Mannerheim as Ethnographer

Gustaf Mannerheim disguised himself as an ethnographic collector during his secret mission to China.

In order to disguise the military nature of his secret mission, Gustaf Mannerheim, a colonel in the Russian Imperial Army, conducted extensive ethnographic research and collected Silk Road artifacts during his journey through China from 1906 to 1908. For the journey’s first leg, from Samarkand to Kashgar, he even accompanied the French expedition of Paul Pelliot, one of the greatest Sinologists of the twentieth century.

Before leaving Helsinki, Mannerheim contacted Otto Donner, a professor of comparative linguistics and President of the Finno-Ugrian Society, about obtaining a commission to collect materials for a new museum in Helsinki. He also arranged to travel with Pelliot.

With no scientific training, the career soldier had to depend on two English textbooks, Hints to Travellers and Notes and Queries on Anthropology, to learn “the practical knowledge necessary for an explorer.” Mannerheim also read the first-hand accounts of Marco Polo, Nikolai Przhevalsky, Sven Hedin and Sir Aurel Stein, and spent long hours studying the archives of the Russian General Staff in St. Petersburg. He also bought an Ernemann Klapp, a state-of-the-art camera, and a spare, and ordered five hundred photographic plates from Paris.

In conducting ethnographic work, Donner advised Mannerheim to focus his research on the “innumerable people” of Inner Asia, “which have been studied very little or not at all.” If Mannerheim were to make a contribution to world ethnography, he’d need to seek out obscure tribes along the Silk Road.

During his trip, Mannerheim took some 1,300 photos and collected 1,200 objects. The latter are now housed in the Museum of Cultures in Helsinki. He began his collecting in Samarkand in modern Uzbekistan and continued collecting from Kyrgyz tribesmen and herders on his way to China. One of his largest collections—400 items—was from the Turkic Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China’s western-most region.

Yet his most important ethnographic work was among the world’s most obscure peoples—small ethnic groups living in the remote desert and alpine regions of China’s outer reaches. These included Abdals, who are Shi’ite outcasts and speak an Iranian dialect; Kalmyks and Torguts, who are western Mongols living in the Tian Shan range; Dungans, who are Chinese Muslims; and Xibo, who are Manchu warriors settled in the Ili Valley, among others. Besides collecting objects, Mannerheim often photographed individuals, made anthropological measurements, and took linguistic and cultural notes.

Western and Eastern Yugur

The most mysterious ethnic group he came upon was called Yellow Barbarians or Yugur. They lived just inside the Great Wall of China in Gansu province and were split into two tribes, the Western Yugur speaking a Turkic dialect who lived on the margins of the Gobi Desert, and the Eastern Yugur speaking a Mongolic dialect who inhabited alpine terrain ringing the Tibetan Plateau.

Photo of Yugur woman in 1907 by Gustaf Mannerheim.


Photo of Yugur woman in 2006 by Eric Enno Tamm.

At the time, Western science knew almost nothing about the Yugur. In 1893, Russian explorer Grigory Nikoleyaevich Potanin published a small glossary of Yugur words, along with notes on their administration and geographical situation. Mannerheim was the first to conduct a detailed ethnographic investigation of the Yugur, drawing on nothing more than his two methodological textbooks—Notes and Queries on Anthropology by Francis Galton and Hints to Travellers by E.A. Reeves—to guide him in his research.

In 1911, he published his findings in an article for the Finno-Ugrian Society. “[I]t is without the least claim to authority,” he wrote in its introduction, “that I present this very unpretentious material to the kind consideration of the reader.”

The essay, titled “A Visit to the Sarö and Shera Yögurs,” is arguably Mannerheim’s greatest contribution to world ethnography. The original essay has been digitized and can be either read or downloaded below.

A Visit to the Sarö and Shera Yögurs by Gustaf Mannerheim