Early Mongolian History
Early Chinese manuscripts refer to “turkic speaking peoples”, whom they called the Xiongnu, living in the area which is now Mongolia as early as the 4th or 5th century BC. A major war between these people and the Chinese, in which the Xiongnu warriors would charge on horseback, wielding lances and swords and firing arrows, was the motivation behind the building of the Great Wall of China.
From about 200 BC, warfare between the Chinese and the Xiongnu “barbarians” was almost continuous until the Chinese finally expelled their enemy around the middle of the first century AD. Other nomadic tribes, such as the Xianbei and the Turk arrived in Mongolia from the north, and the remnants of the Xiongnu moved west. Their descendants, the Huns, terrorised central Europe under Attila from 434 to 453 AD.
The Uigher tribe invaded Mongolia in 744 AD and allied themselves with the Tang Chinese, but their defeat by the Kirghiz in 840 AD allowed the Kitans, a Mongol tribe from north-east China, to take control. By the 10th century, the Kitans held much of Manchuria, eastern Mongolia and most of China north of the Yellow River. Even so the various Mongol tribes still waged wars among themselves. The Chinese finally defeated the Kitan empire in 1122 AD.
Sixty years later, a 20-year-old warrior named Temujin emerged as leader of the Borjigin Mongol clan. After 20 years of warfare, he succeeded in doing what no-one had done before – he united the Mongol tribes under his leadership. He was then named “universal king”, or Genghis Khan. From his new capital in Karakorum (now Harhorin) he invaded Russia, China and eastern Europe. By the time of his death in 1227, his empire extended from Beijing to the Caspian Sea.
He was succeeded by his son, Ogedei, and then by his grandson, Kublai Khan, who completed the conquest of China and established a winter capital in Dadu (now Beijing) and a summer capital in Xanadu (which no longer exists, but was in what is now inner Mongolia). Having done this, he concentrated on holding his empire together, building roads to link China with Russia and promoting trade both within the empire, and with neighbouring Europe. It was this flourishing empire which Marco Polo visited, and which inspired such poets as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
After Kublai Khan’s death in 1294, resentment against Mongol taxes built until the Ming dynasty Chinese expelled the Mongols from Beijing in the mid 14th century. The Mongol tribes began to war among themselves, leaving little opposition to the Manchu Qing warriors who used the newly invented muskets and cannon to defeat them in 1732. Mongolia was ruled by Qing dynasty Chinese from that time until it declared its independence in 1911.
The area which is now Mongolia was administered by China from the early eighteenth century as the province of Outer Mongolia. The province of Inner Mongolia, to the southeast, is still part of China. From around 1800, Qing Chinese rule became more and more oppressive, both within China and in Mongolia. The increasingly corrupt rulers exacted high taxes, exploited the peasants and brutally punished the slightest offence or resistance. When a small military uprising in central China expanded into a short-lived nationwide rebellion in 1911, the Mongol princes saw their chance and declared independence under the 8th Jebtzun Damba (Living Buddha).
China reluctantly recognised Monolia’s independence in 1915, but after the 1917 Russian revolution weakened Mongolia’s strong neighbour, Chinese troops invaded Mongolia and reoccupied Ulaanbaatar in 1919. Retreating White Russian (anti-communist) troops expelled the Chinese in February 1921, but treated the Mongolians just as badly. Mongolian nationalists, seeing the advance of the Bolshevik (Russian communist) army, called on them for help, and together they recaptured Ulaanbaatar just 5 months after the White Russian troops had taken it over. While Mongolia’s Buddhist leader remained as figurehead during his lifetime, the newly formed Mongolian People’s Revolution Party took over the government, and in 1924 Mongolia became the world’s second communist country.
At first Mongolia was largely independent of Moscow, but when Stalin gained absolute power in the late 1920’s he installed his own leader in Mongolia, Khorloogiyn Choibalsan, who followed Stalin’s lead by seizing land and herds to redistribute to the peasants, collectivising farms and businesses, expelling foreigners and arresting and executing 17,000 Buddhist monks.
Stalin died in 1953, the year after Choibalsan’s death, and both were replaced by more moderate leaders, who denounced their predecessors’ atrocities. During the following period of relative peace, Soviet relations with China improved. In the 50’s Mongolia was able to receive economic and technical aid from both its neighbours. When Soviet-Chinese relations soured in the early 60’s, Mongolia sided with the Soviets and all trade and aid from China ceased. Soviet troops poured into Mongolia to create a buffer zone between Russia and their enemy. Russian influence increased, and with it came more aid, sparking a period of economic growth in Mongolia.
When in 1984 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, Mongolia’s leaders embraced his philosophies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform or restructuring), with cautious decentralisation and warmer relations with the outside world. Mongolia established diplomatic relations with the USA in 1987 and with China in 1989.
In March 1990, pro-democracy protests and hunger strikes were held in Ulaanbaatar. When the Mongolian People’s Revolution Party (which was still in power) moved to use troops to quell the protests, the plan was exposed to the press, and further protests and strikes ensued. In May the government bowed to popular pressure and amended the constitution to allow multiparty elections. Although the communists won the July 1990 election, their totalitarian rule was over, and they granted freedom of speech, religion and assembly.
The 1996 elections saw the first change in government since the Mongolian People’s Revolution Party gained power in 1924. The election was won by the Democratic Coalition, with N. Bagabandi elected President.