Boronoyeva Darima (Buryat State University, Ulan-Ude, Russia). The Idea of Returning Home in the Buryat Community of Inner Mongolia
// December 2003 MINPAKU Anthropology Newsletter є17
The author is a senior lecturer in the Department of Culture Studies at Buryat State University (Russia). She received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at the Institute of Mongolian Buddhism and Tibetan Studies within the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 2001 she was a visiting researcher at Tohoku University, with support from the Obuchi Fellowship Program. She has published a book and more than 20 articles on Mongolian traditional culture and the Buryat diaspora.
Buryat-Mongols (usually known as Buryats in scientific literature) are Mongolian speakers and one of the largest native populations of Siberia and the Far East. According to the census of 1989 there were 421,380 Buryats in the Soviet Union. Most of them were in the Republic of Buryatia (249,525 people), Ust-Orda Buryat autonomous region (49,298), and Aginsk Buryat autonomous region (42,362). Outside Russia, Buryats are compactly distributed in northeastern Mongolia (30,000-100,000 depending on the source of estimate) and in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia in China (about 6,000). Thus there has been a significant diaspora of Buryat groups into areas of stable Mongolian settlement. Unlike other Mongolian peoples Buryats represent a divided nation: they live in the territory of three states Ц Russia, Mongolia and China. Within the Russian Federation they live in three administrative territorial units. Given the peculiarities of Buryat territorial settlements, it is very important to learn how various Buryat local groups are connected with their Сethnic homeТ. At the moment, this is the Republic of Buryatia, where the largest group of Buryats live as a cohesive native population. It is also of wider importance to study the role and significance of the idea of СmotherlandТ in the everyday practices of ethnic communities living in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, China.
Researchers studying the Buryat ethnic community in Inner Mongolia, China, have found that the relationship between this ethnic group and its maternal ethnos has had a mostly politically-formed ideological character. For instance, during the Soviet period Buryats living in Inner Mongolia had
little contact with their motherland (especially after the mid-1930s), because Soviet authorities stigmatized representatives of this group as Сnational enemiesТ, СcounterrevolutionaryТ, Сpan-MongolistsТ, and in other ways, and prohibited any contact with them. There is no doubt that this policy also influenced scientific discourse of that time. As a result, at the beginning of СperestroikaТ in the mid-1980s, very few Buryats in Russia knew of the Shenekhen Buryats living in Inner Mongolia, and named after the river and region of Shenekheen).
While the Buryat ethnic community of Inner Mongolia had no opportunity to maintain everyday relations with the motherland, it was very important, even necessary for them to remember it.
What is the personal world of Shenekhen Buryats, the world where the people actually live? Field research proves that their personal world is very closely connected to the idea of unity with a society at a higher taxonomic level, a society to which they belong Ц the Buryats in their historical motherland. Being isolated from their maternal ethnos Shenekhen Buryats have unconsciously chosen a closed traditional lifestyle. At the center of this lifestyle, there must be some strong idea that consolidated the group. Researchers think that this was the idea of returning home, a romantic or nostalgic belief in the motherland as an original, real, and ideal home, the place where they or their children must return sooner or later. The idea of returning home was evident among older members of the Shenekhen Buryats people who could remember very well their own history of moving and settling down in new places. They did not learn Chinese, principally because they were sure that they would be able to return home. The idea of returning home in this case can be interpreted as a realization that the present existence is short-term. This consoling response helped them form positive motivations, overcome difficulties, and accept present realities. Active discourse about the motherland is a distinctive feature of the Buryat Diaspora in Sheneken. In this respect it differs from the one in northeastern Mongolia.
Among Buryats of the Republic of Buryatia, there have been two responses to the arrival of Shenekhen Buryats: rejection and acceptance. The reasons for this are complex and create difficulties for Sheneken Buryats. It means that being accepted is not certain, and this may largely explain their attempts to maintain and prove their Buryat traditions and connections.
In the early 1990s, a return movement began encouraging the actual return of Sheneken Buryats to their original country. When the first returnees appeared in the Republic of Buryatia (Russian Federation), they immediately surprised everyone with their natural СBuryatismТ. Their СpureТ and soft Buryat speech was organically filled with sayings and proverbs; they sang the drawling melodies of ancient Buryat songs (songs that sounded like something forgotten long ago), and displayed a luxury of traditional clothing and decorations. To initiate a revival of Buryat people and their culture, all these seemed to be necessary.
By the middle of 1993, about three hundred Shenekhen Buryats had moved to the Republic of Buryatia and the Aginsk autonomous region. In the same year, a Shenekhen BuryatsТ friendly association (zemlyachestvo) was founded to protect the interests of Shenekhen Buryats who had returned home. At the moment the number of returnees is still the same as in 1993. Unfortunately, some people have been forced back to Inner Mongolia because the process of return migration is not legally supported, and there is no system to provide the social support needed by returnees. Return migration is still a grass-roots initiative despite the fact that well-known Buryat organizations such as The Congress of Buryat People and the Common Buryat Association of Cultural Development claim that promoting the return of Buryats from China is one of their priorities.
While investigating the formation and cultural development of Shenekhen Buryats as an ethnic group in Inner Mongolia, China, it is reasonable to ask if a diaspora can be recognized. Having
left Russian territory, Buryats did not find themselves in an alien hostile world, where they had to overcome difficulties of adaptation to different cultural environment. On the contrary, the southward migration into Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, in the first quarter of the 20th century, can be viewed as realizing a pan-Mongolian idea and millenary myth. Buryat migration was activated by the policy of СRussificationТ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and by social-political events that took place in Russia in 1917. Migration was activated only within the Mongolian world, of which Buryats considered themselves to be a part. This makes it problematic to associate the Buryats of Inner Mongolia with the term diaspora. On the other hand, the ideology of this group does have features characteristic of diaspora: the idea of returning to a motherland, belonging to a community, and expressions of common solidarity, for example. The latter are closely connected with preserving and demonstrating a complex of ethnic features that differentiate Buryats and the Buryat community from other Mongolian nations.
Terminology is just one of the problems facing recent research. More broadly, there is a need to study the distinctive peculiarities of all Mongolian nations and their cultural traditions. This has been the focus of my work while visiting Minpaku. Together with Yuki Konagaya, I have been reviewing Buryats and the Mongolian World, and the identification practices of Buryats in broad historical context. In the present circumstances of increasing interaction among Mongolian nations, our project has both cognitive and practical significance.
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