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Harnessing FortunePersonhood, Memory and Place in Mongolia$

Rebecca M. Empson

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780197264737

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197264737.001.0001

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Assemblage at the Household Chest

Assemblage at the Household Chest

(p.106) 3 Assemblage at the Household Chest
Harnessing Fortune

Rebecca M. Empson

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

Focusing on objects inside the household, this chapter explores how photographic montages and embroideries project different aspects of the person on to visitors to the house. These objects outwardly display the relations of obligation available to people within the household, while provoking individual memories of absent people and places for those who live in their vicinity.

Keywords:   objects, photographic montages, embroideries, household, visitors

In the previous chapter I presented an outline of practices associated with harnessing fortune from livestock and mountain ceremonies. In this and the following chapter, I show that the concept of separating off pieces from one sphere and containing them in another in order to harness fortune can be transposed analogically to ideas about personhood, and specifically to the idea that the creation of the person is achieved through the separation of bodies. Thinking about personhood through the concept of fortune is not simply an analytical abstraction. People link the growth, health, and wealth of people directly to the successful accumulation of fortune. Because fortune is only ever visible in relation to some thing that takes a particular form, families and people are said to ‘have fortune’ (hishigtei hün, ail) when their work and health are going well, and animals and food are plentiful. The process of relating to others also involves carefully attending to the separation and containment of people and things so that fortune may be harnessed for a particular household.

I will use the idea of a (separated) piece to explore practices that involve separating yet containing relations through attention to things that are either displayed on top of or contained inside the wooden chest (avdar, Bur. hanza) common to most households in Ashinga. An analysis of things at the household chest reveals that the person’ is something that is constantly brought into being through one’s interactions with various objects inside the home (cf. Carsten 2000a; Edwards and Strathern 2000; Strathern 1996; Bell 2001). While agnatic and inherited connections are visible in photographic montages displayed on top of chests, other kinds of relations that are the products of the separation and movement of people across time and space are hidden from view and carefully contained inside the chest (Chapter 4). These visible and hidden components of the household chest can be seen as interdependent (p.107) perspectives that point to different modes of personhood and forms of sociality. Together, they reveal ‘a complex system of relations that “nest” one inside the other, like “Russian dolls”’ (Burgin 1996: 86). I shall argue that the way in which these objects are displayed parallels the concealment or display of different kinds of relations enacted in practice.

It is important to stress that components of the chest do not simply objectify or represent various relations. Tending to the different components of the chest is also the means by which relations are created. In this sense, things in and around the household chest can be viewed as vessels that remain in place and act as the ‘ideal kin group’ or ‘person’ as people necessarily move away from the house. The household chest can be said to ‘hold’ together aspects of people that are dispersed, and allows for the continuation of certain relations that cannot be enacted in a shared place. The seasonal separation and assemblage of kin members at different encampments means that maintaining a connection with a person, place, or thing in their absence is essential. Because movement is an inherent aspect of the way in which herding households relate, I suggest that relations based on affinity, which involve the separation and incorporation of difference, are the necessary, yet invisible, background that supports the visibly foregrounded relations based on consanguinity, containment, and sameness. When viewed together, these components could be seen to provide an ensemble of the multiple ways of reckoning relations and conceiving of the person. They allow the viewer to apprehend him/herself as an exemplary person made from several parts. Far from being a mere psychological reaction to external stimuli, in this encounter, vision becomes the ‘tool’ through which these relations are created. In all cases, things at the household chest are viewed as pieces that have been separated in order to be contained, and are held to be a powerful essence or composite part of a person. Given this likeness, I use the term ‘thing’ to talk about actual artefacts as well as parts of people, such as pieces of umbilical cords and tufts of hair. It is suggested that the separation of people, or the ability to reflect on relations through the containment of some part, is essential for the creation of different networks of people attached to a single household.

People and objects

One might assume that experiences of historical displacement, movement to different seasonal places throughout the year, and marriage patterns predicated on female migration might make the anchoring of certain kinship (p.108) memories in specific locations necessarily contingent. Instead, I will suggest that certain artefacts and memories are retained and made portable as they are contained at the household chest inside the house. Here, houses come to appear as mobile exhibits, altering the display of different objects at different seasonal places. In this way, the absences and losses of different relationships are materially ‘placed’ and made present rather than being silently forgotten. Attending to the way in which such memories are contained and the way in which relations are maintained in spite of the absence of people, I also aim to go some way in dispelling certain myths of a timeless nomadic’ society existing only in relation to its immediate environment and somehow outside history (see also Sneath 2006).

Drawing on Gell’s (1998) idea that material objects act as indexes that abduct the agency of their producers, I suggest that things kept at the household chest come to stand for, and act as, instruments of social agency and relatedness. While these things do index certain relations, viewing or attending to them also initiates the possibility of new relations. These artefacts can thus be viewed as tools or instruments that index certain ideas that produce an effect, such as a motivation or interpretation, on behalf of the recipient who views or uses them. I should make it clear that while I do draw on Gell’s (1998) wider point that objects have an effect (in this chapter, kinship is the effect), I do not use his extensive abduction thesis to explain how things appear to have agency. One of the reasons for this, as outlined in Chapter 2, is that the objects to which I refer do not always mediate the intentions of people. Some of the things discussed are held to have a kind of agency in themselves. In this sense, we may also side with a more Latourian analysis to focus on the networks of relations created between humans and non-humans (Latour 2005). Pieces of tail hair contained inside the house, for instance, do not only mediate the agency of the animals from which they have been separated. Their presence in the household is held to invite further fortune for the herds. Similarly, items such as clothes and children’s cots, contained inside the house, do not simply index their owners. Containing these items is held to increase fortune, leading to prosperity for the household. In this wider sense, we may talk of these objects as ‘actants’ (Latour 2005). That is, they can be said to have a kind of effect when assembled in relation to a wider network of other objects. In so doing, the household chest comes to act as a site that accumulates fortune for the household.

While people claim that the containment of these things is held to harness fortune, at other times they may be viewed as distributed extensions of a relation or a part of a person (Munn 1992). This is not a mystical idea of the person. It is imperative for herding households that people are able to (p.109) manifest themselves, via things, in different spatio-temporal locations, beyond the confines of a single bodily form. In this way, we will see that people are not just where their bodies are, but in many different places simultaneously (Gell 1998: 21; Strathern 1994). It does not require any great leap of the imagination to find that people, animals, and things are sometimes perceived to be interchangeable. Objects, such as horsewhips, hats, belts, and stirrups, for example, often command respect similar to that shown to human beings. This is not because these things ‘stand for’ people, nor is it because they are seen as subjects in their own right. Rather, these objects, like humans, contain another dimension of the visible world, and something of the essence of the person is thought to adhere to their belongings. If certain objects can be viewed as extensions of their owners, then this is also something that renders them open to possible abduction. To wear something, for example, that has been used by someone else, could impart some part of that person on to the wearer.

Commenting on the inter-relationship between people and objects in Mongolia, Chabros (1987) states: ‘analogies of form perceived between quite different and unconnected objects may result in the qualities of one object being attributed to the other’ (Chabros 1987: 270). She further comments: ‘It is difficult to consider the material culture of traditional Mongolia in isolation from non-material or spiritual aspects’ (1987: 270). It is important to stress that pieces, which are contained when something has been separated, are not simply visual substitutes, icons, or proxies for absent people (Weiner 1985). Instead, relations come into existence through the creation of these things. In order for certain relations to continue, multiply, and grow, people, animals, or things have to be separated so that a necessary aspect of them can be contained and a liveable version of a relationship becomes possible. By exploring the kind of technology that reveals or conceals different relations, we will see that certain household objects do not just commemorate past relations, they also initiate current relations as the circulation of objects and people become intertwined in a larger process of maintaining different forms of sociality and personhood.

The house and its ties

As mentioned in Chapter 1, agnatic relations, based on the idea of shared bone’, permeate much of Buriad life. Virilocal residence is frequent, and property, mostly in the form of animals, is traditionally distributed among sons. The youngest son of a family inherits the bulk of his father’s livestock, (p.110) including the family hearth (gal golomt)—often epitomized in the inheritance of the winter pasture—that is held to represent the continuity of patrilineal descent. Nevertheless, throughout the year, wooden houses (baishin), as well as Mongolian felt tents (ger), move over the landscape. Parts of the wooden house, such as the door, the planks that make up the roof, and the glass window-panes, are physically removed and used to inhabit the shells of other houses at different seasonal locations. In transporting parts of the house in this way, pieces are severed from structures allowing people to inhabit new ones. In this sense, houses among pastoral herders should be viewed as mobile forms that travel along trajectories, rather than fixed buildings confined to particular locations.

It is not just the physical shell of a house that travels to different places. The people who inhabit a house also change seasonally (cf. Penn 2001). Throughout the year, people move from a house to different locations with different networks of people, in order to attend school, work, hunt, marry, or engage in seasonal work. While summer encampments gather together extended family members, winter encampments are often only inhabited by a few family members. During the autumn and spring, children attend school in district centres and younger family members may move away from the household to engage in temporary work, trade, or hunting. The point I wish to stress here is that although virilocal residence is common, and agnatic kinship appears to dominate many familial relations, throughout the year many different forms of sociality are enacted in different places as people move to different locations, activating other types of relations as they live with different people, while still being tied to their household.

In the countryside, both wooden houses and Mongolian felt tents are prevalent, and throughout the year people interchange kinds of residence. For example, a family may live in a wooden house at their summer pasture, but occupy a felt tent at their winter, spring, and autumn pastures. When fixed in a particular space, the house (be it a wooden house or a felt tent) becomes a static container for storing valued possessions, meeting with visitors, sleeping, and eating, and for times when one needs to sit for long periods to mend something or sew. From this perspective, the interior of the house appears in opposition to the movement that goes on outside it. As a one-roomed, open-plan space, there are no personal areas inside the house. Instead gender, hierarchy, and status define the interior. The area from the door (which faces south) to the fireplace, in the centre, is the area assigned for juniors or people of low status. The area at the back (to the north), behind the fireplace, is the honorific section reserved for elders and for people and objects that are held in high regard. The spatial layout of the house is further (p.111) divided by the male side of the house (to the west), from the left of the door towards the honorific section at the back, and the female side of the house which extends from the door, along the right-hand side (to the east), towards the rear of the house (Humphrey 1974b). While people do move about the interior, they sit, eat, and sleep in their correct places. This demarcation of interior space allows for the incorporation of different configurations of kin members, as well as outsiders, at any given moment. For example, an elderly female guest will know exactly where in the house to sit when she enters an unfamiliar house, or a young child will know where to turn for food and water.

In a similar way, kin terms also allow for the incorporation of outsiders. While most terms between kin are fixed and categorize people in terms of hierarchy and gender, some terms are both classificatory and ungendered.1 For example, the term ‘younger sibling’ (düü), used for people younger than the speaker, does not specify gender or type of relation. In turn, the terms ‘elder brother’ (ah) and ‘elder sister’ (egch, Bur. egsh) are used for people older than the speaker, regardless of biological ties. Terms such these, which refer to a wider range of people than we might be familiar with, are not ambiguous. In addition to fixed kinship terms, people need these shifting and flexible terms in order to be able to incorporate people who visit their house and whom they sometimes want to treat as kin. In turn, people are able to establish sibling-like relations with others while away from their home through the use of such terms.

The seasonal movement of people, and the places they inhabit, creates the continual need to relocate both physical and relational boundaries. This can give rise to the feeling that there is no fixed place in which to situate people. For pastoral herders, however, this separation and incorporation of people and place is not unsettling or difficult. They harness the potentiality of this movement by ensuring that certain things remain contained inside the house as people and houses move location. These things act as sites (or stopping points) for containing aspects of people’s relations in the absence of the people themselves. Hinging on an idea of belonging to a specific space within which residence is not fixed, Buriad ideas of the person depend on (p.112) such spatio-temporal flux, as people may be separated for long periods throughout the year. Instead of people constituting a home, we may say that valued things inside the house remain in place and index the relations that are attached to it. In turn, the landscape surrounding the house is marked with stone cairns, sacred trees (Bur. hairhan mod), buried placentas (Bur. toonto), and tethering posts (Bur. tsirig) that create a sense of inhabited space in the absence of houses and people.2

Despite this seasonal relocation of physical and relational boundaries, since the 1990s herding households have had to register (nerend oruulah) the master of the family (the senior male head) as the ‘custodian’ of their winter pasture with the local administration. They can be said to have ‘ownership’ over access to this land (as well as, in some cases, autumn/spring pastures which are often one place). Access to winter pasture is often based on where one’s parents herded during the co-operative (note that the cooperative was not formally established until 1958), and sometimes before this, when entitlement to seasonal pasture was passed through agnates according to customary law. Today, being the registered custodian of a winter pasture is highly valued because it allows exclusive access to meadows where in the late summer families gather hay, which is used to feed livestock throughout the winter. In contrast, summer pastures are not always fixed and families may gather in a different valley, depending on the availability of water resources and grazing conditions. Despite being registered as the ‘custodians’ of a particular pasture, people do not always live here. If a family goes to live in the district centre one year, they may ask a relative (or another family) to look after their animals and make use of this pasture, often in return for produce. This may go on for several years, but the winter pasture remains registered in the original person’s name. It is considered a great loss to relinquish custody of one’s winter pasture, in part because it often belonged to one’s father, but also because of the value of the hay. That which is gathered in addition to one’s subsistence is sometimes sold or exchanged with other herders. The fact that people and the animals they own may not always reside at the same place also raises issues to do with taxation. Once a year, herding households are taxed by the local administration depending on amount of livestock. A common way to avoid high taxes is to register livestock under different male family members’ names. Thus, a father and his sons or brothers may register ownership over the different (p.113) animals, thereby splitting one group of animals up in order to avoid higher taxes. In reality, these men may not necessarily be viewed as ‘separate’ owners of the livestock. While one man and his household may look after the animals during the winter, for example, everyone helps during the summer and autumn and can access animal produce.

A parallel concern is that while people may be registered as the ‘custodians’ of a winter pasture, they may also maintain a house in the district centre. In the district centre, men are registered as household heads (örhiin ezen) with the local administration (even if they are unmarried and living with their widowed mothers). Here, the number of households is not always equivalent to the number of buildings. One building may include several registered households, so that a single wooden house, or several houses in one enclosure, may be registered under the names of different male-headed household units. This is the case, for example, if a married son and his wife live with his parents, or if married brothers live in different houses within one enclosure. The point to stress is that the number of household units attached to a single building/enclosure in the district centre, or herd of animals/pasture in the countryside, does not reflect the number of families that may actually be living in these places and tending to these animals at any given time. Not surprisingly perhaps, current forms of registration do not encompass the seasonal movement of people throughout the year and the economic strategies employed by people as they move between the district centre and the countryside or cities. Furthermore, the overarching emphasis on privileging male heads of households (even if they are younger than the female relatives they live with) means that it is difficult for widows and unmarried women to register themselves as the custodians of pastures and owners of houses. All this might seem overly detailed, but these examples provide a snapshot of the struggles that people face when registering households and custody over land, and it is what makes engagement with the local administration seem futile. The flipside, of course, is that while this kind of system fails to capture the range of practices employed by people, it can also provide leverage for making claims when ownership is disputed within families (see Chapter 8).

Before I focus on the way that people create attachments to particular households through the containment of various things, the genealogy of revealing or concealing relations in the house should be placed in historical perspective. During the socialist period in Mongolia (approximately 1924–90), Buddhist icons and shamanic implements were prohibited from being placed on view, but statues of Lenin and posters depicting, for example, strong industrious co-operative workers or joyful rosy-cheeked (p.114) pioneers were encouraged and openly displayed. In the 1930s, officials from the Internal Ministry, locally referred to as the ‘green caps’, raided household chests, confiscating valued possessions and burning genealogical records going back seven or eight generations through agnatic lines. Differences, especially of an ethnic or class kind, were thought of as politically polluting and people were forced to use their father’s name as a surname instead of their clan name (cf. Humphrey 1974a), thereby limiting knowledge of a familial history to a single generation (see Chapter 1). When filling out applications of various kinds, people were often asked to submit a short ‘biography’ (örgödöl) declaring their father’s and grandfather’s names, occupations, and titles. Structuring genealogical knowledge in this way allowed the socialist government to categorize people according to new criteria based on class. Knowledge of this kind was valued strictly for political or ideological reasons defined by the socialist state. Casting genealogical knowledge in new ways was one method by which the state could ensure that the Buriad ceased to use their own means of constructing the past as a working part of their present identity (Weiner 1985: 210). Nevertheless, turning people away from genealogical networks, and the distinctions that these created, concealed the diverse ways in which people maintain relations and conceive of the person.

As a general introduction to ideas about personhood, along with luck-fortune (hiimori), breath (am’), soul (süns), and spirit (süld), a person’s body is made from the coming together of ‘bone’ from the father (yasan töröl) and ‘blood’ from the mother (tsusan töröl). Some of these elements are given at birth, while others have to be made. Local procreation beliefs hold that infants have fragile bodies and unstable souls (süns). This is due to the fact that they have recently arrived from the spirit world and maintain the ability to communicate with spirits. Because of the uneasy condition of being both human and other-than-human, relationships between parents and their infants are often characterized as difficult. For example, parents resist outward displays of attachment to their infants so as not to tempt competition from spirits who might coerce the child to return to the world from which they have come (Chapter 4). Once guided away from these vulnerable relations, the shared substance of ‘bone’ from the father is emphasized. As shown in Chapter 1, agnatic relations based on ‘shared bone’ are increasingly being re-imagined in the present day, such as when establishing connections to the wider Buriad diaspora, and when establishing networks of help and support in the neo-liberal economy. But while agnatic connections may be the foundation for many kin relations, these relations co-exist with other ways of conceiving kin. Ideas of intra-kin rebirths (ergej töröh, dahin töröh), ‘blood relations’ (p.115) (ehiin töröl, tsusan töröl) based on movement, links with one’s birthplace and the deceased, as well as age sets also form lasting modes of relatedness. This multiplicity allows for people to be other things, while at the same time being defined by their bones and ethnic identity. A focus on things kept inside the household chest allows us to explore the ways in which agnatic kinship co-exists with, and is indeed dependent on, these other modes of relatedness. Much can be learned from the way in which these relations are brought into being through different things that are deliberately displayed or concealed from view. To paraphrase Strathern, these deliberate provocations to vision become a way for people to instantiate different networks of relations (Strathern 1994: 243).

The things on which I focus capture ‘different aspects of the process of relatedness and the achievement of personhood’ (Carsten 2000a: 29). They pivot around two distinct ways of reckoning relatedness. First, relations that are visible on the chest’s surface, in the distribution and registration of family property, through communal ritual, and in formalized language are based on the idea of shared ‘bone’ from one’s agnatic forefathers. Such relations exemplify a patriarchal ideology and the continuation of relations over generations. They are, however, dependent on a second mode of relatedness, involving the separation and incorporation of people. For such relations to exist, people have to move, establish links with other groups, and incorporate non-kin outsiders. These mobile relations are based on the idea of ‘shared blood’ from one’s mother.3 Blood relations are said to provide an ‘umbilical relation or communication (hüin holboo, tsusan holboo) that is passed between a woman and her children, and between siblings. They are given anew each time a person is born and are drawn upon at different periods in a person’s life as people are necessarily separated from each other in different locations. Such relations are not visible in particular sites. Rather, they are hidden in various artefacts, such as pieces of umbilical cords and human hair, that are kept concealed inside the household chest (Chapter 4). (p.116) I turn now to examine how these relations are created and maintained, through an analysis of things displayed at the household chest.

The household chest

In late summer 2001, I was alone with Delgermaa at the summer encampment for a couple of weeks. That summer the grass had been a lush emerald green and the calves had grown into strong cows. At times, up to eighteen family members had gathered at the encampment, creating a bustling and joyous atmosphere as we helped make curds, cream, and yogurt, and gathered berries on the edge of the forest. But the steppe that surrounded us was now turning a shade of pale yellow and we began to feel a chill in the evening air as we milked the cows. Other family members were in small glens deep in the forest at makeshift encampments collecting hay. During this period, before children leave for school and while people are collecting hay, women are left on their own at the summer encampment, transforming the last of the bountiful milk into less-perishable products for the winter. This is often a time of peaceful anticipation and an occasion for women to visit each other, catch up on gossip, and exchange news before they part to spend the rest of the year at different seasonal encampments and places.

One evening, after carrying the heavy pails of milk inside and letting the cows out of the corral, Delgermaa and I stretched out on the beds, a moment’s rest before we began to separate the milk and prepare firewood for the stove. This evening, however, the routine took a different turn. As we lay there, the sunlight casting its last long orange beam through the open door, Delgermaa began to tell me more about her family and about her life as a young daughter-in-law. With other people absent, there was a sense of time standing still. We talked at our leisure as she told me about various family relations through attention to things kept inside the house. Delgermaa’s stories, and the means by which she told them to me that evening, were a kind of turning point. Suddenly, the house was not simply a semi-permanent structure that sheltered us from the heat, wind, or rain. Instead, it came to life with things that were stored inside it and people in the family seemed to be very different people when viewed from this new perspective.

In the northern, rear part of the Buriad house, in the most honoured section (hoimor), opposite the door as one enters, there often stands a painted wooden chest. The chest may be covered in embroideries or painted with interlocking patterns and never-ending knots (hee or ölzii). Prior to the Cultural Revolution (soyolyn huv’sgal), and the introduction of co-operatives (p.117) in Mongolia, household chests were fairly small and often came in pairs. Pictures of lions decorated their fronts, facing in opposite and outward directions, as if standing on watch for the household. At this time, people moved more frequently with their livestock and the chest’s smaller size allowed for ease of movement. With the introduction of co-operatives, nomadic movements became more regularized and households generally moved up to four times each year, while other people lived in settlements such as district centres. During this time, household chests became larger and the decorations began to vary. In Ashinga, most of the older chests had been destroyed during the political purges of the 1930s. The new chests have a decorative outer frame, which includes flowers and interlocking patterns, and an inner panel that portrays images of wild animals such as deer or stags, a fruit basket, flowers, or even, in one instance, an image of the Kremlin with Lenin’s mausoleum in the foreground along with a couple and small child waving.

Delgermaa sometimes complained when it came to transporting her chest from one encampment to another. It was bulky and heavy and surely more suitable for life in the district centre where it could remain in one place for several years. But it was useful too; it was the only place where they could keep things locked away from the wandering hands of visitors. Traditionally, men make household chests as gifts for their daughters at marriage. They form part of her dowry (inj) which, along with a mirror, beds, cooking utensils, and some animals, she takes with her when she moves to her in-laws and sets up a household with her husband. On receiving such a chest, a woman may find that it contains sheets, blankets, coats, and a sewing machine that she will be able to use throughout her life.4 Indeed, part of the marriage ceremony involves the bride’s mother opening the chest and making her daughter’s bed with the sheets contained inside. But, while the chest contains some items at marriage, it should be able to carry much more as women gather things in the chest for their families. The things that Delgermaa showed me that evening can all be found around or inside this large chest.

Visible prized possessions that indicate wealth and prestige are often deliberately displayed on the chest’s surface. These include objects such as radios, clocks, batteries, lipsticks, and perfume. Such objects are given as gifts at marriage, during New Year celebrations, or when people visit from the city and neighbouring districts. Displaying these items on the chest’s surface is to (p.118) invite people to comment, touch, and look at them. Women and children often handle these objects when visiting a house and comment to their host on their smell, texture, or quality. Notwithstanding people’s attraction to the aesthetic qualities of these items, they do not simply index wealth and prestige. During the socialist period, radios, commonly called the ‘speaking chest’ (yar ‘dag hairtsag), for instance, were a crucial means by which news and information could be received by herders located on the margins of state power. Cultural broadcasts were regularly aired, featuring poetry, songs, novels, and plays. In fact, the radio was often the herder’s only companion while herding livestock on his own. Today, radios are a valued means of keeping up to date on national news, but reception can be difficult and batteries are often scarce.5

In the centre of the chest, behind these prized items, stands a large triptych mirror (tol’). Surrounding this mirror on either side, or attached to the wall above, are two large frames containing a montage of three-quarter-length, portrait-style photographs (jaaztai zurag) of kin members on both the mother’s and father’s side. This montage creates a pile, or layering, of different images over time, as old photographs are concealed behind new ones. Above the mirror, religious icons and images can be found that comprise a small shrine (Burhan) on which religious books (sudar), consecrated (amiluulah) images of animals (seterlesen mal), daily offerings of milk placed in small copper offering bowls (Burhandaa idee tavih), and the fortune vessel (or bag) are placed. Above this shrine, on the wall behind the chest, hang large painted portraits of deceased relatives (jaaztai taliigaachiin hörög), shrouded in ceremonial silk scarves (hadag).

These portraits occupy a high position, comparable to the sacred Buddhist images. They emphasize the dominance of agnatic ties and age seniority in the household and point to the continuing presence of the deceased among the living (Sneath 2000: 224). Portraits are usually painted between seven and forty-nine days after a person’s death, and are sometimes drawn from a photograph. The person in the portrait appears front-on, peering (p.119) down at viewers with a sombre expression (see Appendix A). When he was younger, Renchin drew such portraits for friends and relatives. The most important, but always the most difficult, thing to capture in these images, he explained, was the person’s eyes. Next to these portraits, or above a threshold, such as a door or window, are drawings of any children, or other close relatives, who have died (see Appendix A). Deceased people are said to be made ‘immortal and everlasting’ (mönhjüüleh) in these portraits. As Rawson (2007) has noted in relation to classical Chinese portraits of emperors (the same may be said for Buddhist Thankga paintings too), these portraits are held to ‘abduct’ some agency from the sitter. Although people may be reborn in other people, the person’s presence remains attached to the house after their death through such images. Indeed, these ‘living pictures’ may be treated as detached ‘elements’ or portions of people and are sometimes equated with their souls or spirits as offerings are made to them throughout the year (Wright 2004: 77). Around this fixed display hang vibrant and colourful embroideries (hatgamal), sewn by women, depicting their views on different family relations. Guns, used by men for hunting, are placed beside it.6 Things kept inside the chest are never revealed to guests and are concealed from general view.

Young daughters-in-law and elderly female household members are in charge of maintaining this very visual display. They feed it daily with milk offerings, light candles and incense at the base of certain images, and attend to and change its form as they resurrect it in different seasonal places. In turn, visitors to a household are expected to respond to it. As one enters a house, after greeting the host, the formal way of entering involves going to the chest and, while bowing down towards it, knocking one’s head (mörgöh) against its surface three times and turning a prayer wheel or offering some money or sweets to the religious icons, or to a portrait of the host’s deceased relative.7 In so doing, a visitor pays respect to their host by honouring the fact that they are a part of a wider network of people who respect their elders and the land masters of particular localities (the term ‘land masters’ refers to (p.120) the invisible spiritual ‘owners’, ‘masters’, or ‘stewards’ of the land, see Chapter 2). In addition, because the mirror is at the centre, when attending to or viewing this display a person may catch a glimpse of themselves at the centre of these different imaginings of kinship. The display allows the visitor to respect their host while at the same time imagine themselves as placed, albeit fleetingly, within this web of relations as a potential part of the network that they are honouring.

Assemblage at the Household Chest

Figure 3.1 Household chest.

(p.121) Photographic montages

In the following, I focus on two particular aspect of this display: photographic montages and embroideries that line the inside walls of the house. Some time between the 1950s and 1960s, when photographs became more widely available, herding households began to embrace the medium of photography for displaying images in the form of montages on the chest’s surface. Having left behind their homeland in the 1900s, and losing so many of their relatives in the 1930s and 1940s to political persecution and war, for the Buriad this technology was of particular importance. With images of family members placed next to each other, the montage provided a new way for people to display a sense of temporal depth to their lives and a means by which they could begin to build a narrative of themselves as embedded in relations with others. Photographic montages also provide a flexible medium for displaying relations attached to a household. The montage element is not arbitrary. It allows for different kinds of people—school friends, grandparents, cooperative workers—to be brought together in a single site. Different images are also displayed at different seasonal places, allowing for change and adaptation according to different needs. In this sense, the photographic display depicts an alternative view of people’s relations from the oral histories discussed in Chapter 1, and point, not so much to events and experiences, but to collectives and their networks. The success of the montage rests on its ability to display to others who one is, while at the same time providing a powerful medium by which to make those who are absent present (Drazin and Frohlich 2007: 58). I use the term ‘montage’ rather than ‘collage’ to describe the arrangement of separate photographs and images placed together in a single frame. This is not a jumbled collection of impressions, but a deliberate juxtaposition that is meant to trigger effects. The capacity of the montage to trigger an effect is two-fold. It publicly displays the shifting connections, alliances, and social networks available to the people of a household. For those who live under the gaze of the montage, however, the images trigger individual memories and remind one of obligations. In this sense, the montage may be viewed as a kind of aide-mémoire. The photographs can be said to provide a ‘pseudo-presence’ (Sontag [1971] 2002) of people in their absence. The effect of the montage can be said to rest on this tension, depending on who is viewing it. On the one hand, it is a site for the accumulation of memories. On the other hand, it is a shield that projects one’s alliances to others.

Photographs displayed in frames above the household chest may be viewed as a modern take on Buriad genealogies. They mirror some of the (p.122) compositional forms used to represent relations in traditional Buriad genealogies. The photograph of a patrilineal elder is often placed, with that of his wife, in the centre or top half of the frame. They are surrounded by their siblings and children, whose images extend outwards towards the periphery. To illustrate this similarity, I focus on Delgermaa’s eldest son’s photographic montage. This montage was displayed in his house at the summer encampment in 2000 (for further examples see Appendix A).

Assemblage at the Household Chest

Figure 3.2 Photographic montage.

At the centre of this montage we see a formal photograph of Delgermaa’s son, proudly sporting a green Buriad coat and winter hunting hat, while his daughter is perched upright on his knee. His wife sits to his right in a sparkling blue coat, and to his left is a rather nervous-looking image of myself. On each side sit his brothers. Below, we see a photograph of his mother’s relatives. To either side are photographs of his three brothers and his sister. To the left of the central image are photographs of his male cousins. A photograph of his brother, dressed in a formal military uniform with various friends while on military service, appears on the right, as does an image of his paternal uncle with his wife. Above the central image, to the left, is a photograph of his father and next to this is an image of his maternal grandfather. In the centre, we see his paternal grandparents, and to the (p.123) right of this, a photograph of his maternal grandmother and his father’s relatives.

What is striking and quite unusual about this montage is that there appear to be no images of people who are not relatives through either the mother’s or the father’s side (apart from myself). Many of Renchin’s relatives gather together at their summer pasture, including his two brothers with their families and his sister who is married into a family that lives close by. Together, these people form an extended group that help each other with everyday tasks and activities. The composition of the montage echoes these links. It also mirrors traditional Buriad genealogical diagrams in its layout as it represents a centric view of kin relations that expand outwards from a patrilineal founder.8 Unlike anthropological kinship diagrams, traditional Buriad genealogical representations did not define age groups in hierarchy from the top to the bottom of the page, over generations (see Figure 1.6). Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Buriad genealogies in Russian Buryatia, for instance, depict kin relations in the form of a cluster of male descendants expanding outwards from a single founder in the middle or top half of the page (Humphrey 1979). Like genealogical diagrams, the montage constructs a ‘portrait-chronicle’ (Sontag [1971] 2002) of previous connections, and reminds one of kin members who are absent. In so doing, it departs from a single person’s perspective and provides a ‘memory-map’ in which past and present relations are imagined to exist at once.

We may recall that traditional Buriad genealogies were systematically burnt by state officials during the early socialist period and replaced with a three-generation model that was used to identify class. Recently, however, an interest in recording genealogies has arisen among Buriad households partly due to the fact that in the year 2000, the Mongolian government introduced identity cards, whereby people had to record their clan name (ovgiin ner), as well as their father’s name and their given name. As the need to source this information became pertinent, people asked their elderly relatives, who were skilled at recalling genealogical knowledge, or consulted old records at the government office for information. Through this we see that while written genealogies were destroyed, genealogical information continued to be recalled through oral means. Certain people pride themselves on being able to recount knowledge of a particular family’s genealogy. They are often called (p.124) upon to recall this information at a specific part of the wedding ceremony. After a young man has explicitly expressed his desire to marry a woman, has symbolically ‘stolen’ her for a few days and returned her to her natal family, his father and other older male relatives visit her household and try to persuade her father (hud) to give away his daughter to their son (hadag tavih).9 During this visit, the groom’s male relatives present information to the bride’s male relatives as to why they should marry. The groom’s side recounts information about their animals, the birth year of the groom-to-be, and details about their genealogy, preferably going back eight generations. This oratory is interrupted with questions by the bride’s relatives and the two sides argue over details. Upon convincing the bride’s family that the couple will make a good match, the groom’s father lays a ceremonial silk scarf upon the bride-to-be’s family altar, symbolizing an accepted decision that they can marry. A good astrological day is chosen for the wedding (ber buulgahad zohistoi ödör, lit. a day suited to taking a bride into one’s house) and all rejoice by feasting and drinking. It is through learning about the groom’s genealogy that the bride is allowed to leave her natal home and on the condition that her father agrees to their future alliance (Humphrey [1998] 2001: 386–7).

Aside from establishing exogamy, interest in knowing one’s genealogical history has also arisen due to an intense shamanic revival among the Buriad, whereby people have to identify their clan name in order that they may call on ancestral origin spirits (ongon) through a shaman. Information regarding clan names and the distinctions they created was explicitly frowned upon during the socialist period, but shamanic ceremonies are an important arena through which people revive, reinvent, and source information about their ancestral pasts (Buyandelgeriyn 2007; Shimamura 2004). Although shamanism continued in this area during the socialist period (see Chapter 7), when I first arrived in Ashinga in 1999 there were only a few active shamans in the district and the people who visited them were mostly Hudir Buriads, who live to the east of the Onon River and have a long history of famous shamans in their families (for information about the genealogy of shamans in this area, see Appendix B). The Hori Buriads, who are the dominant Buriad group in this area, spoke of the Hudir’s association with shamanism as a form of contagion and were frightened of their latent shamanic power, which differed from their own Buddhist views. I was repeatedly told how (p.125) women who married into these families often bore disabled children. Because these people were unable openly to honour their shamanic origins, they were being punished by their ancestors, causing a high degree of mental and physical illness.10 Since 2003, however, there has been a huge interest in tracing one’s relation to deceased shamanic ancestors (ug barih, lit. attending to one’s origins), among all people in the district, and the number of people who have been initiated as shamans has increased dramatically.

Nevertheless it is not simply that photographs provide a visual manifestation of kin that makes them similar to genealogical diagrams. The place where the montage is displayed in the house is the exact location where, prior to the socialist period, felt or wooden ongon—the shamanic ancestral figures that simultaneously represent and are the vessels that contain the spirits of deceased ancestors—would stand guard over the household (Bawden 1985: 153). In the early twentieth century, ongon in this latter sense were made of cloth, ribbons, hair, beads, bits of wood, feathers, buttons, animal pelts, felt, etc., and they included small human figures cut out of tin or painted on to cloth (Humphrey 2007; see also Hamayon 1990; Humphrey with Onon 1996). Writing about the Buriads of Transbaikalia in Russian Buryatia, Bawden (1985) notes that with social and religious change new items were introduced in the house, finding their place in the traditional internal layout. He comments that, in the twentieth century,

the altar with its Buddhist statues at the back of the tent has given place to a table with family and other photographs. In the early nineteenth century, the intrusion of lamaism into what had been a shamanist society initiated a similar process. In some tents, shamanist idols [that is, ongon] could be found hanging up alongside the lamaist altars. (Bawden 1985: 153)

Indeed, Bawden is keen to stress that the rear portion of the house has remained the most respected area, whether devoted to shamanist ongon, to Buddhist images, or indeed to photographic montages (Bawden 1985: 153).

Humphrey (2007) has noted that the word ‘ongon’ refers to both the ancestral spirit itself and the material container or vessel that the spirit resides in (or can be called into). Keeping this idea in mind, the montage and the portraits that hang above it turn on a similar kind of simultaneity. Indeed, we could say that the montage appears to have more in common with the sacred ongon figures than with traditional genealogical records, which were never, as far as I know, displayed publicly. The montage as a whole may be said to (p.126) act as a vessel, gathering people together and casting their uniform gaze on to those in the household. Indeed, during the socialist period, this area of the household was a place to display images of various exemplary figures, be these Buddhist gods or pictures of monks who are viewed as ‘teachers’ (bagsh) throughout one’s life (Humphrey 1997: 35). From ongon figures, statues and paintings of Buddhist gods, monks’ portraits, and busts of Lenin, to photographic montages, this has long been the place to display one’s connection to absent or deceased, sacred or profane people and gods, with whom one establishes oneself as having an intimate connection. The point to stress here is that placing someone’s picture in your montage is a way of confirming that they are an important part of your household. In turn, because the montage creates a site where multiple gazes are cast out, the people who live under this gaze are constantly reminded of their presence. Placing a person’s image here is to choose to live in the presence of that person and expose your life to them. In this sense, the photographic montage is not simply a way of thinking about people who are absent (or as a record, such as a genealogy); it also signals the work involved in keeping up and maintaining certain relations with others and one’s continued obligation to them.

How people are situated in relation to the montage, as daughter-in-law, son, or visitor, also has an impact on the way one sees it. When I was looking at this montage with Delgermaa, narratives about the various people in the images began to emerge and she was keen to locate these images in relation to previous conversations. Instead of viewing the montage as a collection of people, the presence of certain individuals was suddenly brought into sharp focus. In particular, Delgermaa was keen to show me her mother-in-law. Pointing to an image of a stern-looking woman in a large fur hat peering down at us from the montage, she reminded me of previous conversations we had had about her life as a daughter-in-law and commented, ‘Look, there she is, that is her. The woman I told you about who made my life so difficult!’ It is important to point out that people often exclude certain people from the montage because they are not deemed worthy of a place in it. Renchin’s eldest daughter-in-law, for example, did not figure in Renchin’s montage, even though more recent photographs of his children and grandchildren did. Her place in the household was vulnerable and uncertain as she often avoided help-ing with certain crucial tasks in an effort to establish her own household, away from her in-laws (and sometimes from her husband). In contrast, although Renchin had been adopted by his father’s elder brother and did not feature in his birth family’s genealogy, his image did appear in his birth parent’s montage, along with that of his other siblings. Excluding or including people in the montage may (p.127) be viewed as a political act. The montage presents contesting narratives of the history of a household. These are mobile and fluctuating displays that change, according to where people want to locate themselves in a wider network of people and places. At the same time, while the montage makes the people in the images into objects that can be manipulated by the viewer, for the people who attend to the montage, the presence of these images in the house also makes objects of the people who live under their gaze.

Relations of obligation

Photographic montages may be viewed as a technology used to display links and connections between kin. On closer inspection, however, we see that what links people together in photographic displays differs from the agnatic links that join people together in traditional genealogical diagrams. In contrast to traditional Buriad genealogies, photographic montages of kin members reckon relations through both the mother’s and father’s side. When I studied the relations depicted in the photographs that were on display, I found that one of the frames commonly displayed the woman’s relatives and friends, while the other frame displayed the man’s relatives and friends (see Appendix A). Together, they presented a bilateral view of the people connected to a couple’s household. They included photographs of school friends, people from one’s summer pasture, work colleagues, a pair of brothers preparing to leave for hunting, or a family visit to a historic site, and groups of people at other special events, such as funerals. Studying the photographs, I found that the oldest images were from the 1950s. These were photographs taken of male relatives during military service or in the army. Other common images included school friends and work colleagues, taken from the 1980s onwards.11

Displaying images of school friends is common. The practice of photographing school leavers emerged during the socialist period. Friendships formed at school, during pioneer camps, and at training courses created important ties that lasted throughout life. Indeed, children from herding families are often away from their families for long periods. Fostered with relatives in the district centre or in cities, or placed at boarding facilities (p.128) attached to the school, their education means that children are often separated from their birth parents for much of the year. It is usual for a photographer from the provincial capital to take photographs at the school graduation in June and, a few months later, a copy is given to each of the children. Graduation photographs are very stylized. They involve a class of children facing in the same direction as their teacher, who often appears at their side. During the socialist period these images were often arranged in the style of a composite print. The face of each pupil was isolated to create miniature portraits that included their name, year of graduation, and the name of the district and school they graduated from.

Assemblage at the Household Chest

Figure 3.3 Composite print of school graduates.

It was also common to have group photographs taken of work colleagues, often standing outside the workplace with part of the building only just visible in the background, or of people who attended a course together. In contrast to such group photographs, closer friendships were documented during the socialist period through a studio photograph and quite often involved the use of props, such as jaunty sunglasses and t-shirts with fashionable prints, or backdrops depicting iconic cityscapes. People relate to classmates (angiin naiz) and work colleagues with a sense of (p.129) familiarity and almost kin-like obligation, even though they may meet very rarely. This familiarity also turns on its own tension as judgements of success or social standing are often measured against one’s class- or workmates. A display of who was in one’s class or who one worked with enables visitors to glean immediately which network of people one is connected to and who one can call on for potential favours.

Photographs in the montage point to a wide network of people attached to a single household. Writing about post-socialist Mongolia, Humphrey and Sneath (1999) have referred to these extended networks as based on ‘social relations of obligation’ (Humphrey and Sneath 1999: 141). These networks include kin relatives in a broad sense, as well as friends and acquaintances. They are of key importance for herding households as they ‘link herding and urban families, and provide channels along which many goods and services flow’ (Humphrey and Sneath 1999: 57). In ways quite different from those relations of obligation determined by the socialist state, Humphrey and Sneath point out that these networks are not based entirely on the exchange of goods and services; they are also characterized by the obligations that they entail (1999: 142). By obligations, they refer not exclusively to obligations of economic exchange, but also to moral obligations, characterized by emotion, affect, and respect. The importance of honouring and attending to relations based on such moral obligations should, I think, be emphasized. Pastoral households often tend to animals belonging to close friends or relatives for many years without demanding anything in return (see also Humphrey and Sneath 1999: 137). I often wondered why Renchin and Delgermaa accorded certain guests great respect and attention, only to find out later that the visitor had been the director of the co-operative, or the father of a great school friend, whereas another man, who always demanded vodka when visiting, was welcomed because they knew he could provide support during the autumn’s hay collecting.

With such varied and different people included in the montage, the networks of relations depicted appear as an expansion, rather than a replication, of those found in traditional genealogical descriptions. Alongside relations based on the shared blood (affinal) and bone (consanguineal) from one’s mother and father, other relations are also emphasized. Forms of relatedness based on comradeship, such as people one did military service with, school friends, and work colleagues, are all included. That I appear in Renchin and Delgermaa’s montage, as well as that of their children, is a way of making my pseudo-presence a permanent feature of their household. At the same time, knowing that my image is displayed there, I also recognize the obligation I have to their household, even in my absence. Like the pieces of tail hair that (p.130) are kept back when people sell domestic livestock, photographs appear as pieces of people which are kept back when people are separated from each other (see also Chapter 5 on mirrors). Such pieces do not in themselves generate growth. Rather, by placing them in a matrix of other images, they confirm a web of connections and obligations in the absence of people. Seeing the display of these images visitors may also appreciate the different kinds of relations attached to a household. Photographic montages are both aids for recalling relations and an effective means by which people index their multiple connections. In this sense, the montage actively seeks recognition from others.

So far I have suggested that this display is a means by which herding households may record their connections to different groups of people and reveal these to others. In turn, photographic montages seem to replicate Buriad genealogical diagrams in their form, but extend their content to include other types of relations. They also allow the Buriad to present themselves as people who, despite having migrated in the early 1900s to this place and having their genealogical records burnt, tend to multiply connections and relations. In this sense we may say that they are ‘not so much an instrument of memory as an invention of it or a replacement’ (Sontag [1971] 2002: 165). Attending to the way in which Delgermaa talked to me about the montage, we see that these images appear as a place for recalling lost pasts and shattered socialist dreams, especially, maybe, for those in their forties and fifties. Like genealogies, montages are always ‘interpretive reconstructions that bear the imprint of local narrative conventions, cultural assumptions, discursive formations and practices, and the social context of recall and commemoration’ (Antze and Lambek 1996: vii).

The montage has a very different kind of effect depending on whether one is a visitor to a household or has connections and relations with those in the display. For a visitor, the montage appears as a statement about the kinds of connections people in that household want to emphasize to others. From this perspective, the montage is a tool that allows people to turn an ever-changing set of relations into a frozen object that others can, momentarily, observe. ‘The montage is a proud display. It is like a public slideshow of your life,’ my friend Enhtuyaa explained. Viewing the display in this way, visitors are able to infer their host’s relation to other kin members, as well as friends and colleagues. Information such as ethnic background, class, and status can be ‘read’ by viewing the clothes people are wearing, and the type of events being celebrated. Nevertheless, the balance between showing too many images and showing too few is of the utmost importance. Those who only have a few images may be viewed by others as having access to few (p.131) links and resources. Those who show too many, in contrast, may be viewed as ostentatious. While most people do have large, and sometimes sprawling photographic montages, some families, I noticed, had none at all, and at certain times of the year, people chose not to display them.

When Renchin and Delgermaa needed funds to pay university fees for their two youngest children, Hongor and Baigal, they set up a small milk-collecting place (using a socialist term for this activity meaning ‘section’, ‘tasag’) at their summer pasture. Local families whose summer encampments were located in the same valley as theirs, between the Tsegeen and Eg rivers, gave a portion of their milk to them in the mornings and in the evenings. Renchin’s family would then process this milk into cream or dried curds which were transported to the city by a local driver and sold for a small profit.12 When carrying out this activity, they concealed their photographic montages inside the household chest and only displayed the mirror, Buddhist books and sculptures, portraits, and small milk offerings, along with the ‘fortune vessel’ or bag (see Chapter 2). This act of revealing some things while concealing others was deliberate. During the summer, visitors frequently passed in and out of their house. Because of this, they chose to conceal the wider networks that were visible in their montage. Promoting yet further links with others at this time would have been to devalue those which were being utilized in the present and an ostentatious display of one’s extensive connections. In contrast, at the winter encampment, when people were dispersed and far away from each other, and Renchin and Delgermaa were sometimes on their own for long periods, the montage was placed in a prominent position in the household. The people looking down at them from the display allowed them to feel part of a group of people for whom they were the centre. Taking this example into account we should think of the display at the household chest not as static, but as something that is altered according to where one is living.

In contrast, regardless of where he was living, Bat-Ochir never displayed photographs inside his house. In the northern part of his home was a chest with a very large mirror. Around this mirror hung gleaming medals, framed certificates, and awards that celebrated his vast herds and fast racehorses. When the sun came through the smoke hole and cast its light on the mirror, these objects were reflected and appeared to multiply, endlessly. Alongside these items and to one side, but still obviously visible, hung a (p.132) bulging fortune bag. From the beams and attached to a rope was a thick bunch of long horse hairs which swayed gently in the wind and contained the fortune he had accumulated from their sale or exchange. By choosing not to display any photographs, it appeared that Bat-Ochir relied on no one to create his celebrated fortune. Along with the multiple tufts of tail hair from the horses that he had sold, there was only the official state recognition of his status as a wealthy individual. Concealing the means by which his family were able to achieve their fortune was one way in which he was able to separate himself from any networks of dependence or obligation. He was obliged to no one for his success, and no one it seemed was obliged to him. In this sense, we may reflect more generally that the montage places the owner in a relation of obligation to those who are displayed, while also binding those who appear in the montage to that household.

Being looked at

In Mongolia, the ‘photographic event’ (Pinney 2003a: 10) requires a particular kind of etiquette. At first, people take great care to prepare themselves in a presentable way. They then pose front-on for the camera and, rarely smiling, make sure to look directly into the camera with their eyes wide open. To the extent that ‘good’ photographs are considered to be those where people are facing front-on (and somehow symmetrical) for the camera, most of the photographs in the montage appear as reproductions of each other. The subjects appear as a collection of bodies all facing in a single direction. What makes an image ‘good’ to look at is also that the eyes of the person in the photograph are looking directly out towards the viewer. A common way to destroy a photograph is to scratch out the eyes of the person in the image, making the efficacy of the photograph redundant. What I considered to be images that captured something of the individual, engaged in a specific activity, were viewed as ugly (muuhai) and not worthy of display. Once the photograph has been taken, people disperse almost immediately and quickly change back into their ordinary clothes. Because very few people in the countryside actually own cameras (although this is changing), taking a picture is often something done when an outsider is present, be this an administrative official, a distant relative or friend, or someone who has acquired a camera for a special occasion. In turn, films have to be developed elsewhere and there is often great delay, sometimes up to several years, before the images travel back to the people who appear in the pictures.

With similar images placed together in the montage, instead of freezing (p.133) individual characteristics or gestures, we see a replicated pose of motionless groups of people looking at us. When looking at such a collection, the viewer’s gaze is reciprocated with the people in the montage looking back at them. This reciprocated gaze is something that contributes to the efficacy of the montage. As the images in the montage transfix the beholder, they turn him or her into an object of their own gaze. In this sense, the viewer is simultaneously caught looking at the montage, while at the same time objectified by the gaze of the people in the photographs looking back at them. This view of several groups of people, looking out together from the display, is meant to dazzle the viewer with the multiple relations available to the people of that household. In this sense, the groups of people in photographic montages ‘reach out to the consideration of others’ (Humphrey 2002a: 69, italics in original).13 By drawing attention to the infinite networks available, the montage confuses the viewer as to who is and who is not kin.14 Viewing the photographic montage in this way, people are not depicted as mobile individuals. Instead, people become replicable members of static groups, with potentially infinite links to other groups. For a visitor, the presence of the montage is something that one acknowledges, but never enquires about directly. Instead, as your eyes dart about trying to take in who the people are in the photographs, the viewer may be bewildered by the multiple relations available to the people of that household. Not unlike traditional Mongolian paintings (Mongol zurag), which depict multiple snapshots of daily life—close scrutiny of which may reveal the various stages of felt making, erecting a felt tent (ger), and religious rituals—depicted at different angles around the canvas, but with no absolute centre, so too does the montage invite the viewer to apprehend the individual relations attached to a house from any point in the display.15

It should be clear that the power of gathering together and displaying pieces of people in a single site is not only found in the photographic montage. We can draw a parallel here with points in the landscape, such as stone cairns (ovoos) where people make piles of offerings throughout the year and during communal ceremonies (see Chapter 2). The fortune vessel, or bag, (p.134) also provides a point for gathering pieces from disparate spheres. Other objects, such as hunted animal skins, bear paws, and images of Buddhist deities, also hang from the beams of the house, or are attached to the wall beside of the photographic display. These objects have been sourced from visits to the surrounding forest or nearby cities. By accumulating such pieces, and displaying them at the household chest, people maintain connections with people and places other than those which they currently inhabit. For instance, Delgermaa returned from a visit to the city one spring with an image of the Buddhist god called White Tara’ that she had sourced at a monastery and displayed it above the Buddhist books placed on top of the chest’s mirror. In turn, animal skins such as sables, foxes, and bear paws, which her sons had sourced from their long hunting trips, were hung to the side of the photographic montage, near to the fortune bag and horse tackle. A man in Ashinga’s district centre, who had trained as an engineer in Russia and was constantly asked to fix people’s radios, pasted the inside walls of his wooden summer house with hundreds of magazine cut-outs of Socialist Eurasian beauties. The once glimmering images of women sporting large floppy hats and round sunglasses from the 1970s and ’80s had begun to fade. Darkened, owing to the smoke from the stove inside the house, and sometimes torn, as a result of people leaning against them when they came to visit, they still retained a sense of exotic power and prestige. Those who had the money could afford to display posters depicting elaborate food platters and beach scenes (see also Chapter 8) or, at election time, adverts for different political parties. As at the ovoo described in Chapter 2, an eclectic array of different artefacts are gathered at the household chest to provide a gathering point or site that rests in a mobile landscape of different social relations. Certain things are contained and held here, while others are separated off and dispersed.

Private albums and embroideries

Later, Delgermaa showed me her own private photographic albums that were buried inside the chest. They contained worn, torn, faded, cut, and folded photos that had been placed in books and were wrapped in scarves and pieces of clothing to protect them from the damp and dust. In contrast to the images in the display, the images in her albums captured people in dynamic poses, often in smaller groups, or individuals engaged in some task, with various expressions and from different angles. While public display of emotion in the montage is restricted to a fixed way of presenting oneself, the albums showed fleeting and sometimes intimate interactions. These ‘images (p.135) of movement’ pointed to different kinds of intimate relations and chronicled individual friendships and experiences. Whenever I returned after a long period of absence, showing me these albums became a kind of ritual. By looking at them I was informed of private events that had occurred in my absence. Next to these albums, Delgermaa also kept notebooks from her school days, referred to as ‘remembrance books’ (dursamj nom). Such books were popular among school children during the socialist period. After graduating from eighth or tenth grade, a school child would note down a list of all the people who were in their class. Each of the children would then write a special note for the child, sometimes including a drawing, a cut-out image, or photograph. Delgermaa kept two such books from her eighth year graduation in 1972 and from her tenth year graduation in 1974.

As we looked through these albums and books, she told me about her school friends and work colleagues who had proved to be staunch friends to her throughout most of her life. Because she came from a small family with only an older sister and older brother, these relations were the first occasion when, as a child, she became a member of a single generation, rather than a sibling in a family hierarchy. Departing from the images, Delgermaa explained that her mother had given birth to thirteen children, seven of whom had died young, two others were adopted, one died later in life, and only three remained at home. Delgermaa was born three months prematurely (or, if we take into account the practice of counting the first year in the womb (hii nas), she was born at six months old). When she was born she was so small that she ‘could fit into a winter hat. It was amazing that I survived,’ she explained. ‘I have never been to hospital in my life!’ Because her chance of survival was so slight, her mother had almost given her to a passing trader. Fortunately, she kept her. Later, her parents joined the cooperative as herders and Delgermaa was fostered to an elderly couple in the district centre so that she could attend school. At eighteen years of age, she began to work in the district centre and soon afterwards married Renchin (see Appendix C for further details).

In highlighting this fragment of Delgermaa’s biography I want to emphasize that, unlike the montage, images in private albums and messages in school books do not represent a collection of abstracted people gathered to create an effect. In her classic work on the way people relate to and view photographs, Sontag has noted that ‘a photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence’ (Sontag [1971] 2002: 16). Delgermaa’s narrative echoes this tension between presence and absence. On the one hand, the presence of certain people in Delgermaa’s life is carefully maintained and cared for through the way in which she tends to and looks after her albums.


Assemblage at the Household Chest

Figure 3.4 Remembrance book.

Aspects of these people, not readily visible in the photograph, were elaborated when we paused at their image. Their ‘pseudo-presence’ could be said to have triggered Delgermaa to recount aspects of them that brought their ‘fuller presence’ to life. Here, the difference between presence and absence became blurred, as absences gave rise to presences and presences also evoked different kinds of absences (Panayiotou 2006). The fact that these images were contained inside the chest, rather than displayed in the montage, also highlights Delgermaa’s self-confessed nostalgia for the friendships she was able to foster during the socialist period when she worked at the sawmill, in the sewing section of the co-operative, and as a record-keeper visiting herding families with the co-operative director.

Lining the walls of Renchin’s house were embroideries of different patterns and styles that brought a sense of dynamic colour and pattern to their home. Women tend to sew embroideries in the evenings, once other chores have been completed, and indulge in it as a creative endeavour. Women are praised for their sewing skills (uran hatgamalchin, lit. a skilled embroiderer), and those who do not sew (höh züü höndlön bar’j üzeegüi, lit. have never touched a blue needle) are considered not deft and organized enough to find the time to express themselves through embroidery. (p.137) Inspiration for embroidery patterns is often drawn from the world around them and there is a great variety of style and function. A single embroidery can take several months to complete while smaller pieces may take just a few days. One can find large wall hangings and smaller pieces, including runners that hang along beds with flowers and wild animals, duvet covers with swans and people, and triangular pieces with crocheted edges that can be laid over chests inside the house. Young women learn how to sew embroideries from their mothers or from their elder sisters and other daughters-in-law. Sewing together is a fairly quiet yet industrious activity and little verbal instruction is involved.

Thread is either bought from markets in the cities (the thread on sale in the district centre kiosks is considered too expensive to use for embroidery and is often only used to fix or mend pieces) or procured from friends who may exchange it for something like a set of buttons or other kinds of thread. Or more commonly, an old jumper or some other clothing is taken apart and the thread is carefully unravelled for crocheting, or the material used for the background base of the embroidery. Various kinds of stitching are used depending on the kind of thread and amount one has to work with. These include variants of buttonhole and straight stitches, couching and laid work, and crocheted edges that trace the outline of the material. Depending on the materials available, the whole surface may be covered in a design, or there may simply be a small embroidery in the centre of a large cotton sheet or a duvet cover. When talking about their embroideries women often recalled the period in their life in which they were made. Embroidery tends to be carried out in the evenings by candlelight, usually when a woman has a small child who needs to be watched while sleeping. Unlike the process of learning how to make a Mongolian coat (deel), which is an activity that can be done over two to three days for a particular person or event (cf. Empson 2003), embroideries are sewn at one’s own volition, after daily chores have been completed. Women rarely sew embroideries at summer encampments. They are too busy at this time milking cattle and preparing dairy produce, such as yogurt, curds, cream, and butter, for the rest of the year. Autumn, winter, and spring encampments, however, are often less busy. Women do not always have to rise at 5 a.m., and they can spend a longer time in the afternoons sewing.

Although certain motifs are common, many embroidery designs are very individualistic and their images stand as permanent reminders of the spirit in which they were made. Like a drawing, this sentiment remains contained in the piece as family members grow and change and, in turn, people relate to the fixed images differently over time. When moving to new pastures, a (p.138) woman will choose which embroidery, and thus which sentiment, she wants to display in the house at that given moment. At certain periods in her life, images of wealth and status may be appropriate. At another time, she may wish to emphasize her ability to depict beautiful flowers with an even and intricate stitch. Some embroideries are given away as gifts or exchanged with friends, so that ties of friendship are knotted into the very image displayed. A daughter-in-law may also inherit her mother-in-law’s embroideries. In this way sentiments expressed through embroideries are passed between women.16 Indeed, Delgermaa gave me several embroideries to take back to England, which she hoped I would use to decorate my home.

We may think of women’s embroideries as a counterpoint to male forms of oratory concerned with historical myths (see Chapter 7). They often capture stories about events in their lives and highlight certain kinds of morality. Two of Delgermaa’s larger embroideries were sewn when she was a daughter-in-law and had recently given birth. The first consisted of a large wall hanging in orange, blue, and green and was displayed on the wall behind one of the beds. It depicted three deer, one sitting, one standing, and one walking in a mountain glen. She motioned towards it and explained: ‘You see the deer on this wall hanging. I made this embroidery when I gave birth to my third son. Because I have three sons I made an image of three deer. I embroidered three things for the blessing of having three children.’ It had been only a few days earlier that Delgermaa had explained to me that ‘the best daughter-in-law is the one who has given birth to three sons, she is called the “sacred daughter-in-law” (darhan ber)’. As a way of publicly celebrating her own achievement at having given birth to three sons, Delgermaa chose to depict her children as three wild animals.

In displaying this image in the house, she also invited people to focus on her own achievement, having transformed from daughter-in-law to mother and the successful survival of her children from the vulnerable stage of infant-hood. That she still hangs this embroidery in the house, even though her children have grown up, highlights her wish to continue to display to others this aspect of her biographical history. The second embroidery, again a large wall hanging, was of a rather common image of the ‘four good animals’ (dörvön saihan am’tan) in a variety of colours. This image was sewn after she had her last child, a daughter. It was hung near to the door because it was believed to keep feuds outside the house. With four animals resting on top of each other, Delgermaa explained that the animal at the top, a bird, was her daughter who would one day fly away to another family.


Assemblage at the Household Chest

Figure 3.5 Embroideries.

(p.140) Unlike Kazakh embroideries (Portisch 2007), or those produced by nationalities in parts of Siberia (Phillips 1943), these domestic embroideries were not made to represent particular ethnic and cultural traits during the socialist period. Instead, sewing was primarily valued as a form of labour. Young women learned how to use a sewing machine at school and many women went on to work at local sewing co-operatives. Sewing workers’ clothing in groups was part of a modernizing project that promoted a new kind of socialist womanhood. During this time, embroidery remained a solitary and recreational activity that women undertook at home after work. Along with regularized sweeping of houses and yards, the use of cotton sheets on beds, and the construction of shelves for storing pots, embroidery could be viewed as part of a series of activities that created the appearance of a modern socialist home. In her work on shifting European notions of the feminine, Parker (1984) notes that while embroidery was seen to inculcate ideas about the feminine, it also provided ways to negotiate constraints on the feminine role. At different periods, women were able to question or resist received ideas about womanhood through the practice of embroidery. Parker refers to this as embroidery’s ‘secondary gains’ (Parker 1984: 13). As a medium of expression, Buriad women’s domestic embroideries are open to all kinds of interpretations, depicting as they do diverse images from Mickey Mouse, to mythical swans and personal histories. In spite of or maybe because of this, embroideries allow for alternative forms of expression, such as those described by Parker (1984). By this I do not mean that embroideries are a form of resistance. Rather, they provide an alternative medium through which women can draw attention to their biographical histories while in their marital homes. Indeed, Buchli (1999) has argued that in the context of house-communes in Soviet cities in Russia, the individual could exercise control over the environment through embroidery. Embroidery was a way in which domestic space could be appropriated, made individual, and interiorized (cf. Buchli 1999: 92).

For Delgermaa, embroideries were a way for her to appropriate the interior of the house and draw attention to the quality of her sewing and the innovative materials used. When her children were young, her embroidery could be viewed as an attempt to take control over the household, in spite of her husband’s frequent drinking spells and her mother-in-law’s persistent attempts to ostracize her from the family. Women often comment on the (p.141) quality of each other’s work in terms of the evenness of the stitch, the size of the piece, and the kinds of threads used. Visitors may handle the piece, turning it over to see how it was made, and comment on the colour and quality of the materials. This kind of judgement also lays one open to criticism and it is a major reason why some women choose not to sew embroideries. Tsendmaa, for example, claimed that while she was happy to display her mother-in-law’s embroideries, she was not keen on sewing them herself. ‘I am lazy,’ she exclaimed. ‘I don’t think I have the patience to do them and people judge you through them.’ Here, it is not so much the capacity of embroideries to express aspects of one’s personal history that is valued. Rather, it is the means by which embroidery exposes the skills of the maker that is at stake.

Notwithstanding this attention to the skill of the embroiderer, by looking at Delgermaa’s wall hangings we see that embroideries may also draw attention to carefully selected sentiments that a woman wishes to emphasize to others. It could be argued that since the 1930s, when many women were left to bring up their children on their own and people were discouraged from expressing distinctive familial memories, women focused on alternative media in which to recall their histories for their children. Embroideries also provide a way for women outwardly to display their continued connection to their children, even though their sons belong to their husbands’ kin groups and daughters are said to belong to another family (see Chapter 4). Indeed, embroideries appear to offer a parallel commentary on those relations that are displayed in photographic displays. Instead of drawing attention to groups of people and the multiplicity of relations in montages, embroideries encourage reflection on intimate family relations. Through their display, women spatially appropriate the household with images that celebrate their own achievements and draw attention to their views and ideas as well as their skills.

Like the household chest, embroideries also frequently feature interlocking patterns that frame the individual embroidery. These designs are held to be powerful in that they act as trestles that capture and contain fortune for the household. Togtoh, the fabulously outspoken and fearless kindergarten cook with whom I used to sit on the steps of the kindergarten watching the world go by, explained, while gesturing outward:

In these houses you can see certain patterns and decorations on embroideries and in wood-carvings. When looking at such a pattern we think of the design as representing a long life. A harmonious continuum that is never interrupted by hell (tam) so that one is born again and again. Something one wishes for oneself and one’s family.

(p.142) Such designs adorn embroideries that decorate beds, windows, or the door in households. These places are significant in that invisible aspects of the person are thought to depart through doorways, windows, and around the bed. The patterns are held to ‘catch’ and entwine these aspects of the person in their designs. Indeed, Chabros (1987) has noted that decorations placed around thresholds in Mongolia are held to trap good fortune and distribute it in households so that ‘decorative symbols have not just significance, but also power’ (1987: 273).

Throughout this chapter, I have used the term ‘network’ rather loosely to talk of the obligations and entitlements that extend between people. In focusing on the household chest, however, the term can also be used with a ‘new inflection’ (Bell 2001: 387) to refer to the collection of material and immaterial, human and non-human relations who come together to form this site. In suggesting this, I follow several anthropologists and theorists that draw on Latour’s focus on tracing connections between people and things in different domains (Carsten 2000a; Edwards and Strathern 2000; Strathern 1996; Bell 2001). Edwards and Strathern (2000: 162), for example, point out that ‘[n]etworks are not just relations between persons’. While previous network theorists traced ties between persons, particularly in structural-functionalist studies of kinship, they highlight that ‘the instruments by which people reckon connections with one another create mediators of diverse kinds’ (Edwards and Strathern 2000: 163, italics added). Following Latour, the term ‘mediator’ refers to something that transforms, translates, distorts, or modifies the meaning or elements it is supposed to carry, rather than simply reproducing or replicating them (Latour 2005: 39). Mediators may be substances, such as blood and bone, or they may be objects, such as ancestral portraits, photographs, and embroideries. Bell (2001) also uses this wider sense of the term ‘network’ to show the effects produced from alliances between human and non-human entities.

These diverse ‘mediators’ that form ‘alliances’ include different kinds of objects that, in Latour’s (2005) terminology, may be called ‘actants’. Latour (2005) uses this term to describe the connected and related agencies of persons and things. The tracing of any technical or social innovation, he suggests, will uncover a complex network of relationships between human and nonhuman forms. Unlike earlier symbolic approaches, whereby things are viewed as the passive recipients of the meanings people ascribe to them, or the Gellian (1998) idea that objects mediate agency via persons, this perspective stresses the extent to which things come to ‘act’ on others when placed in a wider network or assemblage. Action or meaning, in the sense in which I am using the term, is not something that people do to, or inscribe (p.143) on, things. Rather it emerges in associations and combinations between people and various non-human forms. Merging the boundaries between objects and people, Mitchell (2005) has drawn attention to the variety of animation, vitality, agency, motivation, autonomy, aura, fecundity, and other symptoms that Euro-Americans attribute to images, objects, and things. He shows how persons may derive their features from engagement with various objects, as much as objects derive their features from persons (Mitchell 2005). This is not to view objects and people as equal cohabitants, but to suggest that an intentional subject acts and is acted upon within different networks of power that include the material forms that surround them (Thrift 2008: 111–14).

Among the objects on which I have focused, religious books, photographs, and portraits are placed in honorific places inside the home and given ‘food’ in the form of offerings. This is not because they stand for or mediate relations between people, but because they are held actually to have some agency that is either of its own order or some part of a person. Many of the objects that I have described exist in a kind of middling-space. People ascribe these objects individual memories tied to personal life histories. At the same time, some of the objects are held to act on people—for example, photographic images cast their gaze on to the visitor of a household. In turn, knowing that your image appears in a household’s montage is a way for the people in that house to lay claims on you as a person, someone whom they are entitled to ask for help and assistance. Instead of reducing these things to vehicles for memory, or seeing them as full agents in their own right, I have attempted, as the people I describe themselves do, to maintain a balance between these two approaches (Navaro-Yashin 2009). Neither Gellian abduction nor Latourian essence, we may say that the potency of the display is its capacity to hold this flickering multiplicity in place.

Although people move away from the house throughout the year, and the house itself moves to different locations, a sense of connectedness between people is maintained through objects displayed on top of and around the household chest. Photographic montages, portraits of deceased elders, and shrines that honour the land masters of different places outwardly display relations, with infinite connections in a visible form. Such foregrounded relations may subside at different periods in a person’s life, but can always re-emerge and be drawn upon again. These forms are not simply about preserving the intricacies of person-to-person relations. They also reach out to others, reminding them of their obligations and connections, and replicate relations between groups. Photographic montages make visible a household’s infinite network of relations to others. When people (p.144) look at their own montage, however, the photographs evoke personal memories of people and events. This dual aspect—that objects both trigger personal memories and occupy a subject position in their dealing with people—points to the unstable and flickering relationship between objects that come to stand for people and objects that are held to have the potential to act on others beyond mediating the intentions of their makers (Fausto 2007: 523). While people move to different places in the landscape and are separated from each other at certain times of the year, the household chest can be said to gather people and forces together in a single space. For the person who tends and adds to the display, there is a sense that, although they move to different seasonal places, the chest’s visible surface remains as a fixed site inside the house that increases over time. We may say that it is not so much a person’s physical presence, but their attachment through various things at a house that creates their connection to a particular household.

In contrast, as we focus on embroideries, private albums, and remembrance books, these appear as biographical objects that speak more to their owners than to their viewers (Hoskins 1998). Because embroideries expose their makers to the scrutiny of others, they are also very measured and controlled projections of a person’s capacities and capabilities. In turn, private albums and school books trace past relations that are honoured precisely because they contain the potential for future connections. Both the photographic montage and embroideries oscillate between indexes for the self and media that allow people to present the world to others in a very particular way. In this sense, we may talk of these objects as a kind of shield, or outer clothing, in which people display and conceptually create salient aspects of their personhood. The household’s interior anchors meetings between people in a fixed visible form. This technology is meant to be seen. Its efficacy, as I will show in the next chapter, acts as a shield against those relations that are concealed.


(1) Specific kin terms draw attention to agnatic and non-agnatic kin by differentiating relatives on the father’s side (avga ah / egch), or mother’s side (nagats ah / egch). Male heads of two families, related through the marriage of their children, have classificatory terms (hud), as do female heads of two families related through the marriage of their children (hudgui). Grandparents distinguish their grandchildren as coming from either their daughter (zee), or son (ach, also meaning favour, grace, and benefit). See Vreeland ([1954] 1962), Pao (1964a, 1964b), and Park (1997) for information on Mongolian kinship terminology.

(2) See Humphrey (1995: 135): ‘The Mongols do not take over any terrain in the vicinity and transform it into something that is their own. Instead, they move within a space and environment where some kind of pastoral life is possible and “in-habit” it.’

(3) The Mongolian concept of ‘blood’ should not be reduced to Western essentialist concepts of this term (à la Gil-White 2001). For a start, the inheritance of blood does not refer to both parents. It is limited to the mother, and while given at birth, it is a form of relatedness that people strive to separate themselves from in life. Through the concept offortune, this chapter proposes that although much Mongolian kinship is ‘given at birth’ through the inheritance of substance, Mongolian kinship is also made in practice through the management of vari-ous forces. While classical anthropological accounts (Vreeland 1954; Levi-Strauss 1969) and Mongols alike may hint, through the use of specific terms that refer to shared substance, at ideas that seem essentialist, in practice we see a multitude of ways of being related, so that relations based on consanguinity are also created, and change and shift throughout life (Carsten 2000a: 22).

(4) In general, people do not like to give a container of any sort that is empty. When returning a pail to someone who has given you milk or cream, for example, people take care that the pail contains something, even if just a small boiled sweet.

(5) The radio allows for diverse and varied information to be united in a single site. Today, only a few can afford to subscribe to luxury items such as newspapers and magazines, and current newspaper editions are few and far between. Often, people will find some excuse to visit a household which they know has a recent newspaper. After exchanging some pleasantries, they may recline on one of the beds and read parts of it at their leisure. The same goes for any books. In the early post-socialist period, books were often used for cigarettes and toilet paper. Those that have survived as reading material are often passed between friends who may read them several times over. Like the radio, books and newspapers mediate connections between people.

(6) It is worth noting that women do not hunt and should not touch guns. Guns are an extension of male power, something equivalent to the Tibetan concept ‘Dgra Bla’, sometimes conceived as the male ‘seat’ of the household (de Nebesky-Wojkowitz 1993: 318–40). In the early stages of my fieldwork, when men at the encampment were trading illegal animal parts in the district centre, I often found guns hidden in the felt mattress of my bed. At this stage, my foreign status rendered my bed an ungendered hiding place for the guns.

(7) It is generally held that this area is sacred. Regardless of the presence of religious paintings or icons, people may place some money or other offering on its surface. The idea of knocking, in order to set some transformation in motion, is further elaborated in Chapter 4 when people roll on the ground where their placentas are buried.

(8) Bouquet (2001: 110) makes a similar point in relation to photographic displays: ‘photographic reproduction [is revealed] as a powerful means of establishing and cutting genealogical relationship[s]’. See also Bouquet (1996) for the limits of analysing kinship through anthropological kinship diagrams.

(9) Once a man is certain that a girl wants to marry him, he will bring her to his household and present her to his family. She will stay here for a week or so and a message will be sent to the girl’s natal home that she has been taken for marriage. She then returns home and the formalities between the two male heads of the households commence.

(10) This rationale was also complemented by a secondary explanation: because people were afraid to marry into these families, they had been isolated from normal marriage partners and had been forced to inter-marry.

(11) The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Civil Passport Statute of 1978 stated that by the age of sixteen years old all people should have a civil passport containing a ‘photograph (without a hat) 50×60 mm taken at 16, [and later at] 25, and 45 years of age’ (Dumburai 1982: 262). These photographs later came to be placed in frames at the household chest.

(12) While Delgermaa was in charge of storing and distributing money and all book-keeping, Bat-Ochir managed all the money in his family and kept it in a sturdy black bag, which he spent the evenings attending to.

(13) Humphrey (2002a) has drawn attention to the two-fold way in which, when displayed by their owners, personal possessions reach out to the consideration of others: while they may be displayed to signal social status or vanity, they equally stand for the need for acknowledgement or recognition by other living people (Humphrey 2002a: 69).

(14) For a similar idea, see Gell’s (1998) discussion of Trobriand prow-boards that dazzle exchange partners to surrender their valuables.

(15) This style of Mongolian painting is markedly different from Manchu scroll painting which forms an unfolding narrative in linear form.

(16) Like the embroidered patterns on the heels of Buriad boots, which are very distinctive to this region of Mongolia, embroideries may travel between houses but are also intimately tied to their originator. Women identify distinguishing features of each other’s embroideries. Buriad boots do so in a very particular way; the design on the heel is the personal ‘signature’ of the woman who made them.