It’s all about Mongolian bone-breaking, a modern take on a centuries-old herding hobby and, since the coronavirus pandemic, a social media sensation. During the lockdown, videos of people smashing cows’ thoracic vertebrae with their bare hands racked up tens of thousands of views and left some viewers wondering: What if I hit a bone? Could I break it? Bone-breaking nods to a type of robust manhood revered in Mongolian culture, as evidenced by his inclusion in what Mongolians consider the 10 attributes of a good man, along with being a strong student and a skilled speaker. However, newbies quickly learn that the game is not without its risks.
In the hand injury ward of one of the country’s largest hospitals, the Mongolian National Trauma and Orthopedic Research Center in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, about 1 in 2 recent surgical patients have sustained injuries while trying the game on them. themselves. Sometimes doctors have to amputate fingers. “When you hit bone with bone, either bone breaks,” says Dr. Nanjid Lkhagvadorj, director of the ward. Women and children, who typically have smaller hands that cannot take blows as easily, are particularly susceptible to damage.
However, the recent contest in north-central Mongolia attracted dozens of boys between the ages of 13 and 16; each had a chance to break a bone and advance to later rounds. The bones are usually 20 to 35 centimeters (7 to 13 in) long and are purchased from butchers and ranchers. The contestants wrap their hands in a thin cloth, ostensibly to better grip the bones, but the cloth is not much of a shock absorber and the contestants are not allowed to wear protective gloves. Among the participants, the number of victims of the game was visible: swollen knuckles, bandages on the hands stained with blood. Telmen’s right hand, her crushing hand, was bruised. (His full name from her is withheld because she is a minor.) He says: “Hearing the sound of bones breaking when you hit the bones gives you an indescribable refreshing feeling.”
The tradition dates back to roughly the 13th century, says cultural researcher Yunden Bazargur, when nomadic herders would eat cows, oxen, yaks or camels they had rounded up and make a game of breaking the leftover bones. (Horses, particularly prized in Mongolian culture, are prohibited from playing with bones.) As Mongolia urbanized, breaking bones became a winter ritual, with families cooking and eating a cow and men attempting to break its 12th vertebra.
Lkhagva-Ochir Dugersuren believes that the hobby deserves the reverence and broader scope of a professional sport. “It’s not just about breaking bones,” he says. “It is the Mongolian naadgai,” a traditional game, “showing the strength and masculinity of the nomadic culture that we have inherited since ancient times.” In 2019, Lkhagva-Ochir helped found the United Association of Pan-Mongolian Thoracic Vertebrae Breakers, which has about 20 members and hosts an annual competition. They hope to one day register the game with UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, giving it even greater legitimacy.
In 2020, his efforts received an unintended boost. The country instituted a strict coronavirus lockdown, closing schools and offices and hosting events. Stuck at home with little to do but check their phones, the Mongolians passed out from broken bones. Lkhagva-Ochir, whose group posted some of the videos, insists that even teenagers can play them safely: They simply need to learn proper technique, such as hitting the bone with their palms rather than their more delicate fingers. In a recent video posted to Facebook, for example, three girls with tiny frames and hands snap bones in half like pencils.
Growing up, Banzragch Khishigsuren dabbled in cracking beef bones, but didn’t fully commit to the game until he found himself watching video after video after video. He now breaks bones once or twice a month, hoping one day to participate in contests. On a recent day, his right hand was bruised and scarred, the result of trying to break camel bones, which are larger, harder, and therefore harder to break than a cow’s. It was the third time that Banzragch, a 32-year-old civil engineer, had injured his dominant hand enough to have trouble working or driving. His friends and family have begged him to stop, but he rebuffs them. “I just feel like hitting him again right after my hand is healed,” he says. He loves how crunching bones makes him feel: strong and manly.
Yearning for the same thrill, many Mongolians end up in the hospital. Hitting bones can damage the soft tissue of the hand, inducing swelling or even infection. Before the pandemic, the Mongolian National Trauma and Orthopedic Research Center rarely encountered patients with broken bones; In November alone, doctors performed 10 gambling-related surgeries. Another bone breaker, Nanjid says, delayed treatment for so long that an infection that started in his hand eventually spread throughout his body. The patient died.
Doctors say the government needs to reign in the game by imposing age limits on contests or requiring better hand protection. Alternatively, officials could crack down on the availability of videos online. Last year, Saranbolor Ganjinkhuu’s 15-year-old son tried to copy a heartbreaking video he discovered on Facebook. His hand was so mangled after he couldn’t write, he missed 20 days of school and struggled to catch up on his lessons. “Fortunately, it was a minor injury. If it was a serious injury, who would be responsible? Saranbolor says with a deep sigh. “They should control those videos online.” The Culture Ministry declined to comment.
Drawing inspiration from videos of other young women, Khulangoo Narantsogt was determined to try breaking her own bones. “Everyone who saw the video of women fucking was praising them,” says the 23-year-old. She and her friends banged each other’s vertebrae for over a year before she tried to break a large ox bone. Her right hand swelled to the point where she couldn’t hold anything, not a pen, not a backpack, and she had to visit a doctor every day to have it bandaged. It proved impossible to keep up with her college studies, so she took almost a month off from school. She has no desire to break bones again.