Mongolia was once the home of a great empire — the largest contiguous land empire in the history of the world. In recent centuries it has distinguished itself mainly as buffer state between China and Russia.

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.

Traditionally, the main issue over which conflicts arose was over land use. Much of the fighting between the Chinese and Mongols revolved around expansion by Chinese farmers into traditional Mongol grazing areas and pushing herders into inferior pasture lands.

Mongol Name and Historical Sources

Formal Name: Mongolian People's Republic; Short Form: Mongolia. Local Short Form: Mongol Uls; Former Name: Outer Mongolia Term for Citizen(s): Mongolian(s). Mongolia is known as the “Land of the Blue Sky.” The term Mongols is often used to describe the historical Mongols of the Genghis Khan era but it is also used to describe the modern Mongol ethnic group and sometimes the citizens of Mongolia, the vast majority of which are ethnic Mongols. Mongolian is also used to describe the Mongol ethnic group.

History had traditionally been kept alive through oral epics, performed by nomadic bards, until writing was introduced in the Genghis Khan era in the 12th century. Because the Mongol Empire was so vast 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. Much of what has been written about the Mongols was produced by people who came in contact with the Mongols—often enemies or hostile neighbors of the Mongols, who generally did not have nice things to say and were less than objective—not the Mongols themselves. 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. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Book: “The Modern History of Mongolia” by Charles R. Bawden (London: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1968).

Geographical Influence on the the Mongols

The Mongol character has been greatly influenced by the extremes of Mongolia's geography, comprising huge rolling plateaus, rugged mountain ranges, and areas susceptible to earthquakes. On the one hand Mongolia has Hovsgol Nuur — Asia's second largest freshwater lake — and river systems that drain toward the Arctic and Pacific oceans and into Central Asia, and on the other, the Gobi, a vast arid rangeland within which are even less hospitable desert areas. The climate is mostly cold and dry with long frigid winters and short hot summers. Minimal precipitation, temperatures that freeze the nation's rivers and freshwater lakes for long periods of the year, and severe blizzards and dust storms leave only around 1 percent of the land arable and make human and livestock existence fragile at best. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Such an inhospitable land not unexpectedly is home to a relatively small, widely dispersed population. Of the 4 million plus Mongols — only a fourfold increase over the population of the era of Chinggis Khan — just slightly more than 2 million people live in the modern Mongolian People's Republic (the rest are minority peoples in China and the Soviet Union). Except for a concentration of 500,000 people in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, the rest of the population is sparsely distributed: another quarter of the population resides in small urban areas and the remaining approximately 49 percent live in the vast countryside. The population, however, is young and growing rapidly as government incentives encourage large families to offset labor shortages. Ninety percent of the population is composed of ethnic Mongols, making the nation extremely homogeneous; Turkic peoples, such as Tuvans and Kazakhs, Chinese, Russians, and other minorities make up the remainder. *

Nomad Traditions of the Mongols

But despite increasing urbanization and industrialization, a large portion of the population lives either by the traditional methods of pastoral nomadism — moving their herds (sheep, horses, cattle, goats, and yaks) from one area of temporary sustenance to another — or in a close symbiotic relationship with the nomads. Despite its hardships, the nomadic life provides Mongols with national values and a sense of historical identity and pride. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Nomadic peoples of uncertain origins are recorded as living in what is now the Mongolian People's Republic in the third century B.C., and archaeological evidence takes human habitation in the Gobi back a hundred centuries or more earlier. Warfare was a way of life, against other nomadic peoples in competition for land, and in the south against the Chinese, whose high culture and fertile lands were always attractive to the Mongols. China responded with punitive expeditions, which pushed these pre- and proto-Mongol peoples farther north, west, and east and resulted in periods of Chinese hegemony over parts of Inner Asia. *

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.

Mongol Influence on the World

Mongolia and the Mongol people have periodically been at the center of international events. The histories of nations — indeed, of continents — have been rewritten and major cultural and political changes have occurred because of a virtual handful of seemingly remote pastoral nomads. The thirteenth-century accomplishments of Chinggis Khan in conquering a swath of the world from modern-day Korea to southern Russia and in invading deep into Europe, and the cultural achievements of his grandson, Khubilai Khan, in China are well-known in world history. Seven hundred years later, a much compressed Mongolian nation first attracted world attention as a strategic battleground between Japan and the Soviet Union and later between the Soviet Union and China. In the 1980s, the Mongolian People's Republic continued to be a critical geopolitical factor in Sino-Soviet relations. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

But Mongol influence did not end with the termination of military conquests or absorption. Their presence was institutionalized in many of the lands they conquered through adoption of Mongol military tactics, administrative forms, and commercial enterprises. The historical developments of such disparate nations as Russia, China, and Iran were directly affected by the Mongols. Wherever they settled outside their homeland, the Mongols brought about cultural change and institutional improvements. *

Although there never was a "Pax Mongolica," the spread of the Mongol polity across Eurasia resulted in a large measure of cultural exchange. Chinese scribes and artists served the court of the Ilkhans in Iran, Italian merchants served the great khans in Karakorum and Daidu (as Beijing was then known), papal envoys recorded events in the courts of the great khans, Mongol princes were dispatched to all points of the great Mongol empire to observe and be observed, and the Golden Horde and their Tatar descendants left a lasting mark on Moscovy through administrative developments and intermarriage. Although eventually subsumed as part of the Chinese empire, the Mongols were quick to seek independence when that empire disintegrated in 1911. *

Foreign Influence on Mongolia

Traditional Mongolian society was affected heavily by foreign influences: commerce was controlled by Chinese merchants and the state religion — Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism — was simultaneously bureaucratic and otherworldly. Modern society has been shaped by the continued foreign — primarily Soviet — influence. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Resistance to and accommodation of the Mongols had mixed effects on the national developments of some of the "host" nations. European kingdoms and principalities formed alliances to do battle, albeit unsuccessfully, against the Mongol armies. Europeans even combined with the hated Muslims in Egypt and Palestine to oppose the common Mongol enemy. Although the Mongol invasion of Japan was not successful, it contributed to the eventual downfall of Japan's ruling faction. The conquering Mongols brought an infusion of new ideas and unity to China but were eventually absorbed and lost their ability to rule over a people hundreds of times more numerous than themselves.

Brief History of Mongolia

Date of Independence: March 13, 1921, from China. Formerly Outer Mongolia, a dependency of China, 1691-1911; autonomous state under Russian protection, 1912-1919; partially under Chinese control, 1919-21.

The Mongols gained fame in the 13th century when under Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan) they established a huge Eurasian empire through conquest. After his death the empire was divided into several powerful Mongol states, but these broke apart in the 14th century. The Mongols eventually retired to their original steppe homelands and in the late 17th century came under Chinese rule.Mongolia won its independence in 1921 with Soviet backing and a communist regime was installed in 1924. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

The modern country of Mongolia, however, represents only part of the Mongols' historical homeland; more ethnic Mongolians live in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in the People's Republic of China than in Mongolia. Following a peaceful democratic revolution in 1990,the ex-communist Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) won most parliamentary elections and stayed in power either governing alone or in coalition. =

In 2009, current President Elbegdorj of the DP was elected to office and was re-elected for his second term in June 2013.In 2010, the MPRP voted to retake the name of the Mongolian People's Party (MPP), a name it used in the early 1920s. Shortly thereafter, a new party was formed by former president Enkhbayar, which confusingly adopted for itself the MPRP name. Following the 2012 parliamentary elections, a coalition of four political parties was formed but then dissolved in November 2014 when Prime Minister Altankhuyag was voted out of office. A new five-party grand coalition was formed in December 2014 under the leadership of Prime Minister Saikhanbileg. =

Pre-Historic Mongolia

There is no evidence as yet that early hominids settled in Mongolia, most likely because of the inhospitable terrain and climate. Most of Mongolia is high above sea level; much of the western, northern, and central part is mountainous; the rest is taken up by the Gobi Desert. It is a dry climate, with extremely cold, windy winters; parts of Mongolia experience hot summers. About 200,000 B.C., perhaps earlier, some archaeological evidence indicates human (probably archaic Homo sapiens) presence in the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia. Thereafter the evidence of human settlement in Mongolia is scant. [Source: “Columbia Chronologies of Asian History and Culture” edited by John S. Bowman, 2000, Columbia University Press]

In the Stone Age, during occasional subtropical periods that lasted for around 10,000 years or less, hyenas and lions roamed parts of Central Asia. Around 40,000 years ago, it is thought, humans reached the steppes of Central Asia and pushed on into Siberia. There is evidence of human habitation on the northern Yana River in Siberia dated to 30,000 years ago. Caves in the Altay region of Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan have been used possibly as far back as 300,000 year ago. The world's oldest known sculpture is an animal head carved in wooly rhinoceros vertebrae. Found in Tombaga Siberia, it is 34,960 years old.

Nomadic peoples of uncertain origins are recorded as living in what is now the Mongolian People's Republic in the third century B.C. It is thought the first settlers of Mongolia were related to the Siberian people that crossed the Bering Strait into America. See Early History, Japan.

Warfare was a way of life, against other nomadic peoples in competition for land, and in the south against the Chinese, whose high culture and fertile lands were always attractive to the Mongols. China responded with punitive expeditions, which pushed these pre- and proto-Mongol peoples farther north, west, and east and resulted in periods of Chinese hegemony over parts of Inner Asia. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Early History of Mongolia

3rd century B.C.: Iron weapons in use; Xiongnu invasion of China repulsed.

2d-1st centuries B.C.: Nomads expand west; pressure on China continues.

1st-2d centuries A.D.: Renewed attacks on China.

A.D. 317: Xianbei conquer northern China.

386-533: Period of Northern Wei Dynasty, established by the Toba in : northern China mid-8th century; Possible early Mongol links with Tibetan Buddhism.

916-1125: Period of Kitan Liao Dynasty, established over eastern Mongolia, Manchuria, and northern China.

1038-1227: Tangut Western Xia Dynasty, established in northwestern China.

1115-1234: Jurchen establish Jin Dynasty in Manchuria, northern China.

1139-47: Jurchen defeat Mongols in Pamirs.

Mongol Period

1196-1206: Temujin unites Mongols, assumes title of Chinggis Khan.

1209-15: Mongols conquer south to Beijing, west to Lake Balkash.

1220-26: Southwest Asia conquered; invasion of Europe and China.

1227: Chinggis dies.

1231: Korea invaded.

1235: Capital rebuilt at Karakorum.

1237-41: Expedition into Europe that was halted at Vienna with death : of Ogedei.

1240-1480: Suzerainty over Russia established by Golden Horde: Conquest of Song China.

1260: Mongols defeated by Egyptian Mamluks.

1261: Khubilai becomes great khan.

1274 and 1281: Unsuccessful attempts at invasion of Japan.

1279: Yuan Dynasty established in China.

1368: Yuan Dynasty destroyed; Mongols driven back into Mongolia.

1388: Chinese troops destroy Karakorum.

1391: Timur defeats Golden Horde.

Mongolia After the Mongol Period

1400-54: Civil war ends Mongol unity.

1409-49: Renewed Mongol invasions of China.

1466: Dayan Khan reunites most of Mongolia.

1480-1502: Muscovites end Mongol control of Russia; last of Golden Horde defeated.

1571: Mongols end 300-year war with China.

1586: Buddhism becomes state religion.

1641-52: Russians defeat Buryat Mongols, gain control of Lake Baykal : region.

1672: Mongols raid Siberia and Russia.

1691: Most Khalkha Mongols accept suzerainty of Manchus, absorbed : into Chinese empire (Qing Dyansty 1644-1911).

1728: Sino-Russian Treaty of Kyakhta redefines traditional Mongolian borders.

1732: Dzungar Mongols defeated; Mongol independence ended.

1750s: Chinese divide Mongolia into northern, Outer Mongolia, : and Southern, Inner Mongolia.

1783: Last reigning descendant of Chinggis in the Crimea deposed by Russians.

Mongolia in the 20th Century

December 1, 1911: Outer Mongolia proclaims independence from China.

December 28, 1911: Mongolia establishes autonomous theocratic government.

November 3, 1912: Russia affirms Mongolia's separation from China.

November 5, 1913: Sino-Russian agreement acknowledges Chinese suzerainty over : Mongolia.

May 25, 1915: Treaty of Kyakhta formalizes Mongolian autonomy.

September 1918: Chinese troops occupy Outer Mongolia.

March-June 1920: Mongolian People's Party formed, establishes links with Communist International and Soviets.

October 1920: Russian White Guards invade Mongolia.

March 1-3, 1921: First National Party Congress of the Mongolian People's Party held in Kyakhta, Soviet Union.

March 13, 1921: Mongolian People's Provisional Government formed.

July 1921: Mongolian-Soviet army drives out White Guards.

Communist Mongolia Created

July 11, 1921: Mongolian People's Government, a limited monarchy, proclaimed.

September 14, 1921: Mongolian independence proclaimed.

November 5, 1921: Soviets recognize Mongolian People's Government.

February 22, 1923: Revolutionary hero Damdiny Sukhe Batar dies.

May 31, 1924: Sino-Soviet treaty recognizes Chinese sovereignty over Mongolia.

August 1924: Mongolian People's Party becomes Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party.

November 6, 1924: First National Great Hural convenes.

November 25, 1924: Mongolian People's Republic proclaimed; Soviet style state : constitution adopted; Niyslel Huree renamed Ulaanbaatar.

March 1925: Soviet troops ostensibly withdraw.

September 1927: Inner-party struggle at Sixth Party Congress.

December 1928: Horloyn Choybalsan emerges as party leader.

Mongolia under Communist Rule

1929-32: Feudal estates confiscated; religious communities suppressed.

April-May 1932: Soviet troops help quell rebellions; party repudiates extremism.

November 27, 1934: Mongolian-Soviet "gentlemen's agreement" allows Soviet troops into Mongolia.

March 12, 1936: Treaty and mutual defense protocol signed with Soviet Union.

1937-39: High-level government purges.

1938: Buddhist monasteries closed.

1939: Choybalsan emerges as undisputed leader.

July-August 1939: Mongolian-Soviet joint force defeats Japanese at Khalkhyn : Gol

March-April 1940: Yumjaagiyn Tsedenbal becomes party general secretary.

August 10, 1945: Mongolia declares war on Japan.

January 5, 1946: China recognizes Mongolia's independence.

February 27, 1946: Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Assistance and Agreement on : Economic and Cultural Cooperation signed with Soviet Union.

February 1949: Ninth National Great Hural, first since 1940, convenes.

January 26, 1952: Choybalsan dies.

May 1952: Tsedenbal becomes premier.

December 1952: Economic and cultural cooperation agreement signed with China.

April 1956: "Personality cult" of Choybalsan condemned.

October 1956: New collective efforts start.

July 6, 1960: New state Constitution adopted.

October 27, 1961: Mongolia admitted to United Nations.

January 1962: Choybalsan's "personality cult" again condemned.

June 7, 1962: Mongolia joins Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon)

1966: Serious Mongolian-Chinese differences emerge.

June 1974: Jambyn Batmonh becomes chairman of Council of Ministers; Tsedenbal becomes chairman of the Presidium of the People's Great Hural and continues as party first secretary.

Mongolia Begins Distancing Itself from the Soviet Union

August 23, 1984: Tsedenbal retires; Batmonh becomes party general secretary.

December 12, 1984: Batmonh elected chairman of Presidium of People's Great Hural; Dumaagiyn Sodnom becomes premier.

April 1986: Long-term trade agreement signed with China.

January 15, 1987: Soviet Union announces intention to withdraw one of five Soviet divisions stationed in Mongolia.

January 27, 1987: Diplomatic relations established with the United States.

November 28, 1988: Treaty on a border control system signed with China.

March 7, 1989: Soviets announced that troop withdrawal plans had been finalized.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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