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2016 NEH Summer Institute


“Modern Mongolia: Heritage and Tradition Amid Changing Realities”

June 6 - July 1, 2016, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

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Scope of the Institute

Mongolia’s rapid pace of change also comes with negative consequences common among the world’s developing countries. Corruption plagues the government, businesses, and society. The social infrastructure is inadequate as a result of large-scale migrations from rural areas to the capital city. Education and health care have also been devastated. The country’s pristine environment faces dire challenges as air, land, and water pollution have drastically increased. Finally, livelihoods are changing, and in many cases connections to traditional cultural practices are eroding.

A primary focus of the Institute will be the impact of modernization on the cultures of Mongolia and the challenges to Mongolia’s religious, artistic, and literary heritage. Such influences will be analyzed through an interdisciplinary approach to teaching modern Mongolia. In addition to stimulating plenary sessions held on a daily basis, Institute faculty will lead thought-provoking and reflective discussions to enable participants to understand contemporary Mongolia’s challenges, successes, and problems, thus broadening their perspectives on the world and their place in it. These discussions will range from such subjects as comparisons of the Mongolian experience with those of other states struggling with modernization to the traditions of Mongolian diaspora communities in our own country.

The peoples of Mongolia have developed their civilization based upon a rich history of interconnection to peoples of the broader region, and a wealth of archeological sites throughout the country bear witness to the many cultures and peoples that have inhabited the region. Important sites include the so-called deer stones and many other monuments associated with Bronze Age cultures, as well as sites from the Scythian, Xiongnu, Xianbei, Turkic, Uyghur, Khitan, and Mongol empires.

Mongolia’s modern cultures have also been shaped by powerful regional influences. Tibet is one such example with the widespread adoption of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan arts. Other important contributions to modern Mongolian culture include neighboring China, Russia and Eastern Europe, and West Asia. At the same time, Mongolia has also influenced other cultures during the Mongol Empire period as well as through contemporary exchanges, such as the current global interest in throat singing, which originated in Mongolia.

Mongolia maintains one of the only enduring nomadic pastoral systems in the world, a legacy reflected in a range of contemporary cultural practices and beliefs and the nation’s music, art, oral traditions, and poetry. Furthermore, the concept of “land” and the peoples’ connection to it are vital in understanding modern Mongolia. It also has the largest common property grasslands in the world, which sustain the pastoral nomads. Development and industrialization come with important consequences for people and culture, as more people move to cities, extractive resource industries have an impact on landscapes, and changes in global climate influence the traditional ways of life.

In recent history, Mongolia has been able to preserve its cultural heritage. The country was isolated during seven decades of Communist rule until 1990, and a relatively large share of the population remains in rural areas, living traditional lifestyles as nomadic pastoralists. The country has a fairly homogenous population, with ethnic Mongols making up approximately 96% of the country’s people along with a small, regionally concentrated population of Kazakhs who enjoy broad cultural and political autonomy. Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world, with a population of only 3 million people in a land area more than twice the size of Texas. Its natural habitats and ecosystems have largely been preserved. While rich in culture and biodiversity, the country’s economy and infrastructure are poorly developed, with a per capita income of only $6000 and few paved roads and bridges.

The pace of change, however, is accelerating, and Mongolia’s cultural heritage faces a number of social and cultural challenges. China’s huge appetite for mineral and natural resources have spurred mining and economic booms in Mongolia, with double digit annual increases in GDP and growing exports of coal, oil, gold, and copper. Domestic and foreign mining companies are spread out across the country and are seeking new deposits and developing mines and related infrastructure in once isolated rural areas. The boom is boosting the economy, but also creating social disruptions, as people abandon traditional lifestyles and rural areas to move to cities or gain employment in the mines. Not all people benefit equally from the boom, and growing income disparities push those who are left out to seek new ways to earn income.

Institute Goals

The goals of the Institute are to provide 25 undergraduate educators with resources needed to be able to expand curricular offerings in East, Inner, or Central Asian Studies. The Institute will be organized to engage educators with stimulating presentations, materials, and discussions, and to provide them with necessary tools to build draft course modules tailored to their institutional and individual teaching circumstances. The weekly model and format of the Institute will build on the successful 2014 NEH Summer Institute conducted by Morris Rossabi titled The Mongols and the Eurasian Nexus of Global History, with plenary sessions along with discussions and small group work on special interest topics. The Institute’s expert presenters will again spend extra time with the group of participants, in order to address new questions and ideas that participants may have. Each Friday will be totally dedicated to engaging participants to follow up on the week’s material when Professor Rossabi and principal speakers from the week will open the floor for questions, discussion, and ideas.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

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