Wednesday, June 23, 2004

How Many Genghis Khan's in a Mongolian Phone Book?

Mongolians seek to make a name for themselves

After more than 80 years without surnames, picking one is as much about personality as it is ancestry, GEOFFREY YORK writes.

ULAN BATOR -- For the first time in his life, Batbold needs a surname. And after some moments of reflection, he thinks he has found the perfect name: the tribal name of Genghis Khan.

"I'm kind of proud of Genghis Khan," the 25-year-old tailor said shyly as he lined up to register his new name. "He was a good leader, a strong warrior. I kind of feel that I'm from the same tribe."

For more than 80 years, everyone in Mongolia was on a first-name basis. After seizing power in the early 1920s, the Mongolian Communists destroyed all family names in a campaign to eliminate the clan system, the hereditary aristocracy and the class structure.

Within a few decades, most Mongolians had forgotten their ancestral names. They used only a single given name -- a system that eventually became confusing when 9,000 women ended up with the same name, Altantsetseg, meaning "golden flower."

By the mid-1990s, Mongolia had become a democracy again, and there were growing worries about the lack of surnames. One name might be enough when most people were nomadic herdsman in remote pastures, but now the country was urbanizing. The one-name system was so confusing that some people were marrying without realizing they were relatives.

In 1997, a new law required everyone to have surnames. The law was largely ignored, but then a system of citizenship cards was introduced. Slowly the country of 2.5 million began to adopt surnames.

Today, however, there are still 10,000 people without surnames. So the government is trying to solve the problem with a mixture of incentives (a discount on the registration fee) and heavy-handed pressure (a threat of financial penalties on anyone who fails to get a citizenship card before the June 27 national election).

And so Batbold joined a horde at a civil registration office in Ulan Bator this week, clutching a stack of documents to legalize his newly chosen name.

His new surname, Borjigin, the tribal name of Genghis Khan, has become the most popular name in the country. It means "master of the blue wolf," a reference to Mongolia's creation myth.

"Everyone wants the name Borjigin, as if they have some connection to Genghis Khan," said Serjee Besud, director of Mongolia's state library and a leading researcher on surnames.

"It's like a fashion. But it has no meaning if everyone has the same name. It's like having no name at all."

Mr. Besud has spent years poring over the dusty archives of the state library to compile a book of possible surnames for the nameless. He obtained access to the highly secret archives of the country's Communist Party, which included detailed lists of the names of noble families who were prohibited from party membership.

He discovered his own long-lost surname, Besud, by finding his grandfather's name on a 1925 list of conscripts in a Communist army.

His book, called Advice on Mongolian Surnames, provides maps and lists of historically used surnames in each region of the country.

The book also suggests other ways to choose a surname. Some people choose the name of a mountain or river in their ancestral region.

Others prefer the name of an ancestral occupation: Blacksmith, Herdsman or Writer. Some names are linked to clans: White Camel or Black-and-White Horse.

And some names have more obscure origins. One surname listed in the book, perhaps less fashionable today, is Seven Drunk Men.

As the election deadline approaches, the registration offices in Ulan Bator are surrounded by mobs, kept behind ropes as they wait their turn to enter the office to register their new surnames.

Mungunkhoyag, a 54-year-old payroll manager in an Ulan Bator factory, stood in the queue with a sheaf of documents to register his new name. He says he knows many people who have chosen the Genghis Khan tribal name as their surname, but he disapproves of the idea. "I don't like it," he said. "You should have your original name. If you use a different name, it means you have different blood."

In his own case, he knew the last name of his grandfather -- Zuutrag -- and now he is registering it as his own surname.

"I'm very proud of getting my family name on my documents," he said.

"If you have only a single name, mistakes can be made. I used to tell my children that we were from the Zuutrag clan. Now I am making it official."

Even after seven years of registering new surnames, however, most Mongolians are still in the habit of using a single name. Their business cards, for example, usually list their given name and their father's given name -- with no surname. Many people have no clue as to their friends' surnames.

Mongolia's Defence Minister, an earnest, bespectacled man with a "Hero of the Soviet Union" medal on his jacket, is the proud owner of probably the coolest name in the country.

The 58-year-old minister, Gurragchaa, is a former cosmonaut on a Soviet spaceship -- the only cosmonaut from Mongolia. And so when he was unable to discover his ancestral surname, he chose Sansar, the Mongolian word for the cosmos. His children will use the same name.

"It's actually nothing very special," he said, shrugging. "Everyone is proud now to restore their surname."

When he handed over his business card, however, his new name didn't appear. Slightly embarrassed when this was pointed out, he noted that Mongolians "don't have a tradition of using surnames," but added, "I have some newer cards and my surname is on those cards."

Read the Article at The Globe and Mail Website

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