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Revisiting History: Debt and Protest during the Manchu Period

Hedwig AWaters15 May 2017

 

As has been discussed extensively in this blog, Mongolians, both on a national and personal level, are tackling daily with the phenomenon of growing indebtedness. On the eve of receiving another bailout by the IMF, these questions over the growing debt are also linked to further unrest over the economic activities of politicians (that demand transparency and the revealing of offshore accounts). In short, Mongolians are currently struggling over the duties of politicians to citizens and how much of a role money and economic advancement should play in these relations. Yet, although these struggles are frequently framed as new, emerging discourses,[1] taking a foray into history allows us to see how Mongolians have been negotiating questions of debt, politics and obligation for centuries. Through the case study of one 19th century prince, Togtokhtör, and the protests in his province, we can understand more about the relationships and obligations inherent to debt in the Mongolian context—including how history might be repeating itself.

During the Qing/Manchu Dynasty (1644-1911), Mongolian territories underwent struggles over the debt, protest and politics. In this era, the current territory of the state of Mongolia was a vassal region under indirect Manchu colonial control. It was split into 4 large provinces (aimag) and, within those, smaller banner administrations (hoshuu) that were controlled by Manchu-selected, Mongolian aristocratic lineages. In return for the power to administer over their territories, the Mongolian princes had to levy taxes from their populace as tribute to the Manchu Dynasty; and were required to offer local men into service for the military, border control and postal relay stations. In addition to these regulations, they were to rule their areas in accordance with Manchu law, which, for example, endeavoured to maintain the nomadic, pastoral lifestyle of Mongolians (Namjim 2004: 224). Otherwise, the princes were relatively free to administer and implement policy as they pleased, taking advantage of the ‘variegated sovereignty’ (Dear 2014: 306) of the Manchu empire.

Although it had initially been discouraged by the Manchu elite, Chinese traders started entering the Mongolian territories at the beginning of the 19th century. Over the next 100 some years between their arrival and the start of the Mongolian Soviet Revolution in 1924, Mongolia saw the gradual accrual of large levels of debt by their princes (and also citizens) to the Chinese mendicant traders, trading houses (puuz) and banks. The contemporary trope of the Chinese usurer emerged during this period, as Soviet accounts heralded the revolution as a release of the ‘slaves of debt’ from their debt bondage (Sanjdorj 1980: 103) to said traders. Yet, more recent accounts (Dear 2014) discuss the consumer desires of Mongolians during this era. In an economic atmosphere without one clear currency or denomination of value, credit became a simple way of accessing new consumption items like tea, rice and silk (186). Whether extractive or consumptive (and likely, both), the levels of debt in Mongolia reached colossal proportions—by 1924, the total debt to Chinese shops in Mongolia reached 30 million taels of silver, equal in value to half the entire livestock of the country (Onon and Pritchatt 1989: 4; Wheeler 2004: 224).

This debt was carried by the general populace (ard) and managed through distribution among larger and larger swaths of peoples. According to Manchu regulations, princes were allowed to tax their populace for various needs—in practise, noblemen frequently paid their debts to Chinese houses though taxes collected from their populace. Consequently, princes and their populations negotiated the ever-rising debt by mobilizing ever growing population segments across networks. For example, Dear (2014) writes about a case in 1830 of a Tüsheet Khan Aimag nobleman who racked up debt purchasing luxury items from Chinese firms for daily use (208). The nobleman started paying back the debts through distributing the burden over several banner (hoshuu) territories, but, when many of them were hit by drought, he pleaded to neighbouring areas to help him. What followed, Dear says, ‘…was a complicated transfer of resources to remedy the debt, demonstrating the long-distance networks available to some Mongolians’ (2014: 208-9). In total, populations became accustomed to constant and distributed levying of duties and services. Through a triple burden of princely debts, personal debts and military service, the general populace was literally and figuratively overtaxed.

To Van: An ‘Odd Bird’ Amongst Princes

One prince who skilfully implemented mechanisms of debt and taxation in his province was Togtokhtör, better known as To Van (1779-1868; ‘Van’ being the word for his title).[2] I first encountered the legacy of To Van in my fieldsite area of Khalkh-Gol, which is the present-day location of the Manchu era province of ‘Ilden Gün’ hoshuu, which To Van inherited in 1822 from his father (Namjim 2004: 222). To Van continues to be well-known to this day, as he was considered a ‘rare bird amongst his fellows’ (Bawden 1968: 179) for the various economic and political reforms he carried out in the province. In fact, To Van is regarded as a prescient leader, because he was exemplary in implementing various alternatives to pastoral herding, including agriculture (despite being contrary to Manchu policy at the time), small-industry (like craftsman schools, handicraft shops and water mills) and even forms of mining. Within academic circles, To Van is well-known for having written the first economic text in Mongolian, his ‘Hevei Vangiin Aj Törökhiig Zaasan Surgaal’ or ‘Treatise on Livelihoods from the Hevei Van’. This text is a series of practical instructions compiled from his own province on how to run a culturally-appropriate, economic and self-sustaining pastoral-based household. Thus, To Van was erudite, farsighted, innovative and dynamic, which explains his continued positive reputation among contemporary academics and Khalkh-Gol residents.

To Van.

Portrait of To Van.  Source: http://www.dms.mn/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Tovan.jpg

 

However, according to historical texts, To Van was known within his own banner as hezuu or ‘difficult’ because of the intense and uncompromising aspects of his reforms. Although he ran his territory ‘…as an integrated and diversified economic and cultural unit’ (Bawden 1968: 180), it is unclear exactly what his motivations for this were. His ‘Treatise’ contain several instructions on how to maximize economy and live as frugally as possible, which the Soviet-era scholar Nasagdorj claims ‘…did not in the least spring from his consideration of the welfare of the people, but are to be explained as being aimed to reducing the people’s consumption as far as possible and increasing his own exploitation of them’ (quoted in Bawden 1968: 182). Indeed, To Van did utilise several loopholes and unclear legal rulings to tax at irregular intervals, under multiple justifications and even to tax his own lower princes (which was debarred under Manchu legislation) (Namjim 2004: 24-5). Despite his clever legal manoeuvring, however, the ultimate rebuke of his policy came from his own populace.

In 1837, as part of his reforms, To Van had a large, 60-room monastery built and ordered all of the over 1000 lamas of his province to be permanently installed there as pupils. In order to have this monastery built, however, he mobilised the resources and people of the entire province for four years—he had the locals provide all the transportation and construct the bricks and materials (he even had the disabled members of the community form a line by sitting on the ground and passing bricks) (Nasagdorj 1968: 23). This idea of having the lamas moved, however, was largely disliked by the populace, because it a) meant that the previous 11 religious schools in the area would be dissolved and therefore locals would lose independence over their practice, and b) lower lamas, who frequently lived together with their families, would have to leave their households permanently. Considering that the majority of families in the area were very impoverished, losing the labour of young men meant that families would have added work burdens. This idea was thus generally unpopular, but particularly in Daivan sum (one of four districts in To Van’s province). In this district, all the residents gathered, deliberated, and declined To Van’s plan, saying that their 98 lamas would not participate in the school. To Van temporarily acquiesced after he had a stupa dismantled and increased whippings and taxation in the area, but when the Manchu Dynasty declared To Van’s large new monastery an example of cultural heritage revitalisation in 1839, he redoubled his efforts. When he reiterated the order for all lamas to move to the monastery, Daivan sum members sent the missive: ‘We are having our own religious gathering. Our people are incredibly poor, and so they attend our own gathering to read religious texts, but then must go home to help our families. We can’t separate from them…This is the religious legacy of our forefathers and not something you control’ (Nasagdorj 1963: 228). With this sentiment, the locals of Daivan sum resolved to protest against their Van.

Fearing a swift and unforgiving reprisal from their prince (as per his reputation), the locals gathered and decided they must take up arms and fight. As Nasagdorj (1963 and 1968) describes, the people of the district and their three leaders—a commoner, a scribe and a lower lama—gathered all the religious devices, scythes, shovels, wood, and iron bars in the area, and then travelled to a leader’s camp to fell trees and make wooden clubs (1963: 228-9). They devised a plan in case the Van decided to send Manchu troops—they would protest at two locations, in order to force the troops to divide, and then lie in wait to ambush. As expected, To Van gathered 150 troops, provided weapons and gear, and sent them to Daivan district to capture the leaders of the protest. And thus, the troops went to Daivan sum and stole 170 horses, 16 yurts, 30 male sheep and many other items under the pretence of needing them for a relay station. Continuing to the first protest meeting point, the troops encountered over 100 lamas and laymen, wives and children, all standing there with weapons in hand, ready to fight.

When the representative of the Van encountered the people and demanded for them to stand down and to acquiesce, Tudev, a commoner leader, walked out and yelled:

“We don’t honour the words of half-witted helpers like you. We don’t follow your orders or the order of the Bogd Khan mandate, or the generals at Uliastai, or the ambassadors at Huree, or the Van… we won’t follow them, religion has lost the state, the government is broken, the iron pot has splintered, and we are not going to that religious school. And if the Van tries to come here, we will pummel him with dung!”

And with that, Tudev waved his wooden club in the air and the gathered people took up their arms and stormed, yelling, at the troops, tore the prince’s representatives from their horses, beat 30 of the troops mercilessly, and took back all the stolen goods that had been ransacked from their district earlier in the day. Scared of continuing to the second protest location, the prince’s representative sent a minor prince in his stead, who also encountered an angry rabble of lamas and laypeople who claimed:

 “We aren’t going [to the religious school]. But because we don’t know you, we will [not attack and] only tell you this once. If many people come, we won’t tell them casually like this. Every person here will fight with all of their strength and kill. We aren’t afraid of killing people”.

At the same time, 80 some lamas that had already gathered at the cultural revitalization monastery, rose up and almost killed the proctor by attacking his ger with stones. In this way, the protest was a highly organised, explosive event at multiple locations that involved several hundred people.

Due to the inability of the residents and the Van to reconcile their differences, the Manchu ambassador at Huree (current Ulaanbaatar) had to get involved and began legal proceedings between the two parties. In the litigation claim submitted by the protesting locals, Daivan district residents enumerated 40 times between 1821 and 1839 that To Van has unlawfully taxed them and ‘burdened them through extraction’ (möljin zovookh) (Nasagdorj 1963: 231). For example, in order to get his princely position, he had gone to Beijing and took out an interest loan for 1000 lan [3] of silver, which he was now having paid back through taxation of the locals. They had various claims of false pretences he had taxed them under to maintain his traveling, consumerist lifestyle. But at the end of their litigation petition, they wrote to please be ‘merciful to the slaves’ that had calmly lived under the taxation from the Van’s lineage for seven generations and 140 years—their goal was reimbursement, not revolution. Although the protest was comprised of both lamas and laypeople, this statement points to the common denominator among all those involved—they felt unable to economically carry the perceived extreme burden of taxation (Nasagdorj 1963: 235-6; Bawden 1980: 183). Their goal, however, had not been to overthrow the order, but rather to make aware that its levels were becoming untenable, such as the lamas needing to stay at home to help their families economically survive.

The Manchu administration ruled largely in favour of To Van with the understanding that princes had the prerogative to tax their peoples (Namjim 2004: 224). The Manchu rulers called the 40 taxation incidences listed by the movement as ‘trivial and minute events’ (aar saar yvdal) (Nasagdorj 1983: 223), cutting To Van’s salary in half for 5 years, while condemning the leaders of the protest to die in chains as servants or in exile. The burden of the princes’ ongoing debts, exercised through extreme taxation, was deemed intrinsic to the role obligations between prince and peoples. However, these issues continued to crop up in other movements and lawsuits as the populace became increasingly dissatisfied by illegal taxation to finance personal debts (e.g. Bawden 2004 on Ayushi; Nasagdorj 1963 on Dugartsembel; Dear 2014 on Prince Otai).

Rather than a reaction to the state of indebtedness, however, the grievances of To Van’s citizens reflect a desire to rectify a perceived imbalance. They did not desire to escape their obligation to To Van but viewed his debts and taxation as a duty to be carried. In fact, these economic linkages formed a relationship between prince and peoples that contained expectations of obligation to one another. When, for example, nearly a decade later (in 1850), a multi-year drought hit To Van’s principality, he and his princes took out further loans from moneylenders and distributed their animals among the populace. Yet, a year later, To Van wrote the Manchu administration in a plea for help—his debt had become so large that he couldn’t find the money to buy animals to feed his people anymore. In this way, the exigencies of nature (and the economy) locked prince and peoples in an unending economic dependence—the prince who needs his people for debt payments, the peoples who need the prince to take out loans to help them in dire circumstance.

From an anthropological perspective, debt is a relationship formed between people that encompasses an obligation (Graeber 2011). From a Mongolian historical perspective, the peoples (ergo nation) have frequently jointly carried their leaders debt. Reflecting on her fieldwork among microlenders in India, the anthropologist Guerin considers the ‘inherent ambiguity of all debt relations’, which is reflected ‘…in the fact that while debt can provide protection and solidarity and a means of expressing reciprocal trust and respect, when it is not honoured or is too imbalanced, it can be a source of humiliation, shame, exploitation, and servitude’ (2014: S44). Precisely this tension between the need for visibility, recognition and protection, and the ability to live lives free of economic coercion was negotiated by To Van’s retainers through their protest.

This situation begets the question: Is history repeating itself? The Mongolian government, seeking IMF approval, is in the process of implementing austerity, a ‘bitter medicine’, in order to control the accruing debt of the country. Although the political motivations behind these moves are unclear, the point of debt in Mongolia has rarely been to reduce it, but to use it to form a relationship and obligation between entities. Just like during To Van’s time, Mongolian citizens continue to deal with their government’s (ergo politicians’) debt by sharing and distributing it amongst themselves (see also Marissa Smith and Lauren Bonilla’s blog posts), as their politicians accrue more debt through the misuse of monies. However, the flipside of this debt relationship is the expectation that the politicians will provide for people when they are in need. Austerity violates this understanding by requiring the people to carry the debt without return. If To Van’s time is any precedent, the current growing unrest hints to the stirrings of recalibration.

Ih Burhant

The Ikh Burkhant statue is a giant Buddha carved into a hill face located approximately 30 km from Khalkh-Gol sum centre. This complex was built by To Van between 1859-1864 to ward off catastrophe and in reaction to the many droughts and zuds (as discussed in this piece) that were killing off the animals. To Van’s presence thus remains to this day.

 

References:

Bawden, C. R. 1968. Modern History of Mongolia. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

Dear, D. 2014. Marginal Revolutions: Economies and Economic Knowledge between Qing China, Russia, and Mongolia, 1860 – 1911. Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University.

Graeber, D. 2011. Debt: The First 5000 Years. New York: Melville House.

Guerin, I. 2014. Juggling with Debt, Social Ties, and Values: The Everyday Use of Microcredit in Rural South India. Current Anthropology (55) 9, S40-S50.

Namjim, T. 2004. Mongol Ulsiin Ediin Zasag: Boti 1. Ulaanbaatar: Interpress.

Nasagdorj, Sh. 1968. To van tuunii surgaal. Ulaanbaatar: Shinjlekh Ukhaanii Akademiin Hevlel.

Nasagdorj, Sh. 1963. Manjiin Ersheeld Baisan Ueeiin Khalkhiin Khuraangui Tüükh. Ulaanbaatar: Ulsiin Khevleliin Khereg Erkhlekh Khoroo.

Nasanbaljir, Ts. & Sh. Nasagdorj. 1966. Ardiin Zargiin Bichig—XYIII—XX Zuunii Ekhen. Ulaanbaatar: Shinjlekh Ukhaanii Akademiin Khevlekh Üildver.

Onon, U. & D. Pritchatt. 1989. Asia’s First Modern Revolution: Mongolia Proclaims Its Independence in 1911. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Sanjdorj, M. 1980. Manchu Chinese Colonial Rule in Northern Mongolia. London: C. Hurst & Company.

Wheeler, A. 2004. Moralities of the Mongolian ‘Market’: A Genealogy of Trade Relations and the Zah Zeel. Inner Asia (2004) 6, 215-38

 

[1] As a feature of the recent, post-2012 boom-and-bust cycle and not as a historical reoccurring phenomenon; see for example, ‘Mongolia: Living from loan to loan’ and ‘How the World’s Fastest Growing Economy Went Bust’.

[2] The following historical information on To Van’s life is a consolidation of information from historical sources including Namjim 2004; Bawden 1968; Nasagdorj 1968; Nasanbaljir & Nasagdorj 1966; and Nasagdorj 1963. The Soviet-era scholar Nasagdorj used 170 documents, including litigation and postal relay missives, from the National Archives to compile this history, as well as To Van’s own written work (Nasagdorj 1963). I would like to thank Uchral Enkh for bringing the last two books to my attention.

[3] 1 lan is around 37 grams of silver. According to the historian Namjim, in 1919, one piece of tea was worth .8 lan of silver and one one-year-old sheep was worth 1 lan (Namjim 2004: 195).

 

Tsagaan Sar Gift Index — 2016

RebeccaEmpson8 March 2016

Members of the Emerging Subjects project at UCL and the National University of Mongolia contributed to this post.

 

What does focusing on gifts given and received during Tsagaan Sar tell us about the general economy? Last year we posted our first Tsagaan Sar Gift Index (TSGI) and found that the slowing economy shaped how people celebrated the holiday, with people confining the celebrations to fewer days and opting for more useful gifts (like socks) that support Mongolian businesses.

This year, the economy has been shaken further with pressures of increasing public and private debt and the slowdown of commodity prices globally. We found that people bought less over-all in preparation for Tsagaan Sar. While prices have decreased (especially the price of meat), the cost of this year’s celebration was very straining.  This was especially true for those without a regular income, or dependent on the sale of meat for money.  The cost of preparing and sourcing goods was compounded by an already difficult time economically, and many pensioners used their pensions to take out loans, or purchased items through credit to fund the celebration.[1]

Based on comparison of our different cases, it seems typical for a lower-income household to spend less than 600,000 tögrög; a middle-income household to spend between 600,000-800,000 tögrög; and high-income over one million tögrög. If a household has elders or highly-respected individuals, such as a doctor or singer, they often have to spend well over one million to accommodate the large number of guests. Though households might receive a good amount of money in the form of cash gifts given by guests (around 100,000-400,000), this does not seem likely to off-set the cost of items like vodka, prime cuts of sheep meat, gifts for guests, and holiday outfits that are purchased in advance of the holiday.

Average Tsagaan Sar expenditures based on age group. Courtesy of Mongolian Marketing Consultancy Group.

 

Alongside our reflections we have interspersed the text with statistics from the Mongolian Marketing Consultancy Group’s survey on people’s attitudes toward Tsagaan Sar (with kind permission from Bumerdene Dulam). Although these are based on very general reflections, they complement the individual experiences we recount.  They also reveal rising public interest in the high cost of the holiday.

Preparations

Based on her ongoing work with traders at Narantuul market, Hedwig noted that the market was, as usual, packed in the lead-up to the National holiday, and especially so in the last three days of the previous lunar year. The sellers were happy to be busy, but many remarked that over-all spending was much less than usual, and was characterized by ‘scattered’ and ‘irregular’ purchases (таaруу). In fact, the average trader made 30% less than last year selling goods for the national holiday

Those who sold household goods (ariun tsevriin hereglel) encountered a decrease in comparison to last year in spending of around 10 %, as people bought gifts like shampoo and soap from their shops, as well as products to clean their homes before the celebration started. Clothing shop traders (i.e. non ‘necessary’ goods) reported a loss in profits of between 30-50 % compared to previous years. Instead of purchasing new clothes, many reported using old material to make their New Year outfits, or simply reusing what they had. Others reported re-gifting items they had received, while also being strategic about whom they visited.

One of Rebekah’s friends stressed that:

‘Like all Mongolian holidays, Tsagaan Sar will not be skipped or overlooked. People are spending as much as they can to have a decent Lunar New Year. This year is the year of the Monkey, a year that bears the title of the “mischievous faced-one”. A mid-ranking family can expect to spend from 500,000 – 1,500,000 MNT, with food, drinks, gifts and cash tokens all included.’

According to him, the prices of things were not that high, compared to last year. Instead, he explained:

‘The value of the tögrög dropped to a level where prices do seem high and people’s wallets are thinner this year. One US dollar now is trading at 2005-2010 tögrög in the commercial banks. Experts warn that it could reach 2200 if proper measurements are not taken.’

Many spoke of giving smaller gifts, such as phone credits, 500-1000 tögrög in cash, or small sweets and treats for younger people. Another of Rebekah’s friends reported a disconnect between the generations as to how best to celebrate the occasion, with one person commenting:

‘I see young people wanting to celebrate in a simpler way with less gifts and less extra expenditures; however, elders wish to celebrate it as they used to, so many are in trouble [financially]. 70% of all retired elders are in debt by taking out their monthly pensions in advance.’

Another person described how one of her relative’s took out her monthly pension allowance in advance with her husband. ‘They took out all their monthly pensions until February 2017, and [they] still don’t have enough money to celebrate Tsagaan Sar,’ causing them to ask their family for more money. It is clear that while many are already in debt, they allowed themselves to get further into debt in order to celebrate the occasion in a way they had been used to before.

Loan for TS, 45% of total families take loans

45% of people take out loans for Tsagaan Sar. 73% obtain a loan from the bank, and 24% obtain a loan from individuals. Courtesy of Mongolian Marketing Consultancy Group.

 

One member of our research group was in charge of arranging Tsagaan Sar for her elderly grandmother, given that her mother and other older relatives were abroad during the holiday.  She was given a budget of 1 million tögrög ($490) to procure necessary food items and 100,000 tögrög ($49) broken into crisp, new 5,000 tögrög bills to give upon guests’ departure.

She was able to spend just under 1 million tögrög to purchase foodstuffs like meat, vegetables, pickles, eggs, mayonnaise, traditional dairy products, fruits, candies, ul boov (large foot-shaped cookies for an offering plate), wine, vodka, and juices.  She was able to save some money because she was directed to only serve ‘dal durvun undur’ – the long four ribs of sheep – on the table, instead of purchasing the expensive sheep back and fatty tail.  Many other people we talked with also remarked that they excluded this cut of the sheep, due to its expense.

Types of meat offering

Different types of meat offerings purchased for the holiday. 50% of households interviewed serve the fatty tail of the sheep, the most expensive cut.

 

Gift-giving

In terms of gifts, the researcher in charge of arranging her grandmother’s Tsagaan Sar prepared boxes of Merci-brand chocolates as well as candies, cough drops, and travel-sized lotions that her mother shipped to Mongolia from the United States.  For special guests, like the doctor treating her grandmother, she gave a bottle of high-end Mongolian vodka (Soyombo brand) and large boxed Merci chocolates.  Guests greeted her grandmother with brand new currency notes in the largest denominations.  In total, she received 150,000 tögrög ($73).

Another family associated with our research group, based in the countryside, roughly budgeted the amount of money they anticipated spending on gifts and food in preparation for Tsagaan Sar:

family budget

Anticipated Tsagaan Sar expenses for a household in rural Mongolia. Gifts make up a large part of the budget. Courtesy of G. Munkherdene.

Gift prep

Tsagaan Sar preparations in rural Mongolia. Photo courtesy of G. Munkherdene.

Gift prep

Tsagaan Sar preparations in rural Mongolia. Photo courtesy of G. Munkherdene.

Gift prep

Tsagaan Sar preparations in rural Mongolia. Photo courtesy of G. Munkherdene.

 

A friend of Lauren’s, who participated in last year’s TSGI, shared that he is still most appreciative of the Mongolian-made gifts that he received.  In particular, he really liked receiving a shirt made by the Mongolian company, Oulen (see image below).  He was not particularly pleased, however, about receiving Russian-made gifts. One of the more interesting gifts that he received was a set of bowls made by the Russian-Mongolian ‘Ulaanbaatar Railway’ painted with socialist-era themed images.  He explained that the bowls used to be in many homes in Ulaanbaatar in the 1990s, thus they have a nostalgic appeal.

Like others we have spoken to, this man chose to visit fewer families than in past years, and also chose to only greet elderly people with money gifts.  According to his observations, other people appeared to be doing the same.

 

Gifts

Gifts received by a young man in Ulaanbaatar.  Photo courtesy of D. Javkaa.

Gifts

Made in Mongolia shirt gift. Photo courtesy of D. Javkaa.

Gifts

Soviet-themed bowls. Photo courtesy of D. Javkaa.

 

Hedwig encountered further forms of strategizing to avoid paying for lavish gifts. For example, many younger people avoided visiting extended elder relatives in order to avoid having to give money. And while some found the cost of giving gifts straining, forms of conspicuous consumption were also prevalent. For example, while many said that they prefered gifts made-in-Mongolia, gifts from other countries were given as a form of status. One household that Hedwig visited, for instance, gave honey and tupperware and facemasks from South Korea, and another gifted British-made shampoo and shower gel. While made-in-Mongolia socks were prevalent gifts, many people commented that the gifts should be ‘useful’ (kheregtseetei / tokhiromjtoi), including objects like cup sets and gloves.

One research team member was surprised when she visited a well-to-do household serving non-traditional food offerings, such as egg-fried rice, fried mushrooms, and glass noodles with vegetables.  She found it to be a nice break from the traditional offering of Russian potato salad and dumplings.  When she left that household, she was given a gift bag of French-brand cosmetics, a luxurious gift that she heard other people received from wealthy families (other gifts of this nature include cashmere clothes and bed linens).

Most challenging tasks of TS

Most challenging expenses for Tsagaan Sar.  54% report gifts for guests, followed by the fatty tail of the sheep.  Courtesy of Mongolian Marketing Consultancy Group.

Average cost of Tsagaan Sar preparations

Average cost of Tsagaan Sar expenditures. Courtesy of Mongolian Marketing Consultancy Group.

Another of Lauren’s friends, a man 34 years of age in Ulaanbaatar who has a low salary in state-run office, multiple-side businesses, and a high mortgage that he can barely pay, reflected that he could not afford to visit many families this year and that many people are trying to take out bank loans to finance the situation. More ‘traditional’ forms of celebrating have been promoted, resulting in more conservative festivities, as a direct reflection of the economic downturn.

Indeed, the economic strain of this year’s celebration even prompted one man in Dalanzadgad, Omnogobi to write on their facebook profile: ‘Because of the financial crisis this year, [we will] make mantuun buuz for Tsagaan Sar.’  Unlike regular Tsagaan Sar dumplings, mantuun buuz are made with yeasted dough and usually contain less meat filling, thereby providing a less expensive way to fill-up the stomachs of guests.  While his comment was made in jest as a form of social critique, it suggests public concern about the affordability of the holiday in the current economic climate.

Mantuun buuz

‘Because of the financial crisis this year, [we will] make mantuun buuz for Tsagaan Sar.’

 

Comparisons to Past Years

One member of our research group heard from friends and family that this year’s Tsagaan Sar was particularly tiring for people, not just because of the economic situation. This year Tsagaan Sar fell on a Tuesday, meaning that people ended up taking almost the entire week off from work.  This meant that Tsagaan Sar lasted not just three days, as typical, but six days (Tuesday-Sunday).  For the first time, some families ‘ran out of buuz’ because they had so many visitors, and had to make trips to the shops to restock food items to offer guests, like juice and soda.

Many spoke of the great financial burden of the holiday this year with one friend from Hovd exclaiming, just after Tsagaan Sar:

‘We celebrated the Lunar New Year and worshipped well. No one had adequate cash to buy the things that were needed, so we got items through a bank loan, and through credit from stores.’

Tsagaan Sar seems to be a big financial burden for the elderly. The older you get the more people you receive to your home. The more prestige you are granted, the more of a financial burden you have to shoulder.

The kinds of gifts a family gives are also indicative of its economic standing and networks, and the kinds of gifts you are given indicate your closeness or distance to a particular family member.

The fact that some families can afford to engage in these displays of wealth while others cannot is well-recognized and perhaps epitomized in the phrase: ‘if you are rich in something, offer it to others’ (yougaar bayan tüügeeree dail).  Perhaps this holiday was as much about displaying wealth as it was about distributing wealth and sharing resources across generations and groups of friends.

 

 

[1] For other statistics and excellent diagrams, see the Mongolian Marketing & Consulting group and their facebook site.