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History - Overview

Archer and hunting dog.

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. Because the Mongol Empire was so vast - the largest contiguous land empire in the history of the world - 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. In addition, 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.

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. One of these groupings, the Yuezhi, was related linguistically to the ancient nomadic Scythian peoples - who inhabited the steppes north and northeast of the Black Sea and the region east of the Aral Sea - and was therefore Indo-European. The other grouping was the Xiongnu, a nomadic people of uncertain origins.

Although in the course of history other peoples displaced, or became intermingled with, the Yuezhi and the Xiongnu, their activities, conflicts, and internal and external relations established a pattern, with four principal themes, that continued almost unchanged - except for the conquest of Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries - until the eighteenth century. First, among these four themes, there were constant fierce struggles involving neighboring tribes, engaged in frequently shifting alliances that did not always follow ethnic, racial, or linguistic lines. Second, during periods when China was united and strong, trade with Inner Asian peoples was allowed, and nomadic states either became vassals of the Chinese emperor, or they retreated beyond his reach into the northern steppes; conversely, when China appeared weak, raids were made into rich Chinese lands, sometimes resulting in retaliatory expeditions into Mongolia. Third, occasional, transitory consolidation - of all or of large portions of the region under the control of a conqueror or a coalition of similar tribes - took place; such temporary consolidations could result in a life-or- death struggle between major tribal groupings until one or the other was exterminated or was expelled from the region, or until they joined forces. Fourth, on several occasions, raids into northern China were so vast and successful that the victorious nomads settled in the conquered land, established dynasties, and eventually became absorbed - sinicized - by the more numerous Chinese.

Within this pattern, the Xiongnu eventually expelled the Yuezhi, who were driven to the southwest to become the Kushans of Iranian, Afghan, and Indian history. In turn, the Xiongnu themselves later were driven west. Their descendants, or possibly another group, continued this westward migration, establishing the Hun Empire, in Central and Eastern Europe, that reached its zenith under Attila.

The pattern was interrupted abruptly and dramatically late in the twelfth century and throughout the thirteenth century by Chinggis and his descendants. During the consolidation of Mongolia and some of the invasions of northern China, Chinggis created sophisticated military and political organizations, exceeding in skill, efficiency, and vigor the institutions of the most civilized nations of the time. Under him and his immediate successors, the Mongols conquered most of Eurasia.

After a century of Mongol dominance in Eurasia, the traditional patterns reasserted themselves. Mongols living outside Mongolia were absorbed by the conquered populations; Mongolia itself again became a land of incessantly warring nomadic tribes. True to the fourth pattern, a similar people, the Manchus, conquered China in the seventeenth century, and ultimately became sinicized.

Here the pattern ended. 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.

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 Chinese power waned in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, however, Russian influence in Mongolia grew. Thus 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.

Last Update: 2010-12-07