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Mongolian Exhibition

Introduction to the Art of Mongolia
by Terese Tse Bartholomew, September 7, 1995

(Please note that not all the illustrations referred to in the article are included in this on-line edition; they are found in the exhibition catalogue. Links are given to objects in the on-line exhibition wherever appropriate. Also please note that the footnotes are not complete, but will be amended in the near future - ed.)


Tibetan Buddhism, a highly ritualistic religion with a huge pantheon of gods and goddesses, inspired the religious art of Mongolia (fig. 1). As in most religions, there is a need to create cult images in painting and sculpture, as well as ritual objects and other paraphernalia associated with worship of the deities.

The objects in this exhibition associated with religious worship date from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries and are the result of the second wave of conversion to Buddhism in Mongolia. They are inspired by Tibetan art, itself a fusion of the art styles of its neighboring countries--India, Nepal, and China. There was a great deal of cultural exchange and travel between Tibet and Mongolia; Tibetan lamas proselytized in Mongolia, and Mongolians went on pilgrimages to Tibet. Young Mongolian monks traveled to the monasteries of Tibet, such as Kumbum in Amdo, and Ganden, Drepung, and Sera in Lhasa, to further their studies. When these travelers returned to Mongolia, they brought religious objects home with them. High monks of Mongolia and Tibet visited one another and exchanged numerous presents, many of them religious artifacts. These religious objects, often of a high artistic caliber, were in turn copied by the local craftsmen. As a result, there was much mingling of artistic styles between Mongolia and Tibet.

Mongolia's southern neighbor, China, was ruled by the Manchus from the seventeenth through the early twentieth century. The Manchus were also followers of Tibetan Buddhism, and they too produced paintings, sculptures, and ritual objects made in the Tibetan style, not only for the emperors' personal use but also as gifts for the high lamas of Tibet and Mongolia. Many of these Chinese art objects of Tibetan inspiration, known as "Sino-Tibetan" or "Tibeto-Chinese" art, were made during the Qianlong period (1736-95) when this type of art reached great heights.[1] During the reign of the Qianlong emperor, the Bogdo Gegen of Mongolia came once a year to China bringing the "Nine Whites" as tribute. In return for the eight white horses and one white camel, the Bogdo Gegen was given the specified gifts of a silver cylindrical tea vessel weighing thirty liang (40 oz.), two silver teapots, and ninety-nine bolts of various types of silk, brocade, and other cloth.[2] This was merely the official gift exchange. The Bogdo Gegen was presented with other personal gifts, such as the sutra covers (cat. nos. 47-49) and the hand drum (cat. no. 23) in this exhibition. The Bogdo Gegens in their turn gave other tribute gifts to the Qianlong emperors. Buddhist statues were among the tribute gifts when Zanabazar, the first Jebtsundamba, sent his envoy to the Qing court in 1655.[3]

Mongolian artists, like their Tibetan counterparts, followed the prescriptions of religious texts in order to create a sacred image. The sculptor or painter fashioning the image of a god had to comply with the iconography and proportions of that particular deity set down in the religious texts. Examples of Tibetan pantheons derived from texts abound. There is the pantheon of the Mongolian Kanjur, completed at Dolonnor in 1720.[4] The Three Hundred Icons (T: sKu-brNyan Sum-brGya) by the third Jangjya Khutuktu, Rolpay Dorje (1717-1786), the State Preceptor of the Qing dynasty, was one of the popular texts used by the artists of Mongolia.[5] Another example is a Mongolian pantheon containing five hundred icons based on the works of the Fourth Panchen Lama (1781-1852).[6]


Although a bronze seated Buddha from Tibet may share similar iconography with examples made in Mongolia or China, certain characteristics distinguish the images. The ornamentation, the shape of the lotus petals on the pedestal, and the way in which the base plate is inserted and held in place often give clues as to the country of origin. Even within Mongolia, there were variations between the works produced in Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia. The sculptures of Zanabazar illustrate these differences.

The Zanabazar School of Sculpture of Outer Mongolia

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the sculptor par excellence among the Buddhist countries of Asia was the Bogdo Gegen Zanabazar (1635-1723), the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, or Bogdo Gegen, and the greatest sculptor of Mongolia.[7] His artistic talent was already apparent when he was a young boy, when he was observed to be fond of drawing and building houses and temples with his little friends.[8] He went to Tibet at age fourteen, where he was ordained by the Panchen Lama and proclaimed by the Fifth Dalai Lama as the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu. At that time the Potala Palace was being reconstructed, and Zanabazar must have come in contact with the many artisans and craftsmen at work in Lhasa. Upon his return to Mongolia in 1651, he was accompanied by hundreds of Tibetan lamas and many artists and craftsmen, sent by the Fifth Dalai Lama to propagate the faith and to build monasteries.

Zanabazar's greatest contribution to Mongolian art is his gilt bronze sculptures. They include the Vajradhara in the Gandategchinlin Monastery (see cat. no. 99, fig. 1), and the Museum of Fine Art's Five Transcendent Buddhas (cat. no. 97), the youthful White Tara (cat. no. 102; Mongolia Exhibition Sitatara ), and the Green Tara modelled after a more mature woman (see Berger, "After Xanadu," fig. 5). The sculptures of Zanabazar portray youthful figures and are beautifully proportioned. Their facial features are characterized by high foreheads, thin, arching eyebrows, high- bridged noses, and small, fleshy lips. The jewelry is exquisite, especially the long simple strands of beads that hang across the figures' torsos. His works have a peaceful and contemplative look and share many characteristics with Nepalese sculptures. Both Gilles Béguin and Patricia Berger have discussed the sources for his work.[9]

The sculptures of the Zanabazar school are generally made in two pieces; the body and the pedestal are made separately and then soldered together. The smaller sculptures are made in one piece and sometimes a mold was used to produce multiple wax models (see cat. nos. 113-115). Most of the sculptures are gilded, and the mercury gilding is especially beautiful. Following Tibetan tradition, the faces are sometimes painted with cold gold (gold powder in a solution of yak-skin glue) and the eyes and lips colored with mineral pigments. Peaceful deities had their hair painted blue, while wrathful guardians were given heads of orange-red hair.

The lotus pedestals of the sculptures by Zanabazar and his school are distinctive. Instead of the oval and rectangular throne types common in Tibet, they show a preference for circular or drum-shaped pedestals (cat. no. 107) and semioval pedestals with tall bases such as the one for the four Taras (cat. nos. 103-106). The Zanabazar school of sculpture is distinguished by the beautiful and varied lotus petals, which are not to be found on the sculptures of Tibet, Nepal, and China. There is much variation; the petals can be plain, single, double, wavy, scalloped, or with the tip bent forward. In the set of the Five Transcendent Buddhas, of which the Amitabha is included in this exhibition (cat. no. 97), the lotus petals are distinctly different on each pedestal. There is generally a border of pearl beading on top and occasionally below. Sometimes a wavy line is found on the bottom of the pedestal. Special emphasis is paid to the lotus stamens. They are carefully incised, either as vertical striations below the top row of pearl beading or in fan-shaped groupings between the lotus petals.

Images in Mongolia, following the Tibetan tradition, were consecrated after they were made. Sacred objects such as rolls of prayers and other relics were inserted inside the statue, and the base was sealed with a metal plate. The standard decoration for the base plate is an incised double dorje, although some base plates are left plain. Not every sculpture retains its base plate and relics, as many of them have been lost or removed through the centuries. If a sculpture has its original base plate in place, it is sometimes possible to determine the work's provenance from the way in which the plate is secured and the style in which the double dorje is depicted. In most Sino-Tibetan sculptures, that is, bronze images made in Beijing and Inner Mongolia, the base plate is held in place by small points, made by chiseling along the edge of the base toward the base plate (fig. 2).

On the sculptures made by Zanabazar or his school the base plates are inserted in a different way. In general, they were carefully made to fit snugly over the cavities, not held in position by chisel points on the base, as is the case in Chinese and Inner Mongolian sculptures. (However, there are always exceptions, the standing Maitreya in this exhibition [cat. no. 100] has chiseled marks on its base.)

Previous authors have discussed variations among the double dorjes in Chinese, Nepalese, and Mongolian art. Regarding the center circle over the crossed dorjes, Dr. P. H. Pott observed that in Nepalese bronzes, there are circles within the circle, while Chinese examples contain the yinyang symbol, the motif of two dotted interlocking commas.[10] A. Neven made a further study of these designs and confirmed that the yinyang symbol definitely denotes an image of Chinese origin.[11] In some instances, pectoral fins in the form of two brackets are added to the yinyang symbol, transforming it into twin fish, and sometimes scales are incised on the fish. Neven noticed that this motif appears on pieces originating from Kham (Eastern Tibet/Western China), China, and Mongolia, and that the images with this particular motif can be dated to the seventeenth century at the earliest.

The extant bases of sculptures attributed to Zanabazar and his school are unique. The double dorje on the base plate, if present, is especially well done and is sometimes gilded. As for the circle in the center over the crossed dorje, some are plain while others have the three whirling segments, a design symbolizing ceaseless change and the blissful mind radiating compassion.[12] (This design also appears on the base plate of Yongle bronzes of the Ming dynasty in China, but they are not gilded.) The gilding of the double dorjes is a special characteristic of the works of Zanabazar and his school (fig. 3) and has not been seen elsewhere.

The Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Harvard University has a beautiful late-seventeenth century image of a standing Maitreya (fig. 4).[13] Its utter simplicity, serenity, and exquisite workmanship stamp it as a work by either Zanabazar or his school. A circular base plate is soldered onto the rectangular pedestal, and on it is incised a double dorje with the characteristic gold gilding peculiar to the Zanabazar school of sculpture.

A Shakyamuni Buddha with a gilt double-dorje base plate, in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson S. Bogart of San Francisco (fig. 5), is similar in style to the Medicine Buddhas in the exhibition (cat. no. 107). The base plate is intact, but the center portion is obscured by a small metal plaque inscribed: J. Johnson, Quarter Master, 99th Reg., China Campaign, 1860. Quartermaster Johnson was a member of the Allied forces that occupied Beijing and destroyed the Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan); this Mongolian sculpture was most probably looted from there. It could easily have been one of the gifts from the various Bogdo Gegens to the emperors of the Qing dynasty stored in the Summer Palace.

In the Chang Foundation of Taipei is a large Kubera whose style and workmanship are typical of the work of Zanabazar and his school (fig. 6). Kubera, the dispenser of wealth, sits with both legs pendant on a large lion. The attribute in his raised right hand, the club or banner, is lost. His left hand rests gently on his small rodentlike mongoose, which is spilling jewels from its mouth. A pyramid of jewels is piled neatly on a small table below Kubera's feet. Kubera is sumptuously coiffed and bejeweled. His crown is similar to Amitayus' (cat. no. 108); his hair is parted into three sections, and they flow down his back in the same style as the Taras' (cat. nos. 103-106). The head of Kubera's lion resembles that of a camel. Since Mongolians were not familiar with animals such as the lion and the mongoose, their representations of them are somewhat fanciful.

Kubera's lotus throne is oval. The three rows of lotus petals are flat and serrated, with each petal incised with three lines. The stamens are prominent below the row of beading. All these are characteristic of Zanabazar and his school.

Sculptures made by Zanabazar and his school are rare even in Mongolia and are considered national treasures. Besides the three examples in the United States and the one in Taiwan, there are two excellent examples in the Ferenc Hopp Museum of Eastern Asiatic Arts in Budapest, a Manjushri and a Vajradhara with consort.[14] There are some in Buriatia, but they have not been published.

Some sculptures of Outer Mongolia are amalgams of gathered pieces from various places and combined together to form a single sculpture. The base, halo, and even attributes that appear together may not have been intended to do so. It is difficult to say whether this is a Mongolian custom, or one caused by necessity. This is certainly true in Chinese art, as in porcelains and lacquers from the Ming dynasty. The Qianlong emperor of China was known to have remounted Tibetan thangkas in the Chinese style. Years of warfare in the Urga area, natural disasters such as fire, and the massive destruction of temples during the 1930s have destroyed many of the art objects in Mongolia. When the museums and temples were established again in recent years, the curators and monks may have combined certain objects together out of necessity. In this exhibition, the halo and throne of the large Vajrasattva (cat. no. 99) are not original, but the halo is probably contemporaneous.

The large Buddha in the group of Medicine Buddhas is different in style from the rest of the group (cat. no. 107). The Buddha Shakyamuni in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is an example of two different elements being combined into a masterpiece (fig. 7). The seated Buddha is the work of the school of Zanabazar and so is the pedestal and halo, a beautiful creation with Garuda standing truimphantly over the naga, whose tails link organically with the curling tendrils from the bodies of the makara. However, a difference in the color of gilding and the original height of the halo indicates that the two pieces do not belong together. But in typical Asian fashion (the piece had a Tibetan provenance), the two pieces have been joined.

Dolonnor or Inner Mongolian Style

The bronze images of Zanabazar and his school are the best among the sculptures of Outer Mongolia. When discussing Mongolian sculpture, László Ferenczy remarked that it was unfortunate that most of the works known from Mongolian temples were not made in situ but originated in China or Tibet.[15] Actually, some of the so-called Chinese sculptures were made in Inner Mongolia, or by Dolonnor craftsmen residing in Urga.

Dolonnor (C: Duolun), about two hundred miles northeast of Beijing, is located near the ox-bow section of the Luan River in the old province of Chahar, now the southeastern section of Inner Mongolia (fig. 8). This part of Inner Mongolia is one of the largest producers of iron and coal in China, and Dolonnor, at least through the first quarter of the twentieth century, was famous for its manufacture of Buddhist images in bronze.[16]

In 1844, when the missionary Abbé Huc was in Dolonnor, he saw a caravan of eighty camels leaving with the various parts of a single Buddha image, intended as a present for the Dalai Lama.[17] A. M. Pozdneyev, who traveled to Mongolia in 1892, mentioned Dolonnor several times in connection with statues. In Pozdneyev's description of the crafts and industrial establishments of Urga, he mentioned that the majority of braziers and burkhan (Buddha-image) makers came from Dolonnor.[18] When the temple of Dachin-kalbain süme of Urga was being rebuilt in 1892, six thousand liang of silver were appropriated for the purchase of burkhan from Beijing and Dolonnor.[19] The main image of the Maidari Temple (built around 1820 to 1836) in Urga was also cast in Dolonnor. The Maidari image was cast in seven separate parts by a Chinese craftsman of Dolonnor and was shipped from there to Urga.[20] From the descriptions of Huc and Pozneyev, we know that Dolonnor images were cast in pieces and then riveted together, that the craftsmen were capable of producing images of immense size, and that many of the artisans worked in Urga.

Dolonnor was also important historically; this area, once full of rich pastures, is located next to the site of Shangdu (Xanadu), the summer capital of Khubilai Khan. It was in Dolonnor, in 1691, that Zanabazar, the first Bogdo Gegen of Urga, accompanied by the princes of the Khalkha, met with the Kangxi emperor of China and recognized his suzerainty. As a result, many important monasteries were built there with imperial patronage, and Dolonnor became "the single most important center of Mongolian Buddhism in southern Mongolia."[21]

One of the Chinese names for Dolonnor is Lama miao, or "Lama temple," named after the many temples located there. The two famous temples are Koke süme and Shira süme. Koke Monastery (C: Huizong si) was built by the Kangxi emperor in 1711, and it was staffed by monks from the 120 banners of Mongolia. In 1731 the smaller Shira Monastery (C: Shanyin si) was established by the Yongzheng emperor for the Jangjya Khutuktu Ngawang Losang Chöden. The same Jangjya Khutuktu supervised the editing and blockprinting of the Mongolian Kanjur in Dolonnor from 1717 to 1720, under imperial orders of the Kangxi emperor.

In the early twentieth century, the Japanese scholar and photographer Henmi Baiei visited Dolonnor and took pictures of both monasteries. The bronze images he photographed in Shira süme (Shanyin si) (fig. 8) are adorned with the characteristic large, and flat five-leafed crowns, with scarves billowing behind their ears and outside their elbows.[22]

In the 1930s, while traveling in the Chahar region of Inner Mongolia, the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin found six monumental brass statues in an abandoned temple. This temple, named Epi Khalkha süme, was near Dolonnor.[23] It is likely that the sculptures were manufactured in Dolonnor, the main center for images. Hedin purchased these statues which include a Tsongkhapa, a standing Vajrapani, a Manjushri (fig. 9), and a Shadakshari Avalokiteshvara, and took them back to Sweden. The heads, bodies, limbs, and pedestals of these full-bodied sculptures are made separately of beaten copper alloy and fitted together. Decorative elements such as the attributes, earrings, five-leaf crowns, and the billowing scarfs are also made separately and further inlaid with turquoise, coral, and lapis lazuli. The ear pendants and the decorative leaves in the crown are flat, and the curvilinear scroll patterns are distinctly Mongolian. They are identical in style to the images photographed in the Dolonnor temples. In discussing the Vajrapani, Marylin Rhie stated that "this image, and the others from this set, can be taken as indicative of the Mongolian school around 1700."[24] The present writer agrees and would like to bring this a step further, and call this particular school of sculpture, the Dolonnor, or Inner Mongolian, style.

In this exhibition, the silver Amitayus (cat. no. 67), Lhamo (cat. no. 83), and Begze (cat. no. 84) are quite different in appearance and casting from the sculptures of the school of Zanabazar. The last two are part of a set of Eight Dharmapalas made for the Choijin-Lama Temple in Ulaanbaatar, erected in 1903-06 in honor of Lubsankhaiduv, the brother of the eighth Bogdo Gegen. Instead of being cast in two pieces like many of the Zanabazar sculptures, they are hammered in the repoussé manner; the head, body, limbs, scarves, attributes, halo, and pedestal were all made separately and fastened together with rivets, dovetail joints, and clasps. The ornaments in their crowns and earrings are similar to pieces made in Inner Mongolia, such as the Stockholm image. There is no doubt that these pieces were made in the Dolonnor style, possibly by Dolonnor craftsmen residing in Urga.

In discussing the Stockholm piece, Rhie also mentioned that while the style is Tibetan in tradition, the "elements forecast developments seen in Chinese Buddhist art of the Qianlong period,"[25] a correct observation of Inner Mongolian influence on Sino-Tibetan art.

The Influence of Mongolian Art on Sino-Tibetan Art

Rolpay Dorje, the third Jangjya Khutuktu, the highest incarnate lama of Inner Mongolia, was the National Preceptor of China during the Qianlong period. During this time, many Sino-Tibetan art objects were produced. Rolpay Dorje was responsible for designing the major temples, among them, Yonghegong and the temples in Chengde (Jehol). An artist himself,[26] a specialist in Buddhist iconography, and responsible for compiling at least three pantheons, he no doubt masterminded and supervised the decoration and furnishing of these temples. The number of images needed, together with the thousands of sculptures cast for the emperor's mother's three birthdays (she was a fervent Buddhist) must have been considerable.[27] While some of these commissioned pieces were done directly in the imperial workshop (Zuobanchu) in Beijing, it is probable that others were manufactured elsewhere. Dolonnor, being an area famous for its bronze casting, as well as the homebase of the Jangjya Khutuktu, could logically be the source for many of the commissioned pieces.

Many of the extant sculptures from the Qianlong period, whether of wood or metal, are similar in style to these Dolonnor pieces. A seated Amitayus belonging to the Asian Art Museum and bearing the Qianlong reign mark, the five-leaf crown, the flat earrings with Mongolian scrollworks, and the scarf (fig. 10), are very close in style to the Stockholm Manjushri. The method of construction is also identical, with the various components made separately in beaten and repoussé copper alloy. In looking at this piece, one must conclude that it was made either in Dolonnor or by a sculptor from Dolonnor. The lamas of Yonghegong were Mongolians, and some of them could have come from the Jangjya Khutuktu's temple in Dolonnor. Some of these lamas must have been trained artists, and they in turn taught the artists in the imperial workshops.[28] The artists of the imperial workshop were a mixed bunch; besides Chinese from the various provinces, there were Jesuit missionaries from Europe and their Chinese students, Nepalese, and at least two jade carvers were Tibetans.


The Buddhist paintings of Mongolia are directly related to the painting tradition of central Tibet. They are executed on cotton stretched on a frame. The cloth is first sized with a solution of chalk, glue, and arki (milk vodka), then polished with a smooth stone when dry.[29] The image is then drawn in charcoal according to the proportions in the shastras, or sometimes the artist may use a pounce. The pigments consist of mineral and vegetable colors, mixed with yak-skin glue. The finished piece is framed with silk brocades from China, and a thin stick and a wooden roller are inserted at top and bottom for hanging.

Mongolian paintings, following Tibetan traditions, can be painted on white, red, or black backgrounds. While the majority of paintings are executed on a white background, there are special images painted on a red ground (marthang), such as the Shakyamuni (cat. no. 64) in this exhibition. Paintings on a black ground, termed nakthang, often depict wrathful deities, and are kept in the göngkhang, the special room in the temple reserved for guardian deities.

Like Tibetan thangkas, Mongolian paintings are noted for their fluid line work, contrasting colors, and the intricate designs in gold. Characteristic Mongolian elements can be detected, such as the lotus pedestal in the thangka of Ganesha (cat. no. 75), whose petals are similar in style to those peculiar to the Zanabazar school of sculpture. His flaming halo with pearls is again Mongolian, showing close affinity with works in the Tibeto-Mongol pantheon.[30] The presence of the five principal animals (camel, horse, yak, sheep, and goat), soft peaks, and colorful clouds in the shape of Chinese ruyi fungus, are all characteristic of Mongolian paintings. Another feature peculiar to Mongolian paintings is the use of dotted brushstrokes on the low-lying hills in the background of the thangkas of Ganesha, and the Twenty-Five Kings of Shambhala (cat. no. 46), giving them a moss-like appearance.


The appliqué (zeegt naamal) of Mongolia is like a giant thangka or painting. The embroidery needle and thread take the place of brush and ink, while pieces of silk and brocade are transformed into areas of color. Where one finds gold highlights in Buddhist paintings, in appliqués one finds gold threads, carefully couched along the edges, and golden brocades are cut into jewelry shapes (See appliqué of Phagspa, left)

Appliqué thangkas came into Mongolia together with Vajrayana Buddhism. Mongolians are familiar with this technique for the excavated felt carpet of the Huns from the Noyon Uul burials already showed a combination of embroidery and appliqué.[31] The Urga area is especially renowned for its appliqués used for decorating temples and palaces, done by women under the supervision of famous artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Apart from Tibet, appliqués are also made in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and China. In Bhutan, only men produced this type of art.

Appliqués are called "silk paintings" in Mongolia because silk is the main material for creating this art form. Silk has been imported from China since ancient times. Every year, bolts of silk and brocades were given by the Chinese emperors to the high lamas and princes of Mongolia, as return gifts for their tributes, or as personal gifts. Besides being made into garments, silk is used for accessories such as belts, hats, and purses. In the monasteries, silk is utilized in many ways; to clothe lamas and deities alike; for cushions and throne backs; for canopies; and for framing thangkas. Any scraps left over were fashioned into elaborate temple hangings (fig. 12), tassels for drums and other ritual objects, and, of course, made into appliqués.

The appliqué of Dorje Dordan (cat. no. 86) is one of the best in Mongolia. It is pieced together with many interesting types of silk and brocade, including scraps of dragon-robe material. The appliqué of Begze is further ornamented with tiny coral beads (cat. no. 85). This addition of gems such as coral, pearls, and turquoise in appliqué is a purely Mongolian practice, and not found elsewhere.

Book Decoration

The majority of book covers in this exhibition belonged to the Bogdo Gegens of Mongolia. These extraordinary book covers are not all Mongolian in origin; at least three of them were gifts from the Manchu emperors of China. Mongolians realized early that books were essential in disseminating Buddhism. Although Tibetan was the liturgical language of Mongolia, rulers, both Mongol and Chinese, made sure that the Kanjur and Tanjur were translated into Mongolian and published. Sutra-printing took place in many monasteries of Mongolia, on paper purchased from China and Tibet . When Zanabazar visited Lhasa, he returned to Khalkha with the Jad-damba, written in gold on leaves of sandalwood.[32] Again in 1683, he commissioned yet another Kanjur from Tibet, as he was concerned with the religious education of the Khalkhas.[33] In 1804 the fourth Bogdo Gegen acquired from Lhasa a Kanjur, written in gold on black paper.[34] When the last Bogdo Gegen passed away, these books and others were transferred from his palace library to the National Library.

The same technique used in painting is applied to book decoration. Mongolian sacred texts are outstanding for their lavish ornamentations, such as the Sanduijud, with the text embossed on sheets of silver and gilded (cat. no. 62). In another example, the "nine gems," gold, silver, coral, pearls, lapis lazuli, turquoise, steel, copper, and mother-of-pearl, were ground up for use as pigments and the sutra was written in the nine colors on black paper in a fine calligraphic hand (cat. no. 59).

Wood is scarce in Mongolia, especially the type of hardwood used by Tibetans for carving book covers. There are some hardwood covers in the Bogdo Gegens' collection, but in general, Mongol scribes illustrated the title page on paper and then framed it with softwood, which was then embellished with Chinese brocades. The back covers of Mongolian sacred texts, following Chinese tradition, often depict the Guardians of the Four Quarters.

Minor Arts

Mongolians are an artistic race and have a tendency to decorate every item on their body, inside their ger, and on the trappings of their animals. This is demonstrated not only by their highly developed handicrafts but also by many folk sayings in which knowledge is demanded from men and manual dexterity in women.[35]

The Mongolian national costume is a robelike garment called a del, that, like the Tibetan robe, has no pockets. The del is worn with a thin silk sash several yards long wound tightly around the waist. Attached to the sash are essential objects such as the eating set, tinder pouch, snuff bottle, and tobacco and pipe pouches. Mongolians, like the nomadic Tibetans and Manchurians, use an ingeniously designed eating set incorporating a sharp knife and a pair of chopsticks, and sometimes includes a toothpick, ear scratcher, and a tweezer. Some of the fancier containers, such as the example belonging to the wife of the Bogdo Khan (cat. no. 29), are made of precious metals and embellished with semi-precious stones.

The tinder pouch or flint and steel set consists of a small leather pouch with a strip of steel attached to its lower edge. Depending on one's station in life, the tinder pouch can be a utilitarian piece, or it can be a work of art such as the example belonging to a giant in catalogue number 6 (left).

Decorations on these accessories often show a combination of Tibetan, Mongol, and Chinese motifs. The two major types of pattern in Mongolian decorative art are the hee (ornament), "which creates the rhythm" and ugalz (volutes, scrolls), "which emphasizes the form."[36] Together, they create balance. There are five types of Mongolian motifs: geometric, zoomorphic, botanical, shapes from natural phenomena, and symbols. Geometric designs include alhan hee, or meander; tumennasan, or eternity pattern; olzii utas, or "happiness" knot; khan buguivch, or khan's bracelet; hatan suih, or princess's earrings; zooson hee, or coin; and tuuzan hee, or ribbon. Zoomorphic designs consist of hornlike and noselike (C: ruyi) scrolls; the four friendly animals (elephant, monkey, hare, and dove; cat. no. 25), the four strong animals (lion, tiger, dragon, and the mythical bird Garuda); the twelve Asian zodiac animals (rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar); and the circle made up of two fish (C: yinyang). Botanical motifs are represented by the lotus (purity), peony (prosperity), and peaches (longevity). Water, flames, and clouds are shapes from natural phenomena, while symbols refer to the Soyombo (fig. 13), the Eight Auspicious Symbols, the Seven Jewels of the Monarch, and the Three Jewels. Many of these designs are of Tibetan and Chinese origin, but they merged with the basic Mongolian motifs into a rich decorative repertoire.

Many of these decorative motifs can be found on the embroidered cases for snuff bottles, another object which is attached to the Mongolian's belt. The habit of taking snuff probably came to Mongolia from China in the eighteenth century and by the mid-nineteenth century it was widespread. It was customary for the emperors to give fancy snuff bottles as gifts to their courtiers and foreign guests, especially the high lamas of Mongolia and Tibet. It was, and still is, the custom to exchange snuff bottles when Mongolians meet each other, and to offer the bottle again at the conclusion of business. While many snuff bottles were imported, Mongolia, with its rich deposits of agate and other semiprecious stones, also produced its own.

During the Qing dynasty, snuff bottles were kept in kidney-shaped brocade bags with a gathered top.[37] Snuff-bottle bags made by Mongolians are larger than the Chinese ones. Made of padded brocade, the Mongolian version is rectangular, with a slit opening down the middle. The bag is worn doubled over one's belt, thus keeping the bottle secured and protected even while on horseback. The example in figure 14 belonged to the last Bogdo Gegen, the last ruler of Mongolia. It is of red brocade, decorated with fancy braids and piping, and embroidered with a typical Mongolian ugalz (volutes or scrolling) design. Variations of this motif are seen on leather boots, stockings, and clothing. The embroidery consists of a special type of chain stitch, which involves using two separate threads (fig. 16). It is done in rows next to each other, in gradating colors. This type of embroidery is also seen on the tassel of the hand drum in catalogue number 23. Abbe Huc was especially impressed with what the Mongol women could do with the needle:

It is difficult to understand how, with tools so coarse, they can produce articles [clothes, hats, and boots] that are almost indestructible, though it is true that they take plenty of time to their work. They excel also in embroidery, and exhibit in this a skill, taste, and variety that is really admirable. It is very doubtful whether it would be possible to find, even in France, embroideries as beautiful and perfect as those sometimes executed by Tartar women.[38]

Generally speaking, Mongolian religious art closely followed the iconography and techniques of Tibet. But in every form of Mongolian art, there are minor details that betray its provenance. The green textured strokes on the rolling hills found in paintings are a Mongolian characteristic, as is the inclusion of pearls and semi-precious stones in appliqués. When a group of animals is shown in an appliqué or a painting, the Mongolian artists and craftsmen would include the "five snouts."

Although Mongolian sculptures follow the proportion and iconography of Tibet, Mongolia has its own schools of sculpture. The school of Zanabazar is distinguished by its exquisitely cast sculptures sitting on thrones with a wide variety of lotus petals. The artisans of Dolonnor, Inner Mongolia, manufactured large images out of pieces of hammered copper, and their headdresses and earrings have a distinctive style.

Chinese influence is discerned in the decorative motifs found in jewelry and utensils such as snuff bottles, eating sets and tinder pouch. The decorative repertoire of Mongolia is thus made up of Mongolian volutes and scrollworks, auspicious motifs from Tibetan Buddhism, and Chinese motifs such as shou characters, dragons, coins, peaches, and bats.

All images and text copyright The Asian Art Museum and Terese Tse Bartholomew; not to be reproduced without permission.


[1]. Terese Tse Bartholomew,"Sino-Tibetan Art of the Qianlong Period from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco." Orientations 22, no. 6 (June 1991), 34-45. to text

[2]. Zhang Yuxin, Qing zhengfu yu lama jiao (The Qing Government and Lamaism) (Beijing: Xizang renmin Press, 1988), p. 112. to text

[3].Zhang Yuxin, Qing dai sida huofo (The Four Living Buddhas of the Qing Dynasty) (Beijing: Zhongguo renmin da xue Press, 1989), p. 37. to text

[4].Lokesh Chandra, Buddhist Iconography (New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture and Aditya Prakashan, 1991). to text

[5]. Blanche Christine Olschak and Geshe Thupten Wangyal, Mystic Art of Ancient Tibet (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1973), pp. 113-85. to text

[6]. Lokesh Chandra, Cultural Horizons of India (New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture and Aditya Prakashan, 1993), vol. 3, p. 438. to text

[7].See Berger, "After Xanadu," and "Zanabazar."to text

[8].N. Tsultem, The Eminent Mongolian Sculptor--G. Zanabazar (Ulaanbaatar: State Publishing House, 1982), p. 7. to text

[9].Béguin, "Les sources de Zanabazar," in Gilles Béguin et al, Trésors de Mongolie, XVIIe-XIXe siecles ((Paris: Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1993), p. 64-81; see also Berger, "After Xanadu." to text

[10].P. H. Pott, Introduction to the Tibetan Collection of the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, p. 38. to text

[11].Lamaistic Art (Brussels: Société Générale de Banque de Bruxelles, 1975), p. 18. to text

[12].Valrae Reynolds et al., Catalogue of the Newark Museum Tibetan Collection (Newwark, N.J.: The Newark Museum), vol. 1, p. 74. to text

[13].Marylin Rhie and Robert A. F. Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet (San Francisco: Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; New York: Tibet House and Harry N. Abrams, 1991), cat. no. 32. to text

[14].Laszlo Ferenczy, "Adi-Buddha Vajradhara," Orientations 21, no. 2 (February 1990), 43-45 to text

[15].Ferenczy, "Adi-Buddha Vajradhara," p. 43. to text

[16].Chen Do and Shi Zhonghua, eds, Xinbian Zhong'guo dili (New Chinese Atlas) (N.p., n.d.), p. 52. to text

[17].Abbe E. R. Huc, Recollections of a Journey through Tartary, Thibet, and China during the Years 1844, 1845, and 1846 (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1852), vol. 1, p. 37. to text

[18].Aleksei M. Pozdneyev, Mongolia and the Mongols trans. John Roger Shaw and Dale Plank, Uralic and Altaic Series, vol. 61 (Bloomington: Indiana University Publications, 1971), p. 69. to text

[19].Ibid., vol. 1, p. 58. to text

[20]. Ibid., p. 61. to text

[21].Paul Hyer and Sechin Jagchid, A Mongolian Living Buddha: Biography of the Kanjurwa Khutughtu (Albany: State University of New Uork Press, 1983), p. 55. to text

[22].Henmi Baiei, Man-mo ramakyo bijutsu zuhan (Illustrated Lamaist Art of Manchuria and Mongolia) (Taipei: Shin Wenfeng, 1979), pls. II-94, 96, 104. to text

[23].Håkan Wahlquist, personal correspondence. to text

[24].Rhie and Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion, p.68. to text

[25].Ibid., p. 145. to text

[26].Tuguan Luosang Queji Nima, Chen Qingying, and Ma Lianlong, Zhangjia guoshi ruobi duoji chuan (Beijing: Minzu Press, 1988), p. 197. to text

[27].See Bartholomew, "Sino-Tibetan Art of the Qianlong Period." to text

[28].Luo Wenhua, personal correspondence. to text

[29].N. Tsultem, Development of the Mongolian National Style Painting "Mongol Zurag" in Brief (Ulaanbaatar: State Publishing House, 1986), p. 13. to text

[30].Chandra, Buddhist Iconography, vol. I, pp. 75-202. to text

[31].Tsultem, Mongol Zurag, [p. 1] fig. 3. to text

[32].Pozdneyev, Mongolia and the Mongols, p. 327. to text

[33].Ibid., p. 331. to text

[34].Ibid.,p. 356. to text

[35].Academy of Sciences, People's Republic of Mongolia, Information Mongolia (Oxford and New York: Pergamon Press, 1990), p. 348 to text

[36].Ibid. to text

[37].N. Tsultem, Mongolian Arts and Crafts (Ulannbaatar: State Publishing House, 1987), pl. 69. to text

[38].Wang Yarong, Chinese Folk Embroidery (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987, p. 139. to text

[39].Huc, Recollections of a Journey through Tartary, Thibet, and China during the Yars 1844, 1845, and 1846, vol. 1, pp. 62-63. to text

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