After the collapse of the Yuan dynasty in 1368, many of the Mongol elite returned to Mongolia. The Chinese later invaded Mongolia. Karakorum was destroyed by Chinese invaders in 1388. Large parts of Mongolia itself were absorbed into the Chinese empire. In the 1390s Tamerlane defeated a Mongol army in an attempt to take control of Mongolia, weakening the Mongols further. By the end of the 14th century the Mongol empire was history.

After collapse of the Mongol empire the Mongolians returned to nomadic ways, and dissolved into tribes that fought among themselves and occasionally raided China. By the 16th century the Mongols had lost all the lands they had conquered, but they continued on in Mongolia and in parts of South Siberia and of Turkestan. Much of their strength was used up in internal conflicts between eastern and western Mongols. Between 1400 to 1454 there was civil war in Mongolia between the two main groups: the Khalkh in the east and the Oryat in the west. The powerful Kalkha Mongol lord Abtai Khan (1507-1583) finally unified the Khalkhs and they defeated the Oyrat and unified the Mongols. He attacked China in a hopeless effort win back former Mongol empire territory that accomplished little and then set his sights on Tibet. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Under Dayan Khan (d. 1543), Altan Khan (d. 1583), and Ligdan Khan (d. 1634) the eastern Mongols reigned supreme, whereas under Galdan Khan (d. 1697) the the western Mongols were stronger. Mongols living outside Mongolia were absorbed by the conquered populations; Mongolia itself again became a land of incessantly warring nomadic tribes. A people similar to the Mongols, the Manchus, conquered China in the seventeenth century, and ultimately became sinicized.

In the century the Mongols became trapped between the expanding Russian and Chinese empires. In 1643 some of the Oirats moved from the Chinese borders to the Volga, where they eventually accepted a Russian protectorate. In 1771, in what must have been a huge migration, the majority of the Oirats returned to Mongolia and China while the rest, called Kalmucks, remained in Russia and are still there to this day.

Mongols After the Yuan Dynasty

The end of the Yuan dynasty in 1368 marked the end of the eastern 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. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

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.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) placed the areas where Mongols lived in their realm under the administration of more than 20 garrison posts commanded by Mongolian manorial lords. In the early 15th century the Wala (Woyela) and Tartar Mongols living west and north of the Gobi Desert pledged their allegiance to the Ming empire. [Source: |]

Mongols in the 16th Century

Early in the sixteenth century, the three Mongol khanates were overwhelmed 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. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

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. *

During the last 11 years of his life, Altan aggressively pushed Mongol power to the south and the southwest, and he raided Tibet extensively. At the same time, Altan was influenced 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, Tibetan Buddhist (Lamaism) — became the state religion.

Mongols in the 17th Century

By the early seventeenth century, the power of the khan was greatly weakened, and the pattern of decentralized rule reemerged. Small tribes within each tumen became petty realms ruled over by individual princes. Division of inheritances further weakened the overall power structure, and tumen subdivisions (battalions, referred to in later Mongol history as banners or koshuus in Mongol) were widely dispersed and therefore fragmented. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

At the same time that Mongol rule was disintegrating, tsarist Russia in the west and the Manchus in the east were expanding steadily. The Mongol and the Turkic peoples, traditionally conquerors, could now be conquered themselves not because their warlike proclivities had decreased, but because the art of war had progressed beyond the capacity of essentially nomadic peoples. Their economic resources would not permit the production or the purchase of muskets and cannon, against which their cavalry could not stand. *

Buddhism failed to unify the rival Mongol tribes. After the death of Altai Khan, Mongolia fragmented into a collection of rival domains with the Zuugar Mongols in the west (who ruled Bukhara, Kashgar and Turfan in western China and Central Asia) battling the Khalkh Mongols in the east.

Meanwhile the Manchus (the descendant of the Mongol’s rivals, the Jurchen) took over China and established the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The Manchus initially kept out of Mongolia and they didn’t until the Khalkh Mongols invited them to help defeat the Zuugar Mongols and the Manchus with their muskets and cannons helped defeat the Zungars who still relied on traditional Mongol horsemen tactics.

Manchu Conquest of the Mongols

A new process of conquest began when most of what is now northeastern China was consolidated by the Manchus. Essentially nomadic in origin, the Manchus were descended from the Jurchen, who earlier had established the Jin Empire. Early in the seventeenth century, under their leader Nurhaci, the Manchus began to press into southern Mongolia. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

The westward movement of the Manchu soon involved them in a struggle with the last of the great khans, Ligdan Khan of the Chahar Mongols. Ligdan had been attempting to reestablish Chahar predominance among the Khalkha, particularly among those tribes inhabiting the region south of the Gobi. These efforts alarmed his neighbors, who called upon Nurhaci for assistance. For several years, it appeared that the Manchu conqueror had met his match because Ligdan possessed some of the military prowess of his ancestors. Although he could not prevent the Manchus from gaining control of the territory of the neighboring Ordos Mongols, Ligdan beat back Manchu efforts to move farther west. *

After Ligdan Khan’s death in 1634, however, Mongol resistance to the Manchus collapsed in southern Mongolia. This is the period of the Mongolian national hero, Tsogto Taji, who is said to have been the only northern Mongol aristocrat to have led his subjects against the Manchus in defense of the southern Mongols.

Mongolia Under the Manchus

In 1691, Mongolia came under the controls of the Manchus of the Chinese Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Under the Manchus Tibetan Buddhism flourished. Many monasteries and temples were built. Some historians have argued that Manchus supported Buddhism to pacify the population.

Manchu rule was less than benign. The Manchus divided Mongolian territory into Outer Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, ruled from Urga (Ulaanbaatar), Uliastai and Khovd and reorganized the Mongols into a banner administration, with six leagues, which requires them live in a specific area and restricted their movements and migrations. Use of the Mongolian language was forbidden and Mongolians were forced to serve as serfs under Manchu masters. To keep the Mongols militarily weak, the Manchu rulers downgraded the hereditary princes and recognized theocracy as the local government of many Mongol areas. The Mongols were divided further by intertribal warfare fought with traditional means and by revolts against the Qing.

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) more Mongol feudal lords dispatched emissaries to Beijing and presented tributes to the Qing court. Later, some Jungar feudal lords of the Elutes, incited by Tsarist Russia, staged rebellions against the central government. They were put down by the Qing court through repeated punitive expeditions and the Mongolian areas were reunified under the central authorities. To tighten its control over the various Mongol tribes, the Qing government instituted in Mongolia a system of leagues and banners on the basis of the Manchu Eight-Banner Institution. [Source:]

Manchu rule in Mongolia could quite cruel, as it could be China. Mongolians serfs were required to pay heavy taxes and if they didn’t pay they were severely punished, sometimes with cruel forms of torture. To this day the Chinese are still reviled in Mongolia.

Tibetan Buddhism Enters Mongolia

Buddhism was introduced from Tibet to Mongolia in the beginning of the 13th century, when the red hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism began to find its followers among the Mongolian rulers. In the 16th century, many feudal lords as well as herdsmen shifted to the yellow hat sect of the Dalai Lama. [Source:]

In 1578, in the midst of his military campaign in Tibet, Abtai Khan (also known as Abtan Khan) became fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism and converted to the religion. He became a devout believer and bestowed the title of Dalai Lama for the first time to the spiritual leader of Tibet (the 3rd Dalai Lama) when the Dalai Lama visited the Khan's court in the 16th century. Dalai is the Mongolian word for “ocean.” Dalai Lama means "Ocean of Wisdom".

In 1586, Erdenzuu Monastery (near Karakorum ), Mongolia's first major center of Buddhism and oldest monastery, was built under Abtai Khan. Tibetan Buddhism became the state religion. More than a century before Kublai Khan himself had been seduced by a Tibetan Buddhist monk named Phagpa perhaps, it was reasoned, because off all the religions welcomed into the Mongol court Tibetan Buddhism was most like traditional Mongol shamanism.

Mongol leaders in the late sixteenth century, and later their Manchu overlords, encouraged the spread of Tibetan Buddhism. Its passive religious doctrine gradually diluted the warlike qualities of the Mongols and encouraged between 30 and 50 percent of the male population to escape military service by entering monasteries.

See Religion

Tibetan Buddhism Catches on in Mongolia

Tibetan Buddhism caught on with ordinary Mongolians. The Dalai Lama became the spiritual leader for Mongolia as he did for Tibet. He ordered that the image of Gonggor be worshiped at home and issued laws forbidding the practice of killing women, slaves and animals as sacrificial funeral offerings in Mongolia. Reincarnated lamas were born and reborn in Mongolia. The Jebtzun Damba became Tibetan Buddhism’s third highest incarnation after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

More than 2,000 monasteries were built and as much as 40 percent of male population men was made up of celibate monks. Large monasteries had hundreds of monks and schools for art, astronomy and theater. They regularly hosted religious dramas and festivals and were filled with pilgrims. Buddhist lamas became very powerful. They ran parts of Mongolia as feudal states like the lamas in Tibet did. Some lamas were like princes. They owned huge estates worked by nomadic serfs. In the modern country of Mongolia, but less so in Inner Mongolia, Buddhist monks in wine- colored cloaks still go from door to door blessing homes with a clash of cymbals and perform other Buddhist duties.

According to the Chinese government: “Lamaism was later protected and encouraged by the imperial court of the Qing Dynasty. Different titles, posts and privileges were granted to high-ranking lamas, who gradually formed a ruling feudal stratum existing side by side with the ruling feudal lords. These rulers not only rode roughshod over the people but took possession of numerous herds and large tracts of land. Their influence could be felt in every aspect of Mongolian life. The feudal rulers encouraged young people to become lamas, who neither got married nor took part in physical labor. As a result, the number of lamas increased to as many as one third of the Mongolian population during the Ming and Qing dynasties, seriously impeding the development of production and the growth of the population.” |

Links between Mongolia and Tibet have remained strong. The 4th Dalai Lama was a Mongolian and many Jebtzun Damba, Living Buddhas of the Khalkh Mongols, were born in Tibet. Mongolians traditionally provided the Dalai Lama with military support. They gave him sanctuary in 1903 when Britain invaded Tibet. Even today many Mongolians aspire to make a pilgrimage to Lhasa as Muslims do to Mecca.

Zanabazar and Other Important Mongol Tibetan Buddhist Figures

Zanabazar (1635-1723) is Mongolia’s famous leader from the post-Mongol-empire period. Regarded as the first The Jebtzun Damba, the Living Buddha of Mongolia, he was declared leader of the Buddhists in Mongolia in 1641. He was not only a great political and religious leader he was is also regarded as Mongolia’s most famous artist and sculptor. Trained in Tibet, he created lovely Buddhist paintings and thankas, invented Mongolia’s vertical script, designed great temples, and produced beautiful bronze statues. Some of his loveliest pieces are of goddess Tara. They are said to have been modeled after his teenage lover.

When Zanabazar was three it was deemed he possessed the qualities of a reincarnated saint. At the age of 13 he was sent to Tibet to study under the Dalai Lama. While in Tibet he not only received spiritual guidance he learned the art of bronze casting which launched his career as an artist. He is credited with inventing the Soyombi, Mongolia’s national symbol. He died in 1723 in Beijing. His body was taken to what would be Ulaanbaatar and later was entombed in stupa at Amarbayasgalant Monastery. Images of Zanabazar are seen throughout Mongolia. They are easily recognizable: a monk with a shiny bald head and a thunderbolt in one hand.

One of the most well known lamas was Danzan Ravjaa, also known as the Great and Horrible Saint of the Gobi. Believed to be the 35th incarnation of Yamsang Yidam, a Mongolian deity, he was a skilled artist and was known for producing plays at monasteries and healing the sick from great distances. He lived in the 19th century.

Torgut Mongols

Many of the Torgut, the westernmost of the Oirad Mongols, began to migrate westward in approximately 1620. Possibly the movement was a reaction to the growing dominance of the Dzungar Mongols, an Oirad subclan and neighbors of the Torgut to the south. In any event, the Torgut fought their way through Kirghiz and Kazakh territory, to cross the Embe River. Becoming better known as the Kalmyk tribe, they subsequently settled in the Trans-Volga steppe and raided Russian settlements on both sides of the river. Finally submitting to Russia in 1646, they maintained autonomy under their own khan. They became an excellent source of light cavalry for the Russians, who later used them in campaigns against the Crimean Tatars and in Inner Asia. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

The Mongol interest in Tibet that had been aroused in Altan's campaigns seems to have been transmitted to the Dzungar. They inhabited a region east of Lake Balkash that extended eastward into northern Xinjiang. They carried out a number of campaigns into Tibet, and by 1636 they had established a virtual protectorate over the region.Because of the generally high quality of their leadership at this time, the Dzungar dominated Mongolia for much of the seventeenth century. *

Farther east, the religious revival begun by Altan had continued unabated, and it was perhaps the greatest single influence on Mongol life and culture during the seventeenth and succeeding centuries. In 1635 the khan of the Tushetu tribe proclaimed that his son was the reincarnation of an ancient and respected scholar, who had achieved such a state of virtue that he had become known as a buddha. Thus the young Tushetu prince was named the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu or Living Buddha, becoming the highest ecclesiastical figure in Mongolia. This was the beginning of a line of theocratic leaders that was to continue unbroken for nearly three centuries. The successors of the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu were also believed to be reincarnations, and all were found among the Tushetu. *

By the middle of the seventeenth century, Russian exploration and annexation had become very worrisome to the Mongols and the Turks to the southwest. In response to this pressure, in 1672 Ayuka Khan of the Torgut Mongols raided through western Siberia, across the Urals and the Volga, and into Russia. He then made peace with the Russians on terms that enabled him to continue to control his lands in relative tranquility for the remainder of the century.

Later in the seventeenth century, a new effort toward Mongol unity was attempted by Galdan Khan of the Dzungar. He conquered most of Kashgar, Yarkand, and Khotan (Hotan) from the Kirghiz, and he expanded into Kazakh territory. In about 1682, intending to conquer the Khalkha, he turned eastward. In 1688 the hardpressed Khalkha appealed to the Manchus for aid. The Manchus were more than pleased to respond, and a Chinese-Manchu army marched to help. A development that further integrated the Mongols into the Manchu apparatus was the Manchus' adoption of the Mongol banner system, which combined administrative and military functions.

Wobaxi, the Founder of the Torgut Mongols of Xinjiang

Wobaxi was the commander of Mongolian Torgut (Turgut) tribe in Weilate in the Qing dynasty. When he could not bear the rule of tsarist Russia, he led his armies back to the east and settled in present-day Xinjiang. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, ~]

This story begins in 1630—the third year of Chongzhen's reign in the Ming dynasty. In order to avoid the threats of the increasingly powerful Junggar tribe, Heerleke, the commander of Mongolian Torgut tribe in Weilate in western deserts of Mongolia, led most of the Torgut and some of the Shuote and Duerbote tribe— about 50, 000 people altogether—to the drainage area of the Volga River, where they lived as animal herders and nomads. Though they had escaped from the threats of the Junggar tribe, their freedom was short-lived as they fell under the control of the tsarist Russia, which was not fond of steppe horsemen after the experience with the Golden Horde. Especially after Ayuqi Khan and Celundunluobo Khan died, the life of the Torgut became more difficult and oppressive under the Russians. In 1761, Dunluobolashi, the commander of Torgut tribe, died, and his 17-year-old son Wobaxi succeeded him. During Wobaxi's reign, the tsarist Russia intensified their persecution and control over the Torgut people, reduced their access to pasture lands, and called up a great number of Torgut soldiers to fight against the Osmanli. Thousands of them lost their lives fighting for a Russia that oppressed them. Under these circumstances, Wobaxi consulted with commanders such as Cebokeduoerqi and Sheling and they decided to return to their native land. ~

At the end of the year 1770 (the 35th year of Qianlong's reign), Wobaxi prepared a plan to distract the the Russians and gather his people for the journey back to western China-Mongolia. In January 1771, Wobaxi sent his elite troops to assault a Russian garrison in the Volga region when their guard was down. Then, he led 33,000 families—170,000 people—eastward in three different routes. They traversed a Ural River filled with treacherous rice and entered into the snow-covered Kazakh grassland, with the Russian cavalry periodically catching up with them and attacking. Half a year later, having trudged such a long and difficult way with bitter sacrifices, the Torgut people finally arrived at their homeland—in Ili, in Xinjiang. They were welcomed by the Qing government, which needed some help securing the western Chinese frontier from the expansionist ambitions of the Russians. Qing officials personally welcomed Wobaxi and allowed his people to settle near Ili and, later, designated some land they could rehabilitation. Wobaxi met with Qianlong Emperor in Chengde in September 1771 and was given the title of Zhuoliketu Khan. Wobaxi as leader of a Torgut-led alliance. In January 9, 1775 (December 8, the 39th year of Qianlong's reign), Wobaxi died of illness, at the age of 33. His eldest son Celingnamuzale succeeded him. ~

Wobaxi's achievement surprised China and caught the attention of the western world of the time. The Irish writer Denisai commented in his book the “Rebellion of Tartars:” "Even dated back to the earliest history, no other great achievement can be compared to the deed that the whole Tartar nationality crossed the Asian Grassland and moved eastward in the second half of last century. It was so shocking, and so exiting." The Tartars he talks about were the Torguts led by Wobaxi. The Qianglong Emperor gave the Torgut jurisdiction over land south of the Wunaensuzhuketu Allegiance inYuledusi (present-day Bayinguoleng Mongol autonomous prefecture in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). ~

Chinese Take on Mongolians in China

The Mongolians in China are regarded as diligent, bright, open-minded, good at learning and bold in exploration. According to some propagandistic text on the Mongols by the Chinese government: “In the process of long historical development, they constantly sum up various practical experiences in production and life while learning, absorbing and using for reference the excellent cultural achievements of other peoples home and abroad. Gradually, they come to know, master and accumulate mass knowledge of natural sciences and social sciences, and have brought out many inventions and outcomes in history, literature and arts. A number of scientists, historians, litterateurs, as well as artists spring up, and have made important contributions on the enrichment of the effulgent national treasury of science, technology and culture.”

In recent years, Beijing has stepped up its campaign to cast Mongolian history in pro-Chinese terms as they have also done in Tibet. Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: “Party propagandists have been especially drawn to female protagonists, often royal consorts, who were bit players in grand power struggles involving warring states on the fringes of the ancient Chinese empire. In Inner Mongolia...Wang Zhaojun, a lovelorn Han dynasty consort who supposedly offered herself to a “barbarian” Mongolian prince to cement an alliance between the two peoples. [Source:Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 18, 2014 ~~]

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 October 2022

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