Mongolia in Transition, 1368-1911
Return to Nomadic Patterns
The end of the Yuan was the second turning point in Mongol
history. The retreat of more than 60,000 Mongols into the
Mongolian heartland brought radical changes to the quasifeudalistic system. In the early fifteenth century, the Mongols
split into two groups, the Oirad in the Altai region and the
eastern group that later came to be known as the
Khalkha (see Glossary) in
the area north of the Gobi. A lengthy civil war
(1400-54) precipitated still more changes in the old social and
political institutions. By the middle of the fifteenth century,
the Oirad had emerged as the predominant force, and, under the
leadership of Esen Khan, they united much of Mongolia and then
continued their war against China. Esen was so successful against
China that, in 1449, he defeated and captured the Ming emperor.
After Esen was killed in battle four years later, however, the
brief resurgence of Mongolia came to an abrupt halt, and the
tribes returned to their traditional disunity.
After nearly two more decades of Oirad-Khalkha conflict,
another Oirad chieftain, Dayan Khan, assumed central leadership
in 1466 and reunited most of Mongolia. By the end of the
fifteenth century, he had restored peace and had established a
new confederation comprising a vast region of North-central Asia,
between the Ural Mountains and Lake Baykal. He then extended his
control eastward to include the remainder of Khalkha Mongolia.
The Oirad were surrounded by the Turkic descendants of the
Chagadai Mongols who occupied the lowlands to the east and west,
in the three independent khanates of Yarkand (modern Xinjiang
south of the Tian Shan Mountains), Ferghana, and Khwarizm. Early
in the sixteenth century, these three khanates were overwhelmed,
however, by the
Uzbeks (see Glossary), who earlier had broken
loose from Mongol authority. The Uzbeks consolidated their
control over Bukhara (Bokhara), Samarkand, Khwarizm, and Herat.
During Dayan Khan's rule, quasi-feudalistic administration was
reestablished, and tribes became more settled, with more
specified grazing areas. What little government existed was
exercised by noble descendants of Chinggis (including Dayan), but
it met with great resistance.
After the death of Dayan in 1543, the Oirad and the Khalkha
disintegrated once more into insignificant and quarrelsome tribal
groupings. The Torgut subclan of the Oirad was now perhaps the
most vital of the Mongol peoples. The Torgut raided frequently
across the Urals into the Volga Valley, which had been conquered
by the new Muscovite empire. Farther east the Khalkha roamed the
region north and south of the Gobi; the Ordos Mongols and the
Chahar Mongols became loosely grouped in a confederation holding
most of Southern Mongolia. The boundaries of territories ruled by
the Uzbeks remained relatively stable.
Throughout this period of discord among the Mongols, they
nonetheless shared a continuing hostility to the Ming. The
struggle was maintained principally by the Khalkha. Although the
title had become almost meaningless, the line of the khans had
continued in the Chahar tribe, the leader of which became the
rallying point for the conflict against China.
The war with China was renewed with considerable energy after
Altan Khan (1507-83) of the Tumed clan united the Khalkha.
Although he was not so prominent in history as his predecessor,
Dayan, or his successor, Galdan Khan (1632-97), Altan was
probably the greatest of the Mongol princes in the centuries
following the collapse of the Yuan. By 1552 he had defeated the
Oirad and had reunited most of Mongolia. It soon became obvious
to Altan that there was nothing to be gained by continuing the
war with the Ming; the empire of Chinggis never could be
restored. Accordingly, he concluded a treaty with the Ming
emperor in 1571, ending a struggle that had lasted more than
In the remaining eleven years of his life, Altan aggressively
pushed Mongol power to the south and the southwest, and he raided
Tibet extensively. Altan, in turn, was coopted by a Buddhist
revival in Tibet, and he became a fervent convert. In 1586 the
first lamaist monastery was established in Mongolia, and
Buddhism--specifically, Lamaism--became the state religion.
Data as of June 1989