Reviving an (Almost) Forgotten Script: self-taught calligrapher Amgalan Zhamsoev mixes traditional Mongolian aesthetics with modern influences9 min read
“The history of using Mongolian script for the Buryat language was erased by the Soviet educational system. Reviving it has become such a complex tangle that sometimes I ask myself, ‘do people need it at all?’ However, I think that the spirit of a people needs to live on. We should not forget our ancestors who have lived on this land for thousands of years. I don’t think we have the moral right to allow that to happen.”
Amgalan Zhamsoev is a self-taught calligrapher and scholar of Buryat and Mongolian studies, based in Ulan-Ude, Russia. Through his art, he aims to revive the use of Mongolian script for the Buryat language by mixing traditional aesthetics with modern influences. In 2020, Zhamsoev founded the Ulzei gallery together with art historian Marie Mach. The gallery is dedicated artists from the former Soviet Union. Especially those from the Central Asia and the Caucasus who tackle issues related to identity and culture in a contemporary context. I conducted this interview with him in December 2020.
How did you first become interested in Mongolian calligraphy?
When I was still living at home, I Googled “Mongolian script”. I saw images of modern Mongolian calligraphy and was immediately attracted to it and it strengthened my desire to learn more about my native language. I got some cheap brushes and tried to copy what I saw. I was self taught until my fourth year of university.
What was your experience studying at Buryat State University?
I learned through 1 hour 20-30 minute long classes. No more. I came across good teachers who drew comparisons between Buryat and other Mongolic languages (not Mongolian, but the Mongolic family). I was also able to go to Mongolia to study the language. I was lucky enough to find myself at a calligraphy workshop at the College of Mongolian Language and Culture. From what I saw in Mongolia, I got the impression – after finding out that my teacher had studied calligraphy in Japan – that Japanese calligraphy’s abstract expressive quality had actually influenced modern Mongolian calligraphy.
Initially, I thought that was cool, but now, I prefer the more historical styles of Mongolian calligraphy. One of Mongolia’s most knowledgeable calligraphers actually says that we need to move away from the Chinese style of calligraphy and more towards its roots, to a more geometric style. I think Buryat calligraphy should move more towards that direction so it won’t get confused with Chinese or Japanese calligraphy.
Collaboration with sculptor Bair Sundupov
Where do you find your inspiration for your work?
I find inspiration in old scriptures and my imagination. Often, I try not to give into my fantasy too much, because people can get used to inauthentic images. I don’t want viewers to become disinterested in classic works. In fact, this has already happened because of the work of Mongolian calligraphers. They do not think about aesthetics and for them “Mongolianess” has already been achieved by the Mongolian script itself. Calligraphy is also considered a science (paleography) and a type of poetry because you need to have a good command of the language in order to compose poetry yourself. In some cases, knowledge of the language allows word play through depicting the actual subject the word describes.
How have others reacted to your work?
People who do not live in Buryatia such as Russians from big cities and foreigners such as Europeans, Americans, Australians admire my work. It is very unusual for them to see vertical writing for the first time.
Do you believe there is a larger interest in Buryat culture and calligraphy?
Yes, I see it myself. People need a background. People want context to fill a gap that was created during the Soviet Union. In those years, the entire Buryat culture was considered a kind of anachronism, despite the equality of cultures and languages. Buryat language seemed artificial.
Do you have any current plans for future projects?
Yes, I have a lot of plans, but there is only so much one person can do. There is a lot to do still. So far I have not published any books or articles on calligraphy, because I am still only collecting material. Many scientists have been collecting research material all their lives and this material has only been analyzed and published by their apprentices. When this happens, knowledge and aesthetic principles can perish. This is the case in how to evenly distribute elements in a text, break the monotony of a line, and other seemingly insignificant aspects, but it is considered knowledge nonetheless. It doesn’t come overnight and it only comes with experience. It is earned only through years of work. We, modern people, are accustomed to paying for it and thinking that it is possible to place monetary value on it. Of course you can’t assign value on art.
Would you be able to speak on how Buryats themselves see the Buryat language?
Yes, of course. In fact, in very different ways. I think about the same as the Asians living in the United States. Many people do not care about their native language. Some have publicly said: I don’t need the Buryat language, because I can’t go anywhere with it, I can’t make money with a skill of Buryat proficiency. About 10 years ago, it was still shameful to publicly utter such words. But there are also many who wholeheartedly support their native language, but often their enthusiasm ends in the support of people like me. They just like posts on social media, show respect and nothing more. Some believe that they can master the Buryat language or the Mongolian script in 10 minutes by just subscribing to me. When I tell them that they can’t just do that, it makes them sad and angry. Maybe I need to be more laid back, but I don’t really understand what it means to be laid-back. For me to be laid-back means laziness.
At the moment, at the end of 2020, I would divide Buryats into romantics and pragmatists. Romantics believe that the Buryat language is obligatory for those who currently define themselves as Buryat and pragmatists believe that the Buryat language is not needed, and if it dies, there won’t be terrible consequences. I think it is wrong to think this way. Perhaps they are too busy to be interested in learning Buryat.
Seal carved using the Soyombo script
Why do you think it is important to study Mongolian calligraphy?
You know, I can’t speak for everyone. I cannot answer for my colleagues. I cannot answer for that guy on the street, he who probably has not even heard about Mongolian script. With such a rare skill, overly romantic people even think that I have a “gift from God” (laughs) This was said to me by a Russian woman.
Every nation has a written language. There is a written language among the Yakuts, there is a written language among the Kazakhs, there is a written language among the Incas, Chinese, Japanese, Germans, Poles, etc. In online discussions, those in the majority frequently say “you don’t have your own [Buryat] script. We came to you and gave your script. You were illiterate, and we gave you culture. You should be grateful to us for that.”
This is a manifestation of the typical colonial attitude towards us. We are bullied and then told not to complain, and not to demand that colonizers treat us in a civilized manner. Thus, the Mongolian script and active belief that it belongs to the Buryats makes us free from bullies from the “majority”. Of course, not all of them recognize their lack of culture, but this is only because they themselves do not know that they are acting and speaking in a uncultured way. This is almost the same as in the Hungarian film The Fifth Seal.
The second point is our style. This opportunity to give the lands where the Buryats live to be identified by their own designs and style, to differ from the rest of Russia, where you see the same houses, the same clothes, and hear the same language, the same outlook on life. I believe that the Mongolian script may not be revived in the true sense, but at least it can become a brand. You see, the only ancient people in Siberia who had their own written language are the Buryats, not counting the Tuvans, as the Tuvans became part of the USSR much later, in 1944.
The “majority” likes to point out to us (and some of us have been convinced) that the Buryats are not related to the Mongols, which of course is not the case. We called ourselves Mongol-Buryat, we called our language Mongol-Buryat. We have only been called just Buryats since 1958. Over the years we have forgotten this and that many of us do not even want to know about our relationship with the Mongols. It should be used like a travel brand. It might not be much, but we at least have something other than Lake Baikal and buuz (meat dumplings) in common. To be proud of food is not the Buryat way. To make a brand out of food is nonsensical, according to traditional Buryat thought.
I once believed that through beauty you could bring attention back to the Buryat language. This is one of the reasons why I started doing calligraphy. It turns out that everyone has a different concept of beauty. We are so accustomed to the Cyrillic alphabet that many of us are unable to perceive other non-Cyrillic and non-Latin writing systems as writing in general.
Girona Manifesto of Linguistic Rights written in a patterned version of Mongolian writing
The Buryats are a Mongolic people that have historically resided in Southern Siberia near Lake Baikal and today a majority of Buryats still reside in the Republic of Buryatia. Out of the 460,000 ethnic Buryats that live in Russia, only about half speak Buryat fluently. UNESCO lists the language as severely endangered with only 368,807 speakers worldwide. The Mongolian script, which Zhamsoev uses in his work, was used in the early years of the Soviet Union until 1933, until Buryat switched over to the Latin and then the Cyrillic alphabet.
Despite the change in the alphabet, schools continued to teach in Buryat exclusively until the 1970’s when Soviet officials forced all schools in the region to teach exclusively in Russian. This remains the case today as Buryat language and culture are typically only ever offered as elective courses. This decision has led to the downward trend in the number of speakers that has led to Buryat language becoming endangered today.