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Historical Traditions

Mongol military power reached its apex in the thirteenth century. Under the leadership of Chinggis Khan and two generations of his descendants, the Mongol tribes and various Inner Asian steppe people were united in an efficient and formidable military state that briefly held sway from the Pacific Ocean to Central Europe (see The Era of Chinggis Khan, 1206-27).

In an age when opposing armies were little more than feudal levies around a nucleus of well-armed and well-trained, but relatively immobile and inflexible, knights, the Mongol armies were the dominant force on the battlefields of Asia and Europe. Mongol forces, made up of skilled warriors well trained in marksmanship and horsemanship, were characterized by absolute discipline, a well-understood chain of command, an excellent communications system, superior mobility, and a unified and extremely effective tactical doctrine and organization.

As the control of the descendants of Chinggis weakened and as old tribal divisions reemerged, internal dissension fragmented the Mongol empire, and the Mongols' military power in Inner Asia dwindled. The tactics and techniques of the Mongol warrior - who could deliver shock action with lance and sword, or fire action with the compound bow from horseback or on foot - continued in use, nevertheless, through the end of the nineteenth century. The mounted warrior's effectiveness decreased, however, with the growing use of firearms by the Manchu armies beginning in the late seventeenth century (see Caught Between the Russians and the Manchus).

Mongol leaders in the late sixteenth century, and later their Manchu overlords, encouraged the spread of Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism). 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 Buddhism). To keep the Mongols militarily weak, the rulers of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) 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. Nevertheless, 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.

The memory of Chinggis, his descendants, and their military domination of Asia remains. Although little attention has been paid to Mongol military exploits after that period, popular legends are filled with accounts of violent opposition to foreign oppressors, such as the usurious Chinese trader and his armed guards, or the local Qing tax collector.

Last Update: 2010-12-07