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Introduction to the Mongolian Exhibition

In the West, Mongolia evokes the name of Chinggis Khan (also known by the Persianized spelling of his name, Genghis Khan) and his thirteenth century conquest of the most of the known world. His empire extended from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and the reputation of Chinggis' ruthless hordes of soldiers has endured until today. This exhibition presents a different picture of Mongolia. A nomadic people who have for centuries managed to survive in an unforgiving environment, the Mongols are also followers of Tibetan Buddhism who were first converted in the late thirteenth century. In this exhibition, little-known secular and religious works of art from Mongolia's museums will be seen in America for the first time, an event made possible by Mongolia's recent emergence Soviet control in 1990.

Landlocked and strategically located between Russia, China, and Tibet, Mongolia has played a significant role in Inner Asian history. After the death of Chinggis, his grandson Khubilai Khan was the first ruler in the Yuan dynasty, a period of Mongol rule of China which lasted nearly one hundred years. Following the Yuan dynasty, various Mongolian khans attempted to recreate Chinggis's empire and dreamt of a new Mongolian age. In the sixteenth century, the Buddhist-based relationship between Tibet and Mongolia created by Khubilai was reestablished, giving rise to a renaissance in the arts, literature, political and religious structures of Mongolia. The period of this Mongol renaissance, from the seventeen through eighteenth centuries, and its aftermath, are the concern of this exhibition.

Nomadic Life

Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan begins with an exploration of Mongolia's traditional nomadic way of life. In the landlocked steppe of Central Asia, the Mongols since ancient times have lived in tribal groups, enduring an extreme climate and landscape, with rugged mountains, desert in the south, and dry steppe lands and harsh winters in the north. The horse makes the life of a nomadic herdsman possible, and to this day the Mongols are renowned equestrians. In the countryside Mongols still spend much of their lives on horseback. The horse, together with the sheep, goat, bovine, and camel, comprise the "five snouts" of livestock, the basis of the Mongol's economy and way of life.

Nomadic life is reflected in the arts of Mongolia. Artistic efforts and creativity were often channeled into portable works of art such as saddles, horse trappings, and personal jewelry. Mongolian saddles are wonderful creations encompassing such techniques as metal casting, leather work, and embroidery. Women's jewelry is especially striking and varies from one tribe to another. Most characteristic are women's complex and elaborate headdresses and hair ornaments, made of precious metals and gems such as turquoise and coral. Along with proclaiming tribal affiliation, this jewelry was a dowry which was worn by married women throughout their lives.

Mongolian Khans and the Mongol Renaissance

While most Mongols lived a little changing nomadic lifestyle, the reconversion of Mongolia to Tibetan Buddhism in the sixteenth century resulted in a new kind of centralized political structure in Mongolia, and evolving political relationships with Tibet and China. Beginning in the seventeenth century, Outer Mongolia was officially ruled by a lineage of incarnate Buddhist lamas, the Bogdo Gegens. These high-ranking Buddhist monks ruled from Urga, the historic capital of Outer Mongolia, modern Ulaanbaatar. Like the Dalai Lamas of Tibet, the Bogdo Getgen were simultaneously the religious and political heads of state. The first Bogdo Gegen, Zanabazar (1635-1723), was a direct descendent of Chinggis and Khubilai Khan. Perhaps unique among world cultures, Zanabazar, a celebrated monk and statesman, was also Mongolia' greatest artist.

The Bogdo Gegens, while the official rulers of Outer Mongolia, were in fact subordinate to Tibetan lamas, and to the Manchu emperors of China's Qing dynasty. Aside from Zanabazar, the only other Bogdo Gegen celebrated for his leadership was the eighth and last of the line, known as the Bogdo Khan, whose rule ended in 1924. Some of his lavish garments, including a spun gold jacket and a gold-brocaded imperial robe, as well as the imperial regalia of his wife, are on display here. Also on view are gifts to the Bogdo Gegens from the Chinese Manchu emperors, including a ceremonial dorje (tantric thunderbolt) and drum.

Buddhist festivals and the second conversion

The Mongols were reconverted to Tibetan Buddhism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This conversion was accomplished among a dispersed, nomadic population through different means. One was the active suppression of shamanism, the native belief system of the Mongols, which nonetheless has persisted to the present day. A more effective means of promoting Buddhism was the staging of large public festivals. Buddhist monks performed tsam ceremonies, seasonal ritual dances which were held to exorcise evil forces. The Mongolian tsam, which was inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist cham ceremonies, had among its characters both Buddhist deities and shamanistic figures converted to Buddhism. Elaborate masks representing the various players in the performance are featured in this exhibition. These singular, dramatic, multimedia creations, made by the monks themselves, are among the greatest works produced by the Buddhist artists of Mongolia.

The Maitreya Festival, which honors the Buddha of the Next Age, Maitreya, was important in Tibetan Buddhism. It took on special significance in Mongolia where it was introduced by Zanabazar. The Maidar (Maitreya) Procession in Mongolia, depicted in intricate detail in an early twentieth century painting, focused on a sculptural image of Maitreya transported in a horse-headed cart. The Maitreya Festival in Mongolia came to symbolize hope for a New Age of Mongol rule and autonomy.

Dissemination of the Buddhist canon in Mongolia was also essential to instituting the faith. Fourteen elaborate book covers and manuscript pages from Buddhist sutras show the high regard and artistic attention given to these books.

The Mongolian Pantheon

Tibetan Buddhism is a complex ritualistic religious with a vast array of deities. The Mongolian pantheon did not depart radically from the Tibetan one, but it did refine and emphasize certain deities to its own ends. Among the important deities in Mongolia are the Buddha Shakyamuni, Amitayus, Mahakala, White Tara, and Lhamo. Especially popular was Begtse, originally a Tibetan god of war who became one of the Great Protectors of Buddhism. He was acknowledged as the protector of both the Bogdo Gegens of Mongolia and the Dalai Lamas of Tibet, and, eventually, the popular special Protector of Mongolia.

Among the most spectacular and accomplished works of this exhibition are the large Buddhist applique Engraves depicting important figures in the pantheon. These thangkas, created entirely of fabric, embroidery, and needlework, are among the largest and best of such creations in the Buddhist world. A unique characteristic of Mongolian appliques is the decoration of their surfaces with jewels. Figures from the large pantheon are found in other media as well, including painting, and sculpture in metal and wood.


The exhibition culminates with the work of Zanabazar (1635-1723), Mongolia's first incarnate Bogdo Gegen and her greatest artist. Historical sources record that he worked in several media, but it is his bronze sculptures which have earned him the greatest renown. Influenced by the Nepalese artists who had been called to the court of Khubilai Khan, Zanabazar created exquisite, sensuous, and refined cast bronze images. During his lifetime he was the greatest Buddhist sculptor in Asia.

Among his masterworks on view are the youthful, elegant White Tara, said to be modelled after Zanabazar's beloved consort. Sitasamvara, one of the great patron deities of Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhism, is a miracle of multi-part casting, displaying a delicate sensuality and great sensitivity to physical form. The majestic Vajrasattva, a deity associated with Zanabazar and the Bogdo Gegens, is one of the artist's largest extant works. He holds the dorje and bell, metaphors for wisdom and compassion whose union leads to enlightenment.

---K. Youso

Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan has been organized by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in association with the Ministry of Culture, National Museums, and National Library of Mongolia. The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the following contributors:

National Endowment for the Humanities, The Henry Luce Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Joyce and John Clark/Carlson Marketing Group

Bruce and Betty Alberts, L.J. Skaggs and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation, Asian Cultural Council, KGO Newstalk AM 810 and KGO-TV Channel 7

Elsie R. Carr, Castagnola Family Foundation, Anne and Cameron Dorsey, Edward P. Gerber, Martha M. Hertelendy, The Soros Foundations

Additional support has been provided thorough an indemnification from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities

A special note: The Asian Art Museum extends its appreciation to the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts, whose generous support was instrumental in the planning and presentation of Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan. The Museum salutes these federal agencies for their contributions to American culture and gratefully acknowledges their long-standing support of the Museums's efforts to present the art and cultures of Asia to the American people.

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