Ethnic and Linguistic Groups

Mongolia Table of Contents

Mongols and Kazakhs

Mongolia's population is ethnically quite homogenous; about 90 percent of the populace speaks one of several dialects of the Mongol language. Mongol is an Altaic language, related to the Turkic languages, such as Uzbek, Turkish, and Kazakh, and more distantly to Korean and perhaps, in the opinion of some linguists, to Japanese. Except for the dialect of the Buryat Mongols, who predominantly inhabit the area around Lake Baykal in Siberia, and the dialects of scattered isoglosses in Mongolia, all dialects of Mongol spoken in Mongolia are readily understood by native speakers of the language. The Khalkha Mongols are the largest element of the population. According to the 1979 census, they made up 77.5 percent of the population. The term khalkha, which means "shield," has been used at least since the mid-sixteenth century to refer to the nomads of the traditional Mongol heartland of high steppes and mountains. They have been the most thoroughly pastoral of all the Mongol tribes or subethnic groups, the nomads' nomads, and the least affected by foreign influences. In the twentieth century, they occupied most of the central and the eastern areas of the country. Khalkha Mongol is the standard language; it is taught in the schools and is used for all official business. The written language is based on the Khalkha of the Ulaanbaatar region, and when Mongol script was replaced by a Cyrillic alphabet between 1941 and 1946, the Russian Cyrillic was modified to suit the phonetic structure of Khalkha.

Another 12 percent of the population in 1979 spoke a variety of western or northern Mongol dialects, such as Dorbet, Dzakchin, Buryat, or the southeastern Dariganga. Speakers of these dialects were concentrated in their ancestral territories in far western or northwestern Mongolia in Hovd, Uvs, and Hovsgol aymags, or along the Chinese frontier in the southeast. Ethnic distinctions among the various Mongol subgroups have been relatively minor; they have been expressed in oral traditions of historical conflicts among the groups, in such ethnic markers as women's headdresses or the shapes of boots, and in such minor variations in pastoral technique as placement of camels' nose pegs. Apart from immediate adaptation to different environments, Mongol culture has been relatively uniform over large areas, and dialect or tribal differences have not become significant political or social issues.

Mongolia's largest minority, accounting for 5.3 percent of the population in 1979, is the Kazakh people of the Altai. The Kazakhs, who also live in the Soviet Union's Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and in China's Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region, are a pastoral, Turkic-speaking, and traditionally Muslim people who live in Bayan-Olgiy Aymag in extreme western Mongolia. Bayan-Olgiy is a largely Kazakh administrative unit, where the Kazakh language is used in the primary schools and in local administrative offices. There is a fairly high level of contact with the Soviet Union's Kazakh Republic, which provides textbooks for the schools. Kazakhs of the Altai traditionally have hunted from horseback with trained golden eagles on their wrists and greyhounds slung across the saddle--both to be launched at game-- and pictures of eagle-bearing Kazakhs are common in Mongolian tourist literature. Mongol is taught as the second language and Russian as the third in Kazakh schools, and bilingual Kazakhs appear to participate in the Mongolian professional and bureaucratic elite on an equal footing with Mongols. Kazakhs also make up a disproportionate number of the relatively highly paid workers in the coal mines of north-central Mongolia; this situation may indicate either limited opportunities in the narrow valleys of Bayan-Olgiy Aymag or government efforts to favor a potentially restive minority, or both.

Chinese, Russians, and Others

The 1979 census identified the "nationality" of 5.5 percent of the population simply as "other," an undefined category that presumably included small numbers of Tungusic-speaking hunters and reindeer herders in the northeast, some Turkic-speaking Tuvins in Uvs and Dzavhan aymags, and, in the Altai region, isolated clusters of Uzbeks and Uighurs (the latter of whom--whose ancestors migrated north from Xinjiang in northwestern China--grow irrigated rice in the relatively sheltered Hovd Basin). The category also included Russian and Chinese residents, whose national and legal status is, perhaps intentionally, obscure. Mongolia's 1956 census counted Chinese as 1.9 percent and Russians as 1.6 percent of the population, but as of 1989 no totals for those groups had been published since. The United States Government in 1987 estimated 2 percent of the population as Russian and 2 percent as Chinese.

Historically, the Gobi served as a barrier to large-scale Chinese settlement in what was, before 1921, called Outer Mongolia; the unsuitability of most of the territory for agriculture made southern settlement less attractive. The small Chinese population in the early 1920s consisted of merchants or peddlers, artisans working for Buddhist monasteries or Mongol aristocrats, and a few market gardeners near Ulaanbaatar (then called Niyslel--capital--Huree, or Urga) and the smaller population centers of the Selenge region. Many of the Chinese married or formed liaisons with Mongol women. Their children, who spoke Mongol as first language, were regarded as Chinese by the rules of patrilineal descent common to both Chinese and Mongols. In the early 1980s, Ulaanbaatar was reported to have a small Chinese community, which published a Chinese-language newspaper and which looked to the Chinese embassy for moral support. In 1983 the Mongolian government expelled about 1,700 Chinese residents, who were accused of "preferring an idle, parasitic way of life" to honest labor on the state farms to which they had been assigned. At the same time, ethnic Chinese who had become naturalized citizens were reported to be unaffected. Because the presence and the status of Chinese residents in Mongolia were politically sensitive subjects, Mongolian sources usually avoided mentioning the Chinese at all.

The same sources frequently referred to the Soviet residents of Mongolia, but they always described them as helpful foreigners who would return to their proper homes when their terms of service were over. Most presumably were not included in the Mongolian census figures. There were small numbers of descendants of Russian settlers along the border, and the "national" status of Buryat Mongols, Tuvins, or Kazakhs who at some point had crossed the border from their home territories in the Soviet Union was not clear. Thousands of Soviet nationals were working in Mongolia as technical experts, advisers, and skilled workers; they were a noticeable presence in Mongolian cities in the late 1980s. Erdenet, which was built around a joint Mongolian-Soviet copper-molybdenum mining and processing complex in the late 1970s, had a 1987 population of 40,000 Mongols and 10,000 Soviet workers on three-year contracts. In the 1980s, an estimated 55,000 Soviet troops were based in Mongolia, and some of them worked on construction projects in cities. Although since 1920 many Russians have settled in the Tannu Tuva and Buryat Mongol regions of Siberia across the border from northern Mongolia, there has been no Russian migration to, and settlement in, Mongolia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress