Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Holy Rollers: Monasteries, Lamas, and the Unseen Transport of Chinese–Russian Trade, 1850–1911

  • Devon Dear (a1)

This article examines the roles of Mongolian monasteries and lamas in transportation between the Qing Chinese (1636–1911) and Russian Romanov (1613–1917) empires during the latter half of the nineteenth century. A series of treaties between 1858 and 1882 granted Russian subjects the right to trade in Mongolian territories under Qing sovereignty, and the resultant increase of Russian trade across Mongolia provided new wage-earning opportunities. Larger monasteries, with their access to pack animals and laborers, acted as brokers, while for poorer lamas haulage was one of the few sources of paid labor available in Mongolian territories, making working in transportation a strategy of survival for many Mongolian lamas. Mongolian porters provide a window on to how the broad processes of nineteenth-century imperialism in the Qing empire affected labor on the Sino–Russian frontier, and on to how imperialism was experienced in one of the most remote corners of the Qing empire.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Holy Rollers: Monasteries, Lamas, and the Unseen Transport of Chinese–Russian Trade, 1850–1911
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Holy Rollers: Monasteries, Lamas, and the Unseen Transport of Chinese–Russian Trade, 1850–1911
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Holy Rollers: Monasteries, Lamas, and the Unseen Transport of Chinese–Russian Trade, 1850–1911
      Available formats
Hide All

1. Lattimore Owen, “Caravan Routes of Inner Asia”, The Geographical Journal, 72:6 (1928), reprinted in idem, Studies in Frontier History: Collected Papers 1928–1958 (London, 1962), pp. 37–72, 38.

2. See, for example, Piasetskii Pavel Iakovlevich, Puteshestvie po Kitaiu v 1874–1875 gg: cherez Sibir, Mongoliiu, vostochnoi-srednyi i severo-zapadnyi Kitai (Moscow, 1882); Przhevalsky Nikolai, Mongoliia i strana Tangutov: trekhletnee puteshestvie v vostochnoi nagornoi Azii (St Petersburg, 1875–1876); Gilmour James, Among the Mongols (New York, 1883); “Vvedeniie”, in Moskovskaia torgovaia ekspeditsiia v Mongoliiu (Moscow, 1912), pp. 1–2.

3. Gertel Jörg and Heron Richard Le (eds), Economic Spaces of Pastoral Production and Commodity Systems: Markets and Livelihoods (Farnham, 2011), pp. 56.

4. For an overview of pre-nineteenth-century trade, see Mancall Mark, Russia and China: Their Diplomatic Relations to 1728 (Cambridge, 1971). See Paine Sarah M., Imperial Rivals: China, Russia, and their Disputed Frontier (Armonk, NY, 1996) for the diplomatic history of the Russian–Chinese border.

5. On how late-Qing financial crises affected provincial subsidies, see Pomeranz Kenneth, The Making of a Hinterland: State, Society, and Economy in Inland North China, 1853–1937 (Berkeley, CA, 1993). In 1898, Aleksei Matveevich Pozdneev estimated that there were 1,076 state gers (portable dwellings) in the postal relay system, and that combined with those in required service at the karauls (guard posts), there were 6,000 Mongolian families in service by the late nineteenth century; Aleksei Matveevich Pozdneev, “Sovremennoe polozhenie i nuzhdy russkoi torgovli v Mongolii”, Baykal, 15 (12 (24) April 1898), pp. 2–3.

6. Hedberg Charlotta and de Carmo Renato Miguel (eds), Translocal Ruralism: Mobility and Connectivity in European Rural Spaces (Heidelberg, 2011), pp. 34.

7. Linden Marcel van der, “The Promise and Challenges of Global Labor History”, International Labor and Working-Class History, 82 (2012), pp. 5776, 62.

8. Ottoman historians writing on labor have faced a very similar challenge. See Quataert Donald, “Labor History and the Ottoman Empire, c.1700–1922”, International Labor and Working-Class History, 60 (2001), pp. 93109, 95.

9. For an overview of the Zungar wars and the Qing solidification of power in inner Asia, see Perdue Peter, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge, MA, 2005), pp. 133292.

10. On the origins of Chinese firms in Mongolia, see Xiaofan Ren, “Qianlong nian jian Lü Meng Shang piaozhao shenqing zhidu chutan”, Jinzhong Xueyuan Xuabao, 29:2 (2012), pp. 79–81.

11. The classic account of Mongolian debt is Sanjdorj M., Manchu Chinese Colonial Rule in Northern Mongolia (London, 1980).

12. Already Charles Bawden has pointed to this fact in his landmark general account of Mongolian history: Bawden Charles, The Modern History of Mongolia (New York, 1968), pp. 142143.

13. Przhevalsky estimated that in the 1870s one in three Mongolian males were lamas; Przhevalsky Nikolai, Mongolia, the Tangut Country, and the Solitudes of Northern Tibet: Being a Narrative of the Three Years’ Travel in Eastern High Asia, 2 vols (London, 1876), I, p. 11.

14. Karauls were guard posts located along both the Qing and Russian sides of the border. They housed up to several hundred soldiers. Listings of early twentieth-century Russian and Qing karuals can be found in Naitō Torajirō (ed.), Kūron Mōga Karin taishōhyō (Tokyo, 1920).

15. See, for example, Academia Sinica, Taiwan, Archive of the Zongli Geguo Shiwu Yamen [hereafter, ZLYM] 1–02–010–02–37, 01–02–011–02–066, 01–02–010–02–010, and 01–02–010–02–13; Mongol Ulsyn Undesnii Töv Arkhiv [National Central Archive of Mongolia, hereafter, MUUTA] M1 [Office of the Amban at Ikh Khüree] Delo [hereafter, D] 1.4, doc. 6481.11, M1 D1.3 4780.1, M1 D1.1 2414.124a.

16. ZLYM 01–02–010–02–010.

17. ZLYM 1–17–049–04–001; ZLYM 1–20–014–02–40. In 1871, another small Buriat trading party of seven people had also tried to pass illegally through this karaul, as they were supposed to trade solely through Kiakhta and travel to Doloon Nuur through Urga. See ZLYM 1–20–019–01–093. See also ZLYM 1–20–013–04–008.

18. Purevjav Lkham, “Patterns of Monastic and Sangha Development in Khalkha Mongolia”, in Bruce M. Knauft and Richard Taupier (eds), Mongolians After Socialism: Politics, Economy, Religion (Admon, 2012), pp. 249268, 255.

19. Purevjav, “Patterns of Monastic and Sangha Development in Khalkha Mongolia”, p. 258.

20. Torajirō, Kūron Mōga Karin taishōhyō.

21. MUUTA M1 D3 276.27, M1 D3 271.18.

22. Fernández-Giménez Maria, “Sustaining the Steppes: A Geographical History of Pastoral Land Use in Mongolia”, The Geographical Review, 89 (1999), pp. 315342, 320; Miller Robert James, Monasteries and Culture Change in Inner Mongolia (Wiesbaden, 1959). On the duties of the subjects of the monastic estate, see Tsedev D., Ikh Shav’ (Ulan Bator, 1964), pp. 3354.

23. Simukov Andrei Dimitriyevich, “Materialy po kochevomy bytu naseleniia NMW”, Sovremennaia Mongoliia, 2:15 (1936); Natsagdorj S., “The Economic Basis of Feudalism in Mongolia”, Modern Asian Studies, 1 (1967), pp. 265281.

24. MUUTA M1 D1.3 4780.1.

25. Aleksei Matveevich Pozdneev, Ocherki byta buddiiskikh monastyrei i buddiiskogo dukhovenstva v Mongolii v sviazi s otnosheniiami sego poslednego k narodu (St Petersburg, 1887; repr. Elista, 1993). He reported that in the Erdeni Zuu monastery Chinese shops paid 20 taels per year for rental space, 25 taels at Zaya pandita, and 12 taels at Baruun Khüree; ibid., p. 30. The tael was a unit of measurement of silver. Several measures of silver tael were in circulation during the Qing period.

26. Ibid., p. 31. All translations are mine.

27. MUUTA M1 D1.1 2343 6b–7a.

28. Pozdneev, Ocherki byta buddiiskikh monastyrei, pp. 3233.

29. Onerous charges at Urga's monasteries in the early twentieth century were also recorded by the lama Jambal in his memoirs; Jambal, Tales of an Old Lama (Tring, 1997), p. 11.

30. MUUTA M1 D1.4 6481.31.

31.Vvedeniie”, in Moskovskaia torgovaia ekspeditsiia v Mongoliiu, pp. 4–7; Nina Evgen'evna Edinarkhova, Russkie v Mongolii: osnovnye etapy i formy ekonomicheskoi deiatel'nosti (1861–1921 gg.) (Irkutsk, 2003).

32. MUUTA M1 D1.3 4825.28.

33. Sbornik dogovorov Rossii s Kitaem, 1689–1881 gg. (St Petersburg, 1889), p. 164.

34. MUUTA M1 D1.3 4825.28.

35. Ibid. Large firms concerned Qing officials the least, because their members would be easier to track down in case of any subsequent malfeasance. Small firms and individual merchants, however, worried the amban, since “although small traders will trade a little, they may not engage in lending, [as] one cannot permit traders without shops to run away and hide”.

36. MUUTA M1 D1.3 4825.29.

37. MUUTA M1 D1.3 4825.30.

38. MUUTA M1 D1.3 4869.28.

39. MUUTA M1 D1.3 4780.15, M1 D1.3 4780.16, M1 D1.3 4780.22, M1 D1.3 4780.30, M1 D1.3 4780.32, M1 D1.3 4780.33.

40. Seiji Imahori, Chūgoku hōken shakai no kikō: Kisui (Fufuhoto) ni okeru Shakai shūdan no jittai chōsa (Tokyo, 1955), pp. 336365.

41. In practice, monastic funds were also held in a treasury [Mongolian: sangai jisa]. A small monastery had one or two jisa, while larger ones would have between 10 and 20 and sometimes over 100.

42. Purevjav, “Patterns of Monastic and Sangha Development in Khalkha Mongolia”, p. 257.

43. Startsev Aleksandr Vladimirovich, “Russkie predprinimateli v Mongolii: sotsial'nyi oblik is obshchestvenno-kul'turnaia deiatel'nost”, in Vostokovednye issledovaniia na Altae (Barnaul, 2004), IV, pp. 63–85, 64; Ptitsyn Vladimir Vasil'evich, Selenginskaia Dauriia: ocherki Zabaikal'skago kraia (St Petersburg, 1896), p. 75; Maiskij Ivan Mikhailovich, Sovremennaia Mongoliia (Irkutsk, 1921), pp. 95, 203; Bogolepov Mikhail Ivanovich, Ocherki russko-mongol'skoi torgovli; expeditsiia v Mongoliiu 1910 goda (Tomsk, 1911), pp. 109, 172.

44. Ibid. Bogolepov, Ocherki russko-mongol'skoi torgovli, p. 370371.

45. zheng xie Shanxi ShengJinshang shiliao quanlan”, bianji weiuan hui (eds), Jinshang shiliao quanlan (Taiwan, 2006), I, pp. 392–414.

46. Representative of this process is the decline of Shanxi banks. See Zhenguo Tang, “Shanxi piaohao shuaibai de zhidu xing yinsu fenxi” (MA, Fudan University, 2008).

47. Bawden, The Modern History of Mongolia, pp. 142144; Darevskaia Elena Mrkovna, Sibir i Mongoliia: ocherki russko-mongol'skikh sviazei v kontse XIX-nachalo XX vekov (Irkutsk, 1994), pp. 99113.

48. MUUTA M1 D1.1 2343.5a–5b, M1 D1.1 2343 6b, M1 D1.1 2414.142a–152a.

49. MUUTA M1 D1.4 7001.4, M1 D1.4 7001.5.

50. MUUTA M1 D1.4 7001.11.

51. The lack of corporate law in late imperial China is explored in Kirby William C., “China Unincorporated: Company Law and Business Enterprise in Twentieth-Century China”, Journal of Asian Studies, 54 (1995), pp. 4363.

52. MUUTA M1 D1.4 6481.18; ZLYM 01–20–002–04.

53. These documents are held both in the National Central Archive of Mongolia in Ulan Bator and the Academia Sinica in Taipei. Although cases of loss were not rare, losses were often partial. For example, in 1871 two Russian traders’ six boxes of otter pelts, tanned leather, and silver goods were lost when pack animals panicked and scattered somewhere between Kiakhta and Kalgan; ZLYM 01–20–001–04–001.

54. ZLYM 1–20–02–04–15:01.

55. “Black men” living on lands under the jurisdiction of the Ikh Shav’ were often viewed by the Qing government as potential thieves and accomplices in tax evasion. See, for example, Veritable Records of the Jiaqing Emperor 24.1, juan 353, p. 652.

56. Pozdneev, Ocherki byta buddiiskikh monastyrei, p. 30.

57. ZLYM 1–20–02–04–15:02b.

58. Charleux Isabelle, “Padmasambhava's Travel to the North”, Central Asiatic Journal, 46 (2002), pp. 168232.

59. As already mentioned, several measures of silver tael were in circulation during the Qing period; in this case, the specific type of tael is not given.

60. MUUTA M1 D1.4 6481.23: 2b.

61. MUUTA M1 D1.4 7110.32: 2a.

62. Huimin Lai, “Qingdai Guihua cheng de Zang fu fo si yu jingji”, Neimenggu Shifan Daxue Xuebao, 39:3 (2010), pp. 88–101, 93.

63. Pozdneev Aleksei Matveevich, Mongoliia i Mongoly: Rezul'taty poiezdki v Mongoliiu, ispolnennoi v 1892–1893 gg. (St Petersburg, 1896–1898), p. 298; see also “Account of a Journey in Mongolia by Mr. Kidston and Mr. Flaherty in September–November 1903”, in China: A Collection of Correspondence and Papers Relating to Chinese Affairs, Great Britain, Foreign Office, China No. 3 (London, 1904), p. 10.

64. Pozdneev, Mongoliia i Mongoly, pp. 277279, 282.

65. MUUTA M1 D1.4 7110.32.

66. ZLYM 01–20–002–04–25:1.

67. ZLYM 01–20–002–04–25:2.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Review of Social History
  • ISSN: 0020-8590
  • EISSN: 1469-512X
  • URL: /core/journals/international-review-of-social-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 11
Total number of PDF views: 88 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 102 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.