The shaman of Xi Wuqi city wakes before sunrise on a Wednesday morning in June, piles his family into his silver Peugeot, and drives out beyond the city’s boxy mid-rises, past miles of strip-mines and coal refineries, and to the foot of a broad kelly-green hillside on the grasslands. He hikes to the top, removes his trainers and button-down shirt, and dons a black robe and a feather headdress. Then he gets to work.
The hill is on the shaman’s ancestral land, and he climbs it once a year to summon his ancestors; to express his desires, and to hear their demands. For the two hours he delivers a thunderous performance, rife with drum-beating, horn-blowing, the jingle of bells and the clanging of cymbals. His wife and son scatter sheep’s milk and rice liquor beneath variegated prayer flags. They throw handfuls of confetti to the wind.
“I saw a spirit riding a white horse with a flowing mane, and he told me right now, your ability as a shaman, your energy, your magic, they’ve improved very quickly,” the shaman said that afternoon, sitting in his two-bedroom apartment chain-smoking cigarettes, a Chinese news broadcast running mute on his flat-screen TV. “He said right now, you’ve already arrived — you can commune with the spirit of any river, or any mountain.”
Erdemt is a 54-year-old former herder (who, like many Mongolians, only goes by one name), and as a shaman, he is considered an intermediary between the human and spiritual worlds. Although he is new to the role — he became a shaman in 2009 — thousands of people, all of them ethnically Mongolian, have visited so that he could decipher nightmares, proffer moral guidance and cure mysterious ills. His patients pay him as much as they wish.
Despite his success, Erdemt’s status as a shaman in China is uniquely precarious. He’s an emerging religious figure in an officially atheist state, an expression of ethnic pride amid roiling ethnic tensions, and an embodiment of the distant past in a rapidly changing present. His China is one of resource extraction, mass migration and cultural upheaval. It is a constant exercise in compromise and restraint.
The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the sprawling northern borderland that Erdemt calls home, is one of the country’s most rapidly developing areas — its GDP grew an average of 17 percent annually between 2001 and 2011, faster than any Chinese province. Its greatest asset is its natural resources — copper, rare earths and especially coal. State-owned mining companies have arrived en masse, and they have changed the region indelibly.
The region’s native Mongolians, many of them nomadic herders, have largely paid the price. Strip mining has devastated large swaths of pasture land, forcing them to move into newly built cities with few economic prospects. Mongolians now account for less than 20 percent of the region’s 24 million people, and they own only a fraction of its wealth. Ethnic tensions simmer and occasionally explode.
Protests rippled across the area in May 2011, when Han drivers killed two Mongolian herders as they tried to block a caravan of coal trucks. Inner Mongolian authorities deployed riot police and barricaded university campuses. The drivers were hauled before a judge; they confessed, and one was promptly executed. The protests ended as quickly as they began.