ll show ’em Kublai Khan couldn’t inflict a Century of Humiliation (Yuan Dynasty, 1279-1368) on the Han Chinese and have it forgotten as if nothing had happened. Memories are long and retribution is sure!
Is Xi Jinping, raising that cry, still trying to earn his nationalist spurs?
Inner Mongolia when I visited was mainly a vast grassland of herdspersons. We stayed in yurts in a village.
My assigned yurtmate was Two-Dinners Dan, a dashing American correspondent and bachelor whose nickname arose from a Beijing social schedule so active that he occasionally found he’d overbooked
Specifically, he was known to have realized he’d booked two dinner dates on a single evening. He was overheard juggling them as follows:
“Hi, honey, I have to come back to the office later and file a story. Can you meet me at five thirty?”
“Hi, honey, I have to work late. Can you meet me around nine?”
On that night in the yurt village Two-Dinners had only one dinner, as did I.
Back home in Beijing we had dined on hot pot, a dish often assumed to have originated in Mongolia. What we got in the yurt village was – shall I say? – less flavorsome. But it must have been authentic, give it that. There was a huge pot of hot water in which some large joints of mutton had boiled until they turned gray. You took a big-bladed, very sharp pocket knife, carved off a chunk and chewed on it.
That was it. No vegetables. No spices. No sauce. No fancy fixings. We’d have to go back to Beijing for something more like the version that had been beloved of the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799), who had it for almost every meal, and his son the Jiaqing Emperor, at whose coronation 1,550 hot pots were served.
A thought may have occurred to you: Leaving aside the fact that their occupation was herding animals, if they were Buddhist (more than three out of five ethnic Mongols in the province even these days are, according to Wikipedia), why weren’t those nomads sticking to veggies?
I didn’t wonder about that because I already knew the dietary habits of Lamaists, based on my own travel in Tibet – but especially on account of a famous speaking visit by the Dalai Lama to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on November 12, 1980.
Assuming, based on the Japanese traditional model, that the top Tibetan Buddhist monk would be vegetarian, the club management had laid on a vegetarian luncheon.
His Holiness has always been a man of refreshing candor. (He once patted my ample belly and smiled when he squeezed past me through a doorway; I tell people that the belly has been blessed.)
True to form, the Dalai Lama took one look at what he was served at the FCCT’s head table and complained:
“What is this? Grass? The Chinese eat grass. Please bring me some meat.”
The Inner Mongolian yurt village clearly was the real thing, not some theme-park version for tourists. For an Eagle Scout, sleeping in a yurt was unremarkable. However, when I awoke it was to use the smelliest latrine I’ve ever encountered (and the scariest; you could fall through big gaps in the slippery floor into the giant pit and if you failed to drown you’d never wash it all off).
That’s when I found that Two-Dinners Dan had abandoned our yurt.
It turned out that my snoring had driven him out. Dan had wandered through the village and crashed in another yurt, mystifying the Mongols who lived in it.
Asia Times Associate Editor Bradley Martin has been an Asia correspondent since 1977. Contact him at email@example.com