Mongolia at 800: The State and Nation Since Chinggis Khan

In: Inner Asia


As we are commemorating the 800th anniversary of Temüjin’s ascent to power, we are being told that that event marked the birth of the Mongolian state, the Yeke Monggol Ulus. There can, of course, be no question that this event happened and that it marked, like the Otrar Incident a dozen years later,2 a major qualitative change in the history of Mongolia and indeed of most of northern Asia. What is of equal importance but has been neglected or entirely ignored was the birth of a Mongolian nation, or perhaps more precisely speaking, a new Mongolian nation. The relative neglect is understandable because the two terms are frequently used interchangeably. I hope to show not only that state and nation are two different entities but that in the case of Mongolia they differ in size and longevity, with nation being the more enduring. A state, such as the one Chinggis Khan created in 1206 on the banks of the Onon River, is an objectively definable political entity led by a government. Its existence can be ascertained regardless of the efficacy of its government. A nation, on the other hand, is a cultural entity characterised by a variety of common objective features, such as language, customs and habits, and economic activities. Most importantly, and in contrast to a state, a nation is also defined by the subjective force of a sense of identity.3 Moreover, this sense of identity is heavily dependent on context. During the time of the Mongol world empire, men serving with the armies in far-away lands undoubtedly identified themselves with the Mongolian nation, but members of their own families staying behind at home had probably little or no reason to identify themselves with any ‘nation’ beyond their own clan.4 If state and nation are not identical, it follows that they are rarely, if ever, truly interchangeable concepts.

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