Gegentuul Baioud describes a Mongolian tradition for Language on the Move:

Nothing seems further from the fight against COVID-19 than traditional folklore. However, an ancient Mongolian art form, the khuuriin ülger (“fiddle story”) can be found at the forefront of public health efforts. Since late January around seventy Mongolian fiddle stories focusing on the prevention of and the fight against the coronavirus outbreak have been posted on the public WeChat account Khuuriin Ülger. So, what is a “fiddle story” and who is a “fiddler”?

Well-known storytellers are usually referred to as khuurch, “fiddler, bard”. In the past, they were often recognized by the four-stringed Mongolian fiddle on their back. They were one of the most popular entertainers among the nomads, and they were welcomed by rich and poor alike. Some stayed in a region or at the court of a princely family until they had exhausted their repertoires. Many of the khuurch recited long epic tales accompanying themselves on the fiddle. The stories they told were usually in poetic verse mixed with prose. They not only recited familiar epic cycles such as Geser and Janggar, but also developed their own repertoire. Many of the above-mentioned storytellers not only entertain, but often they serve as comedians, satirists, religious proselytizers, and political propagandists (Hangin 1988:69-70).

Fiddle stories are used to praise and bless new couples and are often performed at wedding ceremonies, as I show in my PhD thesis. Furthermore, criticism of and satire on the transforming Mongolian society are sometimes cloaked in the traditional garb of Mongolian fiddle stories. Even today, ancient Mongolian fiddle story-telling practices are profoundly productive.

Interesting stuff, and I imagine Bathrobe will have something to add. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Yes, it came through my newsfeed and I didn’t even open it lol (lol, omg, am I sinking that low). I am sure SFReader will have more to say.

    I can’t open the article at the moment. From what Hat has quoted, the article sounds somewhat romanticised. As you can imagine, ᠬᠤᠭᠤᠷᠴᠢᠳ khuurchid aren’t that obvious in the city, especially to a stay-at-home like me, except as State-sponsored artists, performers for tourists, and performers on sundry occasions when Mongolian tradition seems called for. Perhaps they are more in evidence outside the city.

    Not that these instruments and their music have been lost, as the much-ballyhoo’d HU can attest, and you do get to hear the strains of Mongolian music here and there (especially on TV). It’s certainly less moribund than koto or shamisen are in Japan. But in the midst of city life it’s not so common to catch a glimpse of these traditions unless you are seeking them out. Since leaving China and coming to Mongolia, one of the first things I’ve noticed is that I’m much more aware of musical trends in the West…

  2. It appears that this article is about Inner Mongolia. Different situation again. Despite heavy Sinification, the Inner Mongolians are attempting to keep their culture and (less successfully) their language alive.

  3. SFReader says

    The current state of the Mongolian folklore tradition probably can be summarized by Neklyudov’s article on results of the Russian-Mongolian folklore expedition of 2006:

    So, we obtained a slice of the local folk tradition in its almost half-century dynamics, which has never been done in Mongolian studies before. The state of this tradition is quite typical for central Mongolia (and probably for Mongolia as a whole). It is characterized primarily by following factors.

    1. The complete absence of heroic-epic texts. Even their traces in the form of heroic tales (ulger-tuul’), which were still recorded in 1964 along with individual epic works (both in very small quantities, 1-2 texts each), disappear. Famous storytellers are remembered by relatives and villagers as respected people, but without knowledge of their repertoire and without any interest in it. Such a fate befell, in particular, the epic narrator Onolt. The circumstances of his biography, even the fact of recording his epic repertoire by the famous Mongolian academician Rinchen are kept in memory, however, our interlocutors either did not remember the texts themselves or haven’t heard them at all and rather recall his role as a performer of Erools.

    2. Song folklore (duu) and related genres, to some degree connected with various customs and rituals (erööl, magtaal), as well as with fairy tales tradition (ÿlger), which were still ascertained as relatively safe by the expeditions of 1964-1983, are literally dying away before our eyes. Tales last longer (now they are more likely to be for children) as well as songs, but performers with rare exceptions also no longer have anyone to transmit their knowledge to.

    3. The magical function of traditional well-wishing rituals is preserved (the eroolchi are invited to eliminate any domestic troubles), but it is no longer being recognized as such by the tradition, moving from the “ritual” to the “ceremonial” phase, becoming more of a custom than a rite. At the same time, the erools are often mentioned as being told during consecration of a new yurt (than than at the wedding). However, practically before the eyes of observers, they are sequentially replaced at first with a long song (urtyn duu), which was earlier performed after the erool “to further maintain well-being”, and then, as it fades away, by Buddhist worship rituals. In the setting of the currently ongoing second “Buddhist revival” in Mongolia, it is always possible to invite a lama to consecrate a yurt.

    4. The influence of written texts on the oral tradition is intensifying, not only of traditional books – “The Magic Corpse”, the biography of Milaraiba, the story of Molon Toyn, but also of new literature; folklore texts, including traditional erools, incorporate many innovations and become modernized.

    5. The ousting of traditional folklore from the cultural life of the Mongolian countryside occurs in several directions.

    With the formation of modern national and state identities, the epic fades, it loses its pragmatic significance, the need for it disappears; this process seems to be completed in the 1960s and 1970s.

    Regarding “cultural communication”, folklore does not withstand competition with television – fairy tales are no longer told “even to children” precisely with the advent of television, i.e. after the 70s – beginning of the 80s.

    Folk performance is lost due to to lack of demand; accordingly, genres requiring such skill (song, epic) disappear. The song itself does not withstand competition with the modern pop music and finds its last refuge on the stage of the House of Culture. All that remains is what is in demand by young people, for example, Moriny Tsol – laudatory songs in honor of the winning horse at the races.

    6. Ritual magic activity, on the contrary, is extremely active. The worship of traditional oboo mounds, erected in large numbers near the roads, on passes, on peaks, near other venerated places, is very noticeable; new cults arise, however, reproducing the motives of traditional rituals (for example, the local cult of the Jambal dorje). There are widespread concepts about the haraal curses and the haraalchi sorcerers, about the shamans, the “white” and “black” haraalchi and about the ways to keep safe from them (the traditional amulet – a saw above the door – can be seen in many yurts). Finally, there is a flourishing – on a completely commercial basis – of the magical practice of professional Uzmarchi (“white haraalchi”).

  4. David Marjanović says

    the modern pop music


  5. When the father of my father’s father had a difficult task to accomplish, he went to a certain place in the forest, lit a fire, and immersed himself in silent prayer. And what he had to do was done. When my father’s father had the same task to accomplish, he went to the same place in the forest and said: ‘We no longer know how to light the fire, but we still know the prayer.’ And what he had to do was done. Later, when my father had the same task to accomplish, he too went to the forest and said, ‘We no longer know how to light the fire. We no longer know the mysteries of prayer, but we still know the exact place in the forest where it occurred. And that should suffice.’ And it did suffice. But when I was faced with the same task, I stayed at home and I said: ‘We no longer know how to light the fire. We no longer know the prayers. We don’t even know the place in the forest. But we still know how to tell the story.’”

  6. Notice in this article also the total harnessing of ethnic traditions to the service of the Chinese State and Party.

    This has been happening since Maoist times, when Tibetan singers (for instance) were enlisted to sing the praises of Mao and the Communist Party.

  7. If one has the time to follow links and dares the rabbit-holes, one finds: is a peer-reviewed sociolinguistics site devoted to multilinguism, language learning and intercultural communication in the contexts of globalization and migration. I quote the website. I found various article of interest.

    The site is supported by Macquarie University in Sydney, New South Wales and Gentuul Hongye Bai has submitted her PHD thesis to the same university.

  8. Bathrobe says

    I looked at a few of the articles on the site. I have mixed feelings.

    The post on “Racism hinders fight against COVID-19” was underwhelming. It has a point (although I’m doubtful that racism is actually hindering the fight against COVID-19) but the whining, one-sided tone was off-putting. It started with a loving description of the Chinese government’s gargantuan efforts to contain the virus but not a single word about the screwups that preceded it. If you insist on being so patriotic, why complain when others are less than sympathetic?

    After declaring that “I studied in Australia for six years. In a sense, I have been educated in the West” the author goes on to deliver this ringing declaration that I would be ashamed to write: “While the Chinese people are suffering from this calamity and are united as one in combating this “war without smoke,” attacking the country and its people in the name of “freedom of speech” is undoubtedly a retrogression of human civilization.” Sounds good. The question is, how welcome are people from Wuhan in the rest of China? Not very, I should think.

    There is a post about Multilingual prohibitions from 2010, complaining about Chinese and Japanese “No smoking” signage in Australia and New Zealand. To quote: “While these signs include Chinese and Japanese readers as potential recipients of the message, they exclude them from “polite society” by singling them out as likely offenders.”

    Well, yes. Probably because people speaking those languages were the main offenders. It costs time and effort to put out bilingual signage. The signs were probably there because cleaning staff went to a room the nth time to find that Chinese guests had been smoking, or railway staff had to remind x number of Japanese passengers that they shouldn’t smoke on the train. This is not subliminal discrimination; it is signage which bespeaks frustration with the failure of people from those places to observe rules on smoking.

  9. fiddle stories focusing on the prevention of and the fight against the coronavirus outbreak

    In another silver lining: the Vietnamese Health ministry made a little cartoon/song about washing your hands to fight ‘Corona’. And somebody set a little hip-hop dance to its chorus, involving much wringing of hands and not touching your face.

    And the chorus is maddeningly catchy. And the whole thing has, um … gone viral on Tik Tok. With some really cute kids. (Video on Youtube.)

  10. David Marjanović says

    Video on Youtube.

    Link, please!

  11. David Marjanović says

    Von Vietnam lernen heißt siegen lernen!

    (“To learn from Vietnam means to learn to be victorious”. Ancient Communist wisdom.)

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    The post on “Racism hinders fight against COVID-19” was underwhelming

    Too right. I was particularly taken with the idea that the name Jakob-Creutzfeldt disease was problematic because it might offend on ethnic grounds. Brain-dead remark. Where to begin?

    (A better reason might be that Jakob and Creutzfeldt probably actually described something different from the disease that bears their names.)

  13. Thanks Hat, the Tik Tok is here

    (If I can get it right. I don’t usually post links because WordPress murders and/or swallows them.)

    Or search for “vietnamese hand washing song tiktok”.

  14. The cutest kid is at 8:15. The one at 11:55 is totally adorable. It warms your cockles …

  15. David Marjanović says

    The one at 11:55 is totally adorable.


  16. Lars Mathiesen says

    And blocked for copyright reasons already.

  17. Owlmirror says

    Another book at the Open Book Publishers site is this one, which I thought most appropriate to post here:

    Long Narrative Songs from the Mongghul of Northeast Tibet: Texts in Mongghul, Chinese, and English
    Li Dechun (李得春, Limusishiden) and Gerald Roche

    (I at first thought that “Mongghul” was just a different transliteration of “Mongol”, but Wikipedia indicates that it is a related but distinct language)

    There’s also a link to the World Oral Literature Series, which includes works from or about Khasi, Quechua, Malagasy, Ewe, Manding and various African languages (I browsed the ToCs and summaries, so I hope the list is at least not wrong, if incomplete)

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Many thanks for that! It will not astound anyone that I have downloaded Oral Literature in Africa already. Looks pretty good …

  19. I’ve posted it.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Overlooked that last time:

    familiar epic cycles such as Geser

    Caesar has arrived in Mongolia? Has he caught up with Alexander at last.

  21. Owlmirror says

    Speaking of apparently-similar-but-actually-distinct, I read “Quechuan” and thought no further than “Quechua”, the language of the Inca; a South American Native language, but looking at the summary of the books about Quechuan, I see that the Quechuan are actually a North American Native people, and the Quechuan language is in fact a branch of Yuman.

    We [editorially] apologize for the error.

  22. Rodger C says

    Don’t you mean Quechan?

  23. David Eddyshaw says


    Caesar is the national hero of Tibet. Well, sort of:

  24. Owlmirror says

    @Rodger C: [ Quechan, not Quechuan. Gah! ]

    We apologise again for the fault in the languagehat comments. Those responsible for sacking the people who have just been sacked have been sacked.

  25. David Marjanović says

    Caesar is the national hero of Tibet.

    I knew that much. I didn’t know he had been passed on further to Mongolia (along with Buddhism… but then, Buddhism isn’t that far from the Stoa).

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