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What Is Mongolian Calligraphy ?

In Mongolian language, calligraphy is "Uran bishig", the meaning is "the nice writing".
This is a technic based on «ancient» or traditional Mongolian script.
The writing that reads from top to bottom and is also called Uighur writing. It consists of ninety letters linked

vertically by continuous lines and thus create words.
The letters are formed from six main lines, known as “head”, “tooth”, “stem”, “stomach”, “bow” and “tail”.


The Mongolian Calligraphy

The centuries-old Mongolian tradition of calligraphy springs from the remarkable vertical Mongolian script,

which has a fascinating calligraphic quality in itself.

Each letter has three forms, depending where it occurs in the word: initial, medial, or final.

The medial version is simple; the initial and final involve much more flourish.

As aresult, every word has a kind of visual fanfare as it opens and closes, an opportunity for sweeping and swooping

strokes that make even the most prosaic text look full of life and movement.


The origines of Uighurs script

In 740 however the Turks were defeated and succeeded by the Uighurs.

The Uighurs a semi-nomadic people, who in addition to their

cattle breeding activities had highly prosperous agricultural and trade businesses, most notably,

lucrative trading markets along the legendary Silk Road. Uighur cities were important cultural centers too.

They contained temples and palaces ornamented with elaborately painted frescoes on subjects that ranged

from everyday life to Buddhist themes.

Uighur mural paintings have been preserved, and along with sculpture, and arts and crafts, they

are known as the masterpieces of Central Asian art.
It is interesting to note that the Uighurs had an alphabet-based script that was

subsequently adopted by Mongolians during the Mongol Empire.

It is the traditional Mongolian script that is still used today. And as a tribute to these developments, there are
still memorial monuments with Uighur writing, representative of the highly developed culture of this period. 


But first, let’s go back a bit.
The Mongolian people are one of the world’s great cultures, with 800 years of epic history and their own fascinating and remarkable mythology, sports, traditions, language, and an utterly iconic, thousand-year-old vertical script.
That script is so deep a part of the Mongol identity that in Soviet times it was banned and in Russia and in the independent country of Mongolia, the Russian Cyrillic alphabet was imposed.  The last oasis of the ancestral Mongol language, script and identity was in Inner or Southern Mongolia,  a province of China.
All that is now about to change. The Chinese have dictated that from now on the Mongols living in Inner Mongolia will have to learn, speak, and write Chinese and there’s evidence the entire history of the Mongol people

will be erased or rewritten. Imagine what that’s like. Imagine being told that your own language and script,

in which everything important to yourself, your family,  and your culture has been written,

are going to be suppressed and you’re going to have to speak and write Chinese, or Russian, or in fact any other language. That’s the situation with every culture with an endangered alphabet. It’s a cultural and personal catastrophe.


The Mongols are responding in the most extraordinary way: with calligraphy.

The traditional vertical Mongolian writing system is an art form in itself.
Despite the omnipresence of Cyrillic, imposed during the Soviet era, the Uighur script is still discreetly used today for certain official letters, invitations, diplomatic correspondence and for emblems, logos,

stamps for example and taught in some schools and universities.
Nowadays, thanks to the practice of calligraphy, even in a poorly painted way, the master calligraphers select the best students and train them for five to eight years to make calligraphers.

Students and teachers bond for life and continue to improve each other’s art and talent.

The intensification of social transition, urbanization and globalization have resulted in

a significant decline in the number of young calligraphers.
Nowadays, there are too few master calligraphers and, on a volunteer basis, form only a very small community

of about twenty young calligraphers.

In addition, with the rising cost of living, mentors can no longer afford to teach

another generation without remuneration.

This is why special measures are needed to draw young people’s attention to this traditional art of writing, as well as to safeguard and revitalize the tradition of Mongolian writing,and calligraphy.


Sadly, Mongolian calligraphy faces two threats

By 2013, the shortage of experts who could teach and continue the tradition was so acute that UNESCO declared Mongolian calligraphy to be an Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
This threat was vastly compounded recently when the Chinese government

announced that this autumn, schools in the province of Southern Mongolia

(Also called inner-Mongolia,  not to be confused with the independent country of Mongolia)

must start replacing the Mongolian language and script with Chinese.

This move strikes at the heart of Mongol identity.
All the more reason to present this form of dramatic and historical art to a world audience,

as we hope to do at the Erdenesiin Khuree center.
In the short term, we plan to receive other Mongolian calligraphers at the centre in order to exhibit

their works and create a dynamic around this art.


A brief history of calligraphy & Mongolian art :

In a concise description of the history of Mongolian art through time,

art historians agree on a cultural periodicity that is divided in Mongolia into 5 stages of Ancient Art:

* the Upper Paleolithic Period (40,000-1200 years ago)
* the Art of the Steppes Empire (third century B.C to first    century A.D.)
* the Art of the Mongol Empire (1206-1368)
* Buddhist Art of Mongolia
* Art of the 19th Century

* Art of the 20th Century, modern or traditional.

The Ancient Art of Mongolia, the first period from which we draw this development, is now commonly associated with

a bounty of rock drawings that were found throughout the
country. Drawings were found carved and painted on rocks, as well as cliffs and mountains.
Depictions of animals, hunting scenes and chariots were also prevalent within these carvings and paintings.
These images are however not realistic. They are quite frankly a series of fascinating images that depict a vision of the world by the earliest people in Mongolian history.

The proceeding period, the Art of the Steppes Empire was created by the Huns or Hsiung Nu.

This art was created in the third century B.C. and it lasted until the first century A.D.
In this era animals were often used as subjects in artwork.

Felt carpets for example containing animals images were typically fashioned with a superlative quality.

The artwork often contained expressive movements of fighting beasts,

reflecting considerable knowledge of both the nature and behavior of these creatures.
The succeeding empires of the Sianbi (Shien-pi) and Jujan (Jujuan) in comparison left no traces of art at all.

But each succeeding state had a script of its own. These scripts were routinely carved upon wooden blocks.
The Sianbi were master craftsmen in both leather and wood.

The Jujuan were accomplished artisans with iron, leather, ceramic and wood.

Of considerable interest is the fact that the Sianbi had an orchestra with 80 instruments

and their own national hymn, which was played at the start and end of epic battles.

Both groups of people constructedtemples for worship as well.
By the middle of the sixth century the Turkic Empire was firmly established as its people defeated the Jujuan.

The emperor was for the first time given the title Khaan and the empire was named Khaganate. The steppe nomad Turks were the first to create a phonetic script within this region,

and a large number of monuments were created at this time as well.

Among the most noted monuments were statues of the “stone men”.

The “stone men” represent Turkic warriors usually standing in a long robe, holding a cup filled with fire,

the other hand gripping the handle of a knife.
In addition to the “stone men”, important burial sites of Turkic leaders can be found in several areas of Mongolia.

These include statues with Turkic writing, of buried people, and of animals.

The burial sites were organized as whole complexes with buildings, temples and numerous sculptures.
In 740 however the Turks were defeated and succeeded by the Uighurs.

The Uighurs a semi-nomadic people, who in addition to their cattle breeding activities had highly prosperous agricultural and trade businesses, most notably, lucrative trading markets along the legendary Silk Road.
But like the preceding empires, the Uighur Empire also fell, in this particular case to the Khitans in 840.

The Khitans were also a semi-nomadic people. They produced two types of scripts.

One bore no resemblance to any other script in Asia, the other shared similaritiesto Chinese writing.
The Khitans created a range of art including literature, architecture, music and dance.
Landscapes, portraits and genre paintings were created within their predominant era of influence.

Poetry and travel diaries also existed.

And districts of commerce, craftsmanship and travelers  were also established.
To their demise however, between 1115-1118 the Jurjens, a vassal tribe rebelled, occupying 50 Khitan towns.

In 1118, the entire Khitan Empire collapsed from the attacks of the Jurjens.

The Mongolian empire & Kharkhorum

But in 1206, as fate would have it, a man named Temuujin united all of the Mongolian tribes.

He was subsequently pronounced Chinngis Khaan, the Great Khaan of Mongolia.

This led to a military conquest that resulted in the largest Empire in human history.

The Mongolian people then played an important role in facilitating the exchange

of ideas in arts and culture, between both Asia and Europe.
As part of his reign and lasting influence, Chinngis Khaan chose Kharhorum

as the capital city of the great Mongol Empire.

Built by his son and successor, Ugudei, the city was located by four gates. The eastern gate was adjacent to a market in cereals and corn, the western gate, sheep and goats, the southern gate,

bulls and carts and the northern gate, near horses.
In Kharhorum, the renowned capital city, the Khan resided in a grand palace called “Tumen Amgalan”

or “ten thousand times tranquility”. It was built of bricks and had three main doors with sixty-four columns.

Thousands of people could sometimes be seen in the palace, situated in a city that contained Buddhist temples, mosques and a church. But perhaps the most significant surviving artwork of this period is the portraits of Mongolian Khaans and their wives. Made in the thirteenth century these portraits illustrate the impact of Khitan painting

, and are purportedly  the creation of Kara Khosun, a Mongolian artist who worked in the court.


Art of Middle Ages

In comparison, the art of Middle Ages was purely Buddhist.

Buddhism was introduced to Mongolia several times via the Silk Road, with the Uighurs and during  the Mongol Empire

as well. It was however only in the sixteenth century that Altaan Khaan converted to Lamaism.

Shortly thereafter it was adopted as the national religion of Mongolia as Altan Khaan, granted the title Dalai Lama to Sodnomjamtso, the most eminent monk of Tibet.
In 1586 the first Lamaist monastery was built on the remains of Kharhorum. This trend continued until the twentieth century as numerous monasteries were built throughout the country. These temples were built in Chinese and Tibetan styles along with a model based on the traditional Mongolian ger and tent.
The medieval period was also the time of Mongolia’s most prominent artist, Zanabazar.
Born in 1635, a descendant of Chinngis Khan, at the age of 5 he was given the religious title Unduur Gegeen.

And at the age of 14 he studied in Tibet, where the Dalai Lama recognized him as a first Khutuktu,

or reincarnation of Bogd Jebzundamba.

Upon returning to Mongolia he began building temples and monasteries,

only to become the first Khutuktu of Mongolia, called Bogd Gegeen.
Among his considerable talents Zanabazar was known for his sculpture. Zanabazar’s works reveal

his deep knowledge about the iconic proportions of a human body in both Tibetan and Indian philosophy.

His statues amaze viewers with their perfect proportion and symmetry. A beautiful oval face, a straight nose,

a small slightly open mouth, and eyes in deep meditation, became the classical features of a deity in Buddhist sculpture.


The 19th Century

In the 19th century much of the development in Mongolian art was based in Urga, a main city in Mongolia.

Much like Kharhorum, Urga, now known as Ulaanbaatar, became the
meeting place for artists and craftsmen of the highest quality. Within this period, tangka paintings were the most pervasive style of art, created with different techniques such as nagtan, martan and gartan.
As all artists and educated people were monks during this period of time, Tangka paintings were considered a means of expressing one’s spirituality within a traditional Buddhist framework.

To start a tangka, the artist awoke at dawn, cleansed his body and

by reading the prayers  of a particular deity, purified his soul.

The artist then made the first brushstrokes at the hour of good luck and fortune.
By the dawn of the 20th century however, Mongolia’s Buddhist artwork was becoming increasingly secular.

Familiarity with European portraits, and internal changes within the Buddhist community began to have far reaching affects. All of this was apparent in the artwork of B. Sharav, a monk, who became one of the era’s most influential artists.
Nicknamed Marzan, which literally means funny, he began to dabble in a variety of styles that were clearly outside the proscribed areas of convention. Sharav became associated with genre painting,

the emergence of European style portraits, graphic art, and posters.
Some of his work even served as visual propaganda for the communist revolution.
By the 1940’s, approximately two decades after the establishment of the People’s Republic of Mongolia, Soviet style socialist realism became the dominant style of art. Art depicting the lives of herders and workers,

reflecting socialist values became the preferred style of art.

The lines were clearly drawn. And any attempts to challenge the boundaries with other interpretive descriptions could elicit harsh rebukes from select individuals in official circles.
But by the late 1960’s the fawning embers of discontent began to burn with more than just a little intensity.

On July 20th, 1968, “The First Exhibition of Young Painters” opened in the Exhibition Hall of the Union of Mongolian Artists. The Mongolian government immediately shut down the exhibition, labeling the artwork “the art of capitalists”.

Both the participants and the Chairman of the UMA suffered strict

punishments from the Communist Party as a resultof this artwork.



The Mongolian calligraphy is still relatively discreet. More recently, however, this art form
has become a little more widespread as a small group of artists has become increasingly
involved in calligraphic creation.
However, this remains an encouraging sign and if we add to this the interest of Mongolian
calligraphy to foreign artists, we can see a future for this art form.
For example, some calligraphers outside Mongolia begin to appreciate and work with the
Ouighour script, such as Fux Karachovič, who was introduced to classical Mongolian writing
during his studies in general linguistics in the Czech Republic, and quickly became
passionate about this writing. Originally self-taught, later with other Mongolian
calligraphers in Ulaanbaatar, he focused on learning the script in more detail, notably with
Tamir Samandbadraa who greatly influenced his work.

Why is Mongolian Script And Calligraphy
Is So Important To The Mongolian Identity ?

In the very beginning of the XIII century when Chinggis Khan was already conquering
the Turkic tribes in Central Asia, the first writing system was created specifically for the Mongolian language. Its roots reach far – it was derived from the Old Uyghur alphabet which originates from the Sogdian alphabet, a descendant script of the Aramaic alphabet, which is one of the Semitic writing systems known to be widely adopted for other languages and is the ancestor also of the Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic alphabets.
Known as the classical or traditional Mongolian Script, the Old Script, or Mongol
Bichig in Mongolian used to be the most widespread and universal alphabet of the
Mongol people. Developed and used widely through hundreds of years in Mongolia it
was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet in 1946 and is barely used today. The last place
where the classical script is still actively used is Inner Mongolia in China, where it
now faces new challenges, and is at risk of disappearing too.
For many reasons, the traditional Mongolian script is extraordinarily important to

the Mongolian people and their culture.
The true logic and richness of Mongolian language, its grammar and vocabulary

can be discovered only by learning it through the Mongol bichig.

The Cyrillic alphabet used currently in Mongolia, imposed by the Soviets, distorts the way of understanding the language. Children in schools as well as adults need to memorize plenty of rules to use the relatively new script.

If one studies the language by learning the Old Script, it is much easier and more logical to understand the derivatives of words, declination and other grammatical issues which otherwise may seem very complicated and illogical.

Another crucial reason for Mongolian alphabet’s preservation is the great treasury of literature, religious texts, medical texts, legends, tales and manuscripts which since
the Soviet times have stayed largely inaccessible. Knowledge of the classical script
gives access to the forgotten wisdom and resources from the past. Only through
education in the Old Script, the doors leading to discovering Mongolian written
culture’s accomplishments can be unlocked.
As with any language for its nation, Mongolian language plays a huge role in building
the Mongolian national identity. In the whole world, it is unique only to the Mongolian
people. And it’s only the Mongolian people who can preserve it actively by relearning
it and passing it on to the next generations. Yet, the Mongolian patrimony does not
belong only to Mongolians – it’s a heritage of whole humanity. It is one piece in a big
puzzle, just like Georgian, Arabic or (insert your own alphabet and language).

Knowledge of the Mongolian script is necessary for creating calligraphy in Mongolian
language–but the art of Mongolian calligraphy should not be understood only as a
visual form of beautiful writing in a vertical script. To become a calligrapher one
needs to broaden his horizons and have very extensive knowledge of culture and
history. One needs to be either a philosopher or a warrior. Learning calligraphy
obliges to be honest with oneself and develops one’s personality – it nurtures and
educates the person, enriching the human spirit.
There is a proverb in Mongolian that says, “The best education is to learn how to be a human.” That is what calligraphy can teach us.
Agata Chmielecka - professor of Mongolian studies
Tamir Samandbadraa Purev - Mongolian calligraphers.

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