Mongolia's modern rulers, using common Marxist categories, describe society before 1921 as "feudal." The term, although not totally accurate, better fits traditional Mongolian society than it does many other societies that have undergone communistdirected revolutions. In traditional Mongolian society, almost all statuses were hereditary. Most exchanges were embedded in long-term, multifaceted social relations rather than transacted in an impersonal market through money; the political system was based on a hierarchy of all-embracing service owed to hereditary overlords; and such limited formal education and social mobility as existed took place within the monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism, or Lamaism. The society was dominated by hereditary nobles, who claimed descent from Chinggis Khan and governed the commoners. The nobles were vassals of the Manchu emperors of China's Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and the hierarchy continued down to the level of the common herders. In this system, people owed broad and ill-defined service, including military duty, the temporary provision of horses to those traveling on official business, and the supply of sheep and livestock on both fixed and special occasions to their overlords. Mongol social life was marked by an elaborate etiquette that expressed degrees of hierarchy and deference through words and gestures.
Above the level of the herding camp, Mongols were enrolled in larger groups that had exclusive rights to use of territory and were, in their formal structure, hereditary military units. Such groups, the names of which varied from place to place and from time to time (banner, aymag, and so forth), were established by political rulers, and people originally were allocated to them regardless of kinship or preexisting social bonds. Membership in such groups was thus fundamentally a political status. Although Mongols recognized exogamous lineages based on patrilineal descent, lineages were not political or property-holding groups, and their membership commonly was spread over several territorial groups.
Commerce was in the hands of foreign merchants, most of them Chinese. Traditional Mongols exhibited a cavalier disdain for money and practiced careful pecuniary calculation. Mongol aristocrats ran up huge debts to Chinese and Russian merchants, and when pressed by creditors, tried to exact more livestock or services from their dependent commoners. The merchants controlled the interface between the internal Mongol economy--which operated largely with the social mechanisms of reciprocity and redistribution--and the larger market economy, and they profited in the conversion from one economic sphere of exchange to the other. During the 1920s, foreign merchants were expelled from Mongolia, and the debts owed to them were repudiated.
The only alternative to the all-embracing feudal system of subordination was provided by the Tibetan Buddhist church, which recruited both young boys and men as monks, or lamas, and offered careers to those with talent. Although rational and bureaucratic in its organization and accounting, the Buddhist church was distinctly otherworldly, not interested in progress, and, with some justification, was considered the major obstacle to the modernization of Mongolian life. Between 1925 and 1939, it was destroyed as a significant political and social force.
The structure of traditional Mongolian society consisted of a large number of equivalent units: herding camps; basic-level territorial units; and Buddhist monasteries, integrated only through their common subordination to political superiors and the shared values of Tibetan Buddhism and Mongol ethnicity. Most of the population occupied only a few occupational roles; herders and ordinary monks accounted for more than 90 percent of the population. Hereditary aristocrats--8 percent of the population-- occupied a larger range of occupational roles and offices as political leaders and administrators; so did the higher monks, with their more differentiated internal organization. The society was traditional in its preference for status relations over contractual ones, for ascribed statuses over achieved ones, for functionally diffuse over functionally specific organization, and in its very low levels of division of labor.
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