This essay discusses physical culture and the establishment of the bukh system during Mongolia's socialist era and the reform of “traditional bukh” following democratization. It examines, in particular, the process through which traditional bukh wrestling has become a modern sport, focusing on the reforms the Bukh Federation has undertaken since 1990. Although this approach provides only a brief look at bukh during a short moment in its long history, it is distinguished by its emphasis on spontaneous and democratic modernization of the sport from the “inside” and from “below, ” in contrast to traditional studies, which have concentrated on the formation of a bukh system from “above” through the exercise of centralized power.
The Bukh Federation, founded in 1990, took the position that “bukh is an ancient tradition that preserves in condensed form the essence of Mongolian culture.” By giving a precise definition to the concepts of “bukh wrestling, ” “wrestlers, ” and “spectators, ” and thereby reviving, revitalizing, and commercializing “traditional bukh, ” the Federation hoped to modernize the sport. This was intended, in the words of Federation leaders, to bring “traditional bukh” into the modern era. By setting up a modern bukh league with a large everyday following while stage-managing “traditional bukh” as a part of the Naadam national festival, the Federation skillfully merged this modernist discourse with the actual pratice of bukh.
I call this process “the embodiment of tradition.” On the one hand, the modernization of bukh aimed not so much to internationalize the sport as to spread to other Mongolian-related groups a form of wrestling perfected inside Mongolia and reflecting a purely Mongolian ethnos. Thus, the modern reproduction of traditional bukh involves the construction of bukh culture as a symbol of a distinctly national or ethnic culture through the mutual interaction of the state and the Bukh Federation based on the twin concepts of nationalism and “tradition.”