Mungu idekh (Mongolia)

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Mungu idekh 🇲🇳
Location: Mongolia
Definition: Lit. 'eating money', the use of public funds in a way that does not enrich the people socially or economically
Keywords: Mongolia East Asia Euphemism Food Public service Political party Money Cash Payment Donation Mining
Author: Marissa Smith
Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, De Anza College, USA
Website: Profile page at DC

By Marissa Smith, Department of Anthropology, De Anza College, USA

Mungu idekh (‘eating money’) is one of a number of terms used in contemporary Mongolia to criticize ineffective leaders and leadership. In the Mongolian cultural region, leaders’ individual qualities of ‘moral exemplarship’ (Humphrey 1997) are of major importance to political legitimacy. As discussed by High (2017), money and the value of money itself are bound up with the correct management of expansive social relations of production; cash may become polluted and polluting (buzartai) if generated through amoral and socially harmful practices or may, alternatively, gain value if generated through exchange with other social groups and networks productive of wealth. High gives the example of a Mongolian gold buyer who travels from a far-flung mining area to the capital to sell gold for Chinese Yuan to Chinese buyers, saying that this “renews” money and gives the mining area “good money” as it is invested in local businesses and buys expensive gifts (121-3). Political leaders must use money to effectively expand social relations and generate fortune from them, for instance through the management of business (Bonilla 2016; Bonilla and Tuya 2018) and construction (Fox 2016). ‘Eating’ money, on the other hand, means to consume it mundanely and exclusively, in an individual’s household, homeland-based, ethnic, corporate or other exclusive networks (from the perspective of which, of course, the money in question may not be seen to be simply ‘eaten’).

As well as in the context of elections for parliamentary and other public office (Fox 2017), accusations of mungu idekh have been repeatedly levelled over the construction of the colossal statue of the Shakyamuni Buddha (Burkhan Bagsh) in Erdenet, Mongolia. Between 2010 and 2012, the statue was erected, taken down and rebuilt. It has been ‘awakened’ (aravnailakh) at least twice by the head lama of Mongolia’s most powerful monastery ( 2014; Tuya 2012). For members of Erdenet’s various networks, particularly those associated with the locally-based mining corporation and the provincial government appointed by the Mongolian national government, the statue has been a means to establish political legitimacy through ‘donations’ (khandiv) to kick-start the circulation of wealth and fortune broadly throughout and beyond Erdenet with the mediation of the Buddha. The complicated process of construction has also been a means for these networks to question one another’s political legitimacy by branding the money spent on the statue not as broadly-beneficial khandiv but as mungu idekh ‘eaten’ within exclusive human networks.

In news outlets owned and operated by networks comprising the community, including the local mining corporation, exacting listings of the amounts of money donated by workplaces within the corporation and particular directors as khandiv (‘donations’) appeared on the occasion of the statue’s awakening (Tuya 2012) (such detailed listings of donations by specific donors are also commonly posted on Facebook when local, workplace and religious organizations organize events). Other news outlets and stories, funded by networks other than those of the mining corporation and often disappearing from the internet as quickly as they appear, have levelled accusations of mungu idekh at directors of the mining corporation, insinuating that the construction problems visible in the monument itself (for instance, a leaking ceiling that resulted in mold and mildew in the interior of the room at the statue’s base) were caused by the movement of money to construction firms that did not utilize the funds for proper materials and building expertise (Byamba 2013).

While the author was conducting fieldwork inside the corporation, her coworkers were ambivalent about the statue. While they supported the construction of such a monument as an act of collective human ‘donation’ to a powerful cosmic agent to help repair environmental and social harm related to the industrial pollution that their mining activity had caused locally and that they worked actively as metallurgical and environmental engineers to address, they were loath to associate themselves with the various networks that seemed to be involved in the construction of the statue. A former provincial governor, who also claimed the statue as the product of his donations, was an appointee of the national government as well as an associate of the mining corporation. The mine was established in the early 1970s in the late socialist period it was well integrated into Soviet and post-Soviet networks, and was operated by members of national minority groups. Since the end of the socialist period and the so-called Democratic Revolution of 1988-1990, the national government has been controlled by members of the majority Khalkh ethnicity (Bulag 1998) seeking to recentralize control over the mine and its associated logistics infrastructure by the Mongolian state. The mining corporation itself is also internally fragmented; in the early 1990s, some sections moved to establish independence, and independent firms with relationships with only some sectors of the mine have been successfully established. Thus, there was uncertainty over what sections and directors of the mining corporation were involved in the construction; there was also concern at least on the part of some mine employees who refused to enter the statue and make offerings there.

As in the cases of ‘eating money’ in Greece (see fakelaki) and Africa (see kula), this Mongolian case entails the fear that wealthy and powerful actors extract money from the public and ‘grow fat’ (incidentally, the provincial governor in question was rather overweight). More than that, however, these cases draw attention to the way in which definitions of the actions involved as either positive or ‘corrupt’ hinge on the delineation of the networks and publics involved. The construction of the colossal statue succeeds as a politically legitimizing act if it solicits the participation of a range of publics, who trust that the actors making the donations are not also engaging in activities that would be systemically harmful – here, for instance, being affiliated with the national government, as the former provincial governor was, that had levied additional taxes on the mining corporation and sought to privatize it, that is, to move control from locals to the national capital, and to people of another homeland and ethnicity. Also of concern were international relationships (involving, allegedly, China rather than America, Europe and Russia), and a set of professional communities (associated with policy, law and finance rather than with mining and metallurgy). Such actions, as High (2017) has described, make money itself ‘polluted’ (buzartai) and an agent of contamination, and neither the state nor the Buddhist sangha (monastic order) is capable of cleansing (ugaakh) the money and its transactors (see also Abrams-Kavunenko 2015 on distrustfulness towards lamas as handlers of khandiv).

In contrast to the African cases referred to above, ‘feeding’ in Mongolia is not overwhelmingly seen as a necessary act of political power. As also shown by the Mongolian concept of tsartsaani nüüdel, exchanging one’s vote for ‘feeding’ is in principle considered unworthy even of livestock, let alone of people, but rather as characteristic of insects. This has not however prevented people from ‘feeling entitled to’ take the money (see Bonilla and Tuya 2016, Fox 2017). It is also significant that, in contrast to the case from Tibetan Rebgong presented by Makley (2018:127, 140-3), where ‘eating money’ (sgor mo za) characterises the failure of individuals to represent multiple sovereigns at different levels, in the Mongolian context the preeminence of a single sovereign or ‘aristocratic’ network is called for (Sneath 2018). As one commentator on an article about money-eating and the Burkhan Bagsh admonishes, ‘Think together, my descendants of Chinggis [Khaan]!’ (sanatsgaa chingisiin ur sad mini) (Tsolmon 2013).


Abrams-Kavunenko, S. 2015. ‘Paying for Prayers: Perspectives on Giving in Postsocialist Ulaanbaatar,’ Religion, State and Society 43: 327-41

Byambaa, B. 2013. 'Burkhan Bagshiin Sereg Dur Nurj Unakhad Belen Boljee’, ErdenetInfo, 5 September (inactive)

Bonilla, L. 2016. ‘How Gifts Grant Candidates Power,’ Emerging Subjects Blog, 31 August

Bonilla, L. and Tuya, Sh. 2018. ‘Electoral gifting and personal politics in Mongolia’s parliamentary election season,’ Central Asian Survey37: 457-74

Bulag, U.E. 1998. Nationalism and Hybridity in Mongolia. Oxford: Clarendon Press 2014. ‘Burkhan bagshiin sereg duriin dakhin aravnailna,’ 11 April

Fox, L. 2016. ‘The Road to Power,’ Emerging Subjects Blog. 24 August

Fox, L. 2017. ‘The Price of an Election: Split hopes and political ambivalence in the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar,’ Emerging Subjects Blog. 13 March

Fox, L. 2018. ‘Tsartsaani nüüdel,’ in A. Ledeneva (ed.), The Global Encyclopaedia of Informality, Volume 2. London: UCL Press: 460-3

High, M. 2017. Fear and Fortune: Spirit Worlds and Emerging Economies in the Mongolian Gold Rush, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press

Humphrey, C. 1997. ‘Exemplars and rules: aspects of the discourse of moralities in Mongolia,’ in S. Howell (ed.), The ethnography of moralities. London: Routledge: 25-46

Knight, D.M. 2018. ‘Fakelaki,’ in A. Ledeneva (ed.), The Global Encyclopaedia of Informality, Volume 1. London: UCL Press: 182-4

Makley, C. 2018. Battle for Fortune: State-Led Development, Personhood, and Power Among Tibetans in China, Ithaca: Cornell University Press

Sambaiga, R.F. 2018. ‘Kula,’ in A. Ledeneva (ed.), The Global Encyclopaedia of Informality, Volume 2. London: UCL Press: 354-7

Smith, M. 2017. ‘“Shakhaanii Business”: Shared Debt, Privatization of Profit, and (Re-) Emergent Corruption Discourses in Mongolia,’ Emerging Subjects Blog. 2 March

Sneath, D. 2018. ‘Commonwealth, inalienable possessions, and the res publica: The anthropology of aristocratic order and the landed estate,’ History and Anthropology 29: 324-41

Tsolmon, G. 2013. ‘Burkhan bagshiin sereg dur buteekh mungunuus zavshigchdig ATG-t shalgaj ekheljee,’ 9 October (inactive)

Tuya, B. 2012. ‘Burkhan Bagshiin Sereg Dur Ene Sariin 16-nd “amilna”,’ Shine Medee 81(843) 10 September: 2