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Mongolia: Analysis From Washington -- What's In A Name?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 May 2000 (RFE/RL)-- Mongolia's efforts to restore traditional family names long banned under the communist regime highlight the ways in which attempts to recover the past almost inevitably transform traditions beyond recognition.

Because the clans themselves have been largely destroyed over the past half century, many people in Mongolia do not have any idea as to which clan their families belonged in the past or which clan name they should now claim as their own.

The Ulan Bator government now is attempting to help them. It recently published an historical atlas showing the location of more than 1,200 clans, and it has announced plans to hold "a festival of family names" this fall to promote the idea.

But despite this government assistance, recent media reports suggest that many Mongols are simply inventing new names linked to topographic features such as mountains or taking the names of clans linked to historical figures such as Genghis Khan.

As a result, ever more Mongols have last names linked to tribes, but the meaning these names have for these individuals and for the society as a whole is far different from the meaning these names had a century ago.

The need to find last names now reflects the complex history of Mongolia over the last 100 years. Until 1925, most Mongols had a double name, a first given name and a last name taken from the clan of which they were members.

Then, in that year, the new Moscow-backed communist regime prohibited the use of clan names as part of its effort to purge "feudal elements" from Mongol society.

This decision may in fact have helped to reduce the importance of clanic identity, but as Mongolia modernized, it created a bureaucratic nightmare.

Because most Mongols now bore only one name, officials often had great difficulty in identifying particular individuals. One indication of this is that telephone books frequently featured long lists of people with the same first and -- in this system -- only name.

Over time, even the communist government recognized the absurdity of this and allowed the introduction of initials or names derived from other than clan identities to be added. But most people chose not to take such names.

With the collapse of communism in 1990, both government officials and many Mongolian citizens saw the need to restore the two-name system, and over the last several years, they have looked to the clan name system as a quick and easy solution.

For most Mongols who adopt a clan name either because of its attractiveness or because of a conviction that they are descended from a particular clan, the name itself has a meaning very different than it did when the clans themselves were a vital force in society.

And consequently, observers who suggest that this return to old names represents a re-traditionalization of Mongol society are almost certainly overstating the case.

It is certainly the case that for some Mongols, adopting a clan name as a last name does more closely tie them to the historical tradition of their people, thereby helping to power national identity and even nationalism.

But even for them and even when they genuinely believe that they are linking themselves with a national tradition, these names have a new meaning and become available to be filled with new content.

That possibility in itself points to three broader lessons for other post-communist societies interested in changing names of places and institutions, if not yet of people.

First, the old names have largely been drained of content during the intervening period and thus their adoption does not point to a revival of the past but rather the use of the past for present and future purposes.

Second, the mass adoption of traditional names also reduces the significance of the action for many. They are doing something because everyone else is doing it rather than selecting something that they value on their own.

And third, precisely because these old-new names are drained of their traditional content and personal meaning, they may be filled with new content either by individuals or groups interested in exploiting them to mobilize people in new ways.

In that way and that way alone, the clan names of the past may enter the future, but in ways neither their bearers in the past nor those choosing to revive them now could ever suspect.