Exploring Chinese History
East Asian Region
- Mongolia -

Known from 1924 to 1991 as the Mongolian People’s Republic, nation in East Asia, bounded on the north by Russia and on the east, south, and west by China. The country, sometimes called by its former name, Outer Mongolia, has a total area of 1,566,500 sq km (604,830 sq mi). The capital and largest city of Mongolia is Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator).

The topography of Mongolia consists mainly of a plateau between about 900 and 1,500 m (about 3,000 and 5,000 ft) in elevation broken by mountain ranges in the north and west. The Altay Mountains in the southwest rise to heights above 4,000 m (14,000 ft). The Gobi Desert covers a wide arid tract in the central and southeastern areas. The most important rivers are the Selenge River and its tributary, the Orhon Gol, in the north. Large lakes include the Har Us, Hyargas, Uvs, and Hövsgöl.

Mongolia’s climate is harsh, with temperatures ranging in winter from a high of -21° C (-5° F) to a low of -30° C (-22° F) and in summer between 10° and 27° C (50° and 80° F). Winters are dry, and summer rainfall seldom exceeds 380 mm (15 in) in the mountains and 125 mm (5 in) in the desert.

Mongolia contains forests of larch, pine, and cedar in the mountains, but these are of little economic importance. Furbearing animals, especially marmot and squirrel, are abundant, and the country has a well-developed fur industry. Rich prairie land in the northeast and northwest supports large herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. Mineral resources such as coal, iron, copper, fluorspar, gold, uranium, and silver have not been fully exploited.

The ethnic composition of Mongolia is fairly homogeneous. Halh (Khalkha) Mongols constitute the great majority of the population, while other ethnic Mongols exist in small numbers. Other groups are the Kazaks and the Dörvöds. The society is 62 percent urban.

The population of the Republic of Mongolia (1998 estimate) is 2,578,530, yielding an overall population density of 1.6 persons per sq km (4.3 per sq mi).

Administratively, Mongolia is divided into 21 provinces and 1 independent city. The independent city is Ulaanbaatar, which is the country's capital and largest city. The next largest cities are Darhan and Erdenet.

The traditional faith in Mongolia is Lamaist Buddhism, which the Communist government began suppressing in 1929. In 1992 the country adopted a democratic constitution that established the separation of church and state. Some monasteries have since reopened, and Buddhists are again openly practicing their faith. As a result of the years of government suppression of religion, however, many Mongolians are now thought to be nonreligious or atheistic. The Mongolian language is one of the Altaic languages.

Education in Mongolia is compulsory between the ages of 8 and 16. In the 1996 school year 234,200 students attended primary school, 89 percent of primary-aged children. The secondary school enrollment rate was 56 percent. About 38,600 students attended institutions of higher education, which include the Mongolian State University in Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolia did not achieve a cohesive culture until the 20th century, when it became an independent nation. Only a few remnants of ancient cultures exist, including Stone Age campsites, and much of Mongolia’s traditional folklore has been lost with succeeding generations. The Republic of Mongolia has tried to establish a national culture and has sponsored drama, art schools, and a state theater of music and drama. Mongolian literature is rich and epic in form.

Mongolia’s State Archives and State Public Library, with some 3 million volumes, are in Ulaanbaatar. The capital is also the site of the State Central Museum, which contains art treasures and antiquities; the Fine Arts Museum, with a collection of painting and sculpture; two museums displaying items from the revolutionary movement; and the Museum of Religion, with a collection of Lamaist relics.

Crop farming and livestock breeding form the basis of Mongolia’s economy. Manufacturing is devoted largely to the processing of agricultural and livestock products. During the Communist era, the government attempted to increase industrial and agricultural production through a series of five-year plans, first initiated in 1948. The state controlled all industry and trade, through either direct ownership or cooperatives. In the 1990s Mongolia began to transition from a planned socialist economy under Communism to a market system under a democratic government. Economic reforms have included the transfer of some state-owned enterprises to private ownership. In 1997 the gross domestic product (GDP) was $862 million, or about $340 per capita.

The Mongolians are primarily herders, and a majority of the population is engaged in agriculture. Animals raised include sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and camels. During the Communist era, collective farms and state farms controlled all cultivated lands and accounted for most of the nation’s livestock. Many of these farms have since been privatized. Principal crops include wheat, potatoes, barley, and oats.

Mongolia’s rich iron ore deposits are located near Darhan, an industrial center that was developed with assistance from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Black coal production in 1997, from mines near Ulaanbaatar and Darhan, totaled 4.2 million metric tons. The mining of copper and molybdenum began in the late 1970s near Erdenet. Other minerals produced include tungsten and fluorspar. During the Communist period, manufacturing was small and local in character but still formed an important sector of the country’s economy. Major products included building materials, processed food and alcoholic beverages, leather goods, woolen textiles, furs, and wood items. While these products are still produced, many manufacturing businesses have collapsed since economic reforms were introduced in the 1990s.

In 1997 Mongolia produced 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, all generated by thermal facilities. Major power stations in the country were located at Ulaanbaatar, Darhan, Choybalsan, and Sühbaatar.

The country’s central bank is the Bank of Mongolia. Commercial banks also operate. The currency of the Republic of Mongolia is the tughrik (tögrög), which consists of 100 möngö (790 tughriks equal U.S.$1; 1997 average).

Most of Mongolia’s trade was once with Soviet-block countries, but since the early 1990s, the country has made efforts to expand its trade. Leading purchasers of exports now are Switzerland, Russia, China, Japan, and the United Kingdom; chief sources of imports are Russia, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Singapore, and the United States. Principal exports in the mid-1990s were minerals, timber, cashmere, and meat products. Imports consisted mainly of machinery and transport equipment, consumer goods, and industrial raw materials. In 1996 Mongolian imports were valued at $439 million and exports at $423 million.

The Republic of Mongolia is served by the Trans-Mongolian Railway, which connects Ulaanbaatar with Russia and China. Truck services operate throughout the country. Steamer services operate on the Selenge River and a tug and barge service on Hövsgöl Lake. International air service connects Ulaanbaatar with China, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

In 1997 Mongolia had 37 telephone mainlines in use for every 1,000 inhabitants. In 1996 there were 139 radio receivers and 46 television sets per 1,000 people. The country has about 20 national newspapers, most published weekly or less frequently.

Under Mongolia’s 1960 constitution, the supreme organ of state power was the People’s Great Hural (Khural), a 430-member assembly that usually met twice a year. The Communist party, called the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), was the sole legal party until 1990, when the constitution was amended to allow opposition parties, institute a presidential system of government, and add a 53-member standing legislature, the Small Hural. In January 1992 a new constitution was adopted. By this constitution, the legislative power of the republic resides in the 76-member Great Hural; the delegates of the Great Hural are chosen for four-year terms through direct, free elections. The president is head of state and is also elected to a four-year term. Voting is universal beginning at age 18.

The Supreme Court is Mongolia’s highest court. Lower courts include the Ulaanbaatar City Court, 18 provincial courts, and local district courts. Members of the courts are elected by the assemblies at each political level.

Mongolia is divided into 18 provinces, which are subdivided into districts, and the city of Ulanbaatar. Local governments consist of hurals (assemblies) of representatives elected to four-year terms.

Twelve months of military service is compulsory for all men aged 18 to 28. In 1997the army had about 8,000 soldiers and the air defense forces had about 800 personnel. In addition there were about 5,900 border guards and internal troops, which are separate from the armed forces.

In the early 15th century, Mongol unity gave way to internal quarrels and dissension. Tibetan Buddhism gained ascendancy in the 16th century, and in 1650 the son of the Mongol khan of Urga (now Ulaanbaatar) was named a Living Buddha. An alliance of Buddhist theocracy and secular Mongol aristocracy ruled the country from 1696 until the 20th century, under the suzerainty of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty of China.

After the Chinese revolution of 1911, Mongolia, except the Uriankhai Territory (now Tyva, Russia), declared its independence from China, but the Living Buddha continued to rule. In 1920 a military force that was supplied and financed by Japan and led by Baron Roman Nikolaus von Ungern-Sternberg, a Russian anti-Bolshevik general, took the capital, Urga, and set up a puppet government. In 1921 the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, formed by Russian-trained Mongols, established an independent Provisional People’s Government and, with aid from the Russian Communists, defeated Ungern-Sternberg and his supporters. The theocratic monarchy, its powers limited, was retained by the provisional government until 1924, when the last Living Buddha died. At that time the Mongolian People’s Republic, modeled on Soviet lines, was founded, but its independence was not recognized by China until 1946. After the Communists won power in China in 1949, trade and cultural relations were established between the two nations. However, China’s split with the USSR in the late 1950s curtailed Chinese-Mongolian relations. A Sino-Mongolian border treaty was signed in 1962, but Mongolia maintained its closest ties with the USSR, which in 1961 sponsored its membership in the United Nations. In 1966 the two countries signed a treaty of friendship, trade, and mutual assistance, which was renewed in 1986. In the 1980s the USSR was Mongolia’s leading trade partner and aid donor, and about 65,000 Soviet troops were stationed in Mongolia.

Yumzhagiyen Tsedenbal led Mongolia from 1952 until 1984, followed by Jambyn Batmönh. When Batmönh resigned in March 1990, former foreign trade minister Punsalmaagiyn Ochirbat became president. Ochirbat inaugurated a period of political and economic liberalization in Mongolia. A new constitution was adopted in January 1992, and the reconstituted Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party swept the parliamentary elections in June of that year. In January 1993 President Ochirbat and Russian president Boris Yeltsin signed another treaty of friendship and cooperation, to replace the treaty of 1986. In June 1993 President Ochirbat was reelected. A coalition of opposition parties presented a platform of continued economic reform in Mongolia’s 1996 parliamentary election. The Democratic Alliance, as the coalition was called, took 50 of the 76 seats in the Great Hural.

However, the pace of Mongolia’s transition to a free-market system generated mixed support among the country’s voters. Despite a three-year, $57-million loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the economic reforms caused increased inflation and unemployment. In presidential elections held in 1997, voters replaced President Ochirbat with Natsagiin Bagabandi, who campaigned on promises of slowing the pace of reform and increasing social services.

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