Descendants of the Golden Sun
Humanity traces its origins back to nomadism. Then, around 10,000 years ago, the sedentary lifestyle began to take root. Today, few civilizations on Earth continue to practice the nomadic lifestyle, and Mongolia, located at the heartland of Central Asia, is a nation that has protected its longstanding tradition of nomadic culture.
Descendants of the Golden Sun is set against the backdrop of Huremt Valley, Mongolia. This is the home of a herder named Bat. The film opens with a scenic shot of the great nature of Mongolia. Amidst the seemingly endless steppes, gargantuan mountains unfold in the distance like a folding screen. From a distance, a well-built man holding a long pole herds dozens of horses around. This is the life of Mongolian nomads.
The film then shows a ger situated in the middle of the plain. A ger is a type of mobile residence favored by Mongolians. Since ancient times, Mongolians have migrated from one place to another, generally four times a year according to the seasons. The ger, a type of mobile home, was developed to this end.
The man mutters while mending his ger, “When I went to round up my horses in the morning, my wife complained of a stomach ache. It must have been prenatal pain.” He then proceeds to wrap a black rope around the entrance of the ger. This is to ward off bad fortune. Koreans, who historically led an agricultural lifestyle, used a straw rope to cordon their houses, whereas Mongolians use a black piece of rope. The man leaves to bring Norjin, who is an elder and a midwife. Despite remarkable advances in modern medicine, helping a pregnant woman with childbirth remains the work of midwives in the remote steppes of Mongolia, far away from the cities. This, too, bears resemblance with Korean culture of the past.Within the ger, the expectant mother continues to suffer from labor pains, and eventually, the experienced midwife, Norjin, arrives to deliver the baby, witnessing the birth of a baby boy. The man, who had been anxiously awaiting the birth of his child outside of the ger, smiles contentedly at Norjin, who says “My children, now you have a horseman to hold a lasso pole and a hunter to lead a dog.” The newborn baby is the protagonist of this film, who will become a “descendant of the golden sun” and traverse the steppes of Mongolia in the future. The man buries the baby’s umbilical cord, as Norjin tells him, “When people are about to embark upon a long journey or fall ill, they come and roll around on the land where their umbilical cord was cut.”
The overarching narrative of Descendants of the Golden Sun can be largely divided into the bathing ritual, naming ritual, and first hair-cutting ritual for Mongolian babies. The scenes depicting these rituals are interspersed with portrayals of the customs and traditions practiced by the Mongolian people. The first ceremony, the bathing ritual, is held three days after the birth of the child. In the film, the bathing ritual is conducted using tea, juniper and milk. Norjin remarks, “Since juniper is hygienic and organic, it will be nutritious for the baby.
The milk protects the baby from negative energy.” Then, Norjin puts a white pebble and an animal’s ankle bone into the mixture of tea and juniper, then dips the baby’s feet into the concoction. Norjin tells the man and his wife, “White stone is a symbol of hardness and solidity. The ankle bone symbolizes honesty and brings together siblings, relatives and kinsfolk.”
The ankle bone of animals carries deep significance for Mongolians. Mongolian children use ankle bones as toys, while ankle bones are also used for fortune-telling. After the bathing ritual, the baby is wrapped and tied in a sheepskin blanket and laid down in a wooden crib, which is then hung from the ceiling rafters inside the ger, so that the child receives plenty of sunlight. The baby’s father cuts a piece of felt made from sheep’s wool into the shape of a fox and attaches it to the crib, as a kind of talisman to protect the baby from evil spirits or curses.
A week later, a naming ritual is held to give the baby a name. Around 10 relatives gather in the ger to begin the ritual. The baby’s name is given by his great-uncle, who looks at the baby and remarks, “He will become an elk hunter or a lasso pole holder.” He then says, “I will bestow the name of Emperor Temujin’s trusted friend, heroic warrior Boorchi.” Everyone gathered then express their wishes for the baby’s health and longevity. “Emperor Temujin” refers to Genghis Khan, the “king of kings” who has been worshiped since the founding of the Mongol Empire in 1206, while Boorchi was a lifelong friend and vassal of Genghis Khan.
Next, the film shows scenes portraying Mongolian traditions and customs. The child’s mother and grandmother make clothes for him, and his mother tells her older son about the legend of the brown rabbit with a white patch on its forehead. While crafting a saddle for his older son, the father tells him, “Your father will make saddles for all of his children. There is a saying that a good horse and a beautiful saddle represent a man’s pride.” Indeed, the children of Mongolian nomads learn to ride a horse from a young age.
When the baby begins to wail and does not stop, the father melts a piece of lead, then pours it into water to gain insight into the baby’s state. The man says, “Let’s perform a ritual of putting salt in the fire and hold our son over the fire before putting him to sleep. Head of shireg down, my son’s head up.” The latter incantation evokes the shireg, a spell to protect a newborn child. The family then chants “hooray, hooray.”
Another interesting scene in the film is the depiction of tying a rope around the baby to train him, which may be a highly unfamiliar sight to the audience. Tied to the bed by a rope, the baby struggles to grab the snacks placed just out of his reach and continues to cry. This traditional teaching method, which is unique to Mongolia, is explained as “Teaching a child to get used to the rope teaches them to become far-sighted. It is also helpful to have a goal and aspiration, scale of things, orientation, ability to know what to take on board and what to drop, and learning to make their own way through life.”
Four years later, the child’s hair-cutting ritual begins, in which his hair is cut for the first time in his life. The child’s mother and grandmother prepare his ritual attire, and relatives gather in the ger to celebrate the occasion. This ritual is also conducted by the child’s great-uncle, who remarks, “According to the Mongol custom of not using a metal blade to cut a child’s golden hair for the first time, it will be touched with a wooden knife first.” He then gently touches the child’s hair with a wooden knife, then proceeds to cut his hair with metal scissors. The great-uncle then offers auspicious words for the child, “May you, my son, be blessed with the golden sun, favored by the silver moon, and live a long, happy life. I wish for you to become a knowledgeable horse trainer” and promises to gift him a two-year-old racing horse. The next part of the ritual is led by Norjin, who delivered the child. Norjin cuts a strand of the baby’s hair, and blesses him by saying “May you become a good, educated man, and be dutiful to your mother and father. Take years from my life for your own. I am presenting you with a sheep with a patch on its forehead.” Next, a young male relative continues the ritual and expresses very long words of wishing for the child’s health, prosperity and longevity. The ritual ends as all of the relatives present shout “hooray, hooray, hooray” and bless the child’s future.The film ends with a rather resolute narration, “May the fortune of my son radiate like the golden sun. When the untamed horse bides its strength as it courses through the steppes, the glory of Mongolia will ring throughout the world, and the horses and people of Mongolia will reach the entire world.” The final shot of the film portrays a horse galloping valiantly across the plains, accompanied by a powerful message that calls out to “descendants of the stars, the moon and the sun, Mongols of the virgin grassland.”
Contributed by Dr. Ki Jung Lee, Visual Anthropologist, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Chonnam National University