Mongolia

[Excerpted from Mongolia - A Country Study. Robert L. Worden and Andrea Matles Savada, eds. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1989]

Chapter 1. Historical Setting

MODERN MONGOLIA--the Mongolian People's Republic--comprises only about half of the vast Inner Asian region known throughout history as Mongolia. Furthermore, it is only a fraction of the great Mongol Empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that stretched from Korea to Hungary and encompassed nearly all of Asia except the Indian subcontinent and parts of Southeast Asia. Because the Mongol Empire was so vast--the largest contiguous land empire in the history of the world--the Mongols were written about in many languages by numerous chroniclers of divergent conquered societies, who provided a wide range of perspectives, myths, and legends. In addition, because many foreign accounts are about the Mongol invasions and were written by the conquered, the Mongols often are described in unfavorable terms, as bloodthirsty barbarians who kept their subjects under a harsh yoke. Mongol sources emphasize the demigod-like military genius of Chinggis Khan, providing a perspective in the opposite extreme. The term Mongol itself is often a misnomer. Although the leaders and core forces of the conquerors of Eurasia were ethnic Mongols, most of the main army was made up of Uralo-Altaic people, many of them Turkic. Militarily, the Mongols were stopped only by the Mamluks of Egypt and by the Japanese, or by their own volition, as happened in Europe. In their increasingly sophisticated administrative systems, they employed Chinese, Iranians, Russians, and others. Mongolia and its people thus have had a significant and lasting impact on the historical development of major nations, such as China and Russia, and, periodically, they have influenced the entire Eurasian continent.

Until the twentieth century, most of the peoples who inhabited Mongolia were nomads, and even in the 1980s a substantial proportion of the rural population was essentially nomadic. Originally there were many warlike nomadic tribes living in Mongolia, and apparently most of these belonged to one or the other of two racially distinct and linguistically very different groupings. One of these groupings, the Yuezhi, was related linguistically to the ancient nomadic Scythian peoples--who inhabited the steppes north and northeast of the Black Sea and the region east of the Aral Sea--and was therefore Indo-European. The other grouping was the Xiongnu, a nomadic people of uncertain origins.

Although in the course of history other peoples displaced, or became intermingled with, the Yuezhi and the Xiongnu, their activities, conflicts, and internal and external relations established a pattern, with four principal themes, that continued almost unchanged--except for the conquest of Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries--until the eighteenth century. First, among these four themes, there were constant fierce struggles involving neighboring tribes, engaged in frequently shifting alliances that did not always follow ethnic, racial, or linguistic lines. Second, during periods when China was united and strong, trade with Inner Asian peoples was allowed, and nomadic states either became vassals of the Chinese emperor, or they retreated beyond his reach into the northern steppes; conversely, when China appeared weak, raids were made into rich Chinese lands, sometimes resulting in retaliatory expeditions into Mongolia. Third, occasional, transitory consolidation--of all or of large portions of the region under the control of a conqueror or a coalition of similar tribes--took place; such temporary consolidations could result in a life-or- death struggle between major tribal groupings until one or the other was exterminated or was expelled from the region, or until they joined forces. Fourth, on several occasions, raids into northern China were so vast and successful that the victorious nomads settled in the conquered land, established dynasties, and eventually became absorbed--sinicized--by the more numerous Chinese.

Within this pattern, the Xiongnu eventually expelled the Yuezhi, who were driven to the southwest to become the Kushans of Iranian, Afghan, and Indian history. In turn, the Xiongnu themselves later were driven west. Their descendants, or possibly another group, continued this westward migration, establishing the Hun Empire, in Central and Eastern Europe, that reached its zenith under Attila.

The pattern was interrupted abruptly and dramatically late in the twelfth century and throughout the thirteenth century by Chinggis and his descendants. During the consolidation of Mongolia and some of the invasions of northern China, Chinggis created sophisticated military and political organizations, exceeding in skill, efficiency, and vigor the institutions of the most civilized nations of the time. Under him and his immediate successors, the Mongols conquered most of Eurasia.

After a century of Mongol dominance in Eurasia, the traditional patterns reasserted themselves. Mongols living outside Mongolia were absorbed by the conquered populations; Mongolia itself again became a land of incessantly warring nomadic tribes. True to the fourth pattern, a similar people, the Manchus, conquered China in the seventeenth century, and ultimately became sinicized.

Here the pattern ended. The Manchu conquest of China came at a time when the West was beginning to have a significant impact on East Asia. Russian colonial expansionism was sweeping rapidly across Asia--at first passing north of Mongolia but bringing incessant pressure, from the west and the north, against Mongol tribes--and was beginning to establish firm footholds in Mongolian territory by conquest and the establishment of protectorates. At the same time, the dynamic Manchus also applied pressure from the east and the south. This pressure was partly the traditional attempt at control over nomadic threats from Mongolia, but it also was a response to the now clearly apparent threat of Russian expansionism.

Early Development, ca. 220 B.C.-A.D. 1206

Origins of the Mongols

Archaeological evidence places early Stone Age human habitation in the southern Gobi between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. By the first millennium B.C., bronze-working peoples lived in Mongolia. With the appearance of iron weapons by the third century B.C., the inhabitants of Mongolia had begun to form tribal alliances and to threaten China. The origins of more modern inhabitants are found among the forest hunters and nomadic tribes of Inner Asia. They inhabited a great arc of land extending generally from the Korean Peninsula in the east, across the northern tier of China to the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and to the Pamir Mountains and Lake Balkash in the west. During most of recorded history, this has been an area of constant ferment from which emerged numerous migrations and invasions to the southeast (into China), to the southwest (into Transoxiana--modern Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, Iran, and India), and to the west (across Scythia toward Europe). By the eighth century B.C., the inhabitants of much of this region evidently were nomadic Indo-European speakers, either Scythians or their kin. Also scattered throughout the area were many other tribes that were primarily Mongol in their ethnologic characteristics.

Xiongnu and Yuezhi

The first significant recorded appearance of nomads came late in the third century B.C., when the Chinese repelled an invasion of the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu in Wade-Giles romanization) across the Huang He (Yellow River) from the Gobi. The Xiongnu were a nomadic people of uncertain origins. Their language is not known to modern scholars, but the people were probably similar in appearance and characteristics to the later Mongols. A Chinese army, which had adopted Xiongnu military technology--wearing trousers and using mounted archers with stirrups--pursued the Xiongnu across the Gobi in a ruthless punitive expedition. Fortification walls built by various Chinese warring states were connected to make a 2,300-kilometer Great Wall along the northern border, as a barrier to further nomadic inroads.

The Xiongnu temporarily abandoned their interest in China and turned their attention westward to the region of the Altai Mountains and Lake Balkash, inhabited by the Yuezhi (Yüeh-chih in Wade-Giles), an Indo-European-speaking nomadic people who had relocated from China's present-day Gansu Province as a result of their earlier defeat by the Xiongnu. Endemic warfare between these two nomadic peoples reached a climax in the latter part of the third century and the early decades of the second century B.C.; the Xiongnu were triumphant. The Yuezhi then migrated to the southwest where, early in the second century, they began to appear in the Oxus (the modern Amu Darya) Valley, to change the course of history in Bactria, Iran, and eventually India.

Meanwhile, the Xiongnu again raided northern China about 200 B.C., finding that the inadequately defended Great Wall was not a serious obstacle. By the middle of the second century B.C., they controlled all of northern and western China north of the Huang He. This renewed threat led the Chinese to improve their defenses in the north, while building up and improving the army, particularly the cavalry, and while preparing long-range plans for an invasion of Mongolia.

Between 130 and 121 B.C., Chinese armies drove the Xiongnu back across the Great Wall, weakened their hold on Gansu Province as well as on what is now Nei Monggol Autonomous Region (Inner Mongolia), and finally pushed them north of the Gobi into central Mongolia. Following these victories, the Chinese expanded into the areas later known as Manchuria, the Korean Peninsula, and Inner Asia. The Xiongnu, once more turning their attention to the west and the southwest, raided deep into the Oxus Valley between 73 and 44 B.C. The descendants of the Yuezhi and their Chinese rulers, however, formed a common front against the Xiongnu and repelled them.

During the next century, as Chinese strength waned, border warfare between the Chinese and the Xiongnu was almost incessant. Gradually the nomads forced their way back into Gansu and the northern part of what is now China's Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region. In about the middle of the first century A.D., a revitalized Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220) slowly recovered these territories, driving the Xiongnu back into the Altai Mountains and the steppes north of the Gobi. During the late first century A.D., having reestablished the administrative control over southern China and northern Vietnam that had been lost briefly at beginning of this same century, the Eastern Han made a concerted effort to reassert dominance over Inner Asia. A Chinese army crossed the Pamir Mountains, conquered territories as far west as the Caspian Sea, defeated the Yuezhi Kushan Empire, and even sent an emissary in search of the eastern provinces of Rome.

Donghu, Toba, and Ruruan

Although the Xiongnu finally had been driven back into their homeland by the Chinese in A.D. 48, within ten years the Xianbei (or Hsien-pei in Wade-Giles) had moved (apparently from the north or northwest) into the region vacated by the Xiongnu. The Xianbei were the northern branch of the Donghu (or Tung Hu, the Eastern Hu), a proto-Tunguz group mentioned in Chinese histories as existing as early as the fourth century B.C. The language of the Donghu, like that of the Xiongnu, is unknown to modern scholars. The Donghu were among the first peoples conquered by the Xiongnu. Once the Xiongnu state weakened, however, the Donghu rebelled. By the first century, two major subdivisions of the Donghu had developed: the Xianbei in the north and the Wuhuan in the south. The Xianbei, who by the second century A.D. were attacking Chinese farms south of the Great Wall, established an empire, which, although short-lived, gave rise to numerous tribal states along the Chinese frontier. Among these states was that of the Toba (T'o-pa in Wade-Giles), a subgroup of the Xianbei, in modern China's Shanxi Province. The Wuhuan also were prominent in the second century, but they disappeared thereafter; possibly they were absorbed in the Xianbei western expansion. The Xianbei and the Wuhuan used mounted archers in warfare, and they had only temporary war leaders instead of hereditary chiefs. Agriculture, rather than full-scale nomadism, was the basis of their economy. In the sixth century A.D., the Wuhuan were driven out of Inner Asia into the Russian steppe.

Chinese control of parts of Inner Asia did not last beyond the opening years of the second century, and, as the Eastern Han Dynasty ended early in the third century A.D., suzerainty was limited primarily to the Gansu corridor. The Xianbei were able to make forays into a China beset with internal unrest and political disintegration. By 317 all of China north of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) had been overrun by nomadic peoples: the Xianbei from the north; some remnants of the Xiongnu from the northwest; and the Chiang people of Gansu and Tibet (present-day China's Xizang Autonomous Region) from the west and the southwest. Chaos prevailed as these groups warred with each other and repulsed the vain efforts of the fragmented Chinese kingdoms south of the Chang Jiang to reconquer the region.

By the end of the fourth century, the region between the Chang Jiang and the Gobi, including much of modern Xinjiang, was dominated by the Toba. Emerging as the partially sinicized state of Dai between A.D. 338 and 376 in the Shanxi area, the Toba established control over the region as the Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386-533). Northern Wei armies drove back the Ruruan (referred to as Ruanruan or Juan-Juan by Chinese chroniclers), a newly arising nomadic Mongol people in the steppes north of the Altai Mountains, and reconstructed the Great Wall. During the fourth century also, the Huns left the steppes north of the Aral Sea to invade Europe. By the middle of the fifth century, Northern Wei had penetrated into the Tarim Basin in Inner Asia, as had the Chinese in the second century. As the empire grew, however, Toba tribal customs were supplanted by those of the Chinese, an evolution not accepted by all Toba.

The Ruruan, only temporarily repelled by Northern Wei, had driven the Xiongnu toward the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea and were making raids into China. In the late fifth century, the Ruruan established a powerful nomadic empire spreading generally north of Northern Wei. It was probably the Ruruan who first used the title khan.

Rise of the Türk

Northern Wei was disintegrating rapidly because of revolts of semi-tribal Toba military forces that were opposed to being sinicized, when disaster struck the flourishing Ruruan Empire. The Türk, a vassal people, known as Tujue to Chinese chroniclers, revolted against their Ruruan rulers. The uprising began in the Altai Mountains, where many of the Türk were serfs working the iron mines. Thus, from the outset of their revolt, they had the advantage of controlling what had been one of the major bases of Ruruan power. Between 546 and 553, the Türks overthrew the Ruruan and established themselves as the most powerful force in North Asia and Inner Asia. This was the beginning of a pattern of conquest that was to have a significant effect upon Eurasian history for more than 1,000 years. The Türk were the first people to use this later wide-spread name. They are also the earliest Inner Asian people whose language is known, because they left behind Orkhon inscriptions in a runic-like script, which was deciphered in 1896.

It was not long before the tribes in the region north of the Gobi--the Eastern Türk--were following invasion routes into China used in previous centuries by Xiongnu, Xianbei, Toba, and Ruruan. Like their predecessors who had inhabited the mountains and the steppes, the attention of the Türk quickly was attracted by the wealth of China. At first these new raiders encountered little resistance, but toward the end of the sixth century, as China slowly began to recover from centuries of disunity, border defenses stiffened. The original Türk state split into eastern and western parts, with some of the Eastern Türk acknowledging Chinese overlordship.

For a brief period at the beginning of the seventh century, a new consolidation of the Türk, under the Western Türk ruler Tardu, again threatened China. In 601 Tardu's army besieged Chang'an (modern Xi'an), then the capital of China. Tardu was turned back, however, and, upon his death two years later, the Türk state again fragmented. The Eastern Türk nonetheless continued their depredations, occasionally threatening Chang'an.

Influence of Tang China

From 629 to 648, a reunited China--under the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906)--destroyed the power of the Eastern Türk north of the Gobi; established suzerainty over the Kitan, a semi-nomadic Mongol people who lived in areas that became the modern Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin; and formed an alliance with the Uighurs, who inhabited the region between the Altai Mountains and Lake Balkash. Between 641 and 648, the Tang conquered the Western Türk, reestablishing Chinese sovereignty over Xinjiang and exacting tribute from west of the Pamir Mountains. The Türk empire finally ended in 744.

For more than a century, the Tang retained control of central and eastern Mongolia and parts of Inner Asia. During this century, the Tang expanded Chinese control into the Oxus Valley. At the same time, their allies and nominal vassals, the Uighurs, conquered much of western and northern Mongolia until, by the middle of the eighth century, the Uighur seminomadic empire extended from Lake Balkash to Lake Baykal.

It was at about this time that the Arab-led tide of Islam reached Inner Asia. After a bitter struggle, the Chinese were ejected from the Oxus Valley, but with Uighur assistance they defeated Muslim efforts to penetrate into Xinjiang. The earliest Mongol links with Tibetan Buddhism, or Lamaism, also may have been established in this period. During this time, the Kitan of western Manchuria took advantage of the situation to throw off Chinese control, and they began to raid northern China.

Despite these crippling losses, the Tang recovered and, with considerable Uighur assistance, held their frontiers. Tang dependence upon their northern allies was apparently a source of embarrassment to the Chinese, who surreptitiously encouraged the Kirghiz and the Karluks to attack the Uighurs, driving them south into the Tarim Basin. As a result of the Kirghiz action, the Uighur empire collapsed in 846. Some of the Uighurs emigrated to Chinese Turkestan (the Turpan region), where they established a flourishing kingdom that freely submitted to Chinggis Khan several centuries later. Ironically, this weakening of the Uighurs undoubtedly hastened the decline and fall of the Tang Dynasty over the next fifty years.

Kitan and Jurchen

Free of Uighur restraint, the Kitan expanded in all directions in the latter half of the ninth century and the early years of the tenth century. By 925 the Kitan ruled eastern Mongolia, most of Manchuria, and much of China north of the Huang He. In the recurrent process of sinicization, by the middle of the tenth century Kitan chieftains had established themselves as emperors of northern China; their rule was known as the Liao Dynasty (916-1125).

The period of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was one of consolidation, preceding the most momentous era in Mongol history, the era of Chinggis Khan. During those centuries, the vast region of deserts, mountains, and grazing land was inhabited by people resembling each other in racial, cultural, and linguistic characteristics; ethnologically they were essentially Mongol. The similarites among the Mongols, Türk, Tangut, and Tatars, who inhabited this region causes considerable ethnic and historical confusion. Generally, the Mongols and the closely related Tatars inhabited the northern and the eastern areas; the Türk (who already had begun to spread over western Asia and southeastern Europe) were in the west and the southwest; the Tangut, who were more closely related to the Tibetans than were the other nomads and who were not a Turkic people, were in eastern Xinjiang, Gansu, and western Inner Mongolia. The Liao state was homogeneous, and the Kitan had begun to lose their nomadic characteristics. The Kitan built cities and exerted dominion over their agricultural subjects as a means of consolidating their empire. To the west and the northwest of Liao were many other Mongol tribes, linked together in various tenuous alliances and groupings, but with little national cohesiveness. In Gansu and eastern Xinjiang, the Tangut--who had taken advantage of the Tang decline--had formed a state, Western Xia or Xixia (1038-1227), nominally under Chinese suzerainty. Xinjiang was dominated by the Uighurs, who were loosely allied with the Chinese.

The people of Mongolia at this time were predominantly spirit worshipers, with shamans providing spiritual and religious guidance to the people and tribal leaders. There had been some infusion of Buddhism, which had spread from Xinjiang, but it did not yet have a strong influence. Nestorian Christianity also had penetrated Inner Asia.

In the eleventh century, the Kitan completed the conquest of China north of the Huang He. Despite close cultural ties between the Kitan and Western Xia that led the latter to become increasingly sinicized, during the remainder of that century and the early years of the twelfth century, the two Mongol groups were frequently at war with each other and with the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) of China. The Uighurs of the Turpan region often were involved in these wars, usually aiding the Chinese against Western Xia.

A Tungusic people, the Jurchen, ancestors of the Manchu, formed an alliance with the Song and reduced the Kitan Empire to vassal status in a seven-year war (1115-1122). The Jurchen leader proclaimed himself the founder of a new era, the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). Scarcely pausing in their conquests, the Jurchen subdued neighboring Koryo (Korea) in 1226 and invaded the territory of their former allies, the Song, to precipitate a series of wars with China that continued through the remainder of the century. Meanwhile, the defeated Kitan Liao ruler had fled with the small remnant of his army to the Tarim Basin, where he allied himself with the Uighurs and established the Karakitai state (known also as the Western Liao Dynasty, 1124-1234), which soon controlled both sides of the Pamir Mountains. The Jurchen turned their attention to the Mongols who, in 1139 and in 1147, warded them off.

The Era of Chinggis Khan, 1206-27

Rise of Chinggis Khan

After the migration of the Jurchen, the Borjigin Mongols had emerged in central Mongolia as the leading clan of a loose federation. The principal Borjigin Mongol leader, Kabul Khan, began a series of raids into Jin in 1135. In 1162 (some historians say 1167), Temujin, the first son of Mongol chieftain Yesugei, and grandson of Kabul, was born. Yesugei, who was chief of the Kiyat subclan of the Borjigin Mongols, was killed by neighboring Tatars in 1175, when Temujin was only twelve years old. The Kiyat rejected the boy as their leader and chose one of his kin instead. Temujin and his immediate family were abandoned and apparently left to die in a semidesert, mountainous region.

Temujin did not die, however. In a dramatic struggle described in The Secret History of the Mongols, Temujin, by the age of twenty, had become the leader of the Kiyat subclan and by 1196, the unquestioned chief of the Borjigin Mongols. Sixteen years of nearly constant warfare followed as Temujin consolidated his power north of the Gobi. Much of his early success was because of his first alliance, with the neighboring Kereit clan, and because of subsidies that he and the Kereit received from the Jin emperor in payment for punitive operations against Tatars and other tribes that threatened the northern frontiers of Jin. Jin by this time had become absorbed into the Chinese cultural system and was politically weak and increasingly subject to harassment by Western Xia, the Chinese, and finally the Mongols. Later Temujin broke with the Kereit, and, in a series of major campaigns, he defeated all the Mongol and Tatar tribes in the region from the Altai Mountains to Manchuria. In time Temujin emerged as the strongest chieftain among a number of contending leaders in a confederation of clan lineages. His principal opponents in this struggle had been the Naiman Mongols, and he selected Karakorum (west-southwest of modern Ulaanbaatar, near modern Har Horin), their capital, as the seat of his new empire.

In 1206 Temujin's leadership of all Mongols and other peoples they had conquered between the Altai Mountains and the Da Hinggan (Greater Khingan) Range was acknowledged formally by a kuriltai (council) of chieftains as their khan. Temujin took the honorific chinggis, meaning supreme or great (also romanized as genghis or jenghiz), creating the title Chinggis Khan, in an effort to signify the unprecedented scope of his power. In latter hagiography, Chinggis was said even to have had divine ancestry. The contributions of Chinggis to Mongol organizational development had lasting impact. He took personal control of the old clan lineages, ending the tradition of noninterference by the khan. He unified the Mongol tribes through a logistical nexus involving food supplies, sheep and horse herds, intelligence and security, and transportation. A census system was developed to organize the decimal-based political jurisdictions and to recruit soldiers more easily. As the great khan, Chinggis was able to consolidate his organization and to institutionalize his leadership over a Eurasian empire. Critical ingredients were his new and unprecedented military system and politico-military organization. His exceptionally flexible mounted army and the cadre of Chinese and Muslim siege-warfare experts who facilitated his conquest of cities comprised one of the most formidable instruments of warfare that the world had ever seen.

At the time of his first kuriltai at Karakorum, Chinggis already was engaged in a dispute with Western Xia, the first of his wars of conquest. In 1205 the Mongol military organization, based on the tumen, had defeated the much larger Tangut forces easily. Despite problems in conquering the well-fortified Western Xia cities, the results were the same in the campaigns of 1207 and 1209. When peace was concluded in 1209, the Western Xia emperor, with substantially reduced dominion, acknowledged Chinggis as overlord.

Early Wars in China

A major goal of Chinggis was the conquest of Jin, both to avenge earlier defeats and to gain the riches of northern China. He declared war in 1211, and at first the pattern of operations against Jin was the same as it had been against Western Xia. The Mongols were victorious in the field, but they were frustrated in their efforts to take major cities. In his typically logical and determined fashion, Chinggis and his highly developed staff studied the problems of the assault of fortifications. With the help of Chinese engineers, they gradually developed the techniques that eventually would make them the most accomplished and most successful besiegers in the history of warfare.

As a result of a number of overwhelming victories in the field and a few successes in the capture of fortifications deep within China, Chinggis had conquered and had consolidated Jin territory as far south as the Great Wall by 1213. He then advanced with three armies into the heart of Jin territory, between the Great Wall and the Huang He. He defeated the Jin forces, devastated northern China, captured numerous cities, and in 1215 besieged, captured, and sacked the Jin capital of Yanjing (later known as Beijing). The Jin emperor did not surrender, however, but removed his capital to Kaifeng. There his successors finally were defeated, but not until 1234. Meanwhile, Kuchlug, the deposed khan of the Naiman Mongols, had fled west and had conquered the state of Karakitai, the western allies that had decided to side with Chinggis.

By this time, the Mongol army was exhausted by ten years of continuous campaigning against Western Xia and Jin. Therefore, Chinggis sent only two tumen under a brilliant young general, Jebe, against Kuchlug. An internal revolt was incited by Mongol agents; then Jebe overran the country. Kuchlug's forces were defeated west of Kashgar; he was captured and executed, and Karakitai was annexed. By 1218 the Mongol state extended as far west as Lake Balkash and adjoined Khwarizm, a Muslim state that reached to the Caspian Sea in the west and to the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea in the south.

Conquest of Khwarizm and Reconnaissance into Europe

In 1218 the governor of an eastern province of Khwarizm mistreated several Mongol emissaries. Chinggis retaliated with a force of more than 200,000 troops, and Khwarizm was eradicated by 1220. A detachment of about 25,000 Mongol cavalry, as part of the Khwarizmian campaign, had crossed the Caucasus Mountains, had skirted the Caspian Sea, and had briefly invaded Europe.

After defeating the Georgians and the Cumans of the Caucasus, the small Mongol expedition advanced in 1222 into the steppes of the Kuban. Combining rapid movement with guile, the Mongols again defeated the Cumans, captured Astrakhan, then crossed the Don River into Russia. Penetrating the Crimea, they stormed the Genoese fortress of Sudak on the southeastern coast, then turned north into what later became known as the Ukraine.

The Mongol leaders now thought they had accomplished their mission. Before returning to Mongolia, however, they decided to rest their troops and to gain more information about the lands to the north and the west. They camped near the mouth of the Dnieper River, and their spies soon were scattered throughout eastern and central Europe.

Meanwhile, a mixed Russian-Cuman army of 80,000 under the leadership of Mstislav, prince of Kiev, marched against the Mongol encampment. Jebe and Subetei, another great Mongol general, sought peace; however, when their envoys were murdered, they attacked and routed Mstislav's force on the banks of the Halha River. Historian Charles Halperin estimated that by this time the "destructive power of the Mongol war machine eclipsed anything the Russians had seen before," and the Kievan Russians found themeselves faced no longer with a renewal of the sporadic raids of the past but with the threat of subjugation and foreign domination. In compliance with a courier message from Chinggis, the expedition then marched eastward. As the Mongols were marching north of the Caspian Sea, Jebe died of illness. In 1224 Subetei led the expedition back, after a trek of more than 6,400 kilometers, to a rendezvous with the main Mongol armies, that were returning from their victories over the Khwarizm.

The Last Campaign of Chinggis Khan

The vassal emperor of Western Xia had refused to take part in the war against the Khwarizm, and Chinggis had vowed punishment. While he was in Iran, Western Xia and Jin had formed an alliance against the Mongols. After rest and a reorganization of his armies, Chinggis prepared for war against his foes.

By this time, advancing years had led Chinggis to prepare for the future and to assure an orderly succession among his descendants. He selected his son Ogedei as his successor and established the method of selection of subsequent khans, specifying that they should come from his direct descendants. Meanwhile, he studied intelligence reports from Western Xia and Jin and readied a force of 180,000 troops for a new campaign.

Late in 1226, when the rivers were frozen, the Mongols struck southward with their customary speed and vigor. The Tangut, well acquainted with Mongol methods, were ready, and the two armies met by the banks of the frozen Huang He. Despite a Western Xia army of more than 300,000 troops, the Mongols virtually annihilated the Tangut host.

Pursuing energetically, the Mongols killed the Western Xia emperor in a mountain fortress. His son took refuge in the great walled city of Ningxia, which the Mongols had failed to conquer in earlier wars. Leaving one-third of his army to take Ningxia, Chinggis sent Ogedei eastward, across the great bend of the Huang He, to drive the Jin forces from their last footholds north of the river. With the remainder of his troops, he marched southeast, evidently to eastern Sichuan Province, where the Western Xia, the Jin, and the Song empires met, to prevent Song reinforcements from reaching Ningxia. Here he accepted the surrender of the new Western Xia emperor but rejected peace overtures from Jin.

A premonition of death caused Chinggis to head back to Mongolia, but he died en route. On his deathbed in 1227, he outlined to his youngest son, Tului, the plans that later would be used by his successors to complete the destruction of the Jin empire.

Successors of Chinggis, 1228-59

Ogedei and Continuing Conquests

In compliance with the will of the dead khan, a kuriltai at Karakorum in 1228 selected Ogedei as khan. The kuriltai also decided to launch a campaign against the Bulghars, Turks in the region of Kazan on the middle Volga River, and to complete the conquest of the outlying Western Xia territories. By 1229 Batu Khan, grandson of Chinggis, had defeated most of the Bulghar outposts, and in 1231 Ogedei sent an expedition to conquer the Korean Peninsula.

That same year, Ogedei decided to destroy Jin. He formed an alliance with the Song, then sent Tului southward with a large army into Jin territory. In 1232 in the middle of the campaign, Tului died, and Subetei took command. He continued on to besiege Kaifeng, the Jin capital. Despite the defenders' skillful use of explosives, the city fell to the Mongols after a year's siege. Subetei then completed the conquest of the Jin empire, driving many of the Jurchen back into their original homeland, but absorbing others into the Mongol army for the further conquest of China. Ogedei refused to divide the conquered region with the Song, which in 1234 attempted to seize part of the former Jin empire. This was the signal for another war, which lasted fortyfive years.

Ogedei committed the Mongols, whose total population could not have exceeded 1 million, to an offensive war against the most populous nation on earth, while other Mongol armies were invading Iran, Anatolia, Syria, and the steppes of western Siberia and Russia. By this time, ethnic Mongols were a minority of the Mongol armies. The remainder were Turks, Tatars, Tangut, Cumans, Bulghars, and other Inner Asian peoples. Nonetheless, the confidence with which the Mongol armies embarked on these farflung wars was almost as remarkable as the invariable success of their operations.

In compliance with the wishes of Chinggis, as expressed presumably in his legal code, the yasaq, his vast empire had been apportioned among his sons (only three survived; the eldest, Jochi, had died in 1227), and his sons' descendants, subject to the overall authority of the khan at Karakorum, which was rebuilt in 1235 by Ogedi. Jochi's son, Batu, ruled the region to the north and the west of Lake Balkash. Chagadai, the second son of Chinggis was given the southwestern region that includes modern Afghanistan, Turkestan (now in the Soviet Union), and central Siberia. He and his successors were known as the khans of the Chagadai Mongols. By implication, this realm extended indefinitely to the southwest, as Batu's did to the northwest. Ogedei and his progeny were awarded China and the other lands of East Asia. Tului, the youngest of the four principal heirs, was to have central Mongolia, the homeland, in accordance with Mongol custom. He and his descendants, however, were to share Mongolia's precious fighting manpower with the other three khanates.

The kuriltai of 1235 authorized at least two more major offensive operations: one against Tibet, the other in Eastern Europe. The Tibetan expedition was led by Godan, son of Ogedei, and the conquest was completed in 1239.

Subetei and the European Expedition

The European expedition was to be a major Mongol effort, comparable in scope to the war against China. It was to become a catastrophe of monumental proportions for medieval East Europeans, who were confronted with devastating wars and serious social disruption. Nominal command was to be exercised by Batu, because this was the part of the world he had inherited from Chinggis. The actual commander was the aging, but still brilliant, Subetei. He was probably the most gifted of all Mongol generals, after Chinggis himself, and he had been one of the commanders of the momentous reconnaissance that had swept through southern Russia fifteen years earlier.

The Bulghars were defeated in 1236, and in December 1237 Subetei and Batu led an army of 600,000 across the frozen Volga River. The Mongols spread destruction and death through Russia. Moscow, Vladimir, and other northern Russian principalities were destroyed before summer 1238. Subetei then turned south to the steppe region around the Don, to allow his army to rest, to regain strength, and to prepare for new advances. Apparently his timetable was delayed for a year by a dispute between Batu and other royal princes commanding various hordes. Nonetheless, this additional time gave Subetei an opportunity to accumulate still further information about central and western Europe from his spies.

In November 1240, after the rivers and marshes of what, in modern times, is the Ukraine had frozen enough to take the weight of cavalry, the Mongol army crossed the Dnieper River. On December 6, it conquered Kiev, the seat of the grand prince and the Metropolitan See of Rus'. Subetei continued westward, his army advancing, typically, on a broad front in three major columns.

To the north was the horde of Kaidu Khan, three tumen strong, protecting the right flank of the main body. Kaidu swept through Lithuania and Poland; on March 18 he destroyed the Polish army at Cracow. He detached a tumen to raid along the Baltic coast and with the remainder headed westward into Silesia. On April 9, 1241, at Liegnitz (Legnica, in Poland), the more disciplined Mongol army decisively defeated a numerically superior combined European army in a bitterly contested battle.

Meanwhile, a horde of three tumen under Kadan, another son of Ogedei, protected the southern flank and advanced through Transylvania, into the Danube Valley, and into Hungary. In midApril Kadan and Kaidu joined the main body--under Batu--in central Hungary.

Batu led the central force across the Carpathian Mountains in early April 1241, lured the army of King Bela IV of Hungary into battle at the Sajo River on April 11, and annihilated it. The Mongols then seized Pest, and they spent the rest of the year consolidating their control of Hungary east of the Danube River.

Late in 1241, the Mongols were ready to move again. In December the army crossed the frozen Danube. Scouting parties raided into northern Italy toward Venice and Treviso, and up the Danube toward Vienna. But suddenly the advance halted. Word had come, by way of the incredibly swift Mongol messenger service, that Ogedei had died on December 11.

The yasaq explicitly provided that after the death of the ruler all offspring of the house of Chinggis Khan, wherever they might be, must return to Mongolia to take part in the election of the new khan. From the outskirts of Vienna and Venice, the tumen countermarched, never to reappear. They moved through Dalmatia and Serbia, then eastward where they virtually destroyed the kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria before crossing the lower Danube. They evacuated Hungary for lack of sufficient pasture and moved into the south Russian steppe. Advances into India also ceased.

Reign of Kuyuk

It was not until the summer of 1246 that a kuriltai assembled at Karakorum to select a successor to Ogedei. This was mainly because of political maneuvering by Batu and other royal princes who had hopes of being elected. While deliberately stalling in Bulghar in 1241, Batu founded Sarai (near modern Leninsk, Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic) on the lower Volga River, as the capital of his Khanate of Kipchak, best known to history as the Golden Horde.

Between 1242 and 1246, Ogedei's widow, Teregene, held power as regent in preparation for the selection of her son, Kuyuk, as the new khan. Present during the kuriltai was the Franciscan friar, John of Plano Carpini, a papal envoy sent to ascertain the intentions of the Mongols. He recognized that the Mongols planned the conquest of Europe, and he belatedly urged Europe's monarchs to adopt Mongol strategy and tactics to oppose the coming onslaught.

Kuyuk apparently was torn between completing the conquest of China and continuing the conquest of Europe. The latter project was complicated, however, by Kuyuk's continuing rivalry with Batu. Just as civil war seemed imminent in 1249, Kuyuk died.

Mengke and the War in China

Except for the descendants of Ogedei and Chagadai, most of the royal princes thought that Batu should be elected khan. By this time, however, Batu had decided that he preferred the steppes of the Volga to the steppes of Mongolia. He declined the offer and nominated Mengke, the eldest son of Tului (who had died in 1233), unquestionably one of the most gifted descendants of Chinggis. Mengke's nomination was confirmed by a kuriltai in 1251. He executed several of Ogedei's sons who had opposed his election and quickly restored to Mongol rule the vigor that had been lacking since the death of Chinggis.

Taking seriously the legacy of world conquest, Mengke decided to place primary emphasis on completing the conquest of Asia, particularly China; Europe was to be dealt with later. Because the Song had had the benefit of a lull of nearly ten years in which to recover and to reorganize, conquering Asia had become more difficult than it would have been earlier. Mengke himself took command, but he also placed great responsibility on his younger brother, Khubilai. Another brother, Hulegu, was sent to Iran to renew the expansion of Mongol control in Southwest Asia. Mengke encouraged Batu to raid Central Europe, but did not send him additional resources. Thus, although Batu's armies raided deep into Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia, and again overran Serbia and Bulgaria, these campaigns were not so important as the ones being undertaken in Southeast Asia and Southwest Asia.

Mengke also made some major administrative changes in the khanates established by the will of Chinggis. He disinherited the surviving sons of Ogedei, arranging that he and Khubilai would inherit the lands of East Asia. He also placed a limit on the domains of the successors of Chagadai; these were to end along the Oxus River and the Hindu Kush, instead of extending indefinitely to the southwest. Southwest Asia was to be the inheritance of Mengke's brother, Hulegu, the first of the Ilkhans ("subservient khans") or Mongol rulers of Iran.

Mengke prosecuted the war in China with intensity and skill. His principal assistant was Khubilai, who was appointed viceroy in China. In 1252 and 1253, Khubilai conquered Nanchao (modern Yunnan). Tonkin (as northern Vietnam was known) then was invaded and pacified. The conquest ended with the fall of Hanoi in 1257.

Song resistance in southern China was based upon determined defense of its well-fortified, well-provisioned cities. The Chinese empire began to crumble, however, under the impact of a series of brilliant campaigns, personally directed by Mengke between 1257 and 1259. His sudden death from dysentery in August 1259, however, caused another lull in the war with China and put a stop to advances in West Asia.

Khubilai Khan and the Yuan Dynasty, 1261-1368

A New Khan

The overwhelming choice of the kuriltai as Mengke's successor was his equally brilliant brother, Khubilai. Khubilai's selection was opposed violently, however, by his younger brother, Arik-Buka. This opposition precipitated a civil war won by Khubilai in 1261. For the next few years, the new khan devoted his attention to administrative reforms of his vast empire. A major development was Khubilai's establishment in 1260 of a winter capital at what is now Beijing but was then called Dadu ("great capital," also called Khanbalik--Marco Polo's Cambaluc) which shifted the political center of the Mongol empire south into China and increased Chinese influence. Khubilai maintained a summer residence north of the Great Wall at Shangdu (the Xanadu of Coleridge).

In 1268 Khubilai was able to turn his full attention to the war in China. A series of campaigns, distinguished by the skill of Bayan (grandson of Subetei), culminated in 1276 in the capture of Hangzhou, the Song capital. It took three more years to subdue the outlying provinces. The last action of the war--a naval battle in Guangzhou Bay, in which the remnants of the Song fleet were destroyed by a Mongol fleet made up of defectors from the Song navy--took place in 1279.

Khubilai did not share Mengke's fierce desire to conquer the world. He had warred against China with determination, but apparently he realized that there was a limit to the Mongol capabilities for consolidating and for controlling conquered territory. It is likely that he recognized that this limit was being approached because of an event that occurred during the interregnum between Mengke's death and his own accession.

Hulegu, who had seized Baghdad and defeated the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 and conquered Mesopotamia and Syria, had returned to Mongolia upon receiving news of Mengke's death. While he was gone, his forces were defeated by a larger, Mamluk, army at the Battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine in 1260. This was the first significant Mongol defeat in seventy years. The Mamluks had been led by a Turk named Baibars, a former Mongol warrior who used Mongol tactics.

Neither Khubilai nor Hulegu made a serious effort to avenge the defeat of Ain Jalut. Both devoted their attention primarily to consolidating their conquests, to suppressing dissidence, and to reestablishing law and order. Like their uncle, Batu, and his Golden Horde successors, they limited their offensive moves to occasional raids or to attacks with limited objectives in unconquered neighboring regions. After the failure of two invasion attempts against Japan in 1274 and 1281, Khubilai also gave up his goal of expansion to the east. In January 1293, Khubilai invaded Java and defeated the local ruler, only to be driven off the island by a Javanese ally who turned against him.

After the Song Dynasty had been destroyed, in 1279 Khubilai declared himself emperor of a united China with its capital at Dadu, and he established the Yuan ("first," "beginning") Dynasty (1279-1368). Khubilai, who took the Chinese-style reign title Zhiyuan ("the greatest of the Yuan"), proved himself to be one of the most able rulers of imperial China.

The Yuan Dynasty

A rich cultural diversity evolved in China during the Yuan Dynasty, as it had in other periods of foreign dynastic rule. Major achievements included the development of drama and the novel and the increased use of the written vernacular. The Yuan was involved in a fair amount of cultural exchange because of its extensive West Asian and European contacts. The introduction of foreign musical instruments enriched the Chinese performing arts. The conversion to Islam of growing numbers of people in northwestern and southwestern China dates from this period. Nestorian Christianity and Roman Catholicism also enjoyed a period of toleration. Lamaism flourished, although native Daoism endured Mongol persecutions. Chinese governmental practices and examinations were reinstated by the Mongols in the hope of maintaining order within society. Advances were realized in the fields of travel literature, cartography, geography, and scientific education. Certain key Chinese innovations--such as printing techniques, porcelain playing cards, and medical literature--were introduced in Europe, while European skills, such as the production of thin glass and cloisonné, became popular in China.

The Mongols undertook extensive public works. Land and water communications were reorganized and improved. To provide against possible famines, new granaries were ordered to be built throughout the empire. Dadu was rebuilt with new palace grounds that included artificial lakes, hills, and parks, and the capital became the terminus of the Grand Canal, which was completely renovated. These commercially oriented improvements encouraged overland as well as maritime commerce throughout Asia and facilitated the first direct Chinese contacts with Europe. Chinese and Mongol travelers to the West were able to provide assistance in such areas as hydraulic engineering, and they brought back to China new scientific discoveries, agricultural crops, methods of food preparation, and architectural innovations.

Early records of travel by Westerners to East Asia date from this time. Much that the Western world of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries knew about the Mongols and Asia was the result of the famous missions of a Venetian trading family. The first mission was by two brothers, Niccolò and Maffeo Polo, from 1260 to 1268. Another started in 1271, when they were joined by Niccolò's son, Marco. Marco Polo, who remained in Asia until 1295, was trusted by Khubilai Khan and undertook a number of diplomatic missions and administrative assignments for him throughout the empire. The account of his travels, Il milione (or, The Million, known in English as the Travels of Marco Polo), appeared about the year 1299 and astounded the people of Europe, who knew little of the highly developed culture of East Asia. The works of John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck also provided early descriptions of the Mongols to the West.

The Mongols sought, but failed, to govern China through its traditional institutions. At the outset, they discriminated against the Chinese socially and politically, monopolized the most important central and regional government posts, and developed an unprecedented and complex six-tier local-government administration. Mongols also preferred employing non-Chinese from other parts of the Mongol domain--Inner Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe--in those positions for which no Mongol could be found. Chinese, in turn, were more often employed in non-Chinese regions of the empire.

In time, Khubilai's successors became sinicized, and they then lost all influence on other Mongol lands across Asia. Gradually, they lost influence in China as well. The reigns of the later Yuan emperors were short and were marked by intrigues and rivalries. Uninterested in administration, they were separated from both their Mongolian army and their Chinese subjects. China was torn by dissension and unrest; bandits ranged the country without interference from the weakening Yuan armies.

The last of the nine successors of Khubilai was expelled from Dadu in 1368 by Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and died in Karakorum in 1370. Although Zhu, who adopted Mongol military methods, drove the Mongols out of China, he did not destroy their power. A later Chinese army invaded Mongolia in 1380. In 1388 a decisive victory was won; about 70,000 Mongols were taken prisoner, and Karakorum was annihilated.

The Ilkhans

The Mongol defeat at Ain Jalut in 1260 led directly to the first important war between grandsons of Chinggis. The Mamluk leader, Baibars, made an alliance with Berke Khan, Batu's brother and successor. Berke had converted to Islam, and he thus was sympathetic to the Mamluk for religious reasons, as well as because he was jealous of his nephew, Hulegu. When Hulegu sent an army to Syria to punish Baibars, he was attacked suddenly by Berke. Hulegu had to turn his army back to the Caucasus to meet this threat, and he made repeated attempts to ally himself with the kings of France and England and with the Pope in order to crush the Mamluks in Palestine. Berke withdrew, however, when Khubilai sent 30,000 troops to aid the Ilkhans.

This chain of events marked the end of the Mongol expansion in Southwest Asia. Although Hulegu's successors did not exhibit the austere martial qualities of their forebears, they did bring a partial and brief economic revival to Iran. An increase in commerce and the expansion of trade routes brought a measure of cross culturization between Iran and China. The Mongol rulers devoted themselves to a more genteel life and let their provinces be governed by Turkish viziers. Finally these viziers seized control, and the Ilkhan khanate ended with the death of Abu Said in 1335.

The Golden Horde

The Golden Horde of Batu had more time and more room for expansion of its territories than any other Mongol khanate. The Mongols maintained sovereignty over eastern Russia from 1240 to 1480, and they controlled the upper Volga area, the territories of the former Volga Bulghar state, Siberia, the northern Caucasus, Bulgaria (for a time), the Crimea, and Khwarizm. By applying the principle of indirect rule, the Golden Horde Mongols were able to preserve the Mongol ruling class and the local dynasties for more than 200 years. The influence that the Golden Horde Mongols came to have over medieval Russia and other areas was immense and lasting. They played a role in unifying the future Russian state, provided new political institutions, influenced imperial visions, and, through indirect rule, facilitated the appearance of a Muscovite autocracy.

The Golden Horde capital at Sarai became a prosperous center of commerce. Here, as in China, Mongol rule meant free trade, the exchange of goods between the East and the West, and also broad religious toleration.

In the mid-thirteenth century, the Golden Horde was administratively and militarily an integral part of the Mongol empire with its capital at Karakorum. By the early fourteenth century, however, this allegiance had become largely symbolic and ceremonial. Although certain Mongol administrative forms--such as census and postal systems--were maintained, other customs were not. The Golden Horde embraced Islam as its state religion and, with it, adopted new and more complex administrative forms to replace those of the old regime that had been devised for conquest. Even though most Mongols remained steppe nomads, new cities were founded, and a permanent urbanized bureaucracy and social structure took shape at Sarai. The Golden Horde allied itself with the Mamluks and negotiated with the Byzantines to combat the Ilkhans in a struggle to control Azerbaijan. Rather than isolating Russia, the Mongol presence and extensive diplomatic system brought envoys to Sarai from central and southern Europe, the Pope, Southwest Asia, Egypt, Iran, Inner Asia, China, and Mongolia.

The Mongols' vast contacts opened Russia to new influences, both Eastern and Western. The reason the Mongols did not occupy Russia itself, but left its administration to local princes, was not inability to administer a society that was both urban and agrarian, or Russian resistance. Rather, some historians believe that Russia had little to offer the Mongols in terms of produce or trade routes, and even tax revenues were insignificant compared with the wealth of the southern realms under their control. The inability of cavalry to operate in forests and swamps--a factor that limited the northward advance of the Mongols and largely determined the northern frontier of their empire--was undoubtedly a distinct disincentive as well.

In time the Golden Horde Mongols and the Mongol Tatars, although still nomads, lost their original identities and--as happened to Mongols in China and Iran--became largely synonymous with the local Turkic peoples, the Kipchak. Arabic and Tatar replaced Mongol as the official language of the Golden Horde, and increasing political fragmentation occurred. The power of the Golden Horde khans slowly declined, particularly as a powerful new state rose in central Russia.

The Mongol Decline

Contributing to the eventual Mongol decline in Eurasia was a bitter war with Timur, also known as Timur Lenk (or Timur the Lame, from which Tamerlane is derived). He was a man of aristocratic Transoxianian birth who falsely claimed descent from Chinggis. Timur reunited Turkestan and the lands of the Ilkhans; in 1391 he invaded the Eurasian steppes and defeated the Golden Horde. He ravaged the Caucasus and southern Russia in 1395. Timur's empire disintegrated, however, soon after his death in 1405.

The effects of Timur's victory, as well as those of devastating drought and plague, were both economic and political. The Golden Horde's central base had been destroyed, and trade routes were moved south of the Caspian Sea. Political struggles led to the split of the Golden Horde into three separate khanates: Astrakhan, Kazan, and the Crimea. Astrakhan--the Golden Horde itself--was destroyed in 1502 by an alliance of Crimean Tatars and Muscovites. The last reigning descendant of Chinggis, Shahin Girai, khan of the Crimea, was deposed by the Russians in 1783.

The Mongols' influence and their intermarriage with the Russian aristocracy had a lasting effect on Russia. Despite the destruction caused by their invasion, the Mongols made valuable contributions to administrative practices. Through their presence, which in some ways checked the influence of European Renaissance ideas in Russia, they helped reemphasize traditional ways. This Mongol--or Tatar as it became known--heritage has much to do with Russia's distinctiveness from the other nations of Europe.

There were a number of reasons for the relatively rapid decline of the Mongols as an influential power. One important factor was their failure to acculturate their subjects to Mongol social traditions. Another was the fundamental contradiction of a feudal, essentially nomadic, society's attempting to perpetuate a stable, centrally administered empire. The sheer size of the empire was reason enough for the Mongol collapse. It was too large for one person to administer, as Chinggis had realized, yet adequate coordination was impossible among the ruling elements after the split into khanates. Possibly the most important single reason was the disproportionately small number of Mongol conquerors compared with the masses of subject peoples.

The change in Mongol cultural patterns that did occur inevitably exacerbated natural divisions in the empire. As different areas adopted different foreign religions, Mongol cohesiveness dissolved. The nomadic Mongols had been able to conquer the Eurasian land mass through a combination of organizational ability, military skill, and fierce warlike prowess, but they fell prey to alien cultures, to the disparity between their way of life and the needs of empire, and to the size of their domain, which proved too large to hold together. The Mongols declined when their sheer momentum could no longer sustain them.

Mongolia in Transition, 1368-1911

Return to Nomadic Patterns

The end of the Yuan was the second turning point in Mongol history. The retreat of more than 60,000 Mongols into the Mongolian heartland brought radical changes to the quasifeudalistic system. In the early fifteenth century, the Mongols split into two groups, the Oirad in the Altai region and the eastern group that later came to be known as the Khalkha in the area north of the Gobi. A lengthy civil war (1400-54) precipitated still more changes in the old social and political institutions. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the Oirad had emerged as the predominant force, and, under the leadership of Esen Khan, they united much of Mongolia and then continued their war against China. Esen was so successful against China that, in 1449, he defeated and captured the Ming emperor. After Esen was killed in battle four years later, however, the brief resurgence of Mongolia came to an abrupt halt, and the tribes returned to their traditional disunity.

After nearly two more decades of Oirad-Khalkha conflict, another Oirad chieftain, Dayan Khan, assumed central leadership in 1466 and reunited most of Mongolia. By the end of the fifteenth century, he had restored peace and had established a new confederation comprising a vast region of North-central Asia, between the Ural Mountains and Lake Baykal. He then extended his control eastward to include the remainder of Khalkha Mongolia. The Oirad were surrounded by the Turkic descendants of the Chagadai Mongols who occupied the lowlands to the east and west, in the three independent khanates of Yarkand (modern Xinjiang south of the Tian Shan Mountains), Ferghana, and Khwarizm. Early in the sixteenth century, these three khanates were overwhelmed, however, by the Uzbeks, who earlier had broken loose from Mongol authority. The Uzbeks consolidated their control over Bukhara (Bokhara), Samarkand, Khwarizm, and Herat. During Dayan Khan's rule, quasi-feudalistic administration was reestablished, and tribes became more settled, with more specified grazing areas. What little government existed was exercised by noble descendants of Chinggis (including Dayan), but it met with great resistance.

After the death of Dayan in 1543, the Oirad and the Khalkha disintegrated once more into insignificant and quarrelsome tribal groupings. The Torgut subclan of the Oirad was now perhaps the most vital of the Mongol peoples. The Torgut raided frequently across the Urals into the Volga Valley, which had been conquered by the new Muscovite empire. Farther east the Khalkha roamed the region north and south of the Gobi; the Ordos Mongols and the Chahar Mongols became loosely grouped in a confederation holding most of Southern Mongolia. The boundaries of territories ruled by the Uzbeks remained relatively stable.

Throughout this period of discord among the Mongols, they nonetheless shared a continuing hostility to the Ming. The struggle was maintained principally by the Khalkha. Although the title had become almost meaningless, the line of the khans had continued in the Chahar tribe, the leader of which became the rallying point for the conflict against China.

The war with China was renewed with considerable energy after Altan Khan (1507-83) of the Tumed clan united the Khalkha. Although he was not so prominent in history as his predecessor, Dayan, or his successor, Galdan Khan (1632-97), Altan was probably the greatest of the Mongol princes in the centuries following the collapse of the Yuan. By 1552 he had defeated the Oirad and had reunited most of Mongolia. It soon became obvious to Altan that there was nothing to be gained by continuing the war with the Ming; the empire of Chinggis never could be restored. Accordingly, he concluded a treaty with the Ming emperor in 1571, ending a struggle that had lasted more than three centuries.

In the remaining eleven years of his life, Altan aggressively pushed Mongol power to the south and the southwest, and he raided Tibet extensively. Altan, in turn, was coopted by a Buddhist revival in Tibet, and he became a fervent convert. In 1586 the first lamaist monastery was established in Mongolia, and Buddhism--specifically, Lamaism--became the state religion.