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Department of Social Anthropology


‘Mongolian Cosmopolitical Heritage: tracing divergent healing practices across the Mongolian-Chinese border’ is a 4-year research project led by Prof David Sneath and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council that began 1 March 2020. The project seeks to explore ethnographically the mechanisms linking health and cultural heritage during the COVID-19 pandemic. More specifically, it aims to understand how the management of culture affects health-related practices by asking: in what ways do public administration and national constructions of culture shape practices that influence health and wellbeing?

As a comparative study, ‘Mongolian Cosmopolitical Heritage’ focuses on two different regions that are well-known for shamanic and other healing practices: Ulaanbaatar and its environs in the Republic of Mongolia, and Tongliao in Eastern Inner Mongolia, China. The strikingly divergent forms of shamanism and other 'traditional' Mongolian healing practices that have emerged on either side of the Chinese-Mongolian border invite study of the social, economic and other historical conditions that have led to divergent and contested re-appropriations of a common Mongolian cosmological heritage.

                                                               Image: U Ujeed. ‘Burning effigy for dispelling bad spirit’. Tongliao, Inner Mongolia

While the onset of COVID-19 brought about changes to the project – namely, a shift to online ethnography – it also presented the opportunity to develop a comparative analysis of how healing practices – biomedical, ‘traditional’, and the many intersections in between – are mobilized to treat or prevent the spread of COVID-19. One year into the project, preliminary findings suggest that 'Mongolian heritage' is relevant to discourses around preventing and treating COVID-19, but differently mobilized across the Mongolian-Chinese border. Whereas in both contexts, locally sourced foodstuffs such as certain meat and dairy products widely considered traditionally Mongolian circulate as preventative and curative in online discussion, traditional Mongolian medicine has been applied differently. In China, Mongolian medicine has been branded as one variant of ‘Nationality Medicine’ (minzu yiyao) and celebrated as successful in combating COVID-19, as several medicinal formulae were approved by health authorities in Inner Mongolia and administered from the earliest days of the pandemic. In Mongolia, by contrast, particular plant-based components of traditional Chinese medical SARS CoV-2 treatments that are native to the nation’s borders have been rebranded as traditional Mongolian medicine and administered alongside biomedical treatments in a select few Ulaanbaatar-based hospitals, a practice that

began over a year after the pandemic outbreak. Such preliminary findings suggest that Mongolian medicine is much less a bounded medical system than previously theorized, and both its definition and proximity to biomedicine are malleable and contested in ‘official’ and quotidian discourses.




Image: E Turk.  
'Buriat shamanness preparing her altar'. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia