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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Apr 25, 2022

    For the final episode on the Mongol Empire, we take you, our dear listeners, in a quick survey of the final years of Chinggisid rule in Mongolia, after the Yuan Dynasty was forced from China in 1368, until the Manchu conquests in the seventeenth century. This will help bridge the gap with the next series in this podcast, and serve as an afterword to this season.  I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


We detailed in previous episodes the final years of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China, which culminated with Töghön Temür Khaan fleeing his capital of Dadu to Mongolia. With the Yuan rulers ousted, the new Ming Dynasty, ruled by the Chinese warlord Zhu Yuanzhang now styled the Hongwu Emperor, seized Dadu. Dadu was renamed to Beiping, “northern peace,” and would soon to Beijing, “northern capital.” The Ming, under its early emperors, was a highly militarized state with what’s often described as an oppressively strong government. The Hongwu Emperor, though recognizing that the Mongols had had the Mandate of Heaven, had settled on one key flaw which allowed corruption and poor governance to settle in. That is, that the Yuan Khans simply did not have enough authority within their government, which had been augmented by Töghön Temür Khaan’s debauchery. The lords of the Yuan state simply had too much more power in comparison to the Yuan Emperor. The Ming solution to that, was to, at least in early years of the dynasty, ensure there were few checks on the might of the Ming Emperor. This would lead to intense control over society and its own oppression, but that’s another matter.


    The flight of the Yuan rulers back into the steppe was neither the end of the Yuan, nor of the Mongol threat, and the Ming knew this. The flight of 1368, and Töghön Temür’s death in 1370, was hardly the end of war, as Ming and Yuan forces raided back and forced over the frontier repeatedly. The Ming led continued assaults into Mongolia itself, on one occasion sacking the much reduced former Mongol capital of Qaraqorum. But the Hongwu Emperor’s forces met defeats in Mongolia in 1372, and his armies were forced back in humiliating, destructive routs. The Hongwu Emperor continued to send armies into Mongolia throughout the 1380s, but finally recognized the stalemate. He had solidified rule over China, defeated the last of Yuan holdouts, but in the steppes his armies could be drawn out, starved and crushed by the Mongols. It was better to fall back to military garrisons along the frontier to launch counter attacks, rather than waste more resources in the steppes. Frustratingly, the sons of Töghön Temür continued to claim the right to rule China, and refused to recognize that the Ming now held the Mandate of Heaven. Ming historians from this point on refer to the Yuan in Mongolia as the Northern Yuan, though the Yuan Khaans themselves saw their rule as continuing unabated.


    In the early fifteenth century, the ascension of the Hongwu Emperor’s son, Zhu Di, known as the Yongle Emperor, brought renewed conflict. The Yongle Emperor personally led some of these campaigns, and when he met the Mongols in battle he was victorious, aided by the prodigious usage of gunpowder weapons. But in the final campaigns, the strong man of the Northern Yuan, a fellow named Arughtai, increasingly favoured avoiding direct engagement with the Ming entirely. The Yongle Emperor’s ambitions were thus thwarted, and the threat of starvation and isolation in the steppes forced his withdrawal. It was on one of these withdrawals in 1424 that the Yongle Empire succumbed to illness, and with him died the last skilled military emperor of the Ming. 


The arrival of the Yuan nobility back to the steppe brought with it its own problems, for the sinicized elite accustomed to the finery of great Dadu found life in Mongolia difficult and unrefined. The local lords in Mongolia, having long since felt abandoned by Dadu, did not easily abide the new arrivals or their demands for troops. The Dadu refugees also were decidedly much too Chinese for the liking of Mongolia’s local elite. Many of the Mongolian leaders were descendants of Ariq Böke or Chinggis Khan’s brothers, those who felt they had been left out of the power and resources of the empire. The upheaval brought on by the constant Ming attacks in eastern and central Mongolia at the same time did no favours to the position of the Yuan. On Töghön Temür’s death in 1370, he was succeeded by his son, the much more capable Ayushiridara. Ayushiridara Khaan and his skilled general Koko Temür led effective counter attacks against the Ming, and even succeeded in gaining lost territory, though Ayushiridara’s son Maidiribala was captured by the Ming. On Ayushiridara’s death in 1378, the Ming released Maidiribala back to Mongolia to influence the election, for Maidiribala had been well treated and was seen as favourably disposed to the Ming. But Ayushiridara was succeeded by his brother Tögüs Temür, who continued war with the Ming and interfering along the border. After a series of battles, in 1388 Tögüs Temür was defeated near Buyur Lake in northern Mongolia. Though he escaped, the depowered Tögüs Temür Khaan was soon murdered by a distant relation named Yesüder. With the death of Tögüs Temür Khaan, the unbroken succession of the house of Khubilai came to an end. Now various lords within the Northern Yuan declared their independence, sought peace with the Ming or fought for the Chinggisid throne. As was the usual case when this occurred, khans now rapidly ascended to the throne only to soon be killed or ousted. Their order remains confused, their identities uncertain, and many were little more than figure heads for puppet masters. One of the most notable and longest lasting of these Mongol puppet masters was Arughtai. Until his death in 1434, Arughtai remained the most powerful man in the Northern Yuan court, fighting against the Ming, the Oirats and other rivals to power, but never able to reassert Yan hegemony over all of Mongolia.


    This infighting in the Yuan court greatly benefitted one party in western Mongolia. These were the Oirat, or western Mongols, assembled in a political union known by its clever name, the Four Oirat. While they had been subjects to the Great Khan, their local lords were not Chinggisids, and had enjoyed a great degree of autonomy in the recent decades before the Yuan expulsion. The arrival of the Great Khans from China brought interference in their internal matters, demands for troops and supplies which caused resentment. The turmoil brought on the wars with the Ming and the succession struggles led to the Oirat leadership to challenge the Great Khans. In 1399, Ugechi Khasakha of the Khoit Oirat and Batula, son-in-law to the Khan, killed the Great Khan Elbeg, beginning open warfare between the Oirat and the Yuan. When Ugechi Khasakha assassinated Elbeg Khan’s son Gün-Temür in 1402, the Oirat leader assumed supreme power in Mongolia and the title of Guilichi Khaan. By 1408 his former ally, Batula, ousted Ugechi Khaskha and assumed power himself, while Arughtai elected another of Elbeg Khan’s sons, Bunyashiri, as Khaan. While this civil war was ongoing, the Ming continued to interfere, by granting imperial titles and supplies to other Oirat factions to strengthen them against the Khaan, coupled with invasions of Mongolia itself by the Yongle Emperor. On other occasions, in order to prevent the Oirat from becoming too powerful, the Ming would send troops and supplies to aid the Yuan Khans against the Oirat.


    After the Yongle Emperor’s death in 1424, Ming meddling in Mongolia slackened. With this, the Oirat leader Toghon Chingsang, son of Batula, gradually succeeded in taking control over eastern Mongolia. A skilled politician and diplomat, he maintained good ties with neighbours outside Mongolia, like the Ming and the Jurchen, while strengthening his control over the Mongols and finding rival puppets to install on the Yuan throne. Toghon and his son Esen defeated and executed Arughtai in 1434, and then the rival Chinggisid Khan in 1438. With this, Toghon took effective control of Mongolia. Through marriage alliance and diplomacy he took most of the rest too. With a new puppet Khaan on the throne, Toghon was made the taishi, derived originally from the Chinese Grand Preceptor. Toghon died soon after this, and was succeeded to the position of taishi by his son Esen. Hence, the influential Esen Taishi came to dominate Mongolia.


    A skilled general beyond even his father, by the time Esen Taishi took control at the start of the 1440s he had campaigned as far west as Moghulistan and back. He held onto power with an iron hand and cooperative khaans, crushing rebellions and bringing the Jurchen in Manchuria and cities of what’s now northwestern China’s Gansu province under his rule. Ming armies into the steppe were defeated; the Ming generals and emperors could no longer hold a candle to the might of the Yongle Emperor.


    Struggling to contain Esen Taishi’s expansion militarily or politically, the Ming tried a new strategy: economic warfare. During Toghon Taishi’s period, trade had flowed relatively easily between Mongolia and the Ming, with horses, livestock and furs coming from Mongol lands and manufactured goods and materials from China. Envoys had travelled freely, but the Mongols had also learned to take advantage of Ming gift giving to envoys. Mongol embassies arriving with several thousands persons in tow, which all had to be housed, fed and gifted at the expense of the Ming court. The Ming demanded that Esen Taishi restrict these embassies to only a few hundred men, which Esen felt as an insult. Though forbidden by the Ming, in exchange for horses, border guards and other lords near the frontier traded weapons and armour to the Mongols. Though Esen Taishi would have preferred to maintain good relations and continue profiting off of the Ming, the Ming’s harsher treatment of his envoys and efforts to shut down the trade over the border either pushed Esen too far, or served as a useful pretext for war. Mongol attacks on the north began, and the inexperienced, overconfident and poorly advised Zhengtong Emperor, a great-grandson of the Yongle Emperor, marched from Beijing to face the Mongols in battle. In August 1449, the Mongol-Oirat forces outmaneuvered the Ming and then inflicted a crushing defeat upon them at the Tumu Fort, and captured the Zhengtong Emperor. With his captive in tow, Esen Taishi laid siege to Beijing itself and raided the northern countryside, though called off the campaign and eventually freed his imperial prisoner, hoping he would cause trouble with the new Ming emperor who had been installed. 


    The Tumu Crisis, as it came to be known, was a huge embarrassment for the Ming, and put an end to any belief that the Ming could continue to work offensively against the Mongols. While that had been possible in the careful military structure under the Yongle Emperor, after his death the Ming imperial and military infrastructure lacked the ability or the will to carry out such campaigns, yet had retained the misplaced confidence in their ability to do so. Esen Taishi had just poked through that lie with a hundred thousand arrows. Now turning to the defensive, the Ming renewed an age-old strategy against the nomads: building border fortifications to impede their movement. So began the steady construction of the Great Wall of China as it exists today, beginning first north of Beijing and in time crawling along the entire Mongol frontier.


    In turn, the Tumu crisis did not help Esen Taishi’s leadership. His puppet khan, Taisun, began to conspire against him, and they met in battle in 1452. Victorious, Esen Taishi sought to do away with the puppets altogether and rule as khan in his own right, until his assassination in 1455. The height of Oirat domination over the Chinggisids thus passed, and for the next decades contenders to the Chinggisid throne fought against Oirat efforts to reassert their hegemony. What followed was more warfare, great and petty, until Mongolia was reunified again under Chinggisid leadership in the early 1500s by Batu-Möngke Dayan Khaan, more usually known as Dayan Khaan. Raised to office and aided throughout his reign by his skilled mother-in-law/wife Mandukhai Khatun, after years of fighting against Oirats, other Mongols and the Ming, by 1510 Dayan Khaan succeeded in controlling all of Mongolia.  He appointed his sons and commanders to head new administrative units; removed the lords who stood against him, reconfirmed those who supported him,  and divided the population of Mongolia into  6 tümens, made up of  54 otogs. 


    The Dayan Khaanid 1500s was much more stable compared to the century before. It’s not clear how long Dayan Khaan reigned for, with some putting his death in the 1540s, or before 1520. One consequence of his reign was dividing the empire between his sons, assigning them to the various tümed across Mongolia, with one intended as an overarching khan. But his power waned as that of the aristocrats’ grew, and at the end of the 1540s a grandson of Dayan Khan, Altan Khan, usurped power. This ushered in another period of centralization and military authority, as Altan Khan led attacks against the Kazakhs, Oirats and the Ming. In one of his most notable exploits, in 1550 he attacked Beijing itself and set its outskirts aflame. The Ming Emperor was forced into a peace treaty which heavily favoured the Mongols and provided them gifts and advantageous trade terms; a far cry from the offensive might the Yongle Emperor had once employed.


    One of the most lasting consequences of Altan Khan was the promotion of Buddhism in Mongolia, for Altan Khan and his third wife, Jönggen Khatun, were its great patrons. Though Buddhism had a presence in Mongolia for centuries, it had never been a large or significant one. The late thirteenth century saw some flourishing of the faith among the elite, which continued in the following centuries. In the 1570s Altan Khan and his Khatun invited to Mongolia the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso; except, he was not yet called the Dalai Lama. This title was bestowed upon Sonam Gyatso by Altan Khan, coming from the Mongolian word Dalai,  meaning Ocean. The Dalai Lama was thus the oceanic, or universal, lama, and the title was posthumously applied to Sonam Gyatso’s two previous reincarnations. After Sonam Gyatso’s death in 1588, the Fourth Dalai Lama was a great-grandson of Altan Khan, and thereby a descendant of Chinggis Khan. 


    The official, dedicated patronage of Buddhism by Altan Khan and his successors allowed it to spread across Mongolia as it never had before. Altan Khan even took materials from the ruins of the once imperial capital of Qaraqorum to build a monastery nearby, known as the Erdene Zuu which still stands today. Anti-shamanic efforts by the succeeding khans and the new Buddhist clergy reduced the influence of the shamans, and the building of monasteries across Mongolia was the start of the powerful Buddhist Lamas who would, in time, rule large swathes of the country. It was not a quick or perfect transformation;  Mongolian sources speak of efforts to replace the traditional Mongol shamanist-animism well into the seventeenth century, and even today shamans can still be consulted in Mongolia.


 From the conversion of the Northern Yuan and its people, Buddhism spread to the remaining independent Oirats, who the Yuan had steadily pushed from their base in western Mongolia. Part of the Oirats travelled far west in one of the final great steppe-migrations; these were the Kalmyks, who made their way west of the Caspian Sea, displacing and ruling over the Nogai Horde. This Kalmyk Khanate was conquered by the Russians in the early eighteenth century, and today they remain largely in Russia’s republic of Kalmykia, which contains the only notable Buddhist population in Europe. Meanwhile, the left wing of the Oirat confederation, known in Mongolian as the dzün gar, went on to establish, in the early seventeenth century, what is normally considered the final steppe empire; the Dzungar Khanate. They ruled that ill-defined region of Moghulistan, known after them as Dzungaria, where today the border of China, Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan meet. The Dzungars would be a fierce foe against Qing Dynasty expansion into Central Asia, and fought constantine against their neighbours in Tibet, Mongolia proper and westwards against the Kazakhs. Ultimately the Dzungars met utter destruction at the hands of the Qing Dynasty in the mid-eighteenth century, an event known as the Dzungar Genocide. The state itself was not merely dismantled, but in its heartland in the Dzungar Basin, its Mongolian speaking population was exterminated and then their lands given to Qing soldiers.


After Altan Khan’s death in the 1570s, the final period of Mongol unity under a Chinggisid khan passed. The succeeding khans of the lineage of Dayan Khaan could not regain their authority after Altan Khan’s usurpation and minimization of them. The lords of the tümed, the regional divisions, had grown in power and independence. In 1604, a descendant of Dayan Khaan was to become the last Chinggisid in Mongolia to have real power. This was Ligdan Khaan, whose thirty year reign saw the end of Mongolian independence for the next four hundred years. So weak had the position of Great Khan grown compared to other tümed leaders, that Ligdan’s rivals disparagingly called him only the Khan of the Chakhar Mongols —corresponding roughly to today’s Inner Mongolia— rather than Great Khan. His greatest foe came from the east; the Jurchen had been unified and made resurgent. Their leader, Nurhaci, had declared himself Khan of a new Jin Dynasty. It was as if the Mongols’ old foes had returned from the grave. Nurhaci led repeated attacks against Ligdan Khaan, and allied with his rivals in Mongolia. 


Ligdan Khaan was hounded and pursued, and last minute reforms and promises he made could not arrest his fate. In 1634, he died of smallpox in what is now Gansu. His son, Ejei Khaan, was quickly forced to surrender to Nurhaci’s son and successor, Hong Taiji, who declared both a new name for the Jurchen, and a new dynasty; now they were the Manchu, masters of the Qing Dynasty, the final imperial dynasty to rule China. With Ejei at his side, Hong Taiji took the submission of most of the Mongols. Many accompanied him in his conquest of China following the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, and Mongols remained important part of Qing armies even in the wars against the Dzungars. The Manchu, descendents of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty which had fallen to the Mongols in 1234, had in turn conquered both dynasties which had emerged from the Yuan. Ejei Khaan spent the remainder of his life a humbled prince in the Qing court, while his younger brother, Abunai, led a revolt in 1675 against Qing rule, which was swiftly crushed, Abunai killed and many Borjigin in the Chahar lands of southern Mongolia executed.


And so, Chinggisid rule in Mongolia passed into memory. Not all Borjigon were killed; an aristocracy of Dayan Khanid descent remained in Mongolia until the twentieth century, when most were lost in Soviet purges. But effective rule of Mongolia remained in the hands of the Qing Dynasty, their appointees, or Buddhist clergy who became feudal lords in their own right. And yet, Chinggis Khan’s memory could not be dislodged. The Qing Emperors appealed to it when it came to controlling the Mongols, and after the start of Qing rule, new chronicles began to be written in Mongolia, in the same Uighur script Chinggis had adopted 400 years prior. With the rediscovery of sections of the Secret History of the Mongols in the seventeenth century, the past and the present of Mongolia could be reunited. In the Erden-yin Tobchi of Sayang Sechen, for example, chapters of the Secret History were combined with the Buddhist teaching which now permeated the Mongol world. Chinggis Khan’s confrontation with the Tangut King now involved them both transforming into animals, with Chinggis’ victory complete with his transformation into the very sky itself.  But even here, the story begins just as it did in the Secret History; a blue-grey wolf, and a fallow deer, from whose line would come the boy, Temüjin, born clutching a blood clot in his fist the size of a knuckle bone.


    Our next series picks up with the conquests of the rise of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, and its conquest of China, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this and want to help us continue bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on Patreon at , or share this  with your friends and leave reviews on the podcast catcher of your choice. This series was researched and written by Jack Wilson. You can hear more of his discussions on the Mongols at his channel on Youtube, the Jackmeister: Mongol History. This series was narrated by David Schroeder, host of the Cold War on Youtube. This has been Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest, Season 2: The Mongol Conquests. Thank you for listening, and we’ll catch you on the next one.