The Gold Bug of the Gobi
By Prioleau Alexander
Editor’s Note: For the February issue of the Mercury, we attempted to interview Jack Weatherford, a New York Times bestselling author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World; Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World; The Secret History of the Mongol Queens; Genghis Khan and the Quest for God; and The History of Money. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, his books have been published in more than 30 languages.
Our email to Mr. Weatherford was responded to thusly: “Thank you for your email. I am now in Thailand, slowly en route to South America. Coming and going at odd times. But I would like to introduce you to another, far more important, yet completely unknown, connection between Charleston literary life and Mongolia during the era of resistance, Soviet spies, and purges.”
Yes, it’s disappointing to miss an opportunity to speak with such an accomplished author, but such is the nature of working with a scholar and lifelong learner.
Below is the essay he provided; we hope you’ll find it as fascinating as we did.
The first American book translated into Mongolian was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug set on South Carolina’s Sullivan’s Island. Natsagdorj, a 28-year-old Mongolian writer translated it from his German copy into Mongolian as Altan Tsokh in 1935.
With support from the Russian Czar Nicholas II, Outer Mongolia had broken away from Chinese control and the Manchu Empire in 1911, and young Mongolians such as Natsagdorj looked to the West for new knowledge, models of literature and fashion. In a town of mud streets, ox carts, camel caravans, and the ubiquitous horses and herders, Natsagdorj cut a stylish figure in his cocky Western hat with foreign books tucked under the arm of his Mongolian robe.
With the fall of the Russian Czar and the rise of the communist state, Mongolia fell increasingly under Soviet influence in the 1920s and that control became tighter under Stalin in the 1930s. The new generation of intellectuals such as Natsagdorj struggled to keep Western contact and some degree of political freedom in an increasingly hostile political world.
In the summer of 1935, the newly created and superficially modern Mongolian Academy of Science published Poe’s work and paid Natsagdorj a handsome sum of 230 tögrög (then equivalent to forty sheep). Natsagdorj translated The Gold Bug into the classical Mongolian script that had been given to the nation in 1204 by Genghis Khan. In a country where people had only a single name, he added his father’s name as his patronymic, and the poet became known as Dashdorjiin Natsagdorj.
Despite the printing on cheap paper, as their first American novel, The Gold Bug had a startling influence exposing Mongolian writers and readers to a modern novel, structure, plot and literary style. Whereas most Americans consider Poe’s Gold Bug as a literary work of fiction, it is interesting that the Mongolian academy disguised it not as literature but as a work of science, with a simple scientific drawing of a beetle. This was not an error of ignorance or misclassification; it was done for a vital, secret purpose.
The importance of this work was far greater than it appeared to the Soviet authorities who permitted it as nothing more than a scientific work. Natsagdorj was introducing Mongolians to the use of a new secretive form of communication used in the book.
He taught the reader to understand hidden messages, cryptograms, substitution ciphers, coded maps and innocuous appearing words and numbers that carry secret meanings — all devices explained by Poe in meticulous detail in The Gold Bug. At this moment with the rise of Stalin and a new order over Mongolia, the educated people understood the importance of such concepts.
Since the time of Genghis Khan, the Mongols had been adept at using codes, especially poetic ones. Genghis Khan required all soldiers to memorize the law in long poetic form, and they used the same form for transmitting messages. He forbade any written account of his life, but when he died, such a document was transcribed in a coded form known appropriately as The Secret History of the Mongols and not completely deciphered until late in the 20th century.
Poe’s long explanations of coded maps became especially important. Natsagdorj followed publication of this book with the introduction a new type of poetry that appeared as simple nature poems praising the landscape of rivers and mountains, the life of herders, and socialist acceptable descriptions of life, but after reading Poe’s work, Mongolian readers knew how to interpret Natsagdorj’s poems. Natsagdorj was recording the names of places associated with Genghis Khan’s life and in an order that helped keep his memory and history alive. Natsagdorj showed how the approved socialist literary style could be totally subverted for other purposes.
His poem “My Homeland,” (Minii Nutag) followed the example of Poe who used secret names to signify specific places around the Charleston area using designations that Charlestonians would understand but would remain confusing to outsiders. In this way, Natsagdorj sketched out the territory of Genghis Khan and also offered a meticulously coded literary map of Mongolia that defied the Soviet annexations of Tuva and other parts of the country. The Gold Bug taught the Mongolians how to turn socialist realism into a defiant literature of political resistance.
The secret was not secret for long. Suddenly, exactly two years and two days after the Mongolian Academy of Sciences approved publication of The Gold Bug, 31-year-old Natsagdorj died under still unexplained circumstances on June 13, 1937. Stalin followed with a great purge of Mongolian artists, mass executions of Buddhist monks and scholars before firing squads, and the elimination of every descendent of Genghis Khan whom they could locate. The greatest victim of Stalin’s purge was the classical Mongolian script itself which Stalin banned and replaced with modern Russian Cyrillic letters. Cut off from their written heritage, the people returned to the ancient oral devises of their tribal ancestors and committed the carefully coded poems of Natsagdorj to heart and taught them to their children.
As Stalin’s henchmen the “Green Hats” descended on Mongolian homes and monasteries to destroy the old documents, the people again followed the example taken from Poe and buried large trunks loaded with sacred scripture and holy items and made their children memorize coded messages to find them when the day might come that they could be free to do so. After the collapse of communism three generations later in 1991 one family deciphered the coded map from their grandfather and unearthed 24 boxes of manuscripts and relics from the great Mongolian Buddhist lama and writer Danzanravjaa in the Gobi.
Another 22 boxes remain to be found. The mystery of the Gobi, inspired by the gold bug of Sullivan’s Island, continues to haunt the country.
Today, in celebration of their independence, the Mongolians have carved the words of Natsagdorj’s coded poem in stone, and it has been memorized by every schoolchild, and recorded by every singer from classical musicians to hip-hop stars. Its form and content have found a novel use in the younger generation who make new coded versions as the words of resistance to the environmental degradation of their land and the encroachment of (unnamed) foreign powers and as their denunciation of political and corporate corruption.
Even Natsagdorj’s stylish hat with the traditional national robe (deel), became a national symbol worn by the nation’s president and officials for state ceremonies still today.
This strange chapter of Charleston’s connection to Mongolia, the script of Genghis Khan, the code of resistance, the lost works of the mystic monk Danzanravjaa, and the wrath of Stalin, slipped from the pages of world history, but the influence of Natsagdorj and his use of Poe’s method to challenge Stalin survived in the heart of Mongolia where he remains the nation's greatest cultural hero, all from a small book about coded maps on Sullivan’s Island that helped Mongolia survive the 20th century and face the threats of the 21st.