The Rural and the Urban in Pastoral Mongolia

David Sneath

University of Cambridge

The Rural and the Urban in Pastoral Mongolia

47th Meeting of the PIAC, Cambridge 2004

In the Soviet era the Mongolian State promoted various processes of urbanization, fostering the rapid growth of cities and towns, and establishing settlements in rural districts throughout the country. In the early 1990s the state launched a series of reforms designed to bring about a transition from a state socialist to a market economy. One of the results has been the decline of many of those activities associated with urban lifestyles, such as office and industrial employment, health and educational services. The collapse of formerly State-run enterprises and the dissolution of the pastoral collectives threw thousands of employees out of work, forcing many of them to herd livestock to make a living. This helped create a flow of people from urban enters into rural districts. From 1992 to 1995 the urban population declined by around 4% (50,000 people), while the rural population increased by over 15 % (150,000). Since then, however, there has been a flow into Ulaanbaatar precipitated by the continuing crises in the pastoral sector. From 1995 to 2001 there was a 26% increase in the population of the capital, which now exceeds 812,000 (National Statistical Office of Mongolia 2002:42.).

Mongolian representations of rural and urban life provide contrasting images. The urban setting is associated with technology, modernity and centers of political power. Rural life, by contrast, is associated with the ancient lifestyle of nomadic pastoralism, authentic Mongolian culture, simplicity and tradition. In reality, however, in rural districts social networks have long crossed the boundaries between mobile and settled aspects of Mongolian life.

Products and people (particularly children) move between the settlements and the mobile pastoral encampments, to create a social matrix that includes both rural and urban contexts. Social networks continue to link those in the political and economic centers with families in remote pastoral regions. Many of those who moved to rural districts tapped-into their networks of kith and kin to gain help and advice with livestock herding.

This chapter explores the social effects of these recent processes of de-urbanization and re-urbanization, and examines the new relationship between rural and urban society that is emerging in Mongolia’s ‘Age of the Market.’ It begins by tracing the long history of relations between elements of Mongolian culture that have been oriented towards political and ritual centers, and those oriented towards rural pastoralism. Although these interlinked constellations have undergone a series of transformations, they remain central themes in both rural and urban society and continue to frame relations between the two.