Spreading the Culture of Peace through Family Traditions and Family Values: The Case of Mongolia

March, 2008
This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

My five-year-old mind was filled with rage when I saw one of the mean boys in my kindergarten class break my favorite doll's leg for no reason. When my mother picked me up in the evening, I told her about what the little boy had done to my doll and cried. My mother did not say much. All she said was, "It is normal that you feel angry for what that little boy did to your doll. But as high mountains are trouble for a horse, anger and remorse are trouble for self. So, be the bigger person and be nice to the little boy. When he grows up, he will understand what he did was wrong." This was one of the countless incidents when my mother or my father told me to handle situations with calmness, understanding and kindness. Now that I look back at my childhood, my parents and my interactions with them had a significant impact on how I came to view the world and how I react to and deal with conflicts, which are natural to human relations[1].

When I came to the Kroc Institute and started interacting with my classmates from around the world, I came to realize that I am one of the few students who have not experienced violent conflicts personally. When we were asked to express our opinion about the conflicts in our home countries in some of the classes, I was not able to think of a deadly ethno-national or ethno-religious conflict in Mongolia that had happened recently. Given that there are more than 20 different ethnic groups residing in Mongolia[2], this was a compelling realization. Although Mongolian people certainly suffered from the communist regime and currently experience difficulties due to the political and economic transformation, they have not taken up arms against each other at least for the past century. This realization left me pondering. It appears to me that the way my parents brought me up and the values they taught me could be the reason for the nonviolent tendency in Mongolia among others. Therefore, in this essay, I aim to examine one of the potential conflict prevention tools in Mongolian traditions and to observe how strong family ties have enabled Mongolian families to spread the culture of peace and nonviolent values from generation to generation.

Traditional Structure of Mongolian Families

Family, rather than the individual person, has been the most basic unit of social organization in Mongolia. For centuries, most Mongolians lived as nomads, depending on their animals. Herder families had mobile tents called ger, which enabled them to move from land to land according to each season. The fact that an entire family lived in a quite small ger made it possible for all family members to be both physically and relationally close to each other.

At the same time, families followed "strong hierarchical relations"[3], according to which the elderly dictated how the young should live and behave. Generally, authority and privilege were determined by age; respect for the elderly was expected from everyone, but especially from the young. For instance, the first of the commonly-mentioned eight characteristics of a good girl is being reverent to the old and taking their words to heart. Also, elderly people oftentimes cite the Chinggis [sometimes spelled "Genghis"] Khan as saying, "Regardless of how good a son is born, he can never be wise without a father's instructions,"[4] and, "The man who[is] not listening to the elder's precepts[...] is like an ox except for his upper teeth."[5]

Due to this fact that power lines were drawn along age lines, children sometimes were viewed as being insignificant. The parents were mainly responsible for disciplining a growing child[6], though sometimes older siblings or other relatives of the extended family were permitted to express their views. Although fathers were leading authoritative figures in making important decisions for their children, mothers had more influence and communication with the children on a daily basis.

The Culture of Peace in Mongolian Traditions

In Mongolia's nomadic tradition, settled schooling was not common. A few noble and wealthy families were able to send their children to prominent and educated people, who would teach them to read and write and familiarize them with history. However, most regular families took the responsibility to educate their children upon themselves. Many parents planned a certain time of the day, usually after dinner, to tell stories to their children. During the story time, or the u'lgeriin tsag, a parent would sit among the children, tell a story and then explains what the moral of the story was. Almost every story carried a lesson and thus a value in itself.

One of the most popular stories that even every contemporary child knows is a story of solidarity: Mother Alungua had five children named "Belgunutei, Bulgunutei, Buha Khatagi, Bukhutu Salji and Bodanchir Munkhag"[7]. As the five of them did not get along with each other very well, one day mother Alungua brought them together. She gave each of them a single arrow and told them to break it. Everyone broke the arrows instantly. Then mother Alungua gave them a pack of five arrows and told them to break them. None of the five children could break them. Taking the pack of arrows, mother Alungua said, "All five of you were born from me. If you get separated, one by one you will be just like a single arrow. But if you all stick together then you will all be like these five arrows and no one will be able to defeat you."[8] This popular story, along with numerous others, teaches children that they should not only be considerate of their siblings, but also be in solidarity with the people who derived from the same roots.

Another feature of this story is the fact that it is associated with mother Alungua, who was an ancestor of the Chinggis Khan. The tradition of ascribing moral precepts to "outstanding and well-known people was common in Mongolia."[9] Given the significance of the Chinggis Khan as a historical figure and an identity milestone, parents and older people still attribute many didactic poems and sayings to the Chinggis Khan. For instance, "The Golden Teaching Verses of Chinggis Khan" is widely known and studied by children. This collection of moral teachings includes several ideas consistent with the culture of peace, such as "You win one with physical strength, you win many with cerebral strength."[10]

"The Book of Turquoise Key" or Oyuntu'lkhigur demonstrates another set of principles which supposedly derived from the Chinggis Khan. Traditionally, the book was so widely used in educating young children that it was "read by children studying reading and writing, as soon as they had mastered the alphabet."[11] Although the book was allegedly written in the twelfth century, even my parents used some phrases from it when explaining to me how the world works. A significant portion of "The Book of Turquoise Key" underscores the importance of peace, respect and generosity to each other. "Among the nine virtues of an official,[reaching] peace and concord is the most important."[12] Another verse teaches that "one should raise up all living beings with love like an only son"[13], while others highlight the value of calmness and generosity by stating that one should "respectfully[...] correct truly sinful and bad people"[14] and "calm by ruse the very enraged."[15]

The language of these didactic poems, stories and precepts suggests that the idea of respect for the state, the importance of submissiveness to authority (to'riig deedleh yos in Mongolian) and "acknowledgement of[self-]unworthiness"[16] were widely valued throughout Mongolian history. The general tradition to venerate the elderly and to be as kind as you can to others provided fertile soil for the leaders to implant obedience among the commoners. "The Book of Turquoise Key" explicitly dictates, "Honor a very tender master as if he were a god [and] if you follow the rules of the great central figures, you will be at the head of ten thousand [people],"[17] and, "The lion's pride fits [only] the lion perfectly."[18] It also discourages dissent or difference of opinions by highlighting ideas like, "Even if you are elevated, remain modest and agree with the majority."[19] On the one hand, some scholars argue that these so-called peaceful values embedded in individuals encouraged over-tolerance and consequently perpetuated bad governance. For instance, the Qing Empire of the Manchu ensured their power by spreading the culture of obedience and encouraging the Mongolian nobles and the commoners to worship the emperors' grace and to acknowledge their own unworthiness.[20] On the other hand, it appears reasonable to assume that obedient and humble behavior embedded into individuals through these didactic works prevented the people from taking up arms and induced them to view violence as a last resort.

Furthermore, parents oftentimes used proverbs to instill values of solidarity and peace in their children. One of the first proverbs that a child would be taught immediately after he/she starts to speak would be, "The best knowledge and wisdom is solidarity and peace," or, "A group of team-spirited magpies will be able to eat a whole big deer." As the child grew up, the parents would start using stories they heard from their own parents to re-verify the moral of the proverbs.

These values of peace, respect, tolerance and love coming from the elderly and the traditional didactic literature were not only strictly respected in people's official relationships, but also conveniently translated into daily lives of herder families. When there was an argument among siblings, all of them were asked by their parents (playing the role of a mediator) to be "the bigger person" and to attempt to compromise. Moreover, parents taught their children not to be rude to their animals (usually horses, camels, cattle, sheep and goats), upon which their livelihood depended. They also promoted environmentally friendly behavior among their children by forbidding them from breaking trees and putting dairy products in the river. Both children and adults used to wear a specific type of boots, which had wider bottoms so that the pressure from the owner's body weight would not leave deep marks on the soil. Being children of herder families in the countryside, my parents constantly reminded me of the fact that I am a child of the earth and that I should love it back. Every time I went to the countryside for my summer holiday or to visit my relatives, my father would tell me a story about a stone, which a little boy removed from its original place. The boy spent three years searching for the spot from which he had taken the stone, so that he could return it to its proper place. In addition to its apparent moral to preserve nature, this story has an implication that exerting suffering — even on a stone — is bad.

In my opinion, the culture of peace that is profoundly engraved in Mongolian family traditions and internalized in the people emerged as a lesson from history. The recorded history of Mongolia suggests that whenever Mongolians pursued team spirit, solidarity and respect for each other, they were the strong; those qualities allowed them to build the largest empire in the history of humankind. However, whenever competition for power, jealousy and internal problems brought domestic instability, they were weakened. Hence, Mongolians learnt this valuable lesson and passed the wisdom through stories, proverbs and books from generation to generation.

The Future of Peaceful Traditions and Their Implications for Peacebuilding

As modernization started taking place in Mongolia after the socialist revolution in the 1920s, the nomadic culture preserved over the centuries began to change. The role of direct family in disciplining a child faded away, especially in urban areas. Children went to school and started learning from their teachers rather than merely from their parents. The new wave of marketization, democratization, globalization and limitless sources of information, which entered Mongolia in the beginning of the 1990s, exacerbated this tendency. As of 2002, nomads constituted only "a third of [Mongolia's] population"[21] of approximately 2.7 million[22], and urbanization and "westernization" are rapidly increasing. Nevertheless, since most parents (including my own) are still offspring of herders in the countryside, many families in the city strive to preserve the traditional teachings in bringing their children up. However, the question remains whether their children, including myself, can transfer these traditional values to their children and whether these family values can survive amidst the more individual-centered modernization of today's Mongolia.

More importantly, how can these traditional family values, such as those of Mongolia, be utilized as conflict prevention tools? In this era of new wars — most of which are taking place in developing and traditionalist societies — peacebuilders should look further at the existing assets in various societies. In other words, we should shift our approach from crisis-driven mode to crisis-responsive mode by exploring the impacts of under-studied peacebuilding tools on human relationships. This essay aimed to suggest that this exploration could be fruitful for strategic peacebuilding by demonstrating the impact of traditional family values on spreading the culture of peace.


The author would like to express her thanks to Christopher P. Atwood, a professor in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, for his help in putting this little piece together.

[1] Lederach, John Paul. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (Intercourse: Good Books, 2003), 4.

[2] Kaplonski, Christopher. "Ethnic Groups" (2003). Available online at: <http://www.chriskaplonski. com/mongolia/ethnicgroups.html>. Accessed March 15, 2008.

[3] Atwood, Christopher. Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire, (New York: Facts on File, 2004), 174.

[4] Erdene, Purevzhav. Chinggis Khaany Bilig, (Ulaanbaatar: Bembi San, 2004), 7. [Translation by the author].

[5] Yakhontova, Natalia. "The Oyun Tulkigur or 'Key to Wisdom': Text and Translation Based on the MSS in the Institute for Oriental Studies at Et. Petersburg," Mongolian Studies, 23 (2000), 79.

[6] Vreeland, Herbert Harold. Mongolian Community and Kinship Structure, (New Haven: Human Relations Area Files, 1957), 55.

[7] Think Quest. "Chinggis Khaan: Childhood" (2004). Formerly available online at: http://library.thinkquest.org/04apr/01341/childhoodtext.htm. (No longer available. Date accessed: March 15, 2007.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Yakhontova, Natalia. op. cit., 69.

[10] Erdene, Purevzhav. op. cit., 6.

[11] Tsend, Damdinsuren. Mongol Uran Zokhioliin Deej Zo'n Bilig Orshivoi (Ulaanbaatar, 1959), 58.

[12] Yakhontova, Natalia. op. cit. 123.

[13] Ibid., 122.

[14] Ibid., 122.

[15] Ibid., 125.

[16] Atwood, Christopher. "Worshiping Grace: The Language of Loyalty in Qing Mongolia," Late Imperial China, 21.2 (2000), 89.

[17] Yakhontova, Natalia. op. cit. 127 and 125.

[18] Ibid., 126.

[19] Ibid., 128.

[20] Atwood, Christopher. op. cit., 86.

[21] Unknown. "The - best place - last", The Economist, Volume 362, Issue 8304 (December 21, 2002). Available online at: <http://www.econom ist.com/displaystory.cfm?story-id=E1-TQRSQJJ>. Date accessed: February 18, 2008.

[22] "Mongolia", CIA World Factbook. Available online at: <http://www.faqs.org/docs/factb ook/geos/mg.html#People>. Date accessed: February 17, 2008.