A brief overview of Mongolian history

This piece is actually Chapter Two from my Ph.D. dissertation, defended way back in 1995. I haven't changed anything, except to move the footnotes to endnotes and correct one or two transcription errors. That explains why in some places there are references to later chapters and so on. I'll go back and add in the rest of the citations later. I'm sure this is not how I'd write a summary of Mongolian history today if I were to write one. I won't even vouch that there aren't mistakes in the details. Since I finally dug up the dissertation files, I figured I'd put this up in the hope that someone might find it of interest. I may someday go back and revise this a bit -- my thinking has changed in some areas, new books have been written, and so forth. And maybe I'll try to add some illustrations as well. But until then, this is still a decent, brief account.

Since the text is so long, I've broken it up into separate pages. Use the links at left to jump to a particular section, or just keep reading...

PS - I love the quote that starts this off. It never made it into the book version.

Chapter Two: A brief history of Mongolia

History is a deceptive knowledge that teaches us about things that would be as banal as our lives if they were not different.
-- Paul Veyne, Writing History

2.1 Introduction
With the possible exceptions of Chinggis Khaan (better known in the West as Genghis Khan) and Khubilai Khan (Coleridge's Kubla Khan), the key figures of Mongolian history are little known to most people outside of Mongolia itself or the field of Mongolian studies. Since this dissertation deals with interpretations of these figures, in this chapter I offer a brief introduction to some of them. While I outline the major events in Mongolian history from before the rise of Chinggis Khaan to the twentieth century, I concentrate most on the figures that form the focal points of later chapters. While one could follow the arguments presented in this dissertation without a knowledge of Mongolian history, I have included this chapter to provide a basic understanding of the roles of the six figures in their historical contexts.

As this chapter is intended only to provide a general background, however, much other historical information has been left out. For the most part, I have not attempted to engage in an anthropological debate on many of the issues in Mongolian history. To do so is far beyond the scope of this dissertation. Many of these issues are worthy of attention in their own right, and it would not be possible to do them justice in the scope of this chapter.

The people and events in this chapter (and the rest of the dissertation) are centered chiefly on the history of the Halh Mongols, who are the major ethnic group in Mongolia today. Thus, for example, although the Oirad (Western Mongol) empire was a dominant force on the steppe in the 17-18th centuries, it is only dealt with peripherally, as it affected the Halh Mongols. Similarly, the Golden Horde and the Il-Khanate (polities resulting from the break-up of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century) are not discussed in detail. This runs the risk of mis-representing the history of the Mongols as a whole. Yet is should be noted that Mongolian historians themselves have often adopted this approach. (We shall discuss various reasons for this in later chapters.) In many ways, under both socialism and after, the history of Mongolia is seen as being synonymous with the history of the Halh.

The chapter is divided into several periods of Mongolian history, which are the same basic categories that are encountered in most writings on Mongolia. I begin with a brief examination of the situation on the Mongolian steppe before Chinggis's rise to power. The Chinggisid period and the Y¨an dynasty of China are discussed next. The collapse of Mongol rule in China was followed by what is known as the medieval period. This in turn, as we shall see, was followed by over 200 years of Manchu domination. Lastly, the Bogd Khaan state (the autonomous period) and the socialist period are considered.

2.2 The steppe before Chinggis Khaan The earliest steppe group that concerns us is the Hünnü (variously known as the Hsiung-nu, or the Huns).[1] They first appear in the Chinese records of the third century B.C., and occupied the Ordos region in what is now the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of the PRC.[2] The Hünnü, like the Mongols, were a nomadic group and appeared to have shared many general cultural characteristics. And like the Mongols and other steppe peoples, their foreign policy was mainly concerned with the sedentary groups ruling northern China. Given their choice, the Hünnü preferred peaceful relations in the form of trade, but were quite willing and able to use military prowess to bend the Chinese (or others) to their will. They were also willing to accept a "tributary" position vis-a-vis the sedentary dynasties because such a relationship was largely symbolic, with "gifts" to the nomads often outweighing the "tribute" from the nomads. Although commonly assumed that the goods obtained by various means from the sedentary groups were necessary for subsistence, this is a disputed point (di Cosmo 1994).

The Hünnü united the various steppe groups under their leader, or Shan-yü, Mao-tun in 209 BC. The empire he built was to last longer than any other steppe empire in history, including that of the Mongols. (It should be noted here that like "Mongol", the term "Hünnü" originally applied to a specific group, but became a blanket term for the people of the empire.) It was, perhaps like many of the steppe empires, more accurately considered a confederacy in which the Shan-yü maintained control at least in part through the redistribution of goods from China (Barfield 1981).

The Hünnü were dominant players in steppe and northern Chinese politics until their fall in 155 AD, although they split into northern and southern groups following a civil war in 48 AD. While it is by no means certain, it seems plausible that the Huns of Hungary were Hünnü driven westward by the civil wars.

In addition, it seems clear that a version of the decimal system of military organization made famous by Chinggis Khaan was already employed by the Hünnü (Barfield 1989: 37). The lack of a single, unified system of political succession also plagued the Hünnü, as it would the Mongols a thousand years later.

It is unclear whether or not one can trace a direct physical link from the Hünnü to the Mongols. Mongol scholars, however, claim at least a strong cultural and political link to the Hünnü. Information Mongolia notes that research "suggests that at least some elements of the Hun tribal union were ancient Mongols" (Mongolian Academy of Sciences 1990: 91).

Various other tribal confederacies or empires were to inhabit the Mongolian steppe in the centuries between the decline of the Hünnü and the rise of Chinggis Khaan. Notable among these were the two Turkish Empires (552-630 and 683-734 AD); the Uighurs (745-840); the Khitans (907-1125) and the Jurchen (1115-1234) (dates are from Barfield [1989: 13]). The last two of these were to establish themselves as dynasties of northern China, not just rulers of the steppe. It was from the Uighurs that the Mongols were to take their alphabet, and they were also to draw upon Uighur administrative expertise in the running of the Empire. Accounts of these groups, as well as the Hünnü, can be found in Grousset's The empire of the steppes (1970) and Barfield's The perilous frontier (1989).

The first mention of a group that is usually interpretted as being the Mongols occurs during the latter of part of the T'ang dynasty in China (618-907 AD). Sources from the time speak of the Menggu (or Mengwu), a nomadic group living on the eastern Mongolian steppe. One source notes of them: "they have no agriculture, hunting is their primary occupation; they have no fixed abode but migrate, following the seasonal supplies of water and pasture; their food consists of meat and mares' milk..." (Ratchnevsky 1991: 8). At this time, however, they were apparently not a major political power, nor were they united under a single ruler.

In the twelfth century, a group from Manchuria, the Khitans, moved south and established the Liao dynasty of northeastern China (907-1124). It was during the time of the Chin dynasty (1115-1234), as the Jurchen rulers in China were known, that the Mongols as we know them are first noted. Habul Khan, Chinggis's great-grandfather, had risen to a position of power on the steppe, creating what was known as the Hamag Mongol Uls (Greater Mongolian State). Fearing the power of the Mongols, the Chin turned against them, launching a campaign in 1137 (Barfield 1989: 183). The Mongols were successful, and the Jurchens then allied themselves with the Tatars, another steppe group, and defeated the Mongols in the early 1160s.[3] This was a fairly common tactic of whatever group happened to be ruling northern China at any given time. Steppe groups would be played off each other, and variously wooed and warred by the dynasties in Northern China in an attempt to keep any one group of nomads from growing too powerful.

With the defeat of Habul Khan, the Borjigid (the lineage of Chinggis Khaan) were to fall from power. Chinggis's own father, Yes¨hei (Yesugei), achieved enough prominence to earn the title baatar (hero), but nothing more. Yes¨hei did achieve a certain degree of importance when he aided the Hereid (Kereit -- a group dwelling in the western steppe) ruler Tooril (Togrul), and their resulting relationship would prove of importance to Chinggis later on.

Continue on to the next part of the chapter (on Chinggis Khaan)


1. Although 'Hsiung-nu' is the more common label in English language writings, I have opted to use the modern cyrillic Halh Mongolian spelling here as elsewhere in the dissertation. More familiar forms are given parenthetically.

2. The Ordos region is defined by the large bend in the Yellow River in central northern China.

3. There has been, and is, much confusion over the term "Tatar". During Chinggis's time, and before, it referred to a specific steppe tribe, one of the most powerful at the start of the 13th century. Although the tribe was almost entirely wiped out by Chinggis, the term became applied to the Mongols. "This has never been satisfactorily explained, though in Europe Tatar, if spelt Tartar, had the convenient advantage of suggesting that the Mongols emanated from Hell, Tartarus" (Morgan 1986a: 57).

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