February 11, 2010 / 10:11 AM / in 8 years

Mongolian throat singers defend tradition against China

ULAN BATOR (Reuters Life!) - Bitonal humming is not a common form of patriotic protest, but for traditional Mongolian singers, it was the best way to lay claim to an art form they say has been usurped by China.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, in November listed Mongolian throat singing as an art native to China, outraging Mongolian performers and fans who proudly remember that Genghis Khan conquered China 800 years ago.

Sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolians fear China’s growing economic and diplomatic power will overwhelm their landlocked country.

“Mongolians have neither lost nor forgotten the heritage passed down to us by our ancestors,” said Sumiyabazriin Zagd-Ochir, one of many throat singers who crowded into Ulan Bator’s Central Cultural Palace to defend their claim to the art.

“For years, this art has been performed and handed down to the younger generations. It has a very high standard of development and it will develop more.”

China is the sole country named on the UNESCO representative listing for throat singing, although the brief explanation says Mongolian communities in Inner Mongolia in China, western Mongolia and Russia all practice the art.

Throat singers can simultaneously produce two different notes. A hum in the throat harmonizes with the melody.

China has 500 times Mongolia’s population. Han Chinese outnumber ethnic Mongolians in Inner Mongolia, and dominate the regional government as well as heavy industry and mining.

Mongolia’s Minister of Education, Culture and Sciences sent a letter to the Director of the World Heritage Center of UNESCO expressing his “deep concerns” over the listing, Mongolia’s UB Post reported earlier this month.

This is not the first time a UNESCO designation has caused controversy. North Korea opposed China’s attempts to register the the royal tombs of the ancient Koguryo kingdom with UNESCO, on the grounds that the kingdom was an ethnic Korean kingdom. UNESCO in 2004 listed Koguryo-era tombs in both countries.

Eight centuries ago, Mongol clans under Genghis Khan controlled the steppes stretching from Beijing to Poland. One of their legacies is throat singing, also performed by people in Tuva, a Russian republic bordering Mongolia and Siberia.

Mongolia and China already share one art form recognized by UNESCO. Urtiin duu, a Mongolian folk song, is listed as a multinational art with elements from both China and Mongolia.

“Mongolian throat singing and the Mongolian horse head instrument belong to Mongolia,” said 63-year-old Lambiranii Rentsen.

“I believe UNESCO will correct its mistake.”

Writing by Lucy Hornby, editing by Miral Fahmy

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