4,000 BC to the Mongol Empire
The ancient history of Central Asia before the time of Christ is mysterious. The more there are archeological discoveries, the more that the history keeps changing. In the last 30 years, the biggest discoveries were of 3,000 and 4,000 year old Caucasian graveyards inXinjiang south of Mongolia. Some archeologists now think that before the Bronze Age Mongoloid people lived in eastern Mongolia and a distinct Caucasian people lived in western Mongolia and Xinjiang to the south. Artifacts, clothes, and the designs on the clothes and artifacts show a close link with people living in Europe at the same times. Clothing showed similar cloth weaving techniques, materials, and design. Some mummies, articles of clothing and artifacts have been housed at the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum (Qu Bowuguan, 自治区博物馆). The mummies date from about 400 AD to 2,000 BC, and they are thought be part of the biggest archeological discoveries of the past hundred years because they shed new light on the history of Eurasia.
It is known that during the Bronze Age Scythians lived in western Mongolia because the body of a blond Scythian was found in the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia. The body was dated to about 500 BC. Perhaps the Scythians were descended from the earlier Caucasian people in the region. A group of tribes called the Xiongnu conquered the area. By about 200 BC, the Caucasian Yuezhi people lived in Xinjiang and perhaps as far west as the western part of the Gansu corridor in what is now Gansu Province, and the Xiongnu lived to the north of them in Mongolia. It isn’t clear where these tribes came from, but it may be that the Yuezhi were descended from the earlier Caucasian people. According to a Han Dynasty era account by Sima Qian, the Yuezhi and the Xiongnu fought a lot. About the year 177 BC, the Xiongnu defeated the Yuezhi who then migrated out of their lands. They first moved north to attack Scythians and took their land. Then they moved south following the Scythians. The Xiongnu took over the region of Mongolia and about the same time the Qin Empire was established. In order to defend against the Xiongnu, the first Qin Emperor ordered the construction of the great wall on the northern boundary.
The Xiongnu fought with the next dynasty called the Han Dynasty. The Han Dynasty was able to resist the Xiongnu, and in 119 BC at the Battle of Mobei, the Xiongnu were defeated. About 110 BC, Han armies raided the Ulaan Baatar area. The Xiongnu were confined to Mongolia, and the Han Empire controlled the Gansu Corridor and had garrisons in Xinjiang.
The Xiongnu are thought to have disappeared as a people by around 400 AD. They were absorbed by other people and tribes. The area of Mongolia was then controlled by Turkic people, and then by the Uighur people. Both of these peoples set up a capital near Ulaan Baatar. Then the Liao Kingdom controlled the area. After this, during the 1100s, the various tribes in the area fought each other and were manipulated by the Jin Empire who played the tribes against each other by first supporting one and then another to keep any tribe from gaining control.
Then a man named Genghis Khan was born in a Mongol clan. It is strange, but this region of steppe, mountains and deserts in Asia was the area of origination of wave after wave of Asian conquerors. The area doesn’t support agriculture well, but the nomadic tribes in the area including the Yuezhi, the Xiongnu, the Uighurs, the Turkic tribes, the Mongols and perhaps the Scythians who may have originated there conquered territory far to the south and west. The Mongols were the most successful. Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan are among the most interesting Asian rulers to most Westerners. This is partly because Westerners don’t know much about the Mongols. It also seems very odd that grassland nomads could rapidly overrun large civilizations that were much more advanced and had hundreds of times their population. Genghis Khan, the early Mongol conquests, and the history of the Mongol empire are interesting topics.
Genghis Khan was successful in establishing a very large empire during his lifetime. During his lifetime, his armies conquered more land and killed or captured more people than did the armies of perhaps any other emperor in world history during their lifetimes. He can be compared with Alexander the Great in some ways, but the Mongol Empire was bigger, and it was perhaps more successful than the Greek Empire because his children and grandchildren went on to conquer much more of the earth. Like the Greek Empire, the Mongol Empire changed the cultures and societies of the subjugated regions.
Genghis Khan was born in 1162. He had a hard youth. There were continuous raids and battles between tribes and clans. Boys had to learn early how to fight and kill to survive, and they were taught how to hunt when they were children. While he was still a boy, he killed his half brother. His father who was a tribal leader was killed. Genghis wanted to unify the tribes. Since his father was a tribe leader, he had a claim to leadership. His method of unifying the tribes under his leadership was by repaying loyalty with gifts, delegating authority based on merit rather than family ties, and encouraging an enemy’s tribesmen to follow him by being lenient to them and not killing them. In this way, he unified the people under his rule. More and more clans and tribal groups sided with him.
By 1206, Genghis Khan had managed to unite or subdue several big nomadic tribes and small countries under his rule including the Merkits, Naimans, Mongols, Keraits, Tatars, and Uyghurs. At a Kurultai, a council of Mongol rulers, he was acknowledged as "Khan" of the consolidated tribes and was titled “Genghis Khan.” The people called themselves Mongols. In order to foster unity, he adopted the Uighur writing script as the official script of his empire. He also allowed people in his empire to have some freedom of religion. This encouraged people of various religions including Muslims to participate in the rule and benefit of the empire.
He relied heavily on intelligence gathering, rapid communication through a system of horse riding messengers, and educated and wise advisers. In order to understand rival empires and to understand how to rule his own empire, he listened to teachers and advisers including religious teachers. He also encouraged the adaptation and use of technology and weapons of the enemies he encountered, and he integrated foreign technicians into his army. In this way, he was able to besiege and conquer large walled cities. His army became big and strong enough to attack the large and more civilized empires to the west, south and east.
He said he wanted to rule the whole world. Around him were the Kara-Khitan Khanate, the Caucasus, the Khwarezmid Empire, the Western Xia Empire and the Jin Empire. He defeated the Western Xia Empire and gained control of the strategic Gansu Corridor. In 1215, Genghis besieged and captured the Jin Empire capital in the area of Beijing. He attacked the Kara-Khitan Empire that was a large empire to the west of the Tarim Basin and captured the territory with an army of only 20,000 men. This was a small force, but the Mongol generals exercised a strategy of inciting internal revolt against the imperial rulers. By 1218, the Mongol Empire absorbed the territory. In 1220, Genghis Khan sent 200,000 troops against the large and powerful Khwarezmid Empire and captured the territory. In 1220, Genghis Khan gathered most of his forces to return to Mongolia. But he sent 20,000 men into the Caucasus and Russia under two generals. The Mongols destroyed Georgia and other small kingdoms and defeated an army of Rus. It is thought that these attacks on Europe were mainly to reconnoiter the territory to prepare for later attacks.
Though Genghis Khan had subjected the Western Xia twelve years earlier and installed a vassal king, this king refused to support Genghis Khan’s attack on the Khwarezmid Empire. While the large Mongol army and Genghis Khan were in the west, the Western Xia rebelled and allied with the remnant of the Jin Empire and the Song Empire. After fighting for several years in the southern part of Central Asia and in the northern part of India, he returned to the Far East. He then sent armies against the Western Xia and conquered the territory again in 1227. He died soon after this victory however. Historians do not know why he died, though they speculate it may have been from wounds during this war with the Western Xia or from wounds in other campaigns. He named his son Ogedei as his successor. He also divided up the large Mongol territory between his sons. At the time of his death, Genghis Khan and his children ruled an empire that stretched from the Pacific Ocean almost to the Caspian Sea. When he died, he was buried secretly in an unmarked grave in Mongolia according to his wish and according to Mongol custom. Nobody knows where his grave is.
Genghis Khan’s son Ogedei (1189—1241) became the supreme Khan of the whole Mongol Empire in 1227, and he had special control over the eastern part. In 1232, he invaded the rest of the Jin Empire in alliance with the Song Empire. Kublai Khan (1215-1294) was the next ruler of the eastern Mongol Empire. He was a grandson of Genghis Khan. He had a comparatively long rule and made a number of reforms that stabilized the eastern part of the empire under his power and made it prosper. He conquered the Song Empire and Dali Kingdom and established the Yuan Empire (1279-1368) in Asia. But he lost control of the rest of the Mongol Empire. Kublai Khan’s empire was the largest of the dynastic empires that existed in the region. He failed in his attacks on Japan and some other countries however.
After him, his successors became more like their subjects. They adopted Confucian ethics and lost their nomadic Mongolian customs and way of life. From the 1330s onwards, natural disasters such as droughts and floods brought suffering and death to the peasants. The Little Ice Age began. Similar famines and natural disasters caused political instability around the world at the same time. In 1351, a rebellion started called the Red Turban Rebellion. A Ming army reached Beijing in 1368. The Yuan Emperor fled to the north. The dynasty continued, but they lost control of the empire. They kept attacking the Ming Dynasty however. The Mongols reverted to being nomads.
The amazing Yuan Dynasty led by Kublai Khan made some major changes in the region. They helped to establish Islam as a major religion in the region. They fostered trade and nurtured productive industry, and it was the first empire in history in which paper money was widely used. The Yuan rulers helped to integrate East Asia, South Asia, and the West, and the culture of the countries in Eurasia changed significantly. The area under Mongol control became more standardized in culture and technology.
After the Yuan Empire, the Mongols tried to reconquer the lost territory. But they couldn’t. Mongol groups fought among themselves. After almost three hundred years, the Ming Empire that drove them north collapsed from within as rival groups carved up sections of the empire for themselves and fought for supremacy. North of the Great Wall, their historical enemies the Mongols and the Jurchens started to unite. The Jurchens lived east of the Mongols. Like the Mongols, the Jurchens had historically ruled in the region. The Ming Empire kept both of them out for almost three hundred years. The Jurchens were also called the Manchus. The Mongol ruling families officially intermarried with Jurchen ruling families, and the Jurchens subjugated the Mongols and absorbed their troops.
Qing Empire Period (1620s-1912)
The Manchus started to expand their territory when a Jurchen tribal ruler named Nurhaci started to conquer other Jurchen tribes in 1582. As part of his strategy to build a unified empire, he adopted the Mongolian script that Genghis Khan had earlier adopted from the Uighur script. Like Genghis Khan, he utilized the manpower and knowledge of the people he conquered instead of killing them all or chasing them away. His Mongolian cavalry strengthened his army. So he followed some of Genghis Khan’s methods to meld diverse tribes and people into a fighting force, and he laid a foundation for further conquests. Nurhaci died from battle wounds in 1626.
His successor was Hung Taiji. In 1635, he received a big boost in his drive for empire because the Mongolian ruling court presented him with the imperial seal of the Yuan Empire. In doing so, they officially recognized him as their Khan or ruler and the ruler of what was left of the Yuan Empire. In 1636, he named his empire the Great Qing Empire. The word Qing (清) means clear and connotes the words clean and fresh. Perhaps, he wanted to signify that they were making a fresh start in contrast with the morass of the Ming Empire that was disintegrating in rebellion and wars as rulers divided up the territory.
Just after a rebel army conquered Beijing that was one of the last Ming Empire strongholds, the Jurchens, Mongols and a Ming army swept south in 1644, and the Qing Dynasty began. In this way, Mongolia was added to the big Qing Empire. The Qing Empire continued to grow, and the empire established some control in Tibet and Xinjiang. In 1691, some remaining Mongol tribes who didn’t submit to the Manchus submitted to them. So almost all of the present Mongolian territory became a part of the Qing Empire.
However, the Mongols didn’t fare well under the Manchus. The Qing Dynasty maintained control over Mongolians through intermarriages and alliances. The Manchus divided the country into fiefdoms, and the people grew poor during the 19th century by harsh taxation and the rule of the Mongol rulers.
Modern Period 1912-2010
During the early 1900s, the Qing Empire fell apart due to natural disasters, bad rule, backward policies, and the rise of a republican revolutionary movement. In 1921, there was a revolution in Mongolia, and the people set up a constitutional monarchy. In 1924, the Communists took over the country and established the People’s Republic of Mongolia. The country was then closely tied to and controlled by Russia. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet government encouraged a high birth rate among the Mongolians. They thought that the country lacked people. Their policies succeeded in causing the average Mongolian woman to have an amazingly high number of children: seven children each on average! This high birth rate caused that half of the people in the country are younger than 21 years old.
After the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union, Mongolia immediately followed. The perestroika and glasnost was popular in Mongolia. A new constitution allowing multiple parties, elections, capitalism and free press was introduced in 1992. The first non-Communist party gained power in 1993. During the early years, the country experienced economic troubles and food shortages. But during the decade of the 2000s, the economy started to grow quickly. The country is now known as a stable republic with a fairly free press. Opposition parties can freely use the press. Civil rights are guaranteed. The current president of the country is Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. The legislature has much more of the political power than does the president unlike other republics where the power is more evenly balanced.
I updated this article on May 14, 2013
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