The Mongolians, or Mongols, as they were previously known, recorded their history for centuries in oral epics, sung by bards, until writing was introduced nearly 800 years ago. Because of their substantial - and mostly unhappy - contacts with neighbouring countries, much has also been written about them. Chinese dynastic histories, stretching back 5000 years, tell of the Mongols and their predecessors, describing as ravenous barbarians greedy for Chinese produce and likening them to wolves. However, much of the history has now been rewritten from a more objective point of view.
In the Beginning
Little is known about Mongolia's earliest inhabitants, but archaeological digs have uncovered human remains in the Gobi and other regions dating back nearly 500,000 years. Agriculture seems to have preceded nomadic herding of animals, and despite Mongolia's short summers, wheat growing has co-existed with nomadic life for thousands of years. It was only after the Mongols tamed horses, yaks and camels that they took to a nomadic herding lifestyle.
Early Chinese manuscripts refer to 'Turkic-speaking peoples' living in what we now call Mongolia as early as the 4th or 5th century BC. The Chinese - who had numerous military clashes with these nomadic tribes - referred to them as the Xiongnu.
The Chinese fought their first major war with the Xiongnu - a taste of things to come - in the 3rd century BC. Xiongnu military tactics were fierce and effective - warriors charged on horseback while wielding lances and swords and firing arrows. The Xiongnu advanced far into China before being repelled.
In about 200 BC, the Xiongnu launched a major invasion and again reached the Yellow River. It wasn't until the middle of the 1st century AD that the Chinese succeeded in expelling them. Although some Xiongnu continued to harass the Chinese, it wasn't long before the Chinese found themselves fighting other nomadic tribes from the north. Among these northern enemies were the Xianbeis, Tobas, Ruruans and Turks.
Some remnants of the Xiongnu moved west, and their descendants, the Huns, united under Attila and terrorized central Europe in the last days of the Roman empire. Ruins of Xiongnu cities have been excavated in several Mongolian provinces, one site being close to Ulaanbaatar at Gua Dob.
The name 'Mongol' was first recorded by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). At that time, Mongolia was dominated by the Uighurs, a Turkic people who built several cities and who presently make their home in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The Uighurs followed the teachings of a Persian saint, Mani, who was much influenced by Christianity. An inscription found in the ruins of their city, Kharbalgasun, tells how Manicheism transformed 'this country of barbarous customs, full of the fumes of blood, into a land where people live on vegetables; from a land of killing to a land where good deeds are fostered'. The Uighurs, after taking control of Mongolia, went on to help out the ailing Tang rulers of China, sving them from an internal revolt.
The Uighurs continued to control most of Mongolia until 840 AD, when they were defeated by the Kyrgyz, who now live in Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang. The Kyrgyz' lasting legacy in Mongolia is the downward flowing script - the Secret History epic and all subsequent Mongolian texts were written in this script until Stalin intervened in the 1940s.
The defeat of the Uighurs created a vacuum, which was filled by the Kitans, a Mongol tribe from what is now north-east China. By the 10th century, the Kitans had control of most of Manchuria, eastern Mongolia and much of China north of the Yellow River. The Kitans continued warring with other Mongol tribes, most significantly with the Western Xia during the 11th and 12th centuries. The Kitan empire was finally defeated in 1122 AD by the Chinese and their allies, the Jurchen (predecessors of the Manchus).
The Mongols and other nomadic peoples of northern Asia seldom united and had little inclination to do so; they preferred to be nomadic, widely scattered over great areas, frequently on the move with their animals in search of pasture. They wanted to live as separate clans, united only in the face of a common threat. Chinese penetration of the pastures of the Xiongnu (1300 years before Chinggis Khaan) prompted the nomads to eventually regroup and create a federation of nomadic tribes strong enough to challenge China.
The Genghis Khan imprinted in the memory of the west bears little relation to the Chinggis Khaan revered by Mongolians. Not only is the spelling different: to Europeans, his name lives on as the epitome of mercilessness and ravaging war; to the Mongolians, he embodies strength, unity, law and order. He is the young king who united the warring clans, stamped out feuds and gave Mongolians a sense of direction. This is what post-communist Mongolia looks for today, and Chinggis epitomizes the historic ability to rise above confusion and uncertainty.
Until the end of the 12th century, the Mongols were little more than a loose confederation of rival clans. A Mongol named Temujin was born in 1162 (although the exact date is open to debate) His father was a leader of the Kiyat-Borjigin tribe, while the ethnic origins of his mother are subject to conjecture. As a teenager, he killed his half-brother in cold blood, and at the age of 20, he emerged from a power struggle to become the leader of the Kiyat-Borjigins. Within a few years, he managed to unite most of the Mongol tribes, and in 1189, he was given the honorary name of Chinggis Khaan, meaning 'universal (or oceanic) king'. No Mongolian leader before or since has held the Mongolians together.
Chinggis set up his capital at Karakorum, in present-day Kharkhorin (Avarga, in Delgerkhaan district of the Khentii province, also claims to be Chinggis' capital), gathered a loyal army (possibly up to 200,000 men from many ethnic groups) and went on to create the largest empire the world has ever seen By the time of his death in 1227 (from injuries sustained after falling off his horse), the Mongol empire extended from Beijing to the Caspian Sea.
Much to the chagrin of historians, the site of his grave has still not been found, although it is believed to be somewhere in the Khentii mountains.
The Great Khans
Power passed into the hands of Chinggis' favourite son, Ogedei, who continued the programme of military conquest. His generals pushed as far west as Hungary and were all set to invade Western Europe when Ogedei died. Mongol custom dictated that all noble descendants of Chinggis had to return to Mongolia to democratically elect a new khaan (king). This forced the abandonment of the European campaign.
Chinggis' grandson, Kublai Khan (circa 1216-1294), completed the subjugation of China, effectively ending the Song Dynasty (960-1279). He became the emperor of China's Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Kublai established his winter capital in Tatu ('great capital'), today's Beijing. (So thoroughly have the Chinese erased the traces of the Mongol conquest that only two major monuments in Beijing remain: the Lama Temple and the giant white stupa in Beihai Park.)
Kublai soon realized that the Mongol empire had reached the limits of expansion. In 1260 the Mongols lost a major battle to the Egyptian Mamluks. An attack on Java briefly succeeded, but the Mongol troops were finally expelled. Two attempts to invade Japan (in 1274 and 1281) ended in failure; the second was thwarted when a typhoon destroyed the Mongol fleet. The Japanese claimed this was divine intervention - the Mongols said it was bad weather.
Instead of looking for more wars to fight, Kublai concentrated his efforts on keeping the vast empire together. This was the height of the Mongols' glory: the empire stretched from Korea to Hungary, and as far south as Vietnam, making it the largest empire the world has ever known. The Mongols improved the road system linking China with Russia and promoted trade throughout the empire and with Europe. Tens of thousands of horses were on standby to enable pony express riders to cross the empire with important messages at great speed.
In China, the Yuan dynasty instituted a famine relief scheme and expanded the canal system, which brought food from the countryside to the cities. It was the first to enforce paper money as the sole form of currency. This was the China that Marco Polo and other travelers visited and described in their journals to an amazed Europe.
The grandeur of the Mongol empire in China lasted over a century. After Kublai Khaan died in 1294, the Mongols became increasingly dependent on the people they ruled. They were deeply resented as an elite, privileged class exempt from taxation, and the empire became ridden with factions vying for power. By the 1350s, Mongol rule began to disintegrate. They were expelled from Beijing by the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Zhu Yuanzhang, who took the title Hongwu.
The Mongol Dominions, 1300-1405
The collapse of the Yuan dynasty caused over 60,000 Mongols to return to Mongolia. Their unity dissolved and they resumed their traditional lifestyle of frequent clan warfare. A major civil war was fought from 1400 to 1454 between two main groups, the Khalkha in the east and the Oirad in the west. A long period of stagnation and decline followed.
A revival of sorts occurred under Altan Khaan (1507-83), who united the Khalkha, defeated the Oirad and brought most of Mongolia under his control. The war with Ming China was renewed in an attempt to recapture the lost empire of the Yuan dynasty, but this effort proved fruitless. China's Great Wall was built at this time in an effort to find a technological solution against Altan Khaan and the resurgent Mongols. Altan signed a peace treaty with China in 1571 and turned his troops south-west against Tibet.
At the height of his power, Altan was seduced by Buddhism (ironically, the religion of Tibet). He became a devout believer, and Buddhism - the religion of the Mongol nobility for 200 years - became the state religion. The monks tried desperately to reunite the quarrelling clans, but Mongolia's tendency to fragment persisted.
After the death of Altan Khaan, Mongolia reverted to a collection of tiny tribal domains. Meanwhile, the Manchus (whose predecessors had been the Jurchens), ancient enemies of the Mongols, established the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Despite their military prowess, the Manchus at first made no aggressive move against Mongolia; they didn't need to - the Mongols were doing a great job of defeating themselves. The Zungar Mongols of the west were locked in a fierce military struggle with the Khalkha Mongola of the east.
The Zungar seemed to be gaining the upper hand, and it was at this time that the Khalkha made what was probably a fatal mistake - they invited the Manchu Qing emperor, Kangxi, to send troops to fight their Zungar enemy. Like most Mongols, the Zungar warriors were highly skilled horseback archers. However, the Manchus possessed a new technology which the Mongols couldn't combat - muskets and cannon. By 1732, the Zungar were resoundingly defeated, and Mongolia came under the control of Manchu China.
Some of the Manchu emperors were devout Tibetan Buddhists, so the Manchus built temples throughout Mongolia. Manchu rule over China was competent and reasonably benign up unjtil around 1800; thereafter, the Qing emperors became increasingly corrupt and despotic. In both China and Mongolia, peasants suffered ruthless exploitation, ruinous taxes and brutal punishment (including torture) for the slightest offence or resistance to authority. (The brutality of the Manchu era has never been forgiven or forgotten, and to this day, Mongolians despise the Chinese.) Mongolia was ripe for rebellion, and so was China.
In 1911, China's last dynasty, the Qing, crumbled. The Mongol princes quickly saw their opportunity: Mongolian independence from China was declared on 1 December 1911, with a theocratic government under the leadership of the eighth Jebtzun Damba (Living Buddha), who was declared the Bogd Khaan (Holy King). The Chinese government did not recognize Mongolian independence, but it was fully preoccupied with its own domestic chaos. On 25 May 1915, the Treaty of Kyakhta - which granted Mongolia limited autonomy - was signed by Mongolia, China and Russia.
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 came as a great shock to Mongolia's aristocracy. Taking advantage of Russia's weakness, a Chinese warlord sent his troops into Mongolia in 1919 and occupied the capital. In February 1921, retreating White Russian (anticommunist) troops entered Mongolia and expelled the Chinese. At first, the Bogd Khaan seemed to welcome the Russians as saviours of his regime, but it soon became apparent that the Russians were just a ruthless army of occupation. The brutality of both the Chinese and Russian forces inflamed the Mongolians' desire for independence.
As the Russian Bolsheviks were steadily advancing against the White Russian forces in Siberia, Mongolian nationalists believed their best hope for military assistance was to ask the Bolsheviks for help. In July 1921, Mongolian and Bolshevik fighters recaptured Ulaanbaatar, and on 11 July of that year, the People's Government of Mongolia was declared. The Bogd Khaan was retained as a ceremonial figurehead with no real power. The newly formed Mongolian People's Party (the first political party in the country's history, and the only one for the next 69 years) took over government. Mongolia's first leader was Damdin Sukhbaatar, the former commander of Mongolia's troops.
The military campaign continued for a few more months. Thousands of Bolshevik forces poured into Mongolia from Russia. The White Russian forces were finally defeated in January 1922. Almost from the first moment of victory, there was rivalry between the Bogd Khaan and the communists - the latter clearly intended to eliminate the monarchy entirely and seemed to be moving in on the newly 'independent' Mongolia.
On 26 November 1924, the Mongolian People's Republic (MPR) was declared, and Mongolia became the world's second communist country. The Mongolian People's Party was renamed the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP). Soviet and Mongolian communists worked secretly to eliminate all noncommunist contenders for power.
After Lenin's death in Russia in 1924, Mongolian communism remained much independent of Moscow until Lenin's successor, Stalin, gained absolute power in the late 1920s. Then the purges began in Mongolia. Once former MPRP leaders Lana Bodoo, Danzan Khorloo and Sukhbaatar were dead (one or two in suspicious circumstances), and Party Chairman Tseren-Ochiryn Dambadorj was exiled to Moscow in 1928, Stalin's stooge, Khorloogiyn Choibalsan, was selected as leader of the standing legislature, the Little Khural.
Following Stalin's lead, Choibalsan ordered the seizure of land and herds which were then redistributed to peasants. In 1932, more than 700 people - mostly monks - were imprisoned or murdered, their property seized and collectivized. Farmers were forced to join cooperatives and private business was banned, Chinese and other foreign traders were expelled, and all transport was nationalized. The destruction of private enterprise without sufficient time to build up a working state sector had the same result in Mongolia as it did in the Soviet Union - famine.
While the government moderated its economic policy during the 1930s, its campaign against religion was ruthless. In 1937, Choibalsan launched a reign of terror against the monasteries in which thousands of monks were arrested and executed. The antireligion campaign coincided with a bloody purge to eliminate 'rightist elements'. It is believed that by 1939, some 27,000 people had been executed (3% of Mongolia's population at that time), of whom 17,000 were monks.
By 1931, the Japanese had seized north-east China (Manchuria), renamed it Manchukuo and returned the last Manchu (Qing) emperor to the throne to serve as a Japanese puppet. Japan planned a similar takeover of Mongolia, creating a state called Mengukuo - the kingdom of the Mongols. Stalin correctly feared Japanese military moves against both the USSR and Mongolia, so hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops, and 80,000 Mongolian soldiers, started moving back into Mongolia during the early 1930s. The Mongolian military was built up, as well, and eventually nearly 10% of Mongolia's population was in the army.
In May 1939, the Japanese decided to invade Khalkhin Gol in eastern Mongolia. Until September of the same year, battles involving tanks, bombers and ground troops resulted in about 61,000 Japanese killed, wounded or captured; about 10,000 Russians and over 1000 Mongolians suffered the same fate. War historians believe that the result prompted the Japanese generals to change their strategies and avoid further war with Russia. Japan signed a neutrality pact with the USSR in 1941, and instead turned its war machine south, to eastern Asia and the Pacific region.
The Soviet Union and Mongolia declared war on Japan in 1945 during the very last days of WWII. After the war, Stalin extracted grudging recognition of the independence of Outer Mongolia from Chinese Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) leader Chiang Kaishek when the two signed an anti-Japanese Sino-Soviet alliance. (The Kuomintang, which was defeated by the Chinese communists, subsequently withdrew recognition of Outer Mongolia's independence and - still claiming to be the legitimate government of all China - continues to press its territorial claim. Maps produced in Taiwan today still show Mongolia as a province of China.)
Progress & Conflict
Choibalsan died in January 1952 and was replaced by Yumjaagiyn Tsendenbal - no liberal, but not a mass murderer. Stalin died the following year. From that time until the mid-1960s, Mongolia enjoyed, in relative terms, a period of peace. Relations between the Soviet and Chinese governments warmed during the 1950s, and this had beneficial effects on Mongolia. The Soviets felt confident enough to withdraw all Soviet troops from Mongolia in 1956. Taiwan and the USA continued to oppose Mongolia's membership in the United Nations, but this was finally achieved in 1961.
With the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, the Mongolians chose the lesser of two evils and sided with the Soviet Union. Chinese aid to Mongolia ceased; the Mongolian government expelled thousands of ethnic Chinese, and all trade with China came to a halt. More than 100,000 Soviet troops poured in, and Mongolia was once again a potential battlefield.
Throughout the 1970s, Soviet influence gathered strength. Young Mongolians were sent to the USSR for technical training and brought back Russian habits (including the overconsumption of vodka). Many aspects of Russian culture - food, music, opera, dance - were adopted by the Mongolians, and Russian became the country's second language. Mongolia swarmed with Polish archaeologists, Czech tractor-makers, Hungarian technicians and East German propoganda film makers.
As the Soviet regime stagnated and faltered, Party Secretary-General Tsendenbal was forcibly retired in 1984 and moved to Moscow. He was replaced by Jambyn Batmonkh, a reformer heartened by the Soviet reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1986, Gorbachev announced that the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Mongolia was being considered.
Batmonkh instigated a cautious attempt at perestroika and glasnost (known as il tod in Mongolian) in 1986. Decentralisation was the key word in the economic reform package - enterprises were given more freedom to operate without central officials making all the decisions. Government departments were reorganized, and high-ranking officials were reshuffled.
By the late 1980s, relations with China gradually thawed. Air services between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar - suspended since the 1960s - were resumed in 1986. In 1989, full diplomatic relations with China were established.
The unravelling of the Soviet Union resulted in decolonisation by default. Few in Mongolia were ready for the speed of the collapse, or the possibilities or seizing the moment. In March 1990, large pro-democracy protests erupted in the square in front of the parliament building in Ulaanbaatar, and hunger strikes were held. It was only a few months after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, and many in the MPRP wanted to deal with the protests with tanks and troops. Batmonkh, however, did not sign the order, and a young man by the name of Zorig exposed the plan to the Mongolian press.
Things happened quickly: Batmonkh lost power; new political parties with a bewildering variety of names sprang up; and hunger strikes and protests continued. In May, the MPRP government amended the constitution to permit multiparty elections in July 1990.
Ironically, the communists won the elections, taking 85% of the seats in the Great Khural and 62% of the seats in the Little Khural. Although Ulaanbaatar residents gave much support to the opposition parties, rural areas voted overwhelmingly for the communists. The MPRP, now calling itself 'ex-communist', announced it would share power with several young democrats - some were even given ministries. Freedom of speech, religion and assembly were all granted. The era of totalitarianism had ended.
The Mongolian constitution was revised again, and elections were held in June 1992. The MPRP again came out on top, winning 57% of the popular vote and an astounding 71 parliamentary seats out of 76. The 'ex-communists' ran on a platform promising ill-defined reforms and blaming the country's economic problems on the democratic opposition. The government was soon under pressure from big lenders, including Japan and the World Bank, to privatize ownership of the big state enterprises, but his only resulted in ownership by the same men who had been the managers.
Four years later, on 30 June 1996, the Mongolian Democratic Coalition unexpectedly trouced the ruling MPRP, ending 75 years of unbroken communist rule. Despite the sparse population and vast distances, the majority of the 1.2 million eligible voters chose the Coalition, which secured 50 seats. The MPRP only managed to keep 25 seats; the sole independent was from the Mongolian Traditional United Party. Mendsaikhanu Enkhsaikhan, the 41-year-old leader of the coalition, was named prime minister.
* In July 2000, new elections were held, and the MPRP regained power with 52% of the popular vote and 72 seats. Whether this means an end to the reforms Enkhsaikhan had so successfully implemented in the last four years remains to be seen, but there is a widespread fear among foreigners and the Mongolian democrats that the new government will amend the constitution in an attempt to curb decentralisation, privatisation and free-market forces.
For further reading on Mongolian history, please refer to the section dubbed "Culture" in the "In The News" rubric of the Mongolian page.
Greenway, Paul, Storey, Robert & Lafitte, Gabriel, Lonely Planet - Mongolia, Second Edition, Lonely Planet Publications, Hawthorn, Australia, 1997, pp. 11-18.
* Paragraph by Daniel Andre Roy.