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Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit


Moveable Boundary: Governing methods in Mongolian Nomadic Society during the Qing Period

This study aims to provide a fresh perspective on the delineation of boundary in Qing-era Mongolia, revising the conventional understanding.

Previous studies have demonstrated that in Khalkha Mongolia, the boundaries of leagues were established in 1781, and those of the banners were demarcated in 1805. These boundaries have been interpreted as restricting crossings, as part of the Qing government's policy for ruling the Mongols. The following claims have been made regarding the reasons behind the Qing government's fixation with boundaries in Mongolia: to delineate the extent of pastoral lands, to limit the mobility of the Mongols by confining them within the banner, and to mitigate pastoral conflicts.

The speaker points out three main problems with the conventional understanding. Firstly, despite the focal topic being the boundary of 'Mongolia', it has been depicted with Manchus as the subject and Mongols as the object. Secondly, it has always been discussed in the frame of nomadism. Thirdly, there is an issue with deciphering the legal documents compiled by the Qing government. While previous scholars, relying on these sources, have identified a boundary that must not be crossed, the boundary cannot be solely confined to that of the ‘banner.’

Given the above challenges, this study seeks to find out the boundaries recognised by the Mongols, with a focus on their daily lives, and aims to provide an interpretation of these boundaries for the Mongols by describing them within the context of governance or management issues in their day-to-day existence. This study primarily relies on documents written during the Qing period, sourced from the collection of the Mongolian National Historical Archives.


As a result of this research, the boundary in Qing-era Mongolia was essential for the Mongols to effectively govern themselves. In other words, the Mongols themselves established the boundaries by segregating living spaces for each organisation, such as sum, otog, banner and league, rather than on the orders of the Qing government. This served to provide the basis for the effective functioning of administration, encompassing tasks such as collection of alba (levies and services), transmission of orders, administrative communication, deterrence of incidents and crimes, handling of cases, and protection of the needy. All this depended on the coherent clustering of each organization -or the segregation of living spaces. Furthermore, this research shows that these boundaries, a prerequisite for governance in Mongolian society, were movable. The dwelling place of each organisation was not fixed but it was required to inhabit as a cluster, or to reside without mingling with other organisations. Hence, as long as the clustering or segregation of the organization was upheld, it had the flexibility to move both within and beyond banner, accompanied by reporting to the authorities. When this happened, the nutug (and the boundary accompanying nutug) of the organisation moves. This means of governance employing 'movable boundaries' enabled the Mongols to consistently adapt to their nomadic migration, representing a rational method for the effective management of nomadic societies.

Once it has been established that the boundary is the result of a request of Mongolian society itself as described above, the previously accepted notion that the Qing government unilaterally demarcated the boundary in Mongolia would appear to be untenable. The imperative for the Qing government was to render visible the existing boundaries that served as the foundation for the governance of Mongolian society, aiming to facilitate effective administration. The boundary demarcation was the process which involved the placement of oboos on the ground delineating the existing nutugs of each organisation, the drawing of maps on paper based on the locations of these oboos, and the subsequent submission of these documents to the government. In other words, the boundaries of banner and league were made visible by erecting oboos as landmark on site and archiving pictures of their nutugs at the administrative offices. It should be noted that the process of boundary demarcation was not initially designed with the intention of establishing a fixed boundary. In fact, during the Qing era, the Mongols frequently moved across the 'demarcated boundaries', and even upon crossing these boundaries, they consistently congregate based on organizational affiliations, concurrently maintaining the formation of their nutug: that is to say, the Mongols leisurely traversed 'demarcated boundaries' while adhering to their own 'moveable boundaries' throughout the Qing period. This also strengthens the validity of the interpretation that the Manchus sought to preserve and utilise Mongolian indigenous governance practices to rule the Mongols through the boundary demarcation (or the visualization of boundaries) rather than the confining them within the banner, weakening their mobility, or distributing pastureland to them.


Tuesday, 5 March, 2024 - 16:30 to 18:00
Event location: 
Mond Building Seminar Room