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The Mongols are an ethnic group that originated in what is now Mongolia, Russia, and China, particularly Inner Mongolia. They currently number about 8.5 million and speak the Mongol language. They form one of the 56 nationalities officially recognized by the People's Republic of China. There are approximately 2.3 million Mongols in Mongolia, 4 million Mongols living in Inner Mongolia, and 2 million Mongols living in neighboring provinces. In addition, there are a number of ethnic groups in North China and Russia related to the Mongols: the Daur, Buryat, Evenk, Dorbod , Tuvans and Kalmyk.



Though few in number (approximately 200,000 people at the height of their empire), Mongols were important in world history. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the Mongols created the second largest empire in world history, ruling 35 million km² (13.8 million miles²) and more than 100 million people, nearly equal to the British Empire in land area. At its height, the Mongol Empire spanned from Korea to Hungary, and included most of the lands in between, such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Armenia, Russia, Persia, China, and much of the Middle East.

The Mongols were a nomadic people who in the 13th century found themselves encompassed by large, city-dwelling agrarian civilizations. However, none of these civilizations, with the possible exception of the Islamic Caliphate located in Baghdad, were part of a strong central state. Asia, Russia, and the Middle East were either declining kingdoms, or divided city states. Taking the strategic initiative, the Mongols exploited this power vacuum and linked all of these areas into a mutually supporting trade network.

The Mongols were largely dependent on trade with the city-dwelling peoples, but resorted to raiding villages when times were particularly hard. As nomads, they could not accumulate a surplus against bad times, or support artisans. When trade was reduced by the northern Chinese kingdoms in the 1200s, shortly after Genghis Khan became Khan of the Mongol tribes, the Mongols repeated their tradition of getting their goods by looting Northern China.

Conquest, in the Khan's initial viewpoint, did not consist of subordination of competing cultures to the nomadic way of life. Rather, it took the form of looting and destruction, if there was resistance. If there was no resistance, Mongols usually left the town unharmed and demanded that the townspeople pay them tribute. As a nomad, Genghis Khan is supposed to not have understood or cared of the supposed benefits in the city dwellers' way of life. This contrasts with their dependence on trade with the cities. However, theories on the economics of these relationships still lay seven centuries in the future.

The Khan's initial plan of conquest if people resisted was sacking all that was valuable, and then razing the city and killing the resistance, leaving only artists and human shields (for future campaigns) to survive. Genghis Khan himself was extremely supportive to people that were loyal to him and even to his enemies. Different theories exist as to why the Mongols initially behaved in such an extreme manner. From a military perspective, the Mongols were often far from home territory and greatly out-numbered, and wouldn't want to leave enemies in their rear. Terror also served as a useful weapon in reducing an opponent's ability to rally support against Mongol invasion. Economically, destroying population centers gave the Mongols more room to graze their herds.

One such example is the capture of Beijing in 1215. Rather than adding the city to the Mongol Kingdom, it was instead thoroughly sacked for silk and other valuables.

As the Mongols grew more powerful, advisers convinced Genghis Khan to start building a vassal empire. If the city-dwelling peoples were allowed to continue their way of life, they could produce a surplus of food and goods, a portion of which could be paid to the Khan as taxes. Given the Khan's extraordinary success in his aggressive foreign policy, this wealth could be equally extraordinary. The Khan agreed, taking his tribute in tax, and saving countless lives and cultures in the process. Until 1225 they continued these invasions through Western Asia, into Persia and Russia.

In 1227, Genghis Khan died; his third son Ogedei Khan was elected by the tribes to succeed him. Ogedei Khan continued the expansion into North-Eastern Asia, conquering Korea and Northern China in the process. The armies of the Mongols had reached Poland and Egypt by 1241, and were poised to continue. When Ogedei Khan suddenly died, Mongol law required all descendants of Genghis to return and elect a new Khan. The leader of the European expedition rushed back to press his claim. Nearly a decade later, Mongka Khan, grandson of Genghis and nephew of Ogedei, took the throne, through the assistance of his mother Sorghaghtani Beki. By this time, the Western expansion had lost its momentum. These events are credited in several counterfactual historical scenarios with saving nascent European civilization from a second "Dark Age" precipitated by Mongol conquest. Such scenarios must be taken with knowledge of its origin in mind though.

The name Mongol during 12th and 13th century Mongol reign presumably included soldiers and generals in Middle East, China, Eastern and central Europe that all fought under the identity of being Mongols although not being exclusively ones that had a heritage in modern Mongolia. The name probably was a very symbolic and powerful concept to the ones that pledged allegiance to the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan, his successor Great Khans and to themselves. This is probably the genius of Genghis Khan to unify all these different people under one identity and a single and powerful fighting force with superb military strategy, dedication and mobility. The word Mongol should not be interpreted literally in historical perspective to many who identified themselves as being Mongols.

Various members of the Mongol Court, including Sorghaghtani Beki, were Nestorian Christians. While the court was nominally Buddhist and maintained a policy of being open to all religions, it was known as particularly sympathetic to Christians (which may have helped contribute to the legend of Prester John). In 1253 the court followed the suggestion from Crusader Kingdoms in Syria to attack the Muslim capitals of Baghdad and Cairo. Baghdad was conquered and sacked in 1258, with the city's Christians spared, and the Abbasid caliph killed. However, with the troops on the road to Cairo, Mongka Khan died in 1259. Much of the force returned home for the selection of the new leader, and Egyptian troops repelled the attack in 1260. This marked the farthest West the Mongol Empire would progress.

Kublai Khan quickly succeeded Mongka Khan, moved the court to Beijing, formed the Yuan dynasty, and re-started the invasion of China, in the first war with guns on both sides. After 18 years, Kublai Khan conquered both Northern and Southern China, forming the largest empire in history (famously described by Marco Polo).

However, by the early 14th century, the prominence of trade and a possible cooling of the world's climates led to worldwide outbreaks of plague, which encouraged revolt and invasion. Early Ming Emperors led campaigns into Mongolia and destroyed Harhorin and Khar Khot , but later Ming Emperors resorted to more defensive policies. Meanwhile, various Mongolian tribes fought against each other, usually Western Mongols (Oirat) against Eastern Mongols (Chahar, Tumed , Ordos or Khalkha), and continued to threaten China's borders. Their frequent raids finally led to the construction of the Great Wall of China.

The internal struggle gave the emerging Manchu the possibility to incorporate the Mongol tribes bit by bit. In 1636, the Chahar of Inner Mongolia were conquered, in 1691, the Khalkha of Outer Mongolia submitted to the Kangxi Emperor in order to escape from the threat of being conquered by the Oirat, and in the 1750s, the Qianlong Emperor completely destroyed the Oirat Jungar Empire in today's Xinjiang.

Military innovation

The western expansion was halted in 1241 (see Wahlstatt) when high-ranking Mongol generals returned back to Mongol capital to participate in the selection of new Great Khan. As they encountered the peoples of Europe, the Mongols with their advanced way of warfare were unstoppable. One of key to successes was the strategy used by Genghis Khan to chase the enemy leader until he was killed, so that he couldn't be a rallying point for his armies. Genghis Khan didn't place high importance on tracking down the enemy leaders before, and it haunted him later. The Mongols used, and introduced, several revolutionary military ideas to European combatants.

  • Use of articulation. Mongols used a system of horns and flags, blown or raised-and-lowered by the field commander. This allowed them to move their troops to preplanned positions on the field of battle, or modes of attack or retreat (such as charge, withdraw, or flank). In addition, their subcommanders were allowed to make decisions on the spot.
  • Mongols based their forces almost entirely on light cavalry. Light cavalry consisted primarily of archers and light swordsman mounted on horseback. Mobile and light cavalry could choose its battles and retreat from forces it could not handle, such as heavy cavalry. Heavy cavalry lacked archers (who could kill at range) and was designed mainly to provide shock — using weight, speed, and fear of their massed movement to break enemy heavy infantry lines.
Thus, when light cavalry met heavy cavalry, the lighter, faster moving, bow using, well-articulated light cavalry usually defeated mounted knights — the cream of European military power.
  • The composite bow used by the Mongols was important to their success. Made from a composite of various woods, horn, and sinew, it was formed in a 'recurve' shape; while a simple bow made from one piece of wood curves in one arc, a recurve bow has a curve beginning towards each end that curve back. This design allowed the Mongols to harness great power while mounted. In comparison to a simple bow, a Mongol composite bow 3ft long exceeds the power and range of a 6ft English longbow, the latter being too large to use on horseback.
  • European knights used heavy iron armor made from chains linked together, sometimes in many layers. Though effective against sword strokes and arrows fired from European bows, the links were penetrated by arrows launched from the Mongol composite bow. Mongol warriors wore significantly lighter armor, usually in the form of light chain shirts (in the shape of a t-shirt) or leather lamellar. Underneath such armor they wore shirts made from wild silk, a custom borrowed from the Chinese.

If a Mongol soldier was struck with an arrow, it penetrated the skin and sank into the flesh. However, the silk was not cut but pushed into the wound. Mongol doctors could easily pull an arrow from the wound, because it was wrapped in silk cloth. This reduced the chance of infection and made cleaning and dressing the wound easier, returning the skilled warrior to combat more quickly.

This simple procedure saved many lives. In a prolonged conflict, the Mongols retained more battlefield veterans than their opponents. This usually resulted in a situation where an army of veteran Mongols faced a conscript peasant army, with disastrous results for the Mongols' opponents.

The Mongols still had heavy elements in their army. Heavy cavalry would wear iron lamellar armor, iron helmets, wielding lances for the charge, switching to maces and sabers for close combat. They would strike following a deadly barrage from the mounted archers.

  • Mongols used innovative doctrines. As nomads, Mongols carried all of their wealth and provisions with them on horseback. It was equivalent to placing an entire city on horseback. It was more mobile than many of their opponents' armed forces, who were tied to the towns for supplies.

The Mongols also brought with them siege technology from the East. European walls were designed to prevent scaling, not for enduring the high powered siege engines used in the East. Engineers and technology won from the Persians and Jin dynasty, including the gunpowder secrets of China gave the Mongols a decisive edge over the Europeans.

Gun powder used by the mongols burned more than exploded, used mostly for psychological warfare. An ingenious adaption of this technology was to use smoke screens to confuse enemy armies and split them, allowing the Mongols to concentrate their full force on isolated enemies. For a European knight to face an undefeated foe who could seemingly summon fire and smoke was to face the minions of hell themselves.

Since their way of warfare was superior (articulated veteran light cavalry and heavy cavalry to sweep up) they could not be bested in combat. The traditional solution to this problem is to attack the opponents' supply tail: food, fields, water, etc. However, their city-dwelling opponents were tied to a supply tail, not the Mongols.

These strategies and tactics assured them victory against foes throughout their history. The closest modern analogue is the modern aircraft carrier, with its ability to bring an entire city of warriors next door to an opponent on short notice, strike, and retreat, without pursuit.

  • Mongols' effective use of terror is often credited for the unprecedented speed with which Mongol armies spread across western Asia and eastern Europe.

First, the Mongols would provide an opportunity to surrender, usually on terms favourable to the Mongols. These offers were typically dictated to the first major population center in a new territory.

If the offer was refused, the Mongols would sack the city, execute the entire population save a handful of skilled workers, and burn the city and the surrounding fields to the ground. They would often construct an edifice of cleaned skulls outside the walls of the destroyed city to serve as a reminder of their passage.

Finally, they would allow a few survivors to flee, to spread terror throughout the countryside. By first offering favourable or at least acceptable terms of surrender, and then invariably completely destroying any resistance, it is argued that Mongols forestalled most combat with invaded peoples. The Mongols quickly developed a reputation of being unstoppable, genocidal opponents. After the initial victories, and proof of the Mongols' good intentions towards submitting peoples, it became more difficult for rulers to convince their people to resist an invasion.

Timeline of conquest

The Mongols attempted two unsuccessful invasions of Japan. The first invasion fleet was utterly destroyed by a typhoon (kamikaze) in 1281. The second Mongolian fleet survived the typhoon, but their provisions were lost. Landed troops both starved because of the lack of supplies and were annihilated in battles with Japanese infantry and samurai.

Mongol victories include their invasion of Java, and south East Asia (Modern day Vietnam). The tropical climate proved unsuitable to cavalry, and while Vietnam was made a vassal state, Java remained autonomous much to the fury of Kublai.

  • 1200, Northern China — unknown
  • 1215, Yanjing China (today Beijing) — unknown
  • 1221, Nishapur, Persia — ~1.7 million killed in assault
  • 1221, Merv, Persia — ~1.4 million killed in assault
  • 1221, Meru Chahjan , Persia — ~1.3 million killed in assault
  • 1221, Rayy, Persia — ~1.6 million killed in assault
  • 1236, Bilär,Bulgar cities, Volga Bulgaria — 150,000 or more, nearly half of population
  • 1237-1240, Kievan Rus' — half of population
  • 1241, Wahlstatt — defeat of a combined Polish-German force in lower Silesia (Poland); the Mongols turn back to attend to the election of a new Grand Khan.
  • 1258, Baghdad — ~800,000 people. Results in destruction of Abbasid dynasty

Modern history

In 1921, Outer Mongolia revolted with Russian support, forming modern Mongolia. A Communist government was formed in 1924. The USSR defended Mongolia from Japanese invasion. However, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, for reasons both practical and philosophical, enacted an often brutal if not entirely effective sweeping of Mongolian tradition, working against the Buddhist religions, clan-ism, and script, and for collectivism (as opposed to the traditional nomadic lifestyle). Mongolia aligned itself with Russia after the Sino-Soviet split of 1958. In 1990 the Communist government was overthrown, and by 1992 Mongolia established a parliamentary government.

Inner Mongolia forms an autonomous state within China. Han Chinese have been massively re-settled there, and are the dominant ethnic group, and China places many of the same cultural restrictions on Mongols as did Soviet Mongolia. However, Mongols are exempt from the government's one-child policy, and the PRC officially promotes the Mongol language.

The Russian Federation also has some autonomous regions for descendants of the Mongols, such as the Buryats:

Mongols in Mongolia, especially those that are nomads are regarded as one of the most kindest and warmest of people in the world by most Westerners that had the chance to see first-hand Mongolian nomadic people.

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