Saturday, 6 December 2014

Mongolian National Central Archives

 Dissertation Reviews .org     December 2, 2014 - 

A review of the National Central Archives (Үндэсний Төв Архив), Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Strolling around downtown Ulaanbaatar, you may come across the statute of Khorloogiin Choibalsan, the leader of Mongolia from the late 1930s until his death in 1952, in front of Building #1 of the National University of Mongolia (NUM). Walking east for about one minute, you will find a gray-white concrete building, not very magnificent looking compared to the precious collections it houses. This is the National Central Archives of Mongolia (Үндэсний Төв Архив, hereafter NCAM).
The NCAM, also known as the Historical Archives (Түүхийн Архив), was established in 1927 and preserves archival materials dating back to 1674. In 1957, the archives were moved to the current building. Since the building has been in use for more than 50 years, the authority decided to build a new complex of buildings to improve the preservation conditions of the archives. The original plan was to move all archives to a new site by June 2014, close to the Chinggis Khaan Airport, located about a 30-minute drive from Ulaanbaatar with no traffic. However, due to lack of funds the new complex as of this writing remains unfinished. The plan is suspended and the time of resumption is still unknown.
In the mid-1920s, the Mongolian authority ordered that local governments move their archives to Ulaanbaatar under central control. So if you want to find any kind of pre-1920s archives, do not bother to visit the countryside and instead visit the NCAM. According to the LALORC project survey, the NCAM contains more than 1,260,000 items of paper-based documents, plus audio recordings, videos, and newspapers in six languages: Mongolian, Russian, Tibetan, Chinese, English, and French. The condition of those archives varies. Some of the documents are good, but some of them have become fragmented into pieces.
I was honored to be invited by Professor Delgerjargal Purevsuren as a visiting scholar in the history department at NUM and spent five months at the NCAM from August 2013 to January 2014 for my PhD dissertation. My research is on the historical process of the integration of Han Chinese and Manchu immigrants into Qing Mongolian society. Since the materials are supposed to belong to local archives during the Qing era, I came to Ulaanbaatar and looked for Qing archival documents in Mongolian, Manchu, and sometimes Chinese. My goal was the archives under the fond M-85, the Office of Erdene Shanjodba, which was responsible for the administration of the Great Disciples (их шавь) under Jibzundamba Khutugtu, the highest living Buddha in Qing Outer Mongolia.
If you are not a Mongolian citizen, in order to access the archives you will need to obtain a permit, which requires several steps. First, you will need a local collaborator who works at a public or academic institution to write a recommendation letter. On arrival at the archive, you must first visit the Director of the General Archival Authority (Aрхивын Ерөнхий Газар) with your recommendation letter in order to obtain their permission. After obtaining this permission, you can then go to the NCAM with your letter, where you meet the Head of the Central Archives, and then wait.
How long will it take? During normal working days, it should not take more than several days, but this depends on the timing of your submission. For example, when I arrived in Mongolia last summer, it was the day before Naadam, Mongolia’s largest summer festival. Everyone is on vacation at that time and usually goes back to the countryside, so it took me around two weeks to reach my sponsor and another two weeks to obtain permission from the Head of the NCAM. My suggestion is if you are planning to visit the NCAM, please take such timing issues into account and, if possible, see if your sponsor could accompany you through this stage.
After completing the entire process, you are allowed to enter the reading room to obtain your permit to conduct research. For your first visit before obtaining this permit, bring your passport and register at the information desk. The librarian will ask you to complete an application form on which you provide your basic information and research topic. Remember also to bring a one-inch square photo and money for the permit. The fees for non-Mongolian citizens are as follows: for a 14-day visit, the permit costs US$10; for a one-month visit, US$15; and for a two-month visit, US$20. These fees are payable in either U.S. dollars or the equivalent amount in Mongolian Tögrög (₮, MNT). Bring the permit with you every time you visit the NCAM; you will need to show it to the guard and sign in and out.
Laptops and other electronic devices are allowed to be brought into the reading room. You can transcribe the content of documents either on paper or on your laptop, but photography is strictly forbidden. There are cameras on the walls to watch the readers. When you leave the NCAM, the guard will check your bags and belongings to ensure you did not take any archival documents.
Searching the Catalog 
Since the NCAM has not built online or digital catalogs, you have to check the catalogs in binders. There is only one copy of each catalog, so you will have to wait if the binder you need has been borrowed. I was able to check out three or four at one time. When you check the catalog, the content of each document will be given in brief plus its date.
The structure of the Manchu/Qing-era (1636-1911) archives in the NCAM corresponds to the Qing administration of Outer Mongolia. The two western aimags (аймаг, province), Zasagtu Khan and Sayin Noyan, are under the left lieutenant-general in Uliastai, the two eastern aimags, Tüsiyetü Khan and Setsen Khan, are under the amban (imperial resident) in Khüriye (today’s Ulaanbaatar). The Oirats in the west Mongolian frontier are under two ambans in Khowd. Four aimags and the Khowd frontier are constituted into banners (хошуу) and Jibzundamba Khutugtu’s territory. This lays the foundation for the categorization of Manchu/Qing-era archives in the NCAM.
I would like to use a document from the Manchu/Qing-era archives as an example to show the categorization system of the NCAM. Here is an example reference number: M-85 D-1 KhN-39 (М-85 Д-1 ХН-39). This document is about the registration of Han Chinese men who married Mongolian women from the Great Disciples.
The reference for each record is composed of three parts. In this example, the first part corresponds to the Manchu/Qing-era archives, which are divided into 224 holdings (фонд, borrowed from Russian). You will find numbers from M-1 to M-224. ‘M’ stands for the Manchu era (Манжийн үе). Different eras have their own label, such as ‘A’ for the era of autonomy under Bogd Khan (1911-1924). The fond M-1 is the archives of the Office of Imperial Resident in Khüriye; M-2 to M-7, the Office of the Left Lieutenant-General in Uliastai; M-8 the Office of the Imperial Resident in Khowd; M-9 to M-30, Tüsiyetü Khan aimag; M-31 to M-57, Setsen Khan aimag; M-58 to M-77, Sain Noyan aimag; M-78 to M-84, Zasagtu Khan aimag; M-85 to M-142, Jibzundamba Khutugtu’s territories; M-143 to M-150, the post-road services; M-151 to M-157, the patrol duties; M-159 to M-164, the territories under Imperial Resident in Khowd; M-167, maps; M-168, genealogy; M-169, stamps and seals; M-170, the communication of the nobilities, officials and lamas. The rest of these archives are comprised of miscellaneous documents. The second part, ‘D,’ stands for file (данс). The third part, ‘KhN,’ stands for storage unit (хадгаламжийн нэгж).
If you want to obtain photocopies of documents, the NCAM can do that for you, but the fees are not cheap. In general, the earlier the archives, the higher the cost, so the Qing documents are the most expensive. The following fees are in Tögrög. For documents dated between 1674-1910, one A4-sized page costs ₮3,000; for documents from 1911-1920, ₮2,500; for documents from 1921-1960, ₮2,000; and for documents from 1960 to the present, ₮1,500. Based on the rules of the NCAM, the fee for Mongolian citizens is ₮500 less for each category. The exchange rate as of September 2014 was US$1 = ₮1,800. Usually you will get your documents on paper, however, if your documents are oversized, you might get digital photos.
The NCAM is open from Monday to Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Lunch break is supposed to last one hour, from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. The librarian often comes back early and will usually allow you to enter the reading room and resume your work 10 to 15 minutes early. However, since there is only one librarian working at the reading room, sometimes it will be closed because the librarian leaves to run some errands. Moreover, the reading room will also be closed when the archive is hosting a meeting. It is best to ask the librarian for the next day’s schedule before you leave the archive every time to make sure it will be open.
In short, despite the bureaucracy and red-tape, I recommend the NCAM to all colleagues who work on early modern Mongolian, Russian, and Chinese history.
National Central Archives
Zaluuchuud Avenue 9
Sukhbaatar District
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Just in front of Building #2, National University of Mongolia
Hours: Monday-Friday: 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Tel: (976-11) 264361/51
For Further Information
I wish to thank Professor Jonathan Schlesinger for suggesting these two important articles:
Hiroshi Futaki 二木博史’s article in Japanese includes a full list of the Manchu/Qing-era archives preserved in the NCAM. (
Junko Miyawaki 宮脇淳子’s article in Japanese on the Manchu and Mongolian archives of the office of the Manchu amban stationed in Khüriye also provides an overview on the archives of the NCAM. (
Wei-chieh Tsai
Department of Central Eurasian Studies
Indiana University Bloomington

Image: Manchu document from the National Central Archives of Mongolia. Photograph by Author.

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