Word and Sound in Mongolian Culture

19 Days  ◦  2 Instructors

The program will reveal the key ideas of Mongolia’s oral and written literary traditions and sonic art forms. Participants will visit important sites for these traditions, and will meet with local musical practitioners and writers in order to understand the context in which the traditions were begun and practiced, as part of the rural lives of nomadic herders and in, the urban cultural scene.


Course Overview

This course will introduce participants to the main ideas of Mongolia’s literary and musical forms in the context of the rural lives of nomadic herders, and as part of the urban literary and musical scene. Participants will visit important sacred and cultural sites in the Gobi desert and central Mongolia, and will experience the music and literature of Mongolia through performances and discussions with local musicians and researchers, all set within the wide, open landscapes of Mongolia.

Mongolia’s culture is deeply rooted in its oral literature, language arts, and sonic expressions developed over centuries of nomadic herding. Later, under the extensive influence of Soviet culture across almost 70 years, the nation also developed a strong culture of literary writing, its writers producing a broad range of poetry, novellas, novels, and plays. While much nomadic cultural knowledge held in oral traditions – such as legends, epics, blessings, and various folk songs – is expressed through literature, when realized as sound, it is expressed also in genres of music, and Mongolia’s rich musical tradition exercises a continuing force within society. The written literature, despite the appearance of modernity, is even today closely connected to these traditional oral and musical forms, and nomadic identity continues to contribute widely contemporary urban culture. Through this course participants will gain an immersive opportunity to understand how the landscapes and lifestyles of Mongolia, both past and present, have been, and still are, expressed in music and literature.

The course will take place in two main venues outside Ulaanbaatar – initially in Sainshand, Dornogovi province, and then in Töv province. In Ulaanbaatar, participants will first experience how the traditional/nomadic forms of the literary and musical arts are being kept alive, and adapted, in contemporary Mongolia. Participants will then travel in rural areas of Mongolia to gain a greater understanding of the cultural and geographic context that shapes music and language arts in Mongolia.

The region around Sanshand, where the nineteenth-century poet and monk Danzanravjaa (1803-1856) lived, will offer participants the chance to explore the character of Mongolian poetry in his work and in the work of more recent writers. Moreover, the bringing together of singers and poets will show the close connection between poetry and song, both in Danzanravjaa’s work, and in the folksongs of the region.

Moving to Töv aimag, participants will experience some of the traditional oral literary forms and customs, that are used in a variety of nomadic contexts, such as herding songs, prayers, and other cultural forms used specifically in feasts and during celebrations. By incorporating into this practical hands-on learning from invited local singers and herders, participants will be able to experience not only the expressive cultural forms of poetry and music but also traditional aspects of herding life, such as milking, erecting gers, and the making of felt and dairy products.

This is an interdisciplinary course that incorporates aspects of geography, anthropology, folklore, and other disciplines. It includes approximately 40 contact hours, and is designed as a 3-credit course. Students seeking academic credit from their home or other institutions can request a more detailed course syllabus, and are encouraged to contact the course instructors and the institution where credit will be granted to ensure that unique institutional information and process requirements are met.

Participants will engage in site visits, discussions with faculty and guest speakers, and small group sharing sessions that allow for the exchange of ideas. Some evening sessions will be held and will include semi-formal performances (readings of literature in Mongolian and English; musical performances; or opportunities for participants to share the progress of their projects). Moreover, since the course will be based primarily on the experience of Mongolian tradition through direct interactions with local practitioners, we will have frequent contributions from Mongolian poets, singers, and lecturers in both more formal performances and informal sharing of music and stories. The course offers an immersive opportunity for participants to gain a feel for how the landscapes and lifestyles of Mongolia are expressed in music and literature.


Anticipated Course Activities

Day 1-5

June 15-19


Program and Course Orientation in Ulaanbaatar

Students will gain an introduction to Mongolian language, culture, history and contemporary issues. We will also hold an introduction to the course and learning methods, government ministries, Zanabazar Museum, Choijin Lama Temple, and Gandan Monastery. Lectures and performances will be held of and by writers and musicians.

Day 5-6

June 19-20

train mongolia

Travel to Sainshand by train

Day 6-12

June 20-25

ger camp

Stay in Sainshand in ger camp or hotel

Lectures and visits to the Hamarin Hiid Monastery complex, local sacred sites, and to visit the regional museum in Sainshand. Performances and discussions with local singers and artists.

Day 13

June 26


Travel to Töv aimag field site

Day 13-18

June 26-July 1


Stay at ger camp in Hustai Nuruu Park

Here, participants will see Przewalski’s horses (takhi in Mongolian) in their natural habitat and learn about the species’ reintroduction and conservation. We will also have final course discussions on observations and lessons learned before departing to return to Ulaanbaatar.

Day 18

July 2


Return to Ulaanbaatar, end of program

Day 19

July 3


ACMS Mongolia Field School wrap up conference in Ulaanbaatar

Join in a conference with other Field School students, students, faculty and interested persons for presentations on the topics covered in the Field School program, discussions of observations and lessons learned, and future directions for research and explorations.



Dr. Simon Wickhamsmith

Rutgers University
Dr. Simon Wickhamsmith teaches in the Writing Program at Rutgers University, where he also teaches courses in Mongolian literature, and Manchu and Tibetan language and culture in the department of Asian, Language and Culture. He specializes in Mongolian literary history since 1921 and is currently completing a monograph on literature and politics in Mongolia 1921-1948 for the University of Amsterdam Press. He is also a translator of Mongolian literature, and his translation of Ts.Oidov’s poetry, The End of the Dark Era, was shortlisted for the National Translation Award in 2017. A book of his translations of Mongolian short stories is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. He holds a PhD from the University of Washington.

Dr Sunmin Yoon

University of Delaware
Dr. Sunmin Yoon is an ethnomusicologist, and currently teaches ethnomusicology/world music at the University of Delaware. Her research focuses particularly on the urtyn duu (long-song) genre, and singers’ sensory music-making in relation to their ecological and musical environments, and in both rural and urban contexts. Her work has appeared in several journals, such as Asian Music, MUSICultures, Musicology Research, Mongolian Studies, and The International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) Newsletter. She holds a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Anticipated Course Activities


"Attending the renewable energy field school was the best decision I made in 2019! I was already attending a fulltime graduate program in Canada, but the field school added rich value to my learning. As the world is becoming more globalized, looking at how Mongolia is responding to the challenges of supplying cleaner energy was a valuable experience. Our instructors came with a vast amount of knowledge and a passion to teach.’’

Liz B.

Participant of Mongolia Field School 2019
Batkhuu SQ600

"As a sociology major student, this program was very helpful to explore urban issues and migration processes in contemporary Mongolia. Through this program, I sharpened my academic capabilities while refining soft skills essential for my future studies.’’

Batkhuu B.

Participant of Mongolia Field School 2019

"The ACMS field school is a unique experience that has changed my life and teaching. In most programs, international participants are isolated from the country in which we are studying except for controlled visits to local people and sites. Not so with ACMS! Half of the participants in each field school are from Mongolia, ensuring that local and international participants have a chance to understand each other’s perspectives.’’

Janis M

Participant of Mongolia Field School 2019
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