Originally the southern part of Mongolia, the area known as Inner Mongolia was settled by powerful nomadic Mongolian tribes centuries ago. Later, in the sixteenth century, the Manchu Empire annexed it from the northern Mongolians after many bloody battles. They took possession and renamed the area Inner Mongolia.
After the 1911 Revolution many Chinese settlers entered the sparsely populated region, forcing the nomadic Mongol tribes into the steppe and desert. Inner Mongolia now became an integral part of the Chinese Republic. In 1937 the Sino-Japanese War broke out, and the Japanese invaded Inner Mongolia. They created the Japanese-controlled state of Mengkiang or Mengjiang, with its capital at Guihua. Again in 1945 the Chinese Communists restored the land to China.
Chairman Mao proclaimed the Inner Mongolia the first autonomous region of China in 1947. Shortly afterwards, in 1954, Hohhot became the regional capital.
Geographically Inner Mongolia encompasses vast steppes and the increasingly arid Gobi desert. Rainfall is scanty but much of the steppe has been converted into farmland via irrigation, especially along the Yellow River and the Hohhot Plains. With the advent of agriculture the nomadic way of life among the Mongolians declined, their diet changed to include some vegetables and Chinese became the dominant language.
China has about 5.8 million Mongolians, 4.2 million of whom live in Inner Mongolia. Other Chinese Mongolians live in northeastern Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, and northwestern Gansu and Xinjiang. A few scattered groups also reside in Qinghai and Yunnan and even Afghanistan; they are the progeny from ancient Mongolian campaigns led by Genghis Khan and his descendants during the 12th and 13th centuries. Additionally, about a half a million Inner Mongolians now live the USA.
In fact, in the entire world there are less than 10 million Mongolians, from Inner or Outer Mongolia. Most live in 3 neighboring countries: Outer Mongolia, China and Russia. Their nomadic lifestyle now exists for only a few scattered groups in China and Russia and is fast vanishing in Outer Mongolia as well. Fortunately, the Chinese government recognizes the need to support and cherish all minority cultures. I have found contemporary life in Inner Mongolian to exemplify the successful blending of Han and Mongolian culture.
The first thing that struck me upon my arrival in 2005 to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, was how Mongolian the city appeared despite the fact that the majority of the population is Han Chinese. Everywhere I gazed I saw bilingual signs, displaying the vertical curly Mongolian script side by side with Chinese characters. In the streets long haired Mongolian boys sauntered by me. Beautiful Mongolian girls in native dress greeted me in front of Mongolian restaurants that wafted out the tantalizing aroma of roast mutton. And small concessions, advertising Mongolian foodstuffs, tempted me to enter. Inside I found dozens of kinds of traditional foods: Mongolian beef jerky, cheeses, milk candies and even butter. Later, eating at a small Mongolian restaurant I enjoyed my roast mutton with oat noodles, a dish only found here in Inner Mongolia. Later, after several months of work at the Inner Mongolia Agriculture University I also learned that a special School of Mongolian Arts ensures that music, dance and the visual arts remain alive and well in this exotic region, and that many primary and secondary schools teach the Mongolian language to eager students. My discoveries: regarding language, food, and art, as well as extensive interviews with native Inner Mongolians all convinced that the ethnic Mongolian culture is alive and well.
(China.org.cn by Valerie Sartor, July 16, 2007)