Ulaanbaatar’s Cultural Diplomacy Strengthens France-Mongolia Ties
For Mongolia, 2023 has been a breakthrough year for the country’s cultural diplomacy. During Mongolian President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa’s state visit to France on October 10-14, the Mongolian Ministry of Culture in collaboration with the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs successfully organized activities that have strengthened the two countries’ cultural ties.
Mongolia’s cultural performances at the Versailles Palace, Nantes History Museum, and Lkham Gallery in Paris highlighted Ulaanbaatar’s efforts to grow global knowledge and awareness of Mongolia’s past and present.
On October 13, the Morin Khuur philharmonic ensemble performed “Beautiful Mongolia” to Khurelsukh, his spouse Bolortsetseg Luvsandorj, Mongolian Foreign Minister of Mongolia Battsetseg Batmunkh, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, and over 600 invited guests at the Royal Opera House at Versailles Palace.
The Morin Khuur ensemble is a symbol of Mongolia’s efforts to grow its historical and cultural presence on the world stage. Since 1993, the ensemble has played in 14 different countries and performed over 700 times.
The traditional musical instrument played during the performance, the eponymous morin khuur (horsehead fiddle), is already a UNESCO-protected cultural item. Combining the morin khuur with instruments such as the yatga (traditional plucked zither) in composition with flute, violin, and piano the ensemble created an atmosphere that is traditional, yet modern, culturally specific yet international.
For the Morin Khuur ensemble’s first time performing in the Versailles Palace, the incorporation of French elements not only surprised the audience but also exhibited the significance of France-Mongolia cultural ties.
While Mongolia’s great composer Jantsannorov Natsag’s “The Mongolian Melody” captured the hearts and minds of those who attended, the French classic “La Vie En Rose” was sung by a young Mongolian vocalist, to the audience’s delight. The working mechanisms of Mongolia’s cultural diplomacy reached every corner of the Versailles Palace and hopefully beyond.
Afterward, one French attendee had rave reviews of the performance, telling The Diplomat, “It was magnificent, surprising, and beautiful. Very surprising!”
The Morin Khuur Ensemble also performed at the opening ceremony of the Chinggis Khaan exhibit in Nantes, France.
Under the auspices of French President Emmanuel Macron and Mongolian President Khurelsukh, the “Chinggis Khaan – How Mongols Changed the World” exhibit will be open to the public from October 2023 to May 2024 at the Château des ducs de Bretagne, within the Nantes History Museum. The large exhibit features over 400 artifacts, along with an exposition featuring 8,000 Mongolian products – some of which are on display for the first time in ever.
According to Dr. Gaelle Lacaze, a French anthropologist who has close ties to Mongolia, the Chinggis Khaan exhibit in Nantes is a significant step for France and Mongolia to strengthen cultural ties. She pointed out that this aspect of relations must keep pace with other developments, such as the landmark uranium deal signed between Mongolia and France: “Because of the bilateral agreement between the Mongolian government and Orano, it’s necessary to implement cultural programs in order to legitimatize the presidential mission.”
Lacaze added that, in order for Ulaanbaatar and Paris to strengthen cultural ties, “student exchange and cooperative projects are crucial.”
Mongolia’s efforts in organizing the Chinggis Khaan exhibit in Nante came after a similar exhibit proposed by China faced major challenges.
Le Parisien revealed that back in 2020, when Chateau Nantes and China collaborated to have an exhibit, the Chinese authorities insisted they must validate the entire text of the exhibition. According to Le Parisien, “A new text had even been written entirely from China where the word ‘Mongol’ appeared on page 12, and where the name of Chinggis Khaan had simply been erased.” Hence, the Nantes Museum refused the exhibit proposal.
According to the French ambassador to Mongolia, Sebastien Surun, “From 2020 to 2023, Chateau Nantes and Mongolia have been able to work quickly and to open the exhibition last week.”
Mongolian Minister of Culture Nomin Chinbat emphasized Macron’s direct support for strengthening France-Mongolia cultural ties.
The history of Chinggis Khaan – his conquests, establishments, and missteps – are all integral parts of Mongolia’s history and Mongol identity. Thus, protecting the Mongols’ history and historical narrative, including by showcasing relevant artifacts, plays a crucial role in modern Mongolia’s cultural diplomacy.
Meanwhile, in Paris, eight contemporary Mongolian artists from Europe and Mongolia opened “The White Milk Paints the Blue Sky” contemporary art exhibition at the Lkham Gallery.
The curator, Dr. Christianna Bonin, told The Diplomat’s Bolor Lkhaajav that “France has a long history of engagement and interest in Asia. The Parisian context is the one that is curious and open to visual arts.” She praised the contributions of the Mongolian artists, saying that “working with and highlighting the interconnectedness between the human world and the natural world is very powerful.”
Bonin underscored the importance of artistic contribution and understanding of the connectedness between nature and humankind during a period of climate crisis, where there is a lot of talk about sustainability.
Mongolia’s showcasing of its history and culture on an international stage is part of Ulaanbaatar’s soft power, meant to increase global knowledge and awareness of the country and its traditional culture. The cultural exposition, then, in turn, helps the country’s tourism sector. When tourists visit Mongolia, most already have some idea of the Mongolian history, society, and artistic culture.
Mongolia is currently taking more steps to protect its traditional culture, which is closely linked to the Mongol identity, especially abroad. In recent years, the Ministry of Culture has submitted more cultural artifacts, performances, and traditional items to UNESCO to prevent removal, destruction, alteration, or misinterpretation by other countries.
From an international relations perspective, Mongolia’s cultural diplomacy is one of many important pillars of the country’s third neighbor foreign policy.Ulaanbaatar is seeking diverse channels of leadership, initiation, and engagement, a quest that informs Khurelsukh and Macron’s rapid advancement of bilateral ties.
“The cultural events, exhibitions, and the business forum that took place during the Mongolian President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa’s state visit to France illustrates a great significance and a boost in France-Mongolia’s bilateral relations,” said The Mongolian ambassador to France, Nyamkhuu Ulambayar.
Building on the successes seen in France, attention is now turning to the arrival in London’s West End of the theater show “The Mongol Khan.” The performance will see Mongolia’s leading theater company perform in the United Kingdom for the first time. “The Mongol Khan” – to be performed in Mongolian, with English subtitles – tells a captivating story of power and a conflict for supremacy set three millennia ago. The show acts as an introduction to Mongolia but also marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Mongolia and the United Kingdom.