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Identity Issues in Mongolia

A nation that has been on a first-name basis for decades is going one better. Meet Cosmos, Lord God and the ubiquitous Borjigin.

October 23, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — School principal Baast chose the name "Nomad" in keeping with his wandering spirit. Defense Minister Gurragchaa -- the only Mongolian to venture into space -- settled on "Cosmos." And anthropology student Vanchigdash picked the Mongolian word for wisdom. "It makes me feel rather wise," he said. "I'm very proud of my new name."

Mongolians, long used to using only first names, are reshaping their identities under a government-led initiative to add surnames.

For those who didn't give it much thought, and even some who did, the most obvious choice for a surname was, is and always will be Borjigin, the clan name of Genghis Khan, the 12th-century warrior and native son who put this north-central Asian nation on the map.

"It seems like half the population is named after Genghis," said Ganaa, a 30-year-old mother whose family initially considered Borjigin before settling on Aldar, after their ancestral village. "It's good we're adopting surnames, because there's been lots of confusion. But with everyone choosing Genghis' name, that's also confusing."

The new hereditary system of surnames promises to create more historic continuity than the use of one name. So far, however, most Mongolians don't use them, except on the most formal of occasions.

"To tell you the truth, I can't remember mine," said Odonbayar, a tanned, 24-year-old herder from southwestern Mongolia.

First names worked reasonably well in an isolated, nomadic culture. But officials say surnames are now needed to avoid confusion in a more modern society, to help uncover long-buried roots as people delve into their clan histories and to prevent the inbreeding that occurs when you're not sure to whom you're related.

Mongolia did have family names once. Local historians claim that the country was among the first to adopt them and cite clan-name entries in "The Secret History of the Mongols," a 13th-century text.

This tradition was ended, however, when Mongolian Communists took power in the early 1920s. Clan names were initially banned to improve tax collection. So many people at the time shared the same last name, said Lonjid, a Mongolian State University historian, that using your first name -- and occasionally your father's for clarity -- was seen as a way to make names more distinct.

Once in place, however, the surname ban stuck, in part because it suited Mongolia's often-brutal regime, historians say. By wiping out old clan names and destroying historic baggage, the revolutionaries hoped to stifle resistance by the former aristocracy -- "golden relative" clans that traced their lineage to Genghis.

Mongolia passed a law requiring surnames in 1997, but it was largely ignored until this year, when the names became necessary for a new government identity card. Now, more than 90% of Mongolia's 2.5 million people have adopted them, experts say. Holdouts tend to be herders and nomads in the country's more remote areas.

Many people looking for help in choosing a name have turned to a how-to book written by Serjee, a linguist and director of the State Central Library of Mongolia. Look for local histories that might reveal your family or clan name, he advises from his cavernous office in downtown Ulan Bator, the capital -- although finding your original family name doesn't guarantee you'll want to use it.

"My research suggests most original Mongolian surnames were bestowed by neighbors in the village," Serjee said. "These include 'Thief' and 'Family of Seven Drunks.' "

If that fails, adopt a clan name specific to your area, he suggests, or use your profession, your hometown, a nickname or something unique about you.

"Be imaginative, be brave," he said. "Make up your own name. They may be new now, but in 50 years they'll be old."

Serjee found his family name, Besud, digging in old records, but doesn't use it much.

The nationwide naming frenzy has led to unexpected discoveries. When Dorjnamjim, head of the Mongolian office of International Finance Corp., got together with family members to mull their choice of surnames, he learned that his father already knew their original last name -- Urianhai -- but had kept it a secret.

Most Mongolians would immediately recognize Urianhai as the name of a Buddhist monk, part of a group particularly hated by Communists trying to wipe out religion. "If you were a monk, you were put to sleep forever by Stalin's Mongolian puppets," Dorjnamjim said.

Mongolia may be late to the surname game, but its reasons for doing so, which include a desire to avoid confusion and appear more modern, match the experiences of other cultures.

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