Kinship, Family, and Marriage
Traditional Mongols traced descent patrilineally, from fathers to sons, and recognized progressively larger and more inclusive sets of patrilineal lineages and clans, thought of as all the male descendants of a common grandfather, greatgrandfather , and so on. By the nineteenth century, such descent groups had no political role, were not coresident, held no common estate, and hence were of little significance in the lives of ordinary Mongolians. The hereditary aristocrats based their status on membership in aristocratic lineages (which claimed descent from Chinggis Khan), but political office was more important for elite status than lineage membership alone. Lineages and clans have not played a major role in modern Mongolian society, and it is doubtful that many contemporary people even know their lineage affiliation. Contemporary Mongols use a single given name with a patronymic, so names provide few clues to common descent or kinship. There is no information on the extent to which Mongolians observe traditional exogamic restrictions on marriage with various categories of patrilateral and matrilateral kin.
Mongolians, unlike the settled agriculturalists to the south, have never valued complex extended families, and in the 1980s most lived in nuclear families composed of a married couple, their children, and perhaps a widowed parent. The high birthrate, however, meant that large families were common; the 1979 census showed 16 percent of families with 7 to 8 members and 11.8 percent with 9 or more. Urban families were larger than rural families, perhaps because rural people tended to marry and to set up new households at younger ages. The average size of rural families also may have reflected the high rates of migration to the cities.
Among traditional herders, each married couple occupied its own tent, and sons usually received their share of the family herd at the time of their marriage. The usual pattern was for one son, often, but not necessarily, the youngest, to inherit the headship of the parental herd and tent, while other sons formed new families with equivalent shares of the family herd; daughters married out to other families. Adult sons and brothers often continued their close association as members of the same herding camp, but they could leave to join other herding camps whenever they wished. In the 1980s, herders were likely to continue to work closely with patrilineal kins, and many of the basic level suuri, a subdivision of the negdel herding camps, consisted of fathers and sons or groups of adult brothers and their families. Herders no longer inherited livestock from parents, but they did inherit membership in the herding cooperative. If cooperative officials granted custody of collectively owned animals and permission to hold privately owned stock on a family basis, which was how private plots were allotted in Soviet collective farms in the 1980s, then it would be to the advantage of newly married sons to declare themselves new families.
Family background continued to be an important component of social status in Mongolia, and social stratification had a certain implicit hereditary element. The shortage of skilled labor and the great expansion of white-collar occupations in the 1970s and the 1980s meant that families belonging to the administrative and professional elite were able to pass their status on to their many children, who acquired educational qualifications and professional jobs. At the other end of the social scale, no one but the children of herders became herders. Some herders' children, perhaps as many as half, moved into skilled trades or administrative positions, while the rest remained with the flocks.
Modern family life differed from that before the 1950s because the children of most herders were away from their families for most of year. Between the ages of seven and fifteen, they stayed in boarding schools at the somon center. Most Mongolian women were in the paid work force, and many (in 1989 there were no complete figures) infants and young children were looked after on a daily or weekly basis in day-care centers or in all-day or boarding kindergartens. The efforts to bring women into the formal work force and to educate the dispersed herders resulted in separation of parents and children on a large scale. There was some historical precedent for this in the practice of sending young boys to monasteries as apprentice lamas, which had previously been the only way to obtain a formal education for them.
In the twentieth century, most marriages have been initiated by the couple themselves rather than by parental arrangement. The image of courtship presented in contemporary Mongolian stories and pictures is of a young couple riding across the grassland on their horses while singing in harmony. In form the traditional Mongolian wedding was an agreement between two families, with elaborate transfers of bridewealth in livestock from the groom's family and a dowry of jewelry, clothing, and domestic furnishings from the bride's. The wedding, which was a contractual agreement between families rather than a religious ceremony, was marked by celebratory feasting that brought together as many of the relatives of the bride and the groom as the families could afford to feed. Some version of this custom survived in the countryside in the 1980s, as did the practice of the bride's moving to reside in the camp of her husband's family, which traditionally provided a new ger for the bridal couple. Brides usually had their own household and family rather than joining the household of their husband's parents as subordinate daughters-in-law, and they made fairly frequent return visits to their natal families. Among herders, a traditional place to seek a spouse was from the adjacent herding camp that exchanged daytime custody of lambs (to prevent the ewes from nursing the lambs in the pasture). In-laws frequently cooperated in herding or joined the same herding camp.
In cities, the wait to be assigned an apartment did not seem to delay marriages, perhaps because the couple had the option of moving to a ger on the edge of the city until an apartment became available. Urban weddings sometimes were celebrated in special wedding palaces. That of Ulaanbaatar, an imposing white structure vaguely resembling a traditional Mongolian hat in shape, was one of the capital's architectural highlights. For a modest fee, the couple received their choice of traditional or modern wedding costumes, the services of a photographer, the use of a reception hall, a civil ceremony and wedding certificate, and a limousine to carry them to their new home. Fellow workers and colleagues played a relatively large role in urban weddings, as guests and donors of gifts to set up the new household.
Most marriages were between schoolmates or coworkers. Such a mechanism of mate selection reinforced the tendency, common in many countries, for people to marry within their own social stratum. Herders tended to marry herders, and young professionals married young professionals. Divorce was possible, but rare; there were 5.6 marriages and 0.3 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants in 1980 and 6.3 marriages and 0.3 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants in 1985. Mongolian fiction described disparities between the educational level of spouses or the unwillingness of husbands to accept the demands of their wives' jobs as sources of marital strain.
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