Oppositional Identities: The Pitfalls of Postcolonial Identity Creation in Mongolia

As nations emerge from beneath the fold of colonial empires, they are faced with the task of differentiating themselves from their former sovereigns, yet while colonial nations had the luxury of centuries to try and test their identities, postcolonial nations are forced to hastily construct modern identities immediately after achieving their independence. The immense pressure to instantaneously distinguish themselves from their colonizers results in postcolonial nations often adopting modes of identity creation that give way to further long term hardship. One of these such pitfalls in postcolonial identity creation is the tendency to fall into the trap of grounding new identities purely in opposition to their former sovereigns. While responding to the damage done to postcolonial nations by the colonial project is an innate component of their postcolonial nations’ identity negotiation, new identities that are rooted exclusively in opposition fail to subvert the damaging material and cultural structures of colonialism that can remain latent and malicious if not deracinated by the development of entirely independent identities. The formation of a liberated and autonomous identity is an act of postcolonial resistance, yet if former members of the subaltern fail to develop identities beyond overt opposition, their identity is still inherently tied to the existence of their former oppressors. Postcolonial nations face further difficulty when undertaking efforts to economically develop, because the years of colonial exploitation often restructured their economies to be centered on the extraction of resources, without providing the technological means to even be able to extract such resources independently. The case study of Mongolia provides a quintessential example to understand the ways that postcolonial nations can fall victim to relying on oppositional identities through. While unique and independent musical and religious movements are developing in Mongolia, both movements have been closely tied to Mongolian nativist movements, and their focus on opposing external powers has delayed the development of independent cultural movements. Both the emerging Mongolian rap music scene and the resurgence of the shamanistic Tengriism religion have been tainted by nationalistic rhetoric. Problematically, the external powers, which newly created identities rely on opposing, are also some of the largest sources of the direct investment that many postcolonial nations’ economies depend upon. Opposed to following the problematic colonial model of identity creation and yielding to the simplicity of founding postcolonial identities on opposition to an ‘Other,’ true transcendence of colonial systems of oppression necessitates the development of identities founded on entirely independent ideology.

Identity creation is an integral component of truly pushing the influences of colonialism into the past in any postcolonial nation, giving citizens a way to differentiate themselves from their former rulers, yet too often this identity formation mirrors the failures of the colonial project by rooting itself in rejecting an epistemologically constructed ‘Other.’ Identities are not a monolithic entity that can be awakened from the miasma of our unconscious, but instead must be artificially invented based upon some central principles or values, as taught by Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities. It is tempting to say that what principle a new identity is founded upon is irrelevant, as long as a new identity is constructed, yet this simplistic view of postcolonial identity creation problematically leaves room for nation’s growth to be stunted by singularly focusing on opposing their former colonizers. A nation cannot be expected to develop and differentiate themselves when their very national consciousness hinges on the identity of another nation. Furthermore, the damage done by the colonial system cannot be transcended when the central component of a nation’s new identity necessitates the continual concentration on the same invented ‘Other’ as their colonizers. Such an external focus perpetuates nations’ perception of themselves as the permanent victim, impeding any independent growth. In Orientalism, Edward Said expounds that Orientalism in the colonial system undertook the deconstruction and reconstruction of the colonized nations in the ‘orient,’ and that deconstruction is what can lead postcolonial nations to repeat the same mistakes as their colonizers. In Mongolia, from 1900-1911, the Chinese New Administration (Hsin Cheng) attempted to sinify Mongolia and force locals to assimilate in order to create a bulwark against Russian aggression, in essence working to eliminate the Mongolian identity that they perceived as the ‘Other.’ Yet, attempts to root the modern Mongolian identity on opposing the Chinese presence in Mongolia hinder the creation of an independent Mongolian identity, and result from the colonial system ingraining the ideology of difference into the Mongolian consciousness. Indeed, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak references Foucault to theorize that the epistemological violence that reconstructed consciousness in Europe enacted the same changes in the subaltern, elucidating that “The clearest available example of such epistemic violence is the remotely orchestrated, far-flung, and heterogeneous project to constitute the colonial subject as the Other.” Thus, the subaltern learned to base their own identity creation on the existence of an ‘Other’ by being essentialized as the ‘Other’ by the colonial system. The narrative of colonization indoctrinated colonial subjects in the subaltern to fix identity creation on the invention of an ‘Other’ in their own societies, hindering the subsequent identity creation of nations such as Mongolia by distracting from the formation of an independent identity.

Ulaanbaatar emerged from colonization and dove head first into capitalism, leading to an increase in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), with an especially large amount of Chinese investment in the Mongolian mining sector. For centuries, Mongolia was ruled and occupied by Chinese empires. After 70 years of a command economy as a Soviet satellite state, Mongolia underwent a democratic revolution in 1990 and became “…one of the world’s fastest growing economies.” The majority of all investment flows directly into the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and the city has changed as a result of the foreign influence. The government promoted foreign investment by relaxing regulations and controls, allowing for the patterns of foreign domination and exploitation to arise from the shadows once more in Ulaanbaatar. In recent years, as economic growth boomed, new animosities have grown out of the influx of outside Chinese business investment which many Mongolians see as exploitative. The globalization and increased primarily Chinese Foreign Direct Investment encouraged by the government within Ulaanbaatar spawned new nationalists movements.

Mongolia attempted to create an environment favorable to external investment to replace the Soviet aid it had previously enjoyed. The government in Ulaanbaatar worked to liberalize policy to encourage FDI, fostering a market oriented free-trade regime. From the earliest days as a capitalist nation, Mongolia opened itself up to FDI by opening up currency exchanges. This opening up of the nation led to Mongolia relying on FDI to propel its economy from a transitioning phase to a growth phase – and it’s worked – with the GDP growth rate hitting new highs above five percent growth in 2004 and 2005. Yet, this growth comes at the cost of local control of much of the economy by the central government in Ulaanbaatar. Now the city is being dominated by outside companies looking to control the government so they can exploit that nation’s resources.

The gross majority of the FDI that flows into Mongolia flows directly into Ulaanbaatar from other Asian countries, specifically into the mining sector. China, Korea, and Japan constitute 63 percent of the total FDI. This illustrates the shifting manifestations of colonialism. Mongolia emerged from direct colonial rule under Dynastic China to neo-colonial domination under the USSR, and now became subject to imperial domination by the more developed Asian economies. Of that new investment, 95 percent of it flows directly into the new foreign company outposts in Ulaanbaatar. The hope of the government is that this investment will build linkages in the capital to other sectors of the economy, such as the service and retail industries, but in reality the only linkages that investors are creating are roads to the resources that they hope to extract. Mining investment makes up 40 percent of all foreign direct investment. While it is true that this investment is contributing to the success of the economy as a whole, with FDI increases paralleling GDP growth, native Mongolians perceive it as an exploitative relationship. China is clearly interested in Mongolia for the riches buried beneath its soil. The two largest FDI projects within Mongolia, Oyu Tolgoi and Taran Tolgoi, are both mineral extraction projects. While external companies on average invest $293,000 in Ulaanbaatar, those investing in mining interests invested $2,300,000 each. China already invested $10.8 billion in road networks to connect the investment hub Ulaanbaatar with mining prospects in the rest of the nation, laying down more than 3,000 kilometers of roads, and will further invest in Mongolia’s transportation channels with their ‘Belt and Road’ project. China even went as far as decreasing its income tariff for Mongolian goods from 24.6 percent 9.4 percent, not in order to promote equitable trade, but to promote the perceived beneficial exportation of ephemeral raw materials. External investment in the mining sector flows through the conduit of Ulaanbaatar, yet without bestowing any of the intended benefits upon it.


In Ulaanbaatar, there are two kinds of migration occurring; that of wealthy Chinese business people entering the city’s core and that of rural Mongolians moving into the city’s periphery. While the Chinese constitute ‘skilled’ and ‘lifestyle’ migrants, the Mongolians compose ‘economic’ migrants. The Chinese are wealthy business people coming to work for the corporations such as the mining companies directly investing in Ulaanbaatar, whereas the Mongolians are forced to come to the city to find any work at all. This creates a divide between the two groups, and contributes to the Mongolian residents of Ulaanbaatar looking to separate themselves from the Chinese, and they have done so through rap. The sprawling Ger slums on the outskirts of the city, housing almost 1/3 of the entire nation have become a type of satellite city wherein the local population grows and expands such that it develops a different character than the core of the city. While many Mongolians in Ulaanbaatar have been pushed to the outskirts of the cities, the Chinese ‘middling trans-nationals’ are entering the economic core of the city given their higher economic status. The Mongolians in the slums of Ulaanbaatar have to fight with the fact that now outsiders are coming in and bringing their Chinese influence with them, while the While the Chinese are affluent enough to maintain many of their comforts of homeland, the Mongolians who are migrating into Ulaanbaatar for work are being pushed to the outskirts within their own city. Chinese became more and more prevalent as a language of business within Ulaanbaatar as a result of Chinese FDI. There is a growing fear among the periphery of Ulaanbaatar that they will be eventually pushed out due to the economic factors mainstreaming the Chinese identity. The Mongolians on the periphery of Ulaanbaatar are anxious about the increasing growth of a Chinese core fueled by FDI, resulting in animosity towards the Chinese and the evolution of a new differentiated Mongolian identity.

Chinese mining magnates’ relative free-reign allowed by the cooperative Mongolian government incites local tension due to the reinforced belief that their only intention is to strip wealth from the nation. The government is relocating the nomadic farmers which symbolize the nation on the falsified grounds that they are depleting the grasslands in order to allow mining companies to move in and take the land, sparking further anti-Chinese sentiments and provoking one Mongolian rapper to sing that “‘[o]vergrazing is a myth and a lie/ We have grazed animals here thousands of years/ Why has the desertification started since only a few decades ago?’” Mongolians know that they are being exploited by the Chinese, sparking rapper Gee to become almost violently anti-Chinses, going as far as to say that the Chinese want to take everything from Mongolia. The animosity is exacerbated by the intense connection many Mongolians feel to their land, and the destruction that Chinese mines bring to it. Many Mongolian rappers have songs that revere their beautiful grasslands which are now being turned into a dessert by bulldozers and dump trucks. The rappers see the wealth that the Chinese are squeezing dry from the teat of their nation juxtaposed against their own people starving for a drop to drink. Rapper Amraa calls for social reform and creates an economic commentary by positing that “‘[w]e have homeless children, we have poverty, but we also have a very grand history that was inherited from our ancestors. We sing about kids living in sewers, and we ask, ‘Where’s your kid living?’ We want to get a message to the corrupt upper class.’” The economic disparities present within Mongolia give fuel for Mongolian rappers to fire up their audiences calling for change, but the manifestation of that change is entrenching sinophobia in the Mongolian identity.

In the process of differentiating themselves from the Chinese colonizers, the residents of Ulaanbaatar have developed an anti-Chinese sentiment that derails attempts at forming an authentically distinct identity. When discussing sinphobia in Mongolian rap music, I reference an interview with rapper Gee in my article Straight Outta Ulaanbaatar, in which he expounds that “‘I’m not racist toward anybody… except the Chinese. I hate the Chinese.’” The attention given to former colonial powers became a predominant discourse intertwined with efforts to protect the Mongolian identity through musical proliferation, with some racial slurs against the Chinese prevalent and one group going as far as to release a song entitled ‘Don’t Overstep the Limits, You Chinks.’ The presence of Chinese investors in Mongolia is used as a focal point for Mongolian rappers to mobilize their followers against, coming as a consequence of the hyper-nationalistic rhetoric they employ. This fear and hatred stems from the superiority and chauvinism endemic to any exclusionary identity, and unfortunately by promoting the identity, Mongolian rappers are also promoting the animosity.

Rap music became prevalent in Mongolia because there are many Mongolian artists who have made the genre their own, providing a mode to create an entirely distinct cultural object important to the emergence of a new postcolonial identity, yet unfortunately the rise of Mongolian rap music is marred by the rise of Sinophobic tropes within the genre. As a consequence of ubiquitous Chinese FDI, Mongolians are fearful of their new identity being eclipsed by the influx of foreign nationals. Producing rap music in Mongolians’ own tongue is a vital component of encouraging the creation of Mongolians’ own unique identity, yet the mobilization of xenophobic rhetoric exemplifies the ways in which Mongolian identity creation is hindered by lackadaisically following the same problematic methods of identity creation utilized by foreign powers when they controlled Mongolia. Mongolian rapper Amraa and rap group TST both are proud to be outspoken nationalists, hoping to inspire young Mongolians to have pride in their language and their nation, at a time when many young Mongolians are learning Mandarin in pursuit of greater economic opportunities. The focus on protecting the Mongolian language is just one way that Mongolian rappers display their adroit social commentary; rapper Gee has lyrics that show his desire to help Mongolia differentiate itself in the face of neoliberal economic imperialism, rapping that “‘[i] n the ocean of globalization, Mongolia is like a boat without paddles. You better start to care before we … drown.’” Yet, when fighting against the tides of globalization, it is important to recognize that the ‘Other’ is entirely discursively constructed. While independent cultural identities can be created through the ‘Other,’ altering aspects of external influences to localize them in positive ways instead of ignoring them, the foundation of the new identities created does not need to be opposition to ‘Others.’ Despite the significant sinophobia present in Mongolian rap, there are aspects of the musical genre that provide reason to hope for positive identity creation in the future. Rappers have a strong emphasis on environmentalism, even if driven by nationalistic sentiments, wanting to protect their homeland. Mongolian rappers have also rejected the materialism and consumerism endemic to the music of their Western counterparts, allowing listeners to claim a new identity by emphasizing cultural identity over luxury goods in a country where roughly 30 percent of the population lives in poverty.

            In efforts to differentiate themselves from their former colonizers, Mongolians have embraced the resurgence of the historic shamanistic religion of Tengriism (sometimes referred to as Tengrism), but this religious resurgence is coupled with the emergence of hyper-nationalist groups that have embraced the religion as a focal point of their identity as Mongolians. Since 1990, the population of shamans in Mongolia ballooned from 10 to 20,000. The rebirth of Tengriism was been largely influenced by the presence of Chinese mining interests within the nation, with a heavy emphasis on environmental concerns, accentuated by the fact that deities in Tengriism have physical geographic representations that are worshipped. Yet, nationalists’ approbation of Tengriism is a stumbling block for the development of a new Mongolian identity. While the resurgence religion in isolation is an incredibly positive way to reclaim an aspect of Mongolia’s precolonial identity, it is tainted by the endorsement of swastika-toting ultra-nationalists. One group, called Tsagaan Khaas, engages in violent crimes such as shaving the heads of Mongol women they suspect of having slept with foreigner. The leader of another previously hyper-nationalist group, Standing Blue Mongol, was convicted of killing his daughter’s boyfriend for studying in China. Presently, Standing Blue Mongol adopted an environmentalist agenda, and is fighting against a Canadian mining company intending to extract resources from a locally revered mountain. While this action is not problematic in and of itself, Standing Blue Mongol used to be a neo-Nazi organization that latched onto Hitler’s beliefs of ‘ethnic purity.’ Even as Tengriism offers a positive route to developing an independent identity, Mongolians turn to nationalist groups because they fear that their capital city is being overrun by Chinese foreigners who they perceive to be ethnically impure. In “Religious Revival, Nationalism, and ‘Tradition,’” Marlène Laruelle examines the ties between the resurgence of Tengriism and ethnocentrism, postulating that “a process of an ethnicization of the divine with ambiguous political consequences reveals the deep ideological changes and the process of social recompositions, which are being experienced by post-Soviet societies.” The use of distinct religious traditions to differentiate nations in the subaltern from their colonizers is widespread throughout former Soviet satellites, with ranging from neo-paganism in Baltic States to Zoroastrianism in Tajikistan. Unfortunately, the construction of this religious identity as exclusive inhibits the successful development of a postcolonial identity, for no nation is entirely homogenous and precluding members of the society from subscribing to a nation’s new identity only serves to create further internal divisions. These examples Tengriism being coopted by nativist movements in Mongolia provide important examples of how easily nations can fall victim to tacit identity creation attempts, such as chauvinism. If attempts at identity creation hinge on rejecting an ‘Other,’ then Mongolia will be inexorably tied to their invented ‘Other’ and the nation will never go on to develop its own unique identity that is necessary to dismantle the remaining structures of colonial oppression.

The process of inventing a national identity out of thin air has been shown to have many obstacles that must be avoided, such as those associated with grounding a new identity on opposing an ‘Other,’ yet the mobilization of exclusive identities to endeavor to develop a postcolonial character also has serious implications for members of nations’ own populations. Women in Mongolia are put in a tenuous position as hyper-nationalism gains prevalence, for as explained by Undarya Tumursukh, “problems arise when we deconstruct the homogeneous and static image of the nation and recognize that contemporary societies, democratic or not, are structured so as to systematically privilege some groups over others along class, race, ethnicity or gender lines.” Tumursukh elucidates that when being masculine is seen as synonymous with being Mongolian, as is evident in the rhetoric employed by nationalist groups such as Tsagaan Khaas, women become the ‘Other’ in society as much as foreigners. Just as it is dangerous for a postcolonial identity to rely on their former oppressors, it is equally dangerous for nationalism to come part and parcel with the domination and control of women’s bodies. As evidenced by the attacks perpetrated by ultra-nationalist groups against women who are suspected of copulating with outsiders, the control that such groups attempt to asset over Mongolian women’s sexuality is the antithesis of modernity and could bar Mongolia from claiming a postcolonial identity if it propagates.

As the case study of Mongolia exemplifies, nations can fail to emerge from beneath structures of colonialism if their attempts at identity creation are stained by the tendency to rely on constructing an ‘Other’ to be oriented against. Oppositional identity creation such as that invoked by Mongolian rappers and ultra-nationalists may result from external exploitation, but it is self-propagating by perpetuating reliance on an ‘Other,’ both inside and outside of the postcolonial society. Oppositional identity creation must be avoided in order to successfully develop a postcolonial identity, for it impedes the authentic identity creation necessary to transcend systems of exploitation.

About Andrew Fallone

Andrew is the Marketing Director for the World Mind, as well as a contributing editor, and a staff writer for the Asia column. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he is in D.C. pursuing degrees in International Relations and German. He is currently interning with the Embassy of the Principality of Liechtenstein.