Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | A night at the museum: Genghis Khan, Mongolian wrestling, and being “Mongoloid”
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A night at the museum: Genghis Khan, Mongolian wrestling, and being “Mongoloid”

Members of Denver

I learned a whole lot about Genghis Khan, the Mongolian ruler who in the 13th century conquered most of the known world of the time, from Asian to the Middle East and into Europe. We also learned about Mongolian culture, and this morning, I learned why, as a child, I was classified as “Mongoloid” — and why that term had its origins in Genghis Khan’s time but now has an offensive connotation.

What sparked so much learning? The opening of an exhibit, “Genghis Khan,” at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and a gala event we were fortunate enough to attend last night. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper was there to welcome dignitaries from the Mongolian government including Ambassador Khasbazaryn Bekhbat; speeches were made, diploamtic gifts exchanged, and then attendees had a buffet catered by the museum that featured mostly Mongolian or Asian themed food (except for the salmon in pastry shells and the table of veggies and dip), such as Mongolian noodle bowls, a stiry-fried variant of Mongolian barbecue without the piles of meat, and generic Chinese chicken dumplings (the brand sold by Costco, I bet) that were boiled then pan-fried and not so bad).

While dining, we chatted, networked and schmoozed while a stream of performers entertained the crowds — most unfamiliar with any of the riches of Mongolian culture — with traditional music and dancing, as well as the esoteric art of Tsam masks (giant scary-looking masks worn by “dancers” who move slowly to ominous music) and the more modern flashiness of a contortionist.

We knew most of the performers from our years with the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, where Erin booked them for the performing arts stage. We also knew some of the other Mongolians there, because over the years they’d paddled with the dragon boat teams at the festival. In fact, the Mongolians won the first-ever Colorado Dragon Boat Races, which was a noteworthy achievement considering none of them had ever even been on water or knew how to swim before the races.

After the performers, the speeches and thank-yous began (kicked off by a nice videotaped message from the President of Mongolia, who’d visited Denver before and has friends here from before his election) so we went upstairs to check out the exhibit and learn about Mongolia’s most famous ruler, Genghis Khan (pronounced “CHING-giss Khaan” by Mongolians, though most Americans say “GEN-giss Con’).

The actual exhibit itself is pretty impressive. Organized by Don Lessem of ExhibitsRex, a former journalist and historian who now produces traveling historical and scientific exhibits, mostly focusing on dinosaurs.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is the first to show this exhibit — I’m guessing because of Colorado’s close ties with Mongolia, the large Mongolian community here, and Denver’s sister city relationship with Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. The exhibit runs in Denver through Feb. 7, 2010 and then moves on to five other U.S. cities.

It’s an immersive experience with lots of artifacts (many on view for the first time outside of Russia and Mongolia) and reproductions of artifacts, as well as evocative murals of Genghis Khan’s life and battles, and plenty of hands-on displays where volunteers let people touch items and explain them.

Lessem has also produced big-budget cinematic docudrama footage with narration that explains the rise of Genghis Khan and the scope of his power and influence. At his peak, the Mongolian empire covered four times the land mass of that conquered by the Greek king Alexander the Great, and twice the area of the Roman Empire at its most powerful. That’s most of the known world of Genghis Khan’s era. His legacy is that of a brilliant military general and a huge influence on Asian cultures.

The guy’s life is perfect movie fodder. He became the first general to unite the many warring tribes of north Asia and exerted his influence across the entire region, and more. His life was marked by conspiracies and betrayals, and he died in 1227, and his sons kept expanding the Mongol Empire. The exhibit ends with information about Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, who was the fifth Khan of the Mongol Empire in the late 1200s, and the man who founded th Yuan Dynasty in China, intertwining Mongolia’s past with China’s future.

It’s a fascinating and sprawling historic story, and one I’d like to learn more about. After we viewed the exhibit, we returned downstairs for the evening’s main event: An introduction to the ancient sport of Mongolian wrestling, in which the goal is to force your opponent off his feet.

Mongolian wrestlingMongolians consider this a national sport, and Denver’s Mongolian community has its own champions who battle it out every year at an annual community event. I was told that one famous match lasted five hours. These local champs showed up in their bikini-clad outfits to wrestle themselves, and much to the delight of attendees, some pre-picked “volunteers” including Honorary Consul General Jim Wagenlander, a friend of ours.

The matches with the “volunteers” were not exactly, uh, well-matched. A couple of the men made it to a minutes, and one lasted several minutes, but most matches were over in a blink or two. Alas, our pal Jim, who’s in better shape than I am, took 17 seconds to hit the floor.

Here’s a video that Erin show, of some of the wrestling. I have to admit, it was very entertaining to watch:

During the evening, and afterwards, I started thinking about my own identity as an Asian who’s partly descended from Genghis Khan, if not genetically (about 8% of Asian men have a Y chromosome identified as being from old Genghis, who was nothing if not prolific), then culturally.

When I was a kid, official U.S. government forms marked me as being “Mongoloid.” I always found this term curious since it had the connotation of being mentally disabled (or a much harsher words back then). I hadn;t thought about it in decades, but it suddenly occurred to me last night that it must be rooted in Genghis Khan and the vast rule of Mongolia centuries ago.

It turns out that’s exactly where the term came from. Wikipedia puts it thus:

The term “Mongoloid” (or Oriental, also Mongolic) is an historical racial category used to describe people of East Asia and Southeast Asian origin. Its use originated from a variation of the word “Mongol”, a people who are considered one of the main proto-populations for the race. The term is potentially offensive.

The term comes from the Mongol people of East Asia, who invaded much of Eurasia during the 13th century, establishing the Mongol Empire.

The word was handy even though though it categorized a huge variety of ethnic types as one, a typically privileged, Western-centric view of the world. The nagative cast to the term “Mongoloid” came during more modern times, to describe people who had Downs Syndrome, and then spread to wider usage to indicate anyone who was mentally deficient in some way.

The concept originated with a now disputed typological method of racial classification. All the -oid racial terms (e.g. Mongoloid, Caucasoid, Negroid, etc.) are now often controversial in both technical and non-technical contexts and may sometimes give offense no matter how they are used. This is especially true of “Mongoloid” because it has also been used as a synonym for persons with Down Syndrome, and in English as a generic insult meaning “idiot”. A shortened version of the term, “mong” or “mongo”, is also used in the United Kingdom, mainly Scotland. These insults have become common and the majority who use them will have no idea of their racist connotations or connection to the word “mongol”. Contrary to popular beliefs, Mongoloid refers to diverse ethnical groups, and not of a homogeneous group.

Since people with Down syndrome may have epicanthic folds, the condition was widely called “Mongol” or “Mongoloid Idiocy”[46] John Langdon Down, for whom the syndrome was named, claimed in his book Observations on the Ethnic Classification of Idiots (1866), that the Mongol-like features represented an evolutionary degeneration when manifested in Caucasoids. The use of the term “Mongoloid” for racial purposes has therefore acquired negative connotations because of the connection with Down syndrome.

So there you have it. From its origins as a word relating to the magnificence of the Mongol Empire and the awesome power that its great ruler Genghis Khan weirld over most of the world, the term got twisted around to mean any Asians and then anyone who looked Asain in some way, to “Idiots.”

No wonder why, when I saw my passports or any of the U.S. military’s descriptions of me and my family, I always had a twinge of suspicion at rhe word “Mongoloid.”

Now I know better and so I’ll proudly tell people about the Mongols and their influence on the world. Just don’t ask me to wrestle any of them.