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  • Japanese: 蒙古人 (Moukojin)

The Mongols were a nomadic people of the Mongolian steppe, to the north of China. They are most known for their rapid and dramatic conquest of most of Asia in the early years of the 13th century, under Genghis Khan, who formed the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in history. The Mongols held control of China proper for nearly one hundred years, ruling it as the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), and launched abortive invasions of Japan (1274 & 1281) and of the Ryûkyû Kingdom (1291 & 1296). Long after the fall of the Yuan, however, the Mongols survived as a cultural or ethnic group, playing a role in the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty of Chinese history, and growing into the Mongolian people of today.

Mongol Empire

Previously comprising numerous separate (and sometimes warring) clans or tribes, the Mongols were united under Genghis Khan, who was elected Great Khan in 1206 by elders of the leading clans. Genghis Khan incorporated many of those who followed him into the Mongol identity, forming an army numbering 130,000 Mongols at its height, along with another 130,000 non-Mongol warriors. His armies swept across the Eurasian plains, capturing much of Central Asia, Persia, the Middle East, and parts of Russia by the time of his death in 1227. By that time, he also captured Beijing, destroyed the Tangut state of Xi Xia, and clashed with the Jurchen Jin Dynasty.

Under Genghis Khan's successor, Ogodei Khan (r. 1228-1241), the Mongol capital of Karakorum was built up in 1235 into a proper city, with city walls and permanent buildings (rather than being a collection of nomads' yurts). Ogodei Khan moved into Korea in 1231 (completing the conquest of Korea in 1259) while also expanding into northern China, taking Kaifeng in 1233 and Luoyang in 1234, destroying the Jurchen Jin Dynasty state in the process. The Mongol armies then moved south and conquered Sichuan province in 1236-1238.

In the West, Mongol forces took Kiev in 1240, moving as far west as the Adriatic Sea in 1241 and clashing with the mighty Hungarian army, the largest in Europe at that time, before pulling back, not due to difficulty or defeat, but due to a change of leadership. The fall of Baghdad in 1258 is counted as a particular major event in Middle Eastern civilizational history. Meanwhile, the Dali Kingdom of Southeast Asia fell to Ogodei Khan's successors in 1252-1253.

In most areas, where people were willing to submit to Mongol authority, the people and their cities and livelihoods were largely spared. Mongol forces took artisans in order to expand their technology, but for the most part allowed conquered peoples to continue to rule themselves (while obeying the overarching Mongol jasagh legal code, paying tribute, and so forth). A courier system of fast, well-networked, post horses linked the empire, allowing for swift communications, and the great peace brought in the wake of Mongol attacks allowed for a great increase in trade within the massive, and relatively orderly Mongol Empire, from Beijing to Moscow.

Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, became Great Khan in 1260, and completed the conquest of China. The Southern Song Dynasty held out against Mongol attacks for about 45 years, far longer than most regions, but eventually succumbed, giving way to the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty in 1279. Yunnan province and parts of Burma fell in the 1270s as well, allowing the Khan to threaten Cambodia; however, the Mongols never did succeed in taking any significant amount of Khmer or Vietnamese land. The Vietnamese defeated Mongol invasion attempts three times, most notably in 1257.[1] A Mongol script was developed in 1269 and quickly came to be used in official documents throughout the empire. In the meantime, however, in 1264 the great Mongol Empire was split in four. Kublai remained Great Khan, and passed on this title to his successors, while his brother Hulegu and his successors came to rule the Ilkhanate of Persia. Others ruled the Chagatai Khanate of Central Asia (ruling over areas including Ili, Bukhara, Samarkand, and Kashgar), and the Khanate of the Golden Horde (including Moscow, Kiev, and a significant area to the east of that, in what is today Russia).

Kublai Khan sent emissaries to Japan on several occasions, in 1266, 1268, 1271, and 1272, demanding that the Kamakura shogunate submit to Mongol suzerainty. The Japanese refused on every occasion, and the Mongols eventually launched two invasion attempts against Japan, in 1274, and 1281. Both ultimately failed; Kublai Khan planned a third, but it was never launched. In the meantime, attempts to invaded Ryûkyû in 1291 and 1296, and Java in 1293, similarly failed. Kublai Khan died in 1294.

Yuan Dynasty

Main article: Yuan Dynasty

Kublai Khan relocated the Mongol capital in 1264 from Karakorum to Beijing, then called Dadu ("Great Capital"), and headed a state with a divided hierarchy based on ethnic loyalties. Mongols sat at the top, followed by a class of Persians, Central Asians, and other nomadic & steppes peoples. Northern Chinese, who had lived under steppe nomad rule since 1127 or so, under the Jurchens, formed the third category, while Southern Chinese, who had lived under the Southern Song and were only very recently absorbed into the Mongol Empire, formed the largest but lowest status group. Mongols and other members of the top social classes lived in fortified districts separated apart from the general, commoner parts of Chinese cities, and were ruled under a separate system of governance and justice. This was a pattern which would be emulated by the Manchu Qing Dynasty in the 17th to early 20th centuries.

The total population of China in the Yuan Dynasty was around 100 million at its start, falling as low as 67 million by 1381 (13 years after the fall of the Yuan), with a ruling class of around one million Mongols. The Mongols became heavily Sinified, or Sinicized, during this time, adopting much of the trappings of Chinese Imperial government and culture; however, when compared with the Song which came before, and the Ming Dynasty which was to follow, there were also significant ways in which Chinese structures were much weaker under the Yuan - the Confucian civil service exams being perhaps the chief example.


Mongol groups continued to clash with the Ming from time to time. One prominent battle, the Battle of Tumu, took place in 1449.[2] Another Mongol group came as far as the gates of Beijing in 1550, but left without attacking the city. Many of the Mongol tribes were united under Altan Khan around that time, and marauded along as much as one thousand miles of China's northern border. Each raid could involve as many as 100,000 mounted warriors, and while they never made much headway into Chinese lands (that was not their intention), neither were they ever defeated or stopped by the relatively sparse and disorganized Ming armies.[3] This continued until, in 1570-1571, they submitted to the Ming Emperor, swearing to cease their raiding forever, in exchange for trade privileges and annual gifts or payments. Altan was granted title as a Ming "prince," and several of his chief followers were granted lands and titles as well; the Khan promised to discipline his people harshly should any of them break the agreement terminating border raids. This also meant the Ming were bound, too, to remain at peace with the Mongols, and not launch attacks on them without sufficient provocation.[4]

With the death of Altan Khan and his son, however, the confederation began to fall apart, and under Altan's grandson Curuke, raids resumed along the Gansu-Kokonor border. When pressed, these Mongol leaders, only loosely faithful to Curuke, asserted that they were only raiding the Tibetans and Turks (Uighurs), not the Chinese. In 1590, however, a Ming general operating in that area was captured and killed. While the Court hesitated to take any punitive action, and Mongol violence against the Chinese in that area very soon came to an end, the forces dispatched to coordinate border defense, under minister of war Cheng Lo, took action. They burned down numerous Mongolian Buddhist temples and destroyed Mongol lumber reserves, as well as setting fire to a large swath of grassland. The Mongols then withdrew more completely from the area.[4]

Under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Mongols enjoyed a position similar to that of the second category of steppe nomads under the Yuan. Qing civil and military leadership was divided into three groups of "banners": eight Manchu banners, eight Mongol banners, and eight "martial" Chinese banners, a group similar to that of the northern Chinese under the Yuan, consisting essentially of those Chinese already allied with the Manchus prior to the Qing conquest. Members of the Mongol banners lived in fortified sections of the major cities separated out from the Chinese commoners' city, and from the districts of the Manchu and "martial Chinese" banners, with all of the banners being subject to a separate system of governance from the Chinese.


  • Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 220-223.
  1. Ge Zhaoguang, Michael Gibbs Hill (trans.), What is China?, Belknap Press (2018), 6-7.
  2. Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 385.
  3. Ray Huang, 1587: A Year of No Significance, Yale University Press (1981), 175.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Huang, 108-109.