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The End of Nomadism?: Society, State, and the Environment in Inner Asia

The End of Nomadism?: Society, State, and the Environment in Inner Asia

by Caroline Humphrey

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Those who herd in the vast grassland region of Inner Asia face a precarious situation as they struggle to respond to the momentous political and economic changes of recent years. In The End of Nomadism? Caroline Humphrey and David Sneath confront the romantic, ahistorical myth of the wandering nomad by revealing the complex lives and the significant impact


Those who herd in the vast grassland region of Inner Asia face a precarious situation as they struggle to respond to the momentous political and economic changes of recent years. In The End of Nomadism? Caroline Humphrey and David Sneath confront the romantic, ahistorical myth of the wandering nomad by revealing the complex lives and the significant impact on Asian culture of these modern “mobile pastoralists.” In their examination of the present and future of pastoralism, the authors recount the extensive and quite sudden social, political, environmental, and economic changes of recent years that have forced these peoples to respond and evolve in order to maintain their centuries-old way of life.
Using extensive and detailed case studies comparing pastoralism in Siberian Russia, Mongolia, and Northwest China, Humphrey and Sneath explore the different paths taken by nomads in these countries in reaction to a changing world. In examining how each culture is facing not only different prospects for sustainability but also different environmental problems, the authors come to the surprising conclusion that mobility can, in fact, be compatible with a modern and urbanized world. While placing emphasis on the social and cultural traditions of Inner Asia and their fate in the post-Socialist economies of the present, The End of Nomadism? investigates the changing nature of pastoralism by focusing on key areas under environmental threat and relating the ongoing problems to distinctive socioeconomic policies and practices in Russia and China. It also provides lively contemporary commentary on current economic dilemmas by revealing in telling detail, for instance, the struggle of one extended family to make a living.
This book will interest Central Asian, Russian, and Chinese specialists, as well as those studying the environment, anthropology, sociology, peasant studies, and ecology.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This study delves into the various land use policies of northern China, Mongolia and southern Siberia and examines how these have had varying impacts on the people and ecosystem of this vast region. . . .A tremendous international research effort.”—William K. Volkert, Ecologist and Director of the International Lake Baikal (Siberia) Project

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Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Central Asia Book Series
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5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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The End of Nomadism?

Society, State and the Environment in Inner Asia

By Caroline Humphrey, David Sneath

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7987-4




Earlier this century the cultures of Inner Asia could be described as having a common core, and many elements of this remain today. The Mongolian-based languages are one important strand, but one could also cite the entangled history of the region (especially in relation to the 13—14th century Mongol Empire) and more recent migrations across borders. As a result of this movement, certain clans may be found in different parts of Inner Asia. It is not rare, for example, for a named clan to be represented among different 'ethnic groups', even those living far apart and in different countries. An example is the Galzuud clan which is found among the Bargas of Inner Mongolia in China and among the Buryats of Russia, and even more widespread are the Urianghai, found in Western Mongolia, Tuva, Xinjiang and in parts of Inner Mongolia. Besides this, the indigenous cultures are similar in ways which are more indefinable: we might cite a respect for age and seniority, a love of song and poetry, the cult of mythic heroes from epic narratives, an admiration for nature, and an immense generosity to guests. Religious traditions are similar throughout the region (including the Turkic-language areas of Tuva and the Altai). They comprise a mixture of folk practices, shamanism and Buddhism. The combination of mobile pastoralism with other more settled activities (agriculture, building fortresses and towns, monastic foundations, etc.) varied across Inner Asia, but some such mix was fundamental and was related to cultural features such as attitudes to landed property, leadership, warfare and trade.

However, even early this century such common cultural features did not prevent the Mongols from being socially rather divided. Lattimore has written (1943: 219):

Most Mongol tribes think and speak of most other Mongols with a mixture of dislike, suspicion and sometimes envy. At the same time all who speak the Mongol tongue, they feel, are aha-düü, elder and younger brothers, and ought to stand together against all who are not Mongols. [...] It is, I think, inherent in the character of the nomad life that there should be this wavering between unity and dispersal. Nomadism cannot be uniform. There are many gradations between the poorest pasture and the richest pasture, and each carries its own social character and has its own political tinge.

When Lattimore was writing it was possible to include all Mongol-speaking peoples in the category of 'the Mongols.' But by the 1990s this is no longer the case: 'the Mongols' (of Mongolia) are a different nation in the political sense from the Inner Mongols of China, for example, and the combined effects of different state policies and internal developments have separated off peoples such as the Buryats, the Daurs, or the Oirat. The groups are now not only politically distinct but increasingly culturally separate (Bulag 1998).


How did this come about historically? Very briefly, the main recent historical events of the region are outlined below.

From the end of the 17th century until the 20th, all of Mongolia and what is now Xinjiang was ruled by the Manchu Qing dynasty, whose power extended northwest as far as Tuva. Buryatia, however, had become part of Russia's Siberian empire at around the same time as the Manchu expansion. The 19th century saw the decline of the Qing, in the face of the growing influence of the western powers, and in 1911, when the ailing dynasty finally collapsed, the Outer Mongolian nobility took the opportunity to declare independence. Their new head of state was the Jebtsundamba Hutagt, the head of the Buddhist church, known as the 'Holy King' - Bogd Khan. Over the next ten years, Mongolia saw incursions by Chinese and White Russian forces, and in 1921 the Communists of the Mongolian Revolutionary Party seized power with the support of Soviet troops. The final victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia led to Buryatia becoming part of the USSR. Although firmly controlled from Moscow, the new Soviet state was theoretically composed of republics based on ethno-national units. The Buryats were a recognised nationality in this schema and much of their territory was included in the 'autonomous' Soviet republic of Buryatia. Tuva, although firmly within the Soviet orbit, retained a nominal independence until 1944, when its Communist leadership incorporated it into the Soviet Union.

Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang remained within the political orbit of China, although local rulers in both regions had a good deal of de facto autonomy during the chaotic warlord period. Despite the emergence of an Inner Mongolian independence movement led by nobles such as Prince Demchugdonggrub, in the 1930s eastern Inner Mongolia came under the growing power of the Japanese who controlled much of the region until their defeat in 1945. Four years later, when the Chinese Communists finally won the civil war and founded the People's Republic of China, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia were both included as 'autonomous regions', province-level administrative districts which had (like the Soviet republics) no real political autonomy, but which notionally belonged to their indigenous nationalities.

The Buryats were forcibly settled in rural collective farms when the Soviet Union pushed through its harsh collectivisation programme in the late 1920s and early 1930s, causing agricultural dislocation and widespread hunger. The indigenous nobility and Buddhist church had already been persecuted and dispossessed, and although these policies provoked some Buryat resistance, this was quickly suppressed. In Mongolia the powerful church and aristocracy were also attacked and destroyed, but attempts at rural collectivisation met with such strong resistance from pastoralists in the 1930s that the regime had to shelve its plans until the 1950s, when it introduced collectives more carefully. In China the communists, having just won the civil war, quickly dismantled the 'feudal' order and removed the old elites. However, they stopped short of full collectivisation until the Great Leap Forward of 1957-9. Large collectives, called People's Communes, were rapidly established in rural districts, and the resulting disruption to agriculture was a major cause of the terrible famine that swept the country in the early 1960s.

In the USSR the collectives, even in pastoral regions, introduced large-scale farming on the agro-industrial model, with almost all rural residents settled in villages and livestock kept in fenced fields, reliant on cultivated fodder. In Mongolia and pastoral parts of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, the collectives and communes, although different in many respects, resembled each other in some important ways. Both forms were centred on a village in each district, which had local government, post, school and health facilities. Out on the steppe, herding households were organised into production brigades which continued to move with their livestock to seasonal pastures, supported by collective transport and deliveries of hay. In all the collective forms throughout Inner Asia, the land and livestock belonged, in effect, to the administration, and the labour of the members was commanded by officials. The workers on the farms received some form of pay, and were allowed to keep small private allotments of livestock and, in the case of settled households, usually a vegetable patch.

Buryatia, included in the Russian administrative structure since the 17th century, was to some degree protected from complete Russification by its status as an 'autonomous' Soviet republic, which entailed an official sponsorship of a Sovietised version of Buryat culture and language. However, as the administrative and higher educational systems were linguistically Russian, the new Buryat elite became largely Russian-speaking. The steady trickle of Russian settlers, which had started in the 17th century, continued in the Soviet period, and Buryats were soon outnumbered in the region by Russians. Ethnic relations remained reasonably good for much of this period, however, with rural Buryats remaining predominantly pastoral and Russians largely occupied in agricultural, industrial, forestry and mining sectors. The Tuvans, however, were never outnumbered by Russians in their region, and inter-ethnic relations were sometimes strained. Inner Mongolia had seen a series of flows of Chinese migrants into the region, as in the 1920s and 1930s warlord and republican governments sought to secure the border areas by populating them with Han Chinese settlers. Even larger influxes occurred in the fifties and late sixties, until Mongolians were vastly outnumbered by Han, who predominantly settled the urban and agricultural parts of the region. Huge numbers of Han migrants were also settled in Xinjiang, until they constituted more than a third of the population. Chinese policies towards their minority nationalities varied, from official bilingualism and a selective support for approved elements of indigenous culture, to persecution and suppression during the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Mongolia, however, experienced very little immigration, remaining culturally relatively homogenous and very largely Mongolian-speaking.

Today the Mongol-based languages spoken in Inner Asia are just about mutually comprehensible, but they are increasingly diverging in vocabulary and everyday expressions. The tendency to cultural fragmentation is likely to continue. Individual people of different regions may be friendly enough when they occasionally meet in business, cultural or religious contexts, but at the national level policies diverge and reflect a certain indifference to the affairs of neighbours. The Mongolian government's 1994 shelving of the policy of returning to the Mongol script (used in Inner Mongolia), the stubborn adherence to the 'Tod Bichig' by many Oirats (Xinjiang Mongols), and the virtually total loss of the Mongol script by the Buryats, has removed one cultural feature- the native writing system- which might have provided a common medium of communication.

The divergency in language probably best expresses the underlying centrifugal dynamics of cultures in the region. Political unification is highly unlikely to occur. However, it should be noted that there are some moves towards limited cultural links, such as region-wide conferences on literature, and Buddhism is also providing a framework for contacts through teaching, pilgrimages, etc. Joint environmental projects are beginning to have some impact. However, the main unifying factor, counteracting the political and cultural divergence, is business and trade. Here China is clearly dominant, as noted above.


The Project did not make conventional anthropological studies of the various different ethnic groups, taking each as a separate 'culture'. Instead, our focus was on comparative exploration of factors relating to the maintenance of indigenous cultures in the region. We were especially concerned with those aspects of culture involving practices and beliefs bearing on pastoralism and the environment. This approach gives rise to two main issues: 1) Which features of the contemporary situation serve to sustain, or alternatively to subvert, indigenous cultures? and 2) What processual dynamics can we see in the operation of these features through time?

Language being one of the most central elements of culture, it is important to describe the extent to which indigenous languages are being maintained. A discussion among project members showed that the active functional use of native languages in a wide variety of social and political situations is generally felt to be extremely important. The idea that native cultures might somehow flourish through the use of another dominant language was rejected by most participants. Perhaps this view was so strongly expressed because the use of native languages, especially with a good knowledge of those languages, is in fact very variable in Inner Asia. Some official figures are given below, but this is a sensitive issue on which few accurate figures are published. It should be noted that although people may consider the native language as their 'mother tongue', this does not necessarily mean they are able to speak it well.

The functional effectiveness of native languages is not uniform in either Russia or China. Thus in RUSSIA the Buryats and Tuvans have very different profiles. Many Buryats claim 'Buryat' as their mother-tongue, but a smaller number speak it well, even fewer can read it, and very few can write it correctly. The Buryat vertical script, based on the Mongolian script, is known only to scholars. The main language for public affairs in the Buryat Republic is Russian, and according to official statistics 74% of Buryats in 1989 used Russian fluently (probably an underestimate). Recently Buryat intellectuals have lamented the fact that so few young urban Buryats know their own language at all. The Buryats living outside the Buryat Republic, in areas such as Irkutsk Oblast and Chita Oblast, have a still weaker knowledge of their native language. In Tuva, on the other hand, the Tuvan language is used as a main language by virtually all of the native population. A significantly smaller number, 58.3% (1989), have fluent knowledge of Russian. With regard to the dynamics of the situation, while Russian gained at the expense of Buryat and Tuvan during the Soviet period, the process began to be reversed during the early 1990s. The trend towards 'nativisation' is, however, stronger in Tuva than in Buryatia. In Tuva, not only have many Tuvan-language medium schools been opened, but Tuvan is both the declared and the effective state language, and the proportion of Tuvan nationals in important posts is now monitored. In Buryatia some native language schools have been opened recendy, but the situation is complicated by the desire not to offend the Russian majority. Even small moves towards teaching elementary Buryat via newspapers were greeted with protest from the Russian population in the early 1990s (Humphrey 1995).

In MONGOLIA native language use is unproblematic, as state schooling and all national affairs are carried out in that language. In CHINA, however, there is an interesting parallel with the situation in Russia. As in Russia, higher education and governmental affairs have been dominated by the language of the state (Chinese). The situation varies in different regions. In Inner Mongolia the predominance of Chinese is the main problem for the functional use of Mongolian. Significant numbers of Mongols (23%) do not speak Mongolian (Inner Mongolian CML1992:121) while another 10% use Mongolian only as a second language, and the proportion fluent in Chinese as well as Mongolian may be as high as 50% or more. Our evidence suggests that there is one major dynamic process at work in pastoral regions of Inner Mongolia. Poorer rural communities are seeing a significant drop-out rate from schools (e.g. 16% in Hargant, Hulun Buir) due to labour shortages in household economies. Although this might suggest that the use of Mongolian would be reinforced in this sector of the population, in fact it seems that a large proportion of the rural population are eager to know Chinese. Not only are there limited opportunities for young people to become herders, but many of them do not want such a life. Many tend to look for work outside the pastoral sector, and for most positions of this sort Chinese is necessary. This does not automatically mean that Mongolian is abandoned by those who leave, as it may be advantageous to retain trade links with their home community. However, among the better educated there is a reluctance to send children to Mongol-only language schools. In general, Chinese continues to dominate in administrative, business and higher educational institutions and thus the 'upwardly' and 'outwardly' mobile Mongolians are increasingly eager to master it. In Inner Mongolia there is a real threat to the use of the Mongolian language among the influential, the well-educated, as well as the urban Mongolian population. It has already become of somewhat tokenistic importance in higher education, largely confined to the study of Mongolian language and literature. However, in those rural localities with large Mongolian majorities, Mongolian often remains the dominant medium of everyday discourse, if not in administration and business.

The situation is made more complex by the fact that the Mongolian language is not only a means of communication but also a symbol of Mongol identity. On the one hand, urban Mongols from totally assimilated families and communities, are now beginning to study Mongolian (if only superficially). On the other hand, in some rural areas, as noted above, many people who speak Mongolian from childhood are sensitive to the disadvantages of only knowing this language and eagerly seek to learn Chinese. The Mongols who stay on the pastures continue to cherish their language, but there are increasing numbers for whom a Mongolian identity is not highly valued.

In Xinjiang the same processes are at work, but there is also the complicating factor of other large-scale indigenous languages which threaten Mongolian. The two case-study sites were the rural districts of Hosh Tolgoi and Handagat, located in Hoboksair and Altai City counties respectively.


Excerpted from The End of Nomadism? by Caroline Humphrey, David Sneath. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Caroline Humphrey is Reader in Asian Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

David Sneath is a Lecturer of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and Director of Studies in Anthropology at Trinity College in Cambridge. Humphrey and Sneath are the coeditors of Culture and Environment in Inner Asia.

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