Erdemt’s hometown Xi Wuqi, a city of 70,000 flush against the grasslands, was built to help sustain the mining boom. The tiny Han-owned boutiques that line its broad, well-paved thoroughfares are so new that their interiors smell like fresh paint. Five years ago, its residents say, it was little more than a cluster of one-story red-brick homes.
Shamanism is among the world’s oldest religions, dating back as far as the paleolithic era, and many of Erdemt’s clients see him as an embodiment of a timeless order that was devastated by the boom. “In the past, living a pastoral life was the purest way to be in touch with nature — to absorb its energy,” said Nisu Yila, a professional Mongolian wrestler in Xi Wuqi, as he sat on the shaman’s living room couch wearing a traditional deel robe and a cowboy hat. “But bit by bit, that kind of life began to disappear. And we began to panic.” The shaman, he said, reminds him of what China’s Mongolians have lost. “He’s like a short cut,” he said.
Experts say that this sentiment — the desire to reconnect with a forgotten past — is nearly ubiquitous in China, a natural byproduct of rapid change. “Because of modernization, and now urbanization, traditional culture is vanishing and being replaced by western culture, and under such conditions, people realize that these things are worth protecting,” said Tian Qing, the head of the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Centre and a prominent adviser to the government on cultural affairs.
“Right now, Chinese society is like a pot of soup, and it’s boiling over the top. Have you ever cooked? You think that’s not going to hurt you? People here get psychological problems. There’s pressure. There’s difficulty. And so they look towards religion for comfort.”
Tian quoted a Tang dynasty poem to underscore his point: “Even a prairie fire can’t destroy the grass; it just grows again when the spring breeze blows.”
While Erdemt’s social role may be timeless, his professional duties — the therapy-like sessions and ebullient rituals — are inexorably modern. He provides solace to white-collar job seekers and helps local officials assess the spiritual implications of approving new mines. He understands that there are lines he cannot cross.
“The government, they don’t formally acknowledge me the way they acknowledge other religions,” he says. “But as long as I don’t do anything illegal — or at least, what they’d consider illegal — they won’t limit me.” Pamphlets and broadcasts are strictly out of bounds. Although he’s careful to couch his ethnic sentiments in benign terms, he refuses to see Han clients. Most of them see his services as an investment, he says. They’re angered by weak returns.
Erdemt’s son Bao Lidao, a bespectacled 26-year-old with ruddy cheeks and an explosive laugh, is experiencing a quarter-life crisis. After graduating from university in the region’s capital city, Hohhot, Bao took a government job mediating between land-hungry railway ministry officials and the nomads they sought to displace.
The position overwhelmed him. The nomads were fickle — they’d be seduced by sizable compensation packages one day and reticent the next, aware that the cash was, unlike their land, ephemeral. Last year, he took a secretarial job with the Xi Wuqi government, and he finds the position stultifying. “These people, although they drive good cars, they eat well, they live well, they wear nice things ? I feel their hearts are empty,” he said.