A few weeks ago a shepherd in Inner Mongolia was run over by a trucker moving a load of coal. The result has been wide-spread protests over the past two weeks, causing dozens of news stories about Han-Mongol relations.
Before we get too far into this story, we need to pause for a little background.
Around 221 B.C. China became a unified nation under the Qin dynasty. One of the emperor’s first acts was to connect the city walls along the Northern border to defend against the nomadic sheepherders who were also fierce warriors (the tribe at this time was the Xiongnu).
Even though the tribes along China’s border changed, the relationship between the nomads and the farmers never really improved. For another 1500 years the two sides clashed, with nomads raiding the farms for goods, and the empire attempting to push northward to extend their claims.
Then came the rise of Genghis Khan, perhaps the only Mongolian whose name Westerners recognize, who conquered not only China, but most of Asia (interestingly the Chinese now claim him as one of their own, I’m not so sure he would appreciate the gesture). In each region he installed a son as king who ignored local customs, and tried to change Chinese culture. The reign of the Mongol Yuan dynasty lasted less than 100 years.
The following Ming (Han Chinese) dynasty faced an increasing number of attacks from the North. The Ming dynasty though was slow to respond, and was unwilling/unable to raise an army that would drive the nomads from the frontier. It was this inaction that lead local governors to reinforce the nearly two millennia old Great Wall, which gave it it’s current stone exterior (prior to this it had been rammed earth).
Finally warriors from the Northeast conquered the Ming, and established China’s final imperial dynasty, the Qing. During this period the northern lands fell into China’s empire, which led to the precedent of Chinese rule over what is today the province of Inner Mongolia.
Over the past 50 years the grasslands have changed more than they had in the 3,000 years prior. Han settlers were encouraged to move into the mostly open lands to begin farming, and Mongol herdsmen were provided/forced into living on one plot of land. There are now nearly 10x as many Han as Mongolians in the region.
Massive coal deposits were also found along the steppe which has led to a flurry of mining activity. These operations use a huge amount of water and have contributed greatly to the desertification of the grasslands. The local gov’t responded by banning the raising of livestock, which they blamed for the lack of grass (they are partially correct, without the freedom of a nomadic life, sheep will over-graze an area).
These photos were taken by my amazing wife.
When my wife and I visited Inner Mongolia, we were told by a local family that they had been secretly raising about 50 sheep. However, the officials spotted the sheep and confiscated all of them, nearly ruining the family financially. We couldn’t help but notice the single smokestack on the horizon spewing black smoke into the air.
So when a shepherd was run over by a coal truck, it seemed as if it was the perfect metaphor for what has been happening on the grasslands, and the protests started to spread.
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the larger context of these protests, and reconsider the larger story that they fit into.