Caught between the emergence of tsarist Russia and the China-controlling Manchus — distant cousins of the Mongols — in the seventeenth century, Mongolia eventually was absorbed into the periphery of the Chinese polity, where it remained until 1911. But 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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989*]

From the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century, Mongolia was a major focus of Russian and Manchu-Chinese rivalry for predominant influence in all of Northeast Asia. In the process, Russia absorbed those portions of historical Mongolia to the west and north of the present Mongolian People's Republic. The heart of Mongolia, which became known as Outer Mongolia, was claimed by the Chinese. The area was distinct from Inner Mongolia, along the southern rim of the Gobi, which China absorbed — those regions to the southwest, south, and east that now are included in the People's Republic of China. Continuing Russian interest in Mongolia was discouraged by the Manchus.

As the Chinese imperial system disintegrated, the Mongols sought national independence but the Chinese did not willingly give up, and Mongolia continued to be divided into northern (Outer Mongolia) and southern (Inner Mongolia) sections. Russian interest in Mongolia was replaced by Soviet involvement, and the Japanese sought political leverage and applied periodic pressure up through World War II.

Russians Versus Manchus in Mongolia in the 17th Century

By this time, the Manchus had conquered all of China and had established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) with its capital in Beijing. They had become concerned over the steady Russian expansion eastward that, up to this time, had remained far to the north. The Russians had carefully avoided the still-formidable Torgut, who inhabited the region that now comprises central Siberia. In this way, the Russians had reached the Amur Valley and the Pacific Ocean by mid-century. In the period between 1641 and 1652, the Russians gradually conquered the Buryat Mongols, thereby gaining control of the region around Lake Baykal. The Manchus observed with considerable apprehension Russia's growing pressure on the Turkic peoples and the Mongols of Inner Asia. As early as 1653, there were clashes between Manchus and Russians in the Amur Valley. In 1660 the Manchus ejected the Russians from the Amur region, only to see them reappear when the Manchus became occupied with internal troubles in southern China. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989*]

In 1683 a second Manchu military expedition began systematic operations to eject the Russians, and in 1685 it seized the Russian stronghold at Albazin. But later that year, when the Manchus withdrew, the Russians reconstructed the fortifications. The Manchus began to prepare for a more extensive war. It was at this time that the Khalkha appealed to the Manchus for aid. The Manchus promptly responded, seeing an opportunity to gain control of Mongolia as a base for possible war with Russia. *

This move was probably understood by the Russians. They were conducting a campaign in Europe, and they decided that the dispute with China must be settled peacefully. This led to the Sino-Russian Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, in which the Russians agreed to abandon Albazin and the area north of the Amur River. The terms of that treaty were supplemented in 1727 by the Treaty of Kyakhta, which further delineated the Sino-Russian border.

Machus Defeat the Dzungar Mongols, Ending Mongol Independence

Because of the generally high quality of their leadership at this time, the Dzungar dominated Mongolia for much of the seventeenth century. Meanwhile, the Manchus had sent a large army into northern Mongolia to confront Galdan in an effort to preempt any attempts at establishing a new Mongol empire. The employment of artillery had a decisive effect, and the Dzungar were routed. In May 1691, Qing emperor Kangxi called a kuriltai of principal Khalkha chiefs at Dolonnur. Those present acknowledged Manchu overlordship in return for protection against the Dzungar. It had become apparent by this time that, although there were strong ties between the Qing court and local Mongol rulers, the relations among individual Mongol leaders were weak. The head of each banner was a vassal of the Qing emperor and was beholden to the Chinese treasury for a pension. Mongols not only pledged personal loyalty to the emperor, but they also became inseparable from their banner and could not serve in any capacity in another banner. Membership was hereditary; class structure was rigid; and the whole feudal-like system helped the Manchus isolate and control the Mongols. The banners, in effect, became petty fiefdoms. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

By this time, the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu had fled to escape Galdan's renewed advances. After five years of continued raiding by the Dzungar into central Mongolia, Kangxi led 80,000 troops into Mongolia and in 1696 crushed Galdan near Jao Modo (south of present-day Ulaanbaatar). Galdan retreated, and he died the next year. This ended the influence of the Dzunger in most of Mongolia, although they retained control of the western regions and of parts of Xinjiang and Tibet. *

Despite the defeat at Jao Modo, twenty years later the Dzungar again were embroiled in war with the Qing. In 1718 Galdan's nephew and heir, Tsewang Rabdan, invaded Tibet to settle a prolonged dispute over the successor to the Dalai Lama. His troops seized Lhasa, imprisoned the Dalai Lama, and ambushed a Manchu relief force. Kangxi retaliated in 1720; two Chinese armies defeated the Dzungar and drove them from Tibet. This was the first war in which Mongol forces made extensive use of musketry; they were not very effective, however, against the larger, better-armed and better-equipped Qing forces. After the death of the Dalai Lama, a new Dalai Lama was installed by Kangxi, and a Manchu garrison was left in Lhasa. Meanwhile, another Chinese army invaded Dzungar territory to capture Ürümqi and Turpan. Additional Chinese punitive expeditions eventually defeated the Dzungar in 1732 and virtually ended Mongolian independence for nearly two centuries. *

Chinese Dominance in 18th Century Mongolia

The Russian and the Chinese empires continued their expansions into Inner Asia during the eighteenth century. They found it expedient to delimit the borders between the respective areas of ancient Mongolia that they had conquered in the seventeenth century. This was done by the Treaty of Kyakhta in 1727, which established the border between the portions of Mongolia controlled by China and those controlled by Russia. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

In the period 1755 to 1757, serious revolts against Chinese rule broke out among the Dzungar in Xinjiang. These were suppressed promptly, and Chinese control over western Mongolia and Oirad territory was strengthened. In 1771 the Chinese government persuaded part of the Kalmyk tribe to return from Russia to repopulate the devastated region. *

During the 1750s, as a result of Manchu administrative policies, the first distinction was made between northern and southern Mongolia. The southern provinces — Suiyuan, Chahar (or Qahar), and Jehol (or Rehol), known as Inner Mongolia — were virtually absorbed into China. The remainder of the region — the northern provinces, which became known as Outer Mongolia — was considered an "outside subordinate" by the Manchus, and it was largely ignored. After another 100 years, however, China again became alarmed by Russia's expansionist policy and colonial development in the regions north and west of Outer Mongolia. Increased Chinese activity in Outer Mongolia resulted in some economic and social improvements, but it also revealed to the Mongolians the possibilities of playing off the two great empires against each other. Chinese merchants and moneylenders had become ubiquitous, and the extent of Mongol debt had become enormous, by the early nineteenth century. The debt situation, combined with growing resentment over Chinese encroachment, gave impetus to Mongol nationalism by the beginning of the twentieth century. *

During the period of Chinese dominance, Mongolia not only experienced a century of peace, but it became an increasingly theocratic society. Buddhism relatively early had absorbed shamanism, and the result was a unique local religion. *

Chinese Dominance Unravels in 19th Century Mongolia

By the mid-nineteenth century turmoil in China, caused by internal rebellion and by pressures from the West, resulted in a breakdown of the increasingly expensive administrative apparatus in Outer Mongolia. Mounting debts and higher taxes, which led to a growing impoverishment of Outer Mongolia, gradually rekindled traditional Mongol dissatisfaction with the Manchu overlord. Rioting, Mongol troop mutinies, and other anti-Chinese incidents occurred with increasing regularity in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989]

The Qing continued to call up Mongolian levies to help quell rebellions in actions against foreign invaders in China in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Mongols fought in the Taiping Rebellion (1851-65), in the Nianfei peasant revolt in northern China in the 1850s and 1860s, against the British and French in 1860, against Muslim rebels in the 1860s and 1870s, in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), and in the Boxer Uprising of 1900. They were employed as light cavalry and were considered the best of the traditional troops. Their style of fighting had become obsolete, however, because foreign troops and increasing numbers of Chinese units used firearms and modern tactics. Mongolia's nomadic economy could not produce guns, and the Qing would not permit their acquisition. *

Outside help was sought by the Mongols from Russia in 1900, when a mission — which failed — was sent to St. Petersburg. Thereafter, reform-minded Chinese leaders abolished many old social and political proscriptions, and, despite Mongol resentment of the idea and of continued Chinese repression, preparations were being made for constitutional government when revolution broke out in China.

Russians Versus Chinese in Turn-of-the-20th-Century Mongolia

In the 19th and 20th century, Mongolia became a pawn in a struggle between China and Russia. For most of its history Mongolia and nearby Siberia were vast wildernesses that no one cared much about. In the 19th century the Russian czars set up a "protectorate" in northern Mongolia, while the rest of Mongolia was controlled by the Chinese Qing Dynasty.

As Chinese power waned Russian influence in Mongolia grew. The Russians were interested in Mongolia as transit area for a railroad from Siberia across Manchuria to Vladivostok and the Russian concessions in China. The Russian came to control what became Outer Mongolia and the Chinese controlled Inner Mongolia.

Russia supported Outer Mongolian declarations of independence in the period immediately after the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Russian interest in the area did not diminish, even after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Russian civil war spilled over into Mongolia in the period 1919 to 1921. Chinese efforts to take advantage of internal Russian disorders by trying to reestablish their claims over Outer Mongolia were thwarted in part by China's instability and in part by the vigor of the Russian reaction once the Bolshevik Revolution had succeeded. Russian predominance in Outer Mongolia was unquestioned after 1921, and when the Mongolian People's Republic was established in 1924, it was as a communist controlled satellite of Moscow. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989*]

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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