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Mongolian wrestling
Mongolian warriors.jpg
Traditional Naadam festival in Mongolia, near Ulan Bator
Also known as bökh
Focus Wrestling
Country of origin Mongolia Mongolia
Olympic sport No

Mongolian wrestling (Mongolian: бөх, Bökh meaning strength, solidarity and durability) is a martial art and a traditional style of Folk wrestling that has been practiced in Mongolia for nearly 2,000 years. Wrestling is the most important of the Mongolian culture’s historic "Three Manly Skills", that also include horsemanship and archery, and plays a key role in their sacrificial rituals and festivals.[1] Genghis Khan considered wrestling to be an important way to keep his army in good physical shape and combat ready. The Manchu dynasty (1646-1911) Imperial court held regular wrestling events, mainly between Manchu and Mongol wrestlers. There are two different versions, Mongolian (in the country of Mongolia), and Inner Mongolian (in northern China).



The art of Bökh appears on bronze plates discovered in the ruins of the Xiongnu of the early Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Originally, Bökh was a military sport intended to provide mainly strength, stamina and skills training to troops. Genghis Khan (1206–1227)[2] and the Yuan Dynasty Emperors (1271–1368) were keen to support the sport for this reason so wrestling events were included in local festivals, or Naadam. Wrestling became a key factor when deciding the candidate rankings in imperial martial exams plus outstanding wrestlers were entitled to high distinctions.[1]

A.Heikel of the Finnish expedition to Mongolia wrote about a wrestling competition the expedition witnessed during their ten-day stay in Urga (now Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia) from 27th July till 7th August 1891: "Now there took place an entire week of wrestling between Mongolian athletes. The location was an open public square in front of a temple in the middle of the city. Thousands of spectators had gathered all around. These were kept in order by police agents. Ladies of high rank were jostling their way through the midst of the crowd. Only one side of the square was reserved for the lamas, who were dressed in shiny robes of red and yellow and sat with their legs crossed in long rows on both sides of a baldachin, under which was enthroned on an altar the "Gegen", that is to say, the "God-Man" sent from Tibet. In front of the throne stood two attendants with ceremonial tiger-skins slung over their shoulders. The champions advanced two at a time, coming out from opposite sides of the square, accompanied by their seconds. They had their chests, legs and arms exposed and advanced doing most comic dances, certainly to ensure the elasticity of their muscles during the last minute. As soon as one of the wrestlers touched the ground, no matter how lightly, he was judged the loser of the bout. Then the victor proceeded to leap his way forward and prostrated himself before the god, offering his thanks for the victory. After that he went to the judges to have his name written down, in order to fight the next day with another opponent who had equally brought down his own opponent that same day. The prizes given to the final "invincibles" consisted of goats and sheep etc. Ten days later there was to take place a horse race in a steppe close to Urga, wherein a thousand racers would participate, but we couldn't wait until then. These kinds of national festivals, which one could call the Mongolian Olympics, take place every year, but the ones which take place every three years seem to be the most impressive.[3]

As can be seen from this text the Urga games (1778-1924) took place at the old central square which would have been located just to the north of present-day Sukhbaatar Square. The square can be seen on pre-revolutionary paintings of Urga. A 1967 Mongolian painting shows an old Urga wrestling match in detail, with the wrestlers wearing the same "Zodog" and "Shuudag" as they do in the present-day games (1924-present), although the Bogd Khan takes an important place in the setting of the wrestling square. The avarga (Titan) Jambyn Sharavjamts (born 1876) was a famous champion who gained recognition starting from when he was 18 years old and continued to compete with extraordinary success in state Naadams during the Qing dynasty period (until 1911), the Bogd Khan period (1911-1924) and the People's Republic of Mongolia (1924-1990). Sharavjamts was invited to take part in the state Naadam of 1945 (footage still exists) and succeeded in defeating three wrestlers at the age of nearly 70. He retired from wrestling in 1951, during the 30th anniversary of the People's Revolution with many decorations and medals including the Labor Achievment medal.

Naadam events

Wrestling matches traditionally take place at the end of July or early August, during a festival called Naadam ("Play" in English). The matches are generally held in an open grassy field but can also occur on a soft dirt area not littered with gravel. Since there are no weight classes a small wrestler can compete against an opponent twice his size.

Traditionally, wrestlers were not equal matched. The host of a Naadam had the privilege to arrange these matches and would often lend their favorites an advantage. Sometimes such arrangements would result in serious disputes between hosts and visiting wrestlers. Although the modern wrestling codes since 1980 stipulate that a lot drawing method be used this is usually only done at major cross-regionally Naadams and championship matches. At the grassroots level the traditional system is still used.

Rank can only be attained during the Naadam festival. The number of rounds won by each wrestler determines rank. In ascending order, the ranks are: unranked, bird (5th round), elephant (7th round), lion (9th round) and titan (winner with lion rank). Additional two ranks, hawk (6th round) and garuda (8th round) were introduced in 2003.

Match Rules

The object of a match is to get your opponent to touch his upper body, knee or elbow to the ground. In the Inner Mongolian version, any body part other than the feet touching the ground signals defeat. There are no weight classes or time limits in a match. Each wrestler must wrestle once per round, the winners moving on to the next round.

The technical rules between the Mongolian version and what is found in Inner Mongolia have some divergence. In both versions a variety of throws, trips and lifts are employed to topple the opponent. The Inner Mongolians may not touch their opponent's legs with their hands, whereas, in Mongolia, grabbing your opponent's legs is legal. In addition, striking, strangling or locking is illegal in both varieties.

In the case of a sacrifice throw, the first wrestler to touch the ground, regardless of who threw whom, is the loser.


Starting the match

Ordos, Alagshaa/Shalbur and Oirad wrestlers begin a match locked together, while the Ujumchin, Halh and Hulunbuir styles start a bout without physical contact.

Leg contact

The Ujumchin and Hulunbuir styles permit no moves between the legs and hands, whereas the Halh variant not only allows but requires grabbing the opponent’s legs.


A Hulunbuir wrestler may kick his opponent directly in the legs but that technique is not sanctioned by the other styles and banned in the official code.


Definitions of a "fall" varies between regions:

The Oirad in Xinjiang (Eastern Turkestan) defines a fall as being when the shoulder blades touch the ground, which is similarly to the Turkish and International freestyle wrestling rules. The Inner Mongol style, shared by Hulunbuir, Ordos and Alagshaa/Shalbur styles, considers a fall to have occurred as soon as any part of the body above the knee (or ankle) touches the ground. The Halh variant, however, allows a hand to touch the ground without losing a bout.

Match courtesy

Mongolian wrestling also has certain codes of conduct that concern more with proper etiquette. For example, when a wrestler's clothes get loose or entangled, his opponent is expected to stop attacking and help the former to re-arrange them—even though it might mean giving up a good winning opportunity.

Also, when one contestant throws the other to the ground, he is supposed to help the latter get back on his feet, before he dances his way out of the field.

Whether winning or losing, good manners dictate that the two opponents shake hands and salute each other and the audience, both prior to and after a bout.


The outfit of the wrestler has been developed over the ages to reflect simplicity and mobility. The standard gear of a wrestler includes:


A tight, collarless, heavy-duty short-sleeved jacket of red or blue color. Traditionally made of wool, modern wrestlers have changed to looser materials such as cotton and silk. The front is open, but tied at the back with a simple string knot, thus exposing the wrestler’s chest. According to legend, on one occasion a wrestler defeated all other combatants and ripped open the jodag to reveal her breasts, showing to all she was a woman. From that day, the jodag had to reveal the wrestler's chest.


Small, tight-fitting briefs made of red or blue colored cotton cloth. These make the wrestler more mobile. Also, they prevent one's rival from easily taking advantage of long pants or to avoid material to trip upon.


Leather boots, either in traditional style (with slightly upturned toes), or commercial, Western style. The traditional style gutal are often reinforced around the sides with leather strings for the purpose of wrestling.

Inner Mongolian wrestlers may also wear a jangga, a necklace decorated with strands of colorful silk ribbons. It is awarded to those who have gained considerable renown through contests.


One of the defining features of bökh is a dance wrestlers perform as they enter the contest field and exiting at the end.

Different locales have different dancing styles. In Mongolia the wrestler imitates falcons or phoenix taking off (devekh). In Inner Mongolia, the dance is supposed to be a mimicking of lions or tigers prancing (magshikh)--as represented by the Üjümchin version.

Another major variation, popular among Mongols of Inner Mongolia's northeastern Khülünbüir region, resembles deer bounding (kharailtaa). All considered, the Üjümchin "magshikh" dance seems more strikingly robust-looking, partly due to the wrestler’s dazzling apparel and partly the style of the dance itself. In contrast, the phoenix style of Mongolia appears to exhibit a greater degree of elegance.

Mongol wrestling dance has its original forms in shamanistic rituals where people imitated movements of various animals. Today, apart from its aesthetic value, the dance is also regarded as a warm-up and cool-down procedure before and after an intense fight. Good wrestlers treat the dance with great earnest and are often better dancers.

Thanks to wrestling activists' tireless and ingenious efforts, this unique dance has become one of the integral and indispensable aspect of the wrestling tradition as a whole. In Inner Mongolia it has been, together with uriya, the costume, and the various rules, codified in the first wrestling Competitions Rules finalized in the late 1980s.

Successful wrestlers

Bat-Erdene Badmaanyambuu is considered to be the most successful champion of Mongolian wrestling in modern era (since 1921) with 11 championship wins. He also won Naadam for the 750th anniversary of the Secret History of the Mongols in 1990. The other successful wrestlers are Khorloogiin Bayanmönkh - 10 championship wins, Badamdorigiin Tüvdendorj - 7 championship wins, Jigjidiin Mönkhbat - 6 championship wins and Dariin Damdin - 5 championship wins.

See also


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^
  3. ^ Inscriptions de l'Orkhon recueillis par l'expedition Finnoise 1890 et publiees par la Societe Finno-Ourgienne. 1892, Helsinki, p. 4

External links


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