After Nearly 80 Years, Mongolians Reclaim Identities—and a Past
ULAN BATOR, Mongolia—Call him Cosmos, Gen. Cosmos.
In 1981, Guragchaa took an eight-day ride on a Soviet spaceship and
into the history books, becoming Mongolia’s first and only
cosmonaut. Earlier this year, the bearish-looking voyager had another
rendezvous with destiny. He chose his family’s last
name. Guragchaa picked
Sansar, the Mongolian word for the
It made sense, said the 54-year-old military officer, dressed in
starched combat fatigues and a pair of worn brown loafers, his uniform
as the Mongolian air force chief of staff.
I tried to find my
family’s original name but I couldn’t. I consulted on the
cosmos choice with my family. My friends and colleagues also
Mongolians have regained much since the fall of communist rule here 10 years ago. Herders who had been forced to give up their animals to state-controlled trading companies got their herds back. Buddhist temples, shuttered for decades, have reopened. Seventy percent of the economy has been transferred to the private sector. But perhaps the most significant benefit to the 2.4 million people scattered across this vast, proud land six times the size of California just north of China has been this: Mongolians are reclaiming their names, and with them their history.
Mongolia’s Communist rulers attacked the hereditary aristocracy in 1921, killing tens of thousands of princes and princesses. Four years later, as the revolution intensified, the Communists banned last names. The intention was for people to forget which class they belonged to, forget that the state killed their relatives, forget Mongolia’s past.
Mongolia became a land in which most people not only had no personal property, but had no last name. Foreigners traveling here were told the use of only one name was a tradition; Mongolians themselves forgot that the tradition was new.
People didn’t even know 1921 happened. They didn’t even
know they had lost their names, said Serjee Zhambaldorjiin,
director of the State Central Library and an expert on modern
Mongolian history, who like many other Mongolians—and Russians—uses
a second name based on his father’s given name.
It was a way
to eliminate the influence of the nobles and princes. This was a
wiping out of nobility in Mongolia.
But with the collapse of communism over the last decade has come a cultural renaissance. Old heroes, once banned, are now feted. Tops among them is Genghis Khan, the great Mongolian leader whose empire spanned from China to Europe in the 13th century. For the first time in almost 400 years, Mongolia is neither a Chinese colony nor a Soviet satellite. It is independent and at least somewhat free to determine its own fate.
In 1991, Mongolia’s then president, Punsalmaagiyn Ochirbat, broached the subject of last names, calling for legislation allowing families to reclaim them. In 1995, the Great Hural, or parliament, obliged by passing a law reinstituting last names. Starting late last year, Mongolia began issuing identity cards with last names.
The reason was three-fold, legislators argued.
First, Mongolia deserved to reclaim its past. Second, a lack of names had triggered an epidemic of inbreeding in some regions. Under communist rule, Mongolians were barred from moving, and because nobody knew to whom they were related after 1921, the potential for inbreeding was high.
We had big troubles with that in the 1970s, said Naranchimeg,
director of a radio station in the southern Gobi Desert along the
People were marrying their relatives without
knowing it. A few men were mating with different women. Now things are
getting better because we are again allowed to know who our ancestors
A third reason was that many people in cities had the same name. In
the capital, Ulan Bator, with a population of just 770,000, 10,000
women are named
golden flower. Four members of the outgoing
parliament had the same name. This is rough on the phone company,
which still organizes the phone book by first names.
Soon after the president’s speech on names, Serjee, a bookish man with huge, black-framed eyeglasses, set to work amassing a genealogical encyclopedia of Mongolian tribal names, spending hours in his office on the second floor of the national library, which was built by Japanese prisoners of war held after World War II. Mongolians, he explained, began keeping records of family names as early as the 8th century. Traditionally, last names were passed down orally, with each family member required to memorize seven generations of a clan’s genealogical chart.
Some went further. For instance, the family tree of a descendant of Ghenghis Khan, Sholoi Khan, stretched back 350 years and contained 11,960 people. But after the revolution, many family trees were destroyed or forgotten, especially in the cities. Serjee estimates that as many as 60 percent of Mongolia’s people, including cosmonaut Guragchaa, do not know their last names. Those in the countryside fare better, he said.
Herders in the countryside know two things well, he
They have a keen eye for animals; they know which one belongs
to whom. And they know people. Who was this son, and where he was born
and what he did. . . . Not like a lot of intellectuals who went to
school and have problems with memory and eyesight.
Serjee’s job was archaeology of sorts. He traveled to all of Mongolia’s counties and provinces, checking local records and conferring with wizened elders. After seven years of work, he retrieved 1,260 last names. When he published a small pink booklet last year offering advice on choosing a last name, it sold out immediately.
Serjee said it took him a long time to discover his own family’s name. His parents did not know. He traveled to his hometown and asked the elderly there. He finally found it: Besud.
Some popular last names these days, Serjee said, are clan names—the eagle clan, the crow clan, the camel breeder clan, along with clan names for doctors, teachers and hunters. There is no clan name for lawyers.
But the big winner so far is Borjigin, the tribal name of Genghis
Khan. It means
master of the blue wolf, a reference to
Mongolia’s creation myth in which a blue wolf mated with a
fallow deer to give birth to the first Mongolian. Up to 80 percent of
Mongolians so far are claiming that name, Serjee said.
Another prominent Mongolian who lost his family name is Enkhbayar, the head of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, which won a landslide victory in July 2 elections, taking 72 out of 76 seats in the Grand Hural. The party is the same organization that instituted the ban on last names, killed Mongolia’s nobility and tried to suppress Mongolia’s past. But it has changed drastically with the collapse of communism; it now touts free-market reform, democracy and a free press.
Enkhbayar, who lost relatives to the Communist purge, said renaming
Mongolians is a good thing.
This is a very important, he said,
even if we all want to be related to Genghis Khan.
Every Man a Khan
Mongolians, free of communism and foreign domination, are finding their roots. Many claim to be descendants of the great Mongol ruler Genghis Khan.
Born in the 1160s, named Temujen. By his teens, his daring raids against neighboring tribes already has impressed the Mongols.
He is proclaimed Genghis Khan, or ruler of all the Turko-Mongol peoples, in 1206.
Between 1209 and 1227, Genghis Khan and his army conquers most of what is now China as well as western Turkistan.
He dies in 1227 of an unknown ailment in northern China. His body is carried back to Mongolia, where it is buried in a secret place.
His sons and grandson expand the empire until it reaches from Korea to Hungary in the late 1200s.