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Moving the world through two strings: The horse-head fiddle and the cosmopolitan reimagination of tradition in Mongolia.


This thesis focuses upon the symbolic representation of the Mongolian horse-head fiddle (a two-stringed folk fiddle) within the nationalist discourse of cosmopolitan Mongolian society of the 20th century. The methodology of this study primarily draws from ethnomusicology and anthropology, and included fieldwork in Mongolia from 1996 --2000. It challenges the prevalent modernist approaches to contemporary cultural history in Mongolia by suggesting a broader conceptual framework for understanding contemporary cultural change. We examine how the People's Revolution of 1921 brought about not only Soviet cultural imperialism, but also the establishment of a thriving cosmopolitanism. Mostly Russian (Soviet)-trained and nationalistic Mongolians, these cosmopolitans achieved rapid upward mobility in the Communist era in Mongolia and collaborated with Soviet leaders to bring about cultural modernization and the construction of a centralized national identity. These cosmopolitan nationalists helped to bring about the transformation (reimagination) of the horse-head fiddle from a regional folk instrument into a vital part of the new nationalized music culture. As Soviet colonial power waned in the 1980s, cosmopolitan nationalists again reimagined the fiddle into an emblem of an independent Mongolian nation. From the Communist to post-Communist eras, the horse-head fiddle has remained a central symbol of the nationalist discourse and contemporary representations of it continue to be shaped by the (Soviet-nationalist) soil from which it arose. Specifically, we see that this discourse emphasizes a Mongolian sense of purity, cultural evolution, and exclusivity. While this discourse varies within a Geertzian continuum of essentialism and epochalism, it has become fundamentally separated from any specific traditional-oriented contexts. In the end we see how these centralized representations of the horse-head fiddle need to be seen in the context of alternative (and even contradictory) representations of the instrument coming from the peripheries of the discourse of and around the central musical institutions. The presence of alternative representations shows the essentially limited nature of cosmopolitan nationalism in Mongolia, and thus the need to incorporate alternative voices into national discourse.