Lhamsuren Munkh-Erdene

From People to Territory

Sovereignty Transformed

The conventional scholarship maintained until recently that nomadic peoples were “wandering tribes” who had no sovereign claims over the land through which they passed. That notion is flatly contradicted by “maps of territory of khoshuu” (qosiγun-u nutuγ-un jiruγ) of Mongolian principalities (khoshuu), which were produced by local officials toward the end of the Manchu (Qing) empire (1644-1912). The rulers of these principalities were direct descendants of Chinggis Khan (1162-1227). If pre-Chinggisid Mongolia was a world where “sons protected the territory (nuntuq), and girls get picked by their beauty”, Chinggis Khan had expanded his territory (nuntuq) westward to give his elder sons their own separate domains. Each thousand (minqan or decimal division of thousand) of the Mongol empire had its own territory (nuntuq), with officials called nuntu’ucin (lit. one who is in charge of territory) to administer it, as recorded in The Secret History of the Mongols and confirmed by such European visitors as John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck.

In building their alliances, Manchu and Mongolian lords declared that their territories would remain under the jurisdictions of their own respective laws and courts, refuting the idea of the nomadic polity as a “wandering tribe, whose authority structure is completely disassociated with a particular piece of land.” Indeed, “the land is the basis of nation” declared Modun, the Xiongnu ruler, in 209 B.C.E., and conquered the Eastern Hu who demanded him surrender a stretch of land. Later, an embittered pretender of the Xiongnu throne sent maps of Xiongnu territory to Han in 46 C.E. in revenge against the winner. We do not know exactly how earlier Inner Asian polities mapped their domains, but their mindscapes, too, must have been outfitted with something like the stone cairns that mark the borders of all Mongolian principalities shown in these marvelous maps.

The Khoshuu of Dugartsembel, the Jorigtu Jasag, the Setsen Khan Aimag

Unknown author

December 10, 1843 (Daoguang 23rd year).

Courtesy of The National Central Archive of Mongolia.

This colorful image depicts one of the smallest principalities in Qing-era Mongolia. This particular district was legally recognized by the empire in 1755 as the domain of Prince Tserendoyod and his heirs, after the prince donated 1,100 horses, 100 cattle, and 1,000 sheep to the Qing army during its war against the Zhungar Khanate. Drawn nearly a century later, the map shows the principality as a fertile and well-watered landscape, but also as a clearly bounded polity. As is true of all the khoshuu maps reproduced in this collection, the territorial border has been prominently painted, consisting of short, straight lines connecting a continuous series of dots or triangles around the edge of the painted terrain. The dots and triangles represent stone piles or cairns (oboo) erected at strategic points (often at passes or ridges) to help officials on the ground locate the boundary between administrative districts of the Mongolian realm. Each cairn had a name; those toponyms, too, are noted on the map.

The Khoshuu of the Bishreltü Jasag, the Setsen Khan Aimag

Unknown Author

July 15, 1843 (Daoguang 23rd year)

Courtesy of the National Central Archive of Mongolia

This principality belonged originally to a prominent descendant of Genghis Khan: the Grand Duke Dari, a grandson of Sholoi Mahasammata Setsen Khan (1577-1652). Its last prince was made a king, and the kingdom survived until 1923. This splendid map, produced during the reign of the eighth prince in 1843, marks the border of the principality with 65 named cairns.

The Khoshuu of Miyürdorji, the Bishreltü Jasag, the Setsen Khan Aimag

Unknown author

1864 (Tongzhi 3rd year)

Courtesy of the National Central Archive of Mongolia

This image, made twenty years later than the map above, depicts the same domain. The content has been simplified, the figure rotated by 180 degrees (putting south at the top), and red text-boxes added around its edges. Surrounding the principality on all sides, these banners make the names of its 65 boundary-markers (oboo) the most eye-catching feature of the map.

The Khoshuu of Gombosüren, the Erdeni Dalai Jasag, the Setsen Khan Aimag

Unknown author

1907 (Guangxu 33rd year)

Courtesy of the National Central Archive of Mongolia

Established some time in the mid-seventeenth century, this principality was the domain of prince Budjab (1577-1652). His descendants ruled the principality for fourteen generations until 1923. The map names 69 cairns (oboo) that mark its border. It also shows the administrative center of the principality, and gives the height of the mountains.

Lhamsuren Munkh-Erdene (National University of Mongolia: currently, Visiting Fellow at Max Planck Institute, Germany) studies state and empire building in pre-modern Central Eurasia, and issues of ethnicity, nationalism, and the construction of collective identity in Mongolia. He is the author of The Taiji Government and the Rise of the Warrior State: The Formation of the Qing Imperial Constitution (2021). He completed his PhD in History and Area Studies at Hokkaido University.