It is particularly important for us to celebrate Urgunge Onon’s 80th birthday. Urgunge was the inspiration for the founding of the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit in 1986. I remember well how one day Urgunge travelled from Leeds to give me an important message. He said, ‘This country of Britain where I have made my home has a very distinguished tradition of Mongolian Studies, but now it looks as though it will die out.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. Urgunge replied, ‘Without a proper institution, everything will be dissipated, there will be no centre, and no-one will see to it that there is a new generation of Mongolists to follow us. You owe it to your teachers, Owen Lattimore and myself, to see that this does not happen. Together, we can do something.’ This conversation was how the idea of founding a Unit was born, and the Unit has now produced several ‘generations’ of young scholars and many publications, including this journal Inner Asia.
This issue of Inner Asia focuses first and foremost on issues of modernisation in Inner Asia. What is distinctive about modernisation in our region? What have been its costs? And what do various methodologies and theories have to offer in study of this theme?
This issue of Inner Asia ranges over diverse themes in the history and anthropology of Inner Asia. Lewis Mayo’s two-part article on ‘Illness, Threat, and Systems of Authority in Dunhuang’ is a notable contribution to the Journal because it relates history with anthropology in a theoretically innovative way. Medicine and politics,Mayo argues, are both forms of ‘event management’, and with this perspective we can see parallels between the management of disease at different historical periods in the same environment. The history of endemic disease in Dunhuang articulates a threefold linkage between sickness, geography and administrative power, in which each element helps to define and constitute the other. Describing the Dunhuang region involves constructing a history of the diseases to which that region has been prone, and the work that has been done in relation to them. On the one hand, modern public administration gives illness a geographical articulation, one that involves a distinctive local configuration of minerals and microorganisms. The geological and biological particularities of the Dunhuang area manifest themselves in the prevalence of certain kinds of diseases in the region, which public health authorities detect and seek to counteract. On the other, over a thousand years earlier, Dunhuang’s rulers were also scripting methods to keep the area safe from, threat, disease and instability. The battle against disease and misfortune was waged every year in an exorcism ceremony, but through analysis of particular late-9th-century texts Mayo relates an enhanced sense of threat to a specific political and institutional juncture – a particular combination of challenges to authority. In both cases, the prestige of physicians and political leaders rests in their calmness in the face of events, as well as their capacity to anticipate and prevent them. The medical manual, the gazetteer and the ritual guide all promise a mastery of events. Like the notion of the endemic disease, there is a regional profile to suffering, one that Mayo suggests is constituted by and helps constitute the local political order. The historical and anthropological analysis of illness must engage with the systems of authority whose actions and structures seek to regulate and eliminate it. In this sophisticated piece, Mayo argues that if we accept that our sufferings have an institutional form and often an institutional cause, we can grasp how the endless labour of reproducing co-ordination and regulation also generates its own structures of threat.
This issue of Inner Asia has a focus on issues of politics and identity. We are pleased to have as our leading article a ‘think piece’ by the eminent scholar Henry Schwarz, inspired by the recent celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Mongolian statehood in Ulaanbaatar and around the world. Schwarz argues that we should be aware that ‘state’ and ‘nation’ are not coterminous, and that crucial components in the latter, unlike the former, are culture and a sense of identity. In the current era when states are under attack by mass globalisation, the distinction between state and nation may become ever more evident. The great states are likely to retain most of their power and thus be able to dominate neighbouring small states economically, but the fate of the Mongol nation is much more promising. It is a far larger entity than the present state, being based on language, customs, habits and lifestyle and not defined solely in political terms. The feeling of belonging to one Mongolian nation, Schwarz argues, has repeatedly manifested itself and is likely to persist in the future.
This article explores the implications of the fact that shamans’ mirrors, and mirrors in general, have two quite different sides, one reflecting images and the other a dull blank or imagined as a teeming other world. It is argued that, for shamanists, the far side of themirror is conceived as the world of the dead, which is populated by spirits. Living people can, in certain circumstances such as divination, see ‘through’ the mirror into that world, and shamans when interacting with spirits in trance place themselves inside it. Two different perspectives, of the living and of the souls/spirits, are thus produced. The article ends with some speculations about the non-symmetrical character of these perspectives and concludes that the Mongols upholding these traditions are not post-moderns.
This article provides an ethnographic description of burial rituals in Ulaanbaatar in the 1980s. The ceremonies surrounding death indicate the presence of an amalgam of Buddhist, folk-religious and socialist ideas, and they notably make use of material objects as representations of such ideas. The article discusses what such rituals might tell us about Mongolian concepts of the person, fate and character. The further aim of the paper is to explore the wider significance of relations between persons and material objects as revealed in the funerary rituals, especially as regards ideas of ‘property’. It is argued that Mongolians in this period gave little prominence to the idea of ‘private property’, but retained a strong notion of joint, familial property; at the same time, the burial rituals reveal a significant concern with personal property. Socialist regimes, which emphasise communal forms of property, may often be associated with the parallel counter-significance of intimate and personal relations between persons and things.
The paper explores the politics of language of the Soviet Communist Party bureaucracy. It argues against the recent conceptualisation of late socialist discourse as basically 'performative', i.e. as a vehicle for action that was virtually independent of its propositional dimension. Contrary to this, it is suggested that if the analysis is broadened to include the process of producing texts (drafts, censored passages, oral discussions, etc.) we see marked concern, and, indeed, conflict over the ideological meaning of the content. The argument is made through detailed analysis of the memoirs of one Party official, Georgii Lukich Smirnov. This case also shows that Party cadres were far from 'faceless' or without feelings. The ideological battles throughout the late Soviet period, which scarred Smirnov, were what led to perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost' (transparency) under Gorbachev.
This paper concerns the formation of detachable political groups among the Mongols in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the process of their reattachment to larger polities within the Russian and Qing empires. It traces the case of Okin Taisha, who split off from the Abaga Mongols in present-day Inner Mongolia, became a subject of the Russians, then of a Khalkha Mongolian noble, and finally returned to Russia. The paper argues that kinship relations were a crucial means for conceptualising these attachments and detachments. Kinship should not be assumed invariably to imply solidarity, but rather also encodes division, inequality of status, and uncertainty in personal relations. The paper also aims to contribute to understanding of the internal composition of such split-away polities, which were not initially based on kinship, even though their aristocratic leaders expressed their relations with other leaders in kin terms.