As the global economy expands and the Internet gives us access to faraway destinations in a matter of minutes, there is a growing interest in places that once seemed remote, barren, and forbidden. Mongolia certainly fits those requirements. A few years ago the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles organized a traveling exhibition of artifacts excavated from Inner Mongolia called Empires Beyond the Great Wall: The Heritage of Genghis Khan. Last year, the Asian Museum of Art in San Francisco organized a traveling exhibition called Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan, which focused on Outer Mongolia.

Chinggis Khan
Figure 1, Zanabazar, Portrait of Zanabazar, 17th C. gilt bronze, brocade, 26½ x 17 x 13½”

Though the titles sound as if the exhibitions may have a lot in common, there are major differences between them. The Natural History Museum exhibit had an archaeological focus on the early steppe empires of Inner Mongolia, beginning with the early ethnic tribes and ending with the Mongols. The artifacts and artworks come from a large period of time, daring from the 3rd and 2nd millenniums B.C.E. to the 14th century. In contrast the Asian Museum of Art emphasized the Buddhist artworks of the Mongols in Outer Mongolia. These works date from the 17th to the 20th centuries (mostly from the 19th-20th centuries).

Considering the amount of information presented both museums did an incredible job in documenting and cataloging the works. They succeeded in bringing to the public a spectacular range of Mongolian artwork which represented a vibrant cultural history of these nomadic people that had largely been previously ignored.

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The name Chinggis Khan, used freely in both exhibition titles, conjures the image of the formidable conqueror. Most people think of him as a leader and a fierce warrior who brought fear and destruction to those who stood in his way.

Who was Chinggis Khan? What was his legacy? Since Mongolian artwork developed from the many cultures that the Mongolian empire came into contact with, it’s necessary to know something about the history of these nomadic people. Mongolia is a region that has seen changes as vast and sweeping as its terrain. Today, there is Outer Mongolia and Inner Mongolia. Outer Mongolia, now a sovereign nation, broke away from the Soviet Union in 1990, and Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. But at one time these vast regions of steppes and semi-deserts were home to pastoral nomadic tribes of different ethnic and cultural origins.

Figure 2, Zanabazar, gilt bronze, 10⅛ x 5⅝ x 5⅝”

In the beginning of the 13th century Chinggis united the scattered tribes of this region into a Mongol confederation. After unifying his own territories, he set his sights on foreign areas.

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There has been much written about the barbaric nature of Chinggis’s military conquest, but some of his remarkable contributions are not as well known. Before Chinggis’s reign, the Mongols had no ethnic identity. One of his major accomplishments was establishing the first written language of Mongolia. He was also responsible for setting up a Mongolian government. There is no question that Chinggis’s attacks were brutal and ruthless, but once he conquered the lands around him, he adopted a policy of religious tolerance. Though an unusual tactic, he realized the necessity to promote good relations with the territories that he seized. By employing foreign interpreters, advisers, and officials as well as artisans and craftspeople, he enabled the Mongols to learn skills that their nomadic society lacked.

After Chinggis’s death in 1227, his son, Ogodei, continued the expansion of the empire. He founded the first Mongol town and capital of Kharakhorum. In 1241 he led a campaign that ultimately made the Mongolian empire the largest contiguous land empire in world history, stretching from Korea in the east to what is today Poland and Hungary in the west.

The next dominant figure in Mongolia was Chinggis’s grandson Khubilai Khan. By 1260 Khubilai was ruler of Mongolia, Tibet, Korea, Manchuria, and North China. Upon completing the conquest of South China, he founded the Yuan dynasty, which lasted from 1272 to 1368. Like his grandfather, Khubilai realized that it was beneficial to assimilate aspects of the cultures he conquered. Thus, he adopted a number of Chinese customs. Eventually he moved the Mongol capital from Kharakhorum to Dadu, which is in the area of modern-day Beijing. One of his goals was to try to build a multi-ethnic empire and as a part of that process, he had Muslim architects and Nepalese craftspeople (including the well-known Nepalese artist Anige) assist in the construction of the new capital. Khubilai valued craftspeople and artists, so throughout his reign there was a great number of paintings, textiles, sculpture, and other artworks produced. Mongolians had an appreciation for Tibetan and Chinese art and they used forms and techniques from these cultures to create their own works of art.

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Figure 3, Zanabazar and His Preincarnation, 17th C. bronze, 9½ x 8½”

During this period direct trade routes were opened between Europe and East Asia and the trade of goods undoubtedly had a great influence on the art styles of the cultures that were a part of that network. Khubilai’s tolerance of other cultures and religions, especially Tibetan Buddhism, helped to pave the way for future exchange of ideas and culture with Tibet. However, it was difficult for Khubilai to maintain control of all the lands in his empire and by 1294 his reign had ended.

Throughout the 14th century, the Mongols continued to have difficulty remaining unified. The last Yuan leader was ousted from China in 1368, causing many Mongols to flee from China. With the end of the Yuan dynasty came the beginning of the Ming dynasty in China and relations between Mongolia and China were strained. About 20 years later, the Ming army invaded Kharakhorum and destroyed numerous Mongolian works of art. (Throughout Mongolia’s history, the destruction of Mongolian works of art has left large voids and gaps in chronology.) Warfare continued throughout the Mongolian empire and from the late 14th to the 17th centuries, the Mongols remained within the territory of Mongolia, never regaining the glory of the earlier empire.

In the 16th century, Altan Khan established a more sedentary Mongolian state. This shift allowed Mongolian artisans and architects to create larger and longer lasting artworks and artifacts. The nomadic lifestyle had set limitations on the size, weight, and durability of previous artworks. Perhaps the greatest contribution made by Altan was his adoption of Tibetan Buddhism. Though this religion had appealed to other khans, it was Altan who introduced Buddhism to the masses. In 1586, Khan Abtai built the first Buddhist monastery, a lamasery, in Mongolia at Erden-Tsu near Kharakhorum.

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Probably the most influential Mongolian in the 17th century was Zanabazar (1635- 1723). In 1638 he became the first Bogdo Gegen, the holiest figure in Mongolian Buddhism. He was only 14 when he traveled to Tibet to study with the Dalai Lama. On his return to Mongolia in 1651, he brought back with him many skills, which eventually enabled him to build monasteries, translate Tibetan Buddhist texts into Mongolian, write poetry, and create paintings and sculpture.

Figure 4 Book Cover with Tsongkapa, Vajardhara, and King, 19th C. gold, silver, embroidered silk, 29 x 9 x 1”

Widely respected and trusted, Zanabazar tried to maintain peaceful relations with Mongolia’s two powerful neighbors: the Russians and the Manchus. The Manchus had conquered China in 1644 and established the Ding dynasty in China, and the Russians were trying to expand into Asia. Eventually Zanabazar was left with no choice but to accept protection from the Manchus. From 1691 until 1911, the Ding dynasty dominated and controlled a large part of Mongolia. As a result, Mongolian artists had direct contact with Chinese artists and craftspeople, who were also followers of Tibetan Buddhism. Slowly but surely, the Chinese were able to reduce the power of the khans. Chinese merchants took advantage of the declining economy of Mongolia, which led to even worse economic conditions in Mongolia during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Mongolia’s most noted artist, Zanabazar set up workshops for artisans, which became known as the School of Zanabazar. This period is known as Mongolia’s renaissance. Though known as both a painter and sculptor, Zanabazar’s gilt bronze sculptures are considered his best works. Many of his Buddhist statues were tribute gifts to the Ding court. Unfortunately, there are not many sculptures by Zanabazar and his school that survived the later purges.

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Figure 5A, Large Mould for Casting a Bronze Buddha, 19th C. bronze with silk loop, 9 x 7 x 4”

Many sculptures from the Zanabazar school are simplistic forms decorated with intricate detail work. The influence of Tibetan art is evident, but it is not unusual to see hybrid works in most Asian art. As Buddhism spread throughout Asia so did the various styles from Tibet, India, Nepal, and China.

Figure 5B, Mould for A Statue of Zanabazar, 18th C. cast bronze, 5⅞ x 6 x 2⅜”

Usually, the body and the pedestal of Zanabazar’s sculptures were cast separately and then soldered together. Smaller sculptures were made in one piece. One of the differences that can be discerned in the sculptures of the Zanabazar school when compared to works from China, Tibet, and Nepal is the different ways that the lotus petal was depicted. Zanabazar used a variety of designs, such as single, double, wavy, or scalloped petals. He also preferred to use a circular or drum-shaped lotus pedestal rather than the oval or rectangular shape commonly used in Tibet.

Mould for a Gelugpa Monk, 19th/20th C. cast bronze, 5¾ x 5 x 4⅜”

As the first Bogdo Gegen of Outer Mongolia, Zanabazar was the subject of numerous portraits made in a variety of media. Figure 1 the portrait of Zanabazar, made of gilt bronze, is indicative of the elegant form consistent with his school. The statue is a simple form of Zanabazar in a monk’s robe, sitting with his legs folded beneath him. It is draped with a beautiful silk embroidered mantle. He holds a dorje (an important symbol in Buddhism which represents a skillful means) in his right hand and a bell in his left hand. (In Tibetan Buddhism these two objects together symbolize the union of wisdom and compassion that leads to enlightenment.) Zanabazar sits on an elaborate bronze throne, which has an intricate design and scalloped edges. There are animal forms on each side of the throne that blend into the design. Color was painted on the features of the face and the fingernails.

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Mould for a Gelugpa Monk, 19th/20th C. cast bronze, 5¾ x 5 x 4⅜”

Another important Buddhist symbol that was also sculpted was the stupa. Originally developed in India, stupas are monumental shrines erected in places in ancient India that marked the great events or actions of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life. They became so popular that eventually numerous stupas were built throughout Asia to house the sacred texts of other sages as well. In Figure 2 the model of a stupa made by the Zanabazar school is similar to ones found in Tibet and Nepal. Several levels of step-like platforms build up the height of the stupa and lead to a bulb-shaped body that houses a niche wherein a deity sits on a throne. The stupa has a few engraved patterns and some simply lined forms of animals, such as an elephant and a horse. As the construction of stupas multiplied throughout Asia, so too did the variations in the form of the stupa from country to country.

Figure 6, Kakasya, 19th/20th C. gilt bronze, 11 x 7½ x 4⅜”

Metal casting was not restricted only to the production of freestanding sculpture. Figure 3 shows a cast gilt bronze plaque that depicts Zanabazar sitting on a lion throne surrounded by his pre-incarnations. Foliage snakes out from the throne. This narrative of Zanabazar’s lineage is quite detailed for such a small scale relief.

Figure 7, Double Spouted (Ewer, 19th/20th C. silver, 10 x 11½ x 6⅜”

Metal was also used with other materials such as textiles and papier maché. In Figure 4 the book cover for 220-page sutra, dating from the late 19th century, is a unique collage of materials. The sacred images and text are flat-hammered silver and raised gold. Red coral and bone make up the yin-yang symbol. Brocade curtains embroidered in silk protect the page.

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While the Zanabazar school produced the best sculptures in Outer Mongolia, artists in Dolonnor (about 200 miles northwest of Beijing) were making exquisite sculptures, too. Dolonnor was the most important center of Mongolian Buddhism in Inner Mongolia. No doubt both schools influenced the future generation of artists in Mongolia.

Figure 8, Deer, 19th/20th C. gilt bronze, 18½ x 34 x 6⅝”

Three bronze molds that Mongolian sculptors used to make reproductions of bronze statues of Shakyamuni Buddha, Zanabazar, and a Lama can be seen in Figures 5a, 5b, and 5c. It is believed that Zanabazar introduced this lost-wax technique to Mongolia in the mid-17th century.

A frightening-looking guardian goddess Kakasya (half crow and half human female) is shown in Figure 6. Sharp, angular shapes protrude from the deity in a threatening manner. Red pigment was painted on the hair (red hair symbolized a wrathful deity) and a row of skulls form a headdress, above the third eye. Kakasya dances on top of a corpse, which lies on top of a lotus petal base. (This type of lotus petal base is associated with Chinese sculptures from that time.) A snake coils around the goddess like an ornamental decoration, intertwined with chains of jewels that also envelop her.

Figure 9, Wolf, 19th/20th C. gilt bronze 21½ x 34¼ x 10¼”

Animals, especially the horse, camel, yak and cattle, sheep, and goat, have always played an important role in the lives of the nomadic Mongolians. So it is not unusual to see them depicted in artwork. A prime example is illustrated by Figure 7 (a double-spouted ewer from the early 20th century). A cow tops the lid, a ram’s head is positioned on each side of the handle, and the long neck of a camel spouts on each end of the ewer. Lotus petals cover the lid and base of the ewer.

Figure 10, Khalka Saddle, 19th/20th C. wood, leather, steel, wool, 13⅝ x 58¼”

Other animals, such as the deer, are symbolic in Buddhism. It is said that in a previous life Buddha lived on earth as a deer. Wolves, a common sight in Mongolia, are associated with death in Buddhism. The sculptures of a deer and a wolf, in Figures 8 and 9, are made from gilt copper alloy, dating from the late 18th-19th century. The influence of Zanabazar is seen in the use of simple forms rather than elaborate details to depict each animal. There are no pedestals to obstruct the lines of motion in each animal.

Figure 11, Set of Khalka Women’s Ornaments, 19th/20th C. silver

The most important animal to Mongolians is the horse and they honor their steeds with saddles that are elaborate pieces of art. By studying a saddle, one can tell both the tribe and the status of the rider. The Khalkha saddle shown in Figure 20 (20th century) is constructed of a wooden frame and covered with leather and a patterned Tibetan wool. Strips of repoussé silver decorate the high pommel and the rim of the cantle.

Mongolian metalsmiths were well respected, and as with many other trades, their skills were passed on from father to son. Most Mongolian metalworks were either religious artifacts or had a utilitarian purpose. Even some of the most decorative works were functional, too. For example, jewelry was made in a specific style to distinguish one tribe from another. It might also indicate a woman’s marital status and her wealth. Figure 11 shows a set of ornaments dating from the 19th-20th century and worn by a Khalkha woman. These ornaments are useful as well as decorative. Each piece to the right and to the left of the bracelets has three objects dangling from chains: an ear pick, a pair of tweezers’ and a nail cleaner. Ornaments made for men usually had eating utensils, such as knives and chopsticks. The workmanship of the silver bracelet shown at the bottom is superb: dragon heads in high relief decorate each end of the bracelet and flow into the twisted pattern of the band.

Figure 12, Khalka Woman’s Headdress, 19th/20th C. gilt silver, brocade

A fine example of intricate filigree silver work can be seen in Figure 12, which shows a Khalkha woman’s headdress, dating from the late 19th to early 20th century. Coral and turquoise stones are set onto a complex interwoven design of spirals and knots. A married Khalkha woman would wear a skull cap, such as the one shown, underneath a high pointed hat.

The Ding dynasty fell in 1911 and the Republic of China was formed in 1912. During this period Mongolia tried to break away from Chinese control. As a result, in 1921 some Mongols began cooperating with the Soviet Union, and by 1924 the Mongolian People’s Republic was formed.

The Mongolian Communists modeled their government policies after the Soviet Union and in turn received economic aid. Before long the Soviets called for the suppression of Mongolian nationalism. Mongolia’s history was revised and any mention of Chinggis Khan was banned. The most horrendous assault on Mongolian culture occurred in the 1930s, when the Soviets launched an attack on Buddhism. Monasteries were confiscated and numerous books and works of art were destroyed. It was not until the late 1980s, with the lessening of Soviet economic and political support that Mongolia began on its journey to independence.

Today the cultural heritage of Mongolia is being revived. Chinggis Khan is once again viewed as a national hero. Mongolia is redefining itself. The artworks that have survived give us an idea of the level of technical sophistication Mongolian artisans were able to achieve. A rich legacy is being rediscovered.

The reproductions in this article were provided through The Asian Museum of Art in San Francisco. All photographs by Kaz Tsuruta, Asian Museum of San Francisco.

Lanie Lee is a writer and editor who lives in New York, NY.