Mongolian traditional game Dembee


Dembee is melody based, interesting finger game which is widely spread among the Mongolians. Dembee is played between two counterparties by debating based on cantillating. The game rule is to guess and tell by cantillating the total.

There are other versions of Dembee playing differ by special melody stemmed from techniques and manners of showing fingers or even using folk song melodies. Key factors to win in Dembee are the abilities of showing (different) fingers of two hands simultaneously, acute eyesight, clear speech, listening and collecting and speed of finger and hand movement. Therefore, Dembee is characterized as challenging game for man’s smartness and speculative power.

Dembee is Mongolian traditional game which inherited from ancient time. At the beginning of summer, herder families start milking mares and make Airag /fermented milk/. According to game rule, the loser in Dembee game should drink some amount of airag.

Drinking airag

In central Khalkha or in central region of Mongolia, especially in Arkhangai, Uvurkhangai, Tuv, Dundgobi and Bulgan provinces Dembee is played in various versions. In my community, for example, Dembee starts as “How is Dembee?”, “Do you know (or can you play) Dembee?” and “Dembee vandan daa (local phrase)”.

Dembee game starts with cantillating as “How is Dembee?” and continues showing 10 fingers of 2 hands to counterpart for guessing and name the fingers cantillating such as “Spick one”, “Khuumii two”,”Brass three”, “Causal Four”, “Steppe five”, “Line six”, “Seven Domboo”, “Friends eight”, “Hook Nine”, “Khangai Ten”.

In other words, you will guess total numbers of fingers up to ten which consists of your five and counterparty’s five. For example: I would say cantillating “Seven Domboo missed” cause I showed four fingers to my counterparty and he showed me four fingers while I was expecting him to show me three and to have seven fingers totally but I missed.

Playing the Dembee

Playing the Dembee

Furthermore, for example, I would score if I showed two fingers and expected three from my counterparty and I guessed correctly. Generally every number has own name. For instance, we say singing “Dembee vandan daa. Five vandan missed. Seven domboo, Friend’s eight, Four vandan”. The one who got 5 scores or guessed 5 times correctly first, wins. Collecting scores will go as if I got my first score I will fold my left hand thumb first, then forefinger for the second and so on and after fourth score I would say “Sprinkling!” The one, who gets five points first, wins.

Dembee is the unique game which is played among all people-men and women, children, youth and elders. There is tradition that anyone, no matter young or elder, who lost in Dembee game, must drink this given airag (fermented mare’s milk) in the bow thoroughly.

So drinking airag thoroughly is called “Hitting the flag”. If the man cannot drink thoroughly, others say “It’s too thick zud (severe weather conditions) would occur” and urge him/her to drink to bottom. Playing dembee without airag is taboo. Because it is believed that it will lead to mares become barren and loose foal. Also, Mongolians have special bowl for drinking airag and using airag bowl for other types of food is taboo.



Airag (fermented mare’s milk) consuming tradition among Mongolians originated from ancient time and it has been spread out and consumed widely in Mongolia since 13th century. Mongolians produce Airag usually fermenting mare’s milk. However, besides mare’s milk, western Mongolians consume Airag fermented out of cow’s milk. The world scientists have already proven that the Airag made out of mare’s milk is vital andrare medicament for human health.

Airag is traditional drink which can be consumed by anyone no matter youth and elders. When there are ten people in home, Dembee participants will play Dembee with everybody and if wins he/she makes to counterparty to drink and/or drinks himself/herself, if he/she loses.

Even 4-5 years old children of nomadic herders’ family able to Dembee and it shows that Dembee is helpful in building skills of smartness and calculation. In countryside, especially in places with airag, there is almost no child who cannot play Dembee.

In Dembee, art researcher J.Badraa determined that cantillating one number is called single melody and cantillating two numbers sequentially is called double melody. While cantillating three numbers sequentially, player stress his voice and shows his finger in more emotional way when he believes he is winning. Dembee is spread out mostly in Tuv, Dundgobi, Bulgan and Arkhangai provinces and it proves that Dembee is the game of places where there Airag is made and consumed.

Dembee is the game of places where there Airag is made

Dembee melodies in different places have its own local characteristics. For instance: where in one place the melody of folk song “Algirmaa” is used for Dembee and in other places there is another type of Dembee which called “Cantering Dembee”.

Local people say that “Dembee is not played during feast celebrations” such as wedding, epilation and foal stamping. Recent years, in order to disseminate and advertise Dembee-national traditional finger game with melody to public, there are many contest and competitions are held in local and central level.

During summer season, for the celebration of Airag producers day, local Dembee championship is held permanently in Bulgan and Dundgobi provinces which are well-known nationwide by horse-breeding and airag production.

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