The seventeenth of the middle month of autumn

It’s Tokyo, it’s August, and it’s hot as hell. I am talking with a friend about art. It’s not a subject I usually talk about – in fact, it’s a subject I usually do not talk about. But in August this city’s heat and humidity is such that strange things indeed do happen.

Anyway, somehow we end up talking about art. My friend is worked up about the idea that it’s borderless. Borderless in the sense that real art can touch and move any human being anywhere on our planet. According to him it can make anyone cry or smile or laugh – depending on the content. I can’t say that I entirely disagree, but one does not agree with a good friend on a hot summer night. So my stance is different. I am saying yes, anyone anywhere, but if you don’t know the history, culture and traditions of the art’s homeland – then sure, art might affect you, but not as much. It would be like a tap on your shoulder as opposed to a brick or Marx’s “Das Kapital” being dropped on your head – depending on your preference.

If someone has zero knowledge about the Bible and the history of Christianity, then all those masterpieces of the Renaissance, or maybe of the whole western world, would be nothing more than beautiful or just colorful paintings with no special meaning. Japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e, are beautiful but if you know the story behind the images they become even more magnetic and charming.

My friend is nodding along, but still insists on his “Real art is real for anyone anywhere at any time” assertion. I guess he also considers agreeing with a good friend on a hot summer night to be bad manners. Or maybe it’s the blessed influence of all the beers he had and all the cocktails with ice cubes that I had. Anyway, a demand is made to produce evidence and that’s what I am going to talk about.

What is the painting about?

Not surprisingly, no one has the slightest idea. “Seems to be about something sad” is the closest answer I get.

However, anyone who’s been to Mongolia knows that nomadic people in countryside live in gers (yurts) and in front of every ger there is a tethering post to tie-up horses, like in these pictures:

Herds of horses in Mongolia roam free. No one shepherds them or keeps watch over them. Nomads know where their horses are depending on the season. Therefore, horses in Mongolia are naturally half-wild. They will not let you mount them from the wrong side (the left) and some will even bite if you approach them from the wrong side, and a horse’s bite hurts more than a dog’s because a dog will bite and let go, but a horse will bite and pull. They also don’t like it if someone approaches from behind, so be prepared to get kicked if you do. I remember being amazed when I first saw western movies with heroes getting on their horses no matter the side – left, right or even behind. Sometimes I even felt sorry for the horses in the movies because they looked too tame. But I digress. So there is a post where horses caught from the herd are tethered. A nomad’s family will ride them for their life necessities (grazing sheep, going after a lost cow, visiting neighbors etc.) for a couple of weeks, then release them back into the herd and take new ones. Which means, usually there are only two or three horses at the tethering post (but of course, the number depends on the size and wealth of the family).

Anyway, back to the painting. One glance is enough for a Mongolian to see that there are many horses at the tethering post, which means there are many guests in the ger. And many guests means celebration – there must be quite a party going on inside. The horses look like they have been standing there for quite some time, so the occasion must be a special one.

Next, it’s obvious that the season of the painting is autumn or early winter. Hopefully, I don’t have to explain why summer is out of question. Some might say spring, but no – horses cannot look this beautiful and fat (in regard to livestock, “targan” or “fat” is a very good word) after a long harsh winter. Now let’s get closer to the painting and read its title. It says “The seventeenth of the middle month of autumn”, so we were right about the season. By the title we can also easily guess what kind of celebration is going on inside the ger.

But let me explain first that everyone is busy in summer time. Nomads have to prepare enough “white food” or dairy food to see them safely through autumn, winter and spring. They also have to cut sheep’s wool in June, cut enough grass in August, make leather, make bridles, reins and other kinds of harnesses, repair everything that needs to be repaired, and finish many, many other things during the short three months of sun and warmth. Therefore, people can catch their breath and rest a bit only around the beginning of autumn. That’s why all celebrations – weddings, children’s first haircutting ceremonies, various anniversaries – are traditionally held in autumn when there is enough white food and, of course, sheep have enough meat and fat on them.

And weddings are a special matter. The seventeenth of the middle month of autumn is an auspicious day according to the Mongolian Lunar Calendar. There are lucky days and unlucky days in the Lunar Calendar and lucky days include days with Dashnyam and days with Baljinnyam. However, the seventeenth is a super lucky day because it has both - Dashnyam and Baljinnyam, so it’s called “double Nyam” day. This auspicious day has a strong symbolic meaning, and people believe that marrying on the seventeenth will bring long lasting happiness and prosperity. On this day the Wedding Palace in Ulaanbaatar opens earlier than the usual hours and closes way too late then the usual hours. The slogan of the day – Get married if you can!

A Mongolian would get all this information in a second or so and immediately understand what the painting is about – a broken heart. A man on a horse is heading towards the lonely hills by himself, his head low and behind him he is leaving a ger full of laughter, joy and songs. His horse walks slowly, sensing the mood of its master.

He probably couldn’t avoid coming to the wedding, but couldn’t be there till the end either. “About something sad” – describes only the general mood of the picture. But to be precise, the painting is about an unrequited or unspoken love that has stumbled at the threshold of a new, white, and happy ger.

P.S. I won the argument.

P.S.S. Энэ бичлэгийн орос хувилбр нь энд.


Anonymous said...

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Сүрэн said...

Баярлалаа :)

Koyuki said...


Сүрэн said...

Thank you, Koyuki :)