November 5, 2009

"Fury of the Mongols" an intro to Mongolian Wrestling by Aaron Fields

This is an article written by Aaron Fields that serves as an excellent introduction to the art of Mongolian Wrestling (bayrildax). The article is under copyright and is used with the authors permission. The images are borrowed from all over the net.


On the Mongolian steppe horseracing, archery and wrestling are the three traditional sports. The Naadam festival held during the second week of every July is the pinnacle of the year in the three traditional sports. In this article I will explain the rules and traditions of Mongolian folk wrestling (bayrildax). In addition, I will explain the rule and custom variations between the Inner Mongolian (Chinese occupied) and Mongolian versions of this indigenous wrestling style.

I would be negligent as a Central Asian historian (and to my friends and coaches in Mongolia) if I didn't give a cultural backdrop for the most misunderstood region in the world: Central Asia.

Understanding that Mongolia is a Central Asian country and quite different culturally and linguistically from its East Asia neighbors is crucial. The Mongolian language is not of Chinese descent. In fact, it is in the Turkish language family. The culture is built around a pastoral nomadic tradition, rather than an agricultural one. Despite Chinese political/cultural propaganda, Mongolia is not culturally tied to the Chinese by anything other than animosity. Many things popularly identified as "Chinese" are in fact imports from the nomadic conquerors from the north (most recently Yuan and Ching dynasties).

Mongolian wrestling most often takes place outdoors, though sometimes, during the winter, tournaments are held indoors. The ring is decided by natural boundaries. There are no weight classes or time limits in a match. The objective of the match is to get your opponent to touch his back, knee or elbow to the ground. In the Inner Mongolian version, any body part other than the feet touching the ground signals defeat. Each wrestler must wrestle once per round, the winners moving on to the next round.

The technical rules between the Mongolian version and what is found in Inner Mongolia have some divergence. In both versions a variety of throws, trips and lifts are employed to topple the opponent. The Inner Mongolians may not touch their opponent's legs with their hands, whereas, in Mongolia, grabbing your opponent's legs is completely legal. In addition, striking, strangling or locking is illegal in both varieties.

In the case of a sacrifice throw, the first wrestler to touch the ground, regardless of who threw whom, is the loser.

The area of most divergence between the two varieties is that of the dress. In the wrestlers' wear, the traditional Mongolian boots, a cap, a brief, and a top. The briefs and top are made out of silk, cloth, or most recently rip-stop nylon. The top is long sleeved with the chest cut away. It extends more than halfway down the back. Ropes or cords are attached to the back of the top and tied around the stomach. The referees during the wrestling match hold the caps of the wrestlers.

According to legend, the briefs and the exposed chest are to ensure that each participant is male. Supposedly, hundreds of years ago, a woman entered the competition under the guise of being male and became the dominant wrestler.

The garb of the Inner Mongolians is quite different from that of their northern neighbors. Inner Mongolians wear a metal studded short-sleeved leather top, which exposes substantially less of the wrestler's chest than the Mongolian version. They wear a less ornate boot and long baggy whit pants. For wrestlers of rank the Inner Mongolians have a necklace called a jangga. The Inner Mongolians do not wear a cap.

Two arbitrarily appointed referees/cornermen supervise each match. Their job is to encourage the wrestler they were appointed to, to declare the winner, and to steer the wrestlers away from the natural boundaries and other pairs of wrestlers. If there is a dispute over a fall, a panel of judges who do not participate in the matches serves as the final word in the dispute.

The pairing of wrestlers is determined by the senior-ranked wrestlers, who choose their opponents each round. Rank can only be attained during the Nadaam festival. The number of rounds won by each wrestler determines rank. The rounds for ranks do not accumulate and must be achieved in on Naadam. In ascending order, the ranks are: unranked, bird, elephant, lion and titan. After winning the Nadaam festival ten times a wrestler becomes a state recognized national hero.

Inner Mongolian tournaments often employ a time limit to matches. If the time limit is exceeded they will use a ring in overtime periods. In this case, stepping outside the ring for any reason signifies a loss.

The cultural significance of wrestling is demonstrated most vividly before and after a match. Each Mongolian wrestler at the beginning of a match will exhibit a dance that is an imitation of a great bird in flight. There are two schools of thought on exactly which bird is being imitated. Some say it is a great falcon, while others say it is the Garuda bird found in Buddhist mythology. The dance is slow and exaggerated, which serves to show the wrestler's prowess and to loosen up the required muscles for the upcoming match. The sequence of the parts of the dance is specific with a series of thigh slaps, semi-squats and clockwise pivots. If the wrestler wins the match he again partakes in the dance. He circles clockwise around a platform decorated with horsetail banners. While dancing the wrestler is supposed to focus on Tengri or sky and heavens for skill and blessings, and gazar or earth for stability and strength.

After the conclusion of a match and prior to beginning the ending dance, win or lose, the lower ranked wrestler passes underneath the right arm of the senior wrestler in a show of respect. While passing underneath the senior's arm both wrestlers pat each other's back in a sign of mutual respect.

The Inner Mongolian version has less cultural symbolism involved in the matches and tournaments. This is explained by the fact that the Han Chinese, who have tended to view minority culture within China as undesirable, occupies the territory.

Nevertheless, the Inner Mongolians have a pre and post match dance that is an imitation of a preflight running eagle. Similar means are served by this dance as to that of the Mongolians, yet, the religious elements are notably downplayed.

In either case, exhibiting a dance of quality is the ideal. I have heard many times , "Your dance must be good so that you will worry your opponent. If you lose, people will remember and admire your dance, if it is good."

Another shared feature is the emphasis put on participation. This is not to say that winning is not important. As I noted earlier, winning the Nadaam festival in Mongolia ten times makes the wrestler a national hero. But, participation is considered an act of bravery. This feature of emphasis on participation can be found in both archery and horse racing as well.

In Mongolia the top finishers are given a variety of gifts, which usually come in the form of livestock. The five animals of importance in Mongolia are horses, camels, sheep, oxen and goats. In Inner Mongolia every wrestler gets a prize. The wrestlers who were thrown in the early rounds often receive bars of soap and towels (to wash off the dirt from being thrown). Whereas, similar to Mongolia, the top finishers will receive livestock.

Historically, native Central Asian armies were entirely composed of cavalry units. From this historical feature there is an absence of groundwork in Mongolian folk wrestling. An unhorsed man was dead quickly, as he was soon to be trampled by horses or killed by an opponent's weapon. In Mongolia, as in all societies, wrestling (hand-to-hand combat) served as a secondary means of military engagement. In fact, the other two "heavenly sports" of archery and horse racing are more closely rooted to the battlefields of Central Asia than is wrestling.

The historical, technical and cultural connection between Mongolian wrestling and other types of grappling found in the surrounding regions can sometimes be traced. There are obvious connections between many of the Central Asian varieties due to cultural, linguistic and stylistic features. In the case of Russian sambo, we can find actual written records which, when coupled with the political connection between Mongolia and the Soviet Union, are unquestionably accurate. As a side note, sambo, judo, freestyle wrestling and sumo are also popular in Mongolia.

In the case of Korean Sseirum and to a greater extent Japanese sumo, there is an inclination to connect the two to Bayirldax for historical, linguistic and practical reasons. Yet, we must resist the urge as the forms are too distant culturally and historically to support anything more academic than a hunch.

The connection between China's Shuai-chiao and Mongolian Bayrildax is one that is often drawn. Other than casual connections based off Mongolia's geographic proximity to China, this connection tends to be one of political and cultural propaganda on the part of the Chinese. Keeping in mind that many Chinese claim that Mongolian wrestling comes from Shuai-chiao, we must remember that many "Chinese" traits were imported at different times from the conquering tribes of China's northern periphery. In addition, historically, we must note once again, that when speaking of the relationship between Mongolia and China, animosity underlies their cultural interactions. So one must be careful in accepting the rhetoric.

In addition, any wrestler who has studied more than one variety of wrestling will tell you that just because two versions share similar techniques does not prove a connection. As any physiologist will point out, the human body is not infinite and there are only so many ways to make a movement efficiently. Therefore, despite semantic differences, technical properties found in grappling systems around the world are more similar than different. This is of course taking into account the slight variations that arise based off ethnic or individual physiology and differences in clothing or rules. Due to this feature of finite movement, it becomes questionable to base connections between styles of wrestling solely off technical similarities. Without additional evidence (such as geographical, political, linguistic, ethics, etc.) such claims are weak at best.

In closing, Mongolian Bayirldax is a sport, which even in today's world has not lost the cultural significance of its origins. The tournaments themselves are majestic events showing skill, grace, power and patience. The wrestlers themselves are the athletic heroes of the country. I cannot find the words for watching a battle of balance and grips proceed ever so slowly for hours upon hours, only to finish in a split second and another successful throw by Baterdene, as he wins yet another Naadam.

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