Mongols before Genghis Khan


Origins of the Mongols

Archaeological evidence places early Stone Age human habitation in the southern Gobi
between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. By the first millennium B.C.,
bronze-working peoples lived in Mongolia. With the appearance of iron
weapons by the third century B.C., the inhabitants of Mongolia had
begun to form tribal alliances and to threaten China. The origins of
more modern inhabitants are found among the forest hunters and nomadic
tribes of Inner Asia. They inhabited a great arc of land extending
generally from the Korean Peninsula in the east, across the northern
tier of China to present-day Kazakhstan and to the Pamir Mountains
and Lake Balkash in the west. During most of recorded history, this has
been an area of constant ferment from which emerged numerous migrations
and invasions to the southeast (into China), to the southwest (into Transoxiana--modern Uzbekistan, Iran, and India), and to the west (across Scythia
toward Europe). By the eighth century B.C., the inhabitants of much of
this region evidently were nomadic Indo-European speakers, either
Scythians or their kin. Also scattered throughout the area were many
other tribes that were primarily Mongol in their ethnologic

Xiongnu and Yuezhi

The first significantly appearance of nomads came late in the third century B.C., when the Chinese repelled an invasion of the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu in Wade-Giles romanization) across the Huang He
(Yellow River) from the Gobi. The Xiongnu were a nomadic tribal
confederation of uncertain origins. Their language is not known to
modern scholars, but the people were probably similar in appearance and
characteristics to the later Mongols. A Chinese army, which had adopted
Xiongnu military technology--wearing trousers and using mounted archers
with stirrups--pursued the Xiongnu across the Gobi
in a ruthless punitive expedition. Fortification walls built by various
Chinese warring states were connected to make a 2,300-kilometer Great Wall along the northern border, as a barrier to further nomadic inroads.

The Xiongnu temporarily abandoned their interest in China and turned
their attention westward to the region of the Altai Mountains and Lake Balkash, inhabited by the Yuezhi (Yüeh-chih in Wade-Giles), an Indo-European-speaking nomadic people who had relocated from China's present-day Gansu Province as a result of their earlier defeat by the Xiongnu. Endemic warfare
between these two nomadic peoples reached a climax in the latter part
of the third century and the early decades of the second century B.C.;
the Xiongnu were triumphant. The Yuezhi then migrated to the southwest
where, early in the second century, they began to appear in the Oxus
(the modern Amu Darya) Valley, to change the course of history in Bactria, Iran, and eventually India.

Meanwhile, the Xiongnu again raided northern China about 200 B.C.,
finding that the inadequately defended Great Wall was not a serious
obstacle. By the middle of the second century B.C., they controlled all
of northern and western China north of the Huang He. This renewed
threat led the Chinese to improve their defenses in the north, while
building up and improving the army, particularly the cavalry, and while
preparing long-range plans for an invasion of Mongolia.

Between 130 and 121 B.C., Chinese armies drove the Xiongnu back
across the Great Wall, weakened their hold on Gansu Province as well as
on what is now Inner Mongolia,
and finally pushed them north of the Gobi into central Mongolia.
Following these victories, the Chinese expanded into the areas later
known as Manchuria, Mongolia,
the Korean Peninsula, and Inner Asia. The Xiongnu, once more turning
their attention to the west and the southwest, raided deep into the
Oxus Valley between 73 and 44 B.C. The descendants of the Yuezhi and
their Chinese rulers, however, formed a common front against the
Xiongnu and repelled them.

During the next century, as Chinese strength waned, border warfare
between the Chinese and the Xiongnu was almost incessant. Gradually the
nomads forced their way back into Gansu and the northern part of what
is now China's Xinjiang. In about the middle of the first century A.D., a revitalized Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220) slowly recovered these territories, driving the Xiongnu back into the Altai Mountains
and the steppes north of the Gobi. During the late first century A.D.,
having reestablished the administrative control over southern China and
northern Vietnam that had been lost briefly at beginning of this same
century, the Eastern Han made a concerted effort to reassert dominance
over Inner Asia. A Chinese army crossed the Pamir Mountains, conquered
territories as far west as the Caspian Sea, defeated the Yuezhi Kushan Empire, and even sent an emissary in search of the eastern provinces of Rome.

Donghu, Toba, and Rouruan

Although the Xiongnu finally had been driven back into their homeland by the Chinese in A.D. 48, within ten years the Xianbei
(or Hsien-pei in Wade-Giles) had moved (apparently from the north or
northwest) into the region vacated by the Xiongnu. The Xianbei were the
northern branch of the Donghu
(or Tung Hu, the Eastern Hu), a proto-Mongol and/or Tunguz group
mentioned in Chinese histories as existing as early as the fourth
century B.C. The language of the Donghu, like that of the Xiongnu, is
unknown to modern scholars. The Donghu were among the first peoples
conquered by the Xiongnu. Once the Xiongnu state weakened, however, the
Donghu rebelled. By the first century, two major subdivisions of the Donghu had developed: the proto-Mongolic Xianbei in the north and the Wuhuan
in the south. The Xianbei, who by the second century A.D. were
attacking Chinese farms south of the Great Wall, established an empire,
which, although short-lived, gave rise to numerous tribal states along
the Chinese frontier. Among these states was that of the Toba
(T'o-pa in Wade-Giles), a subgroup of the Xianbei, in modern China's
Shanxi Province. The Wuhuan also were prominent in the second century,
but they disappeared thereafter; possibly they were absorbed in the
Xianbei western expansion. The Xianbei and the Wuhuan used mounted
archers in warfare, and they had only temporary war leaders instead of
hereditary chiefs. Agriculture, rather than full-scale nomadism, was
the basis of their economy. In the sixth century A.D., the Wuhuan were
driven out of Inner Asia into the Russian steppe.

Chinese control of parts of Inner Asia did not last beyond the
opening years of the second century, and, as the Eastern Han Dynasty
ended early in the third century A.D., suzerainty was limited primarily
to the Gansu corridor. The Xianbei were able to make forays into a
China beset with internal unrest and political disintegration. By 317
all of China north of the Yangtze River
(Chang Jiang) had been overrun by nomadic peoples: the Xianbei from the
north; some remnants of the Xiongnu from the northwest; and the Chiang
people of Gansu and Tibet
(present-day China's Xizang Autonomous Region) from the west and the
southwest. Chaos prevailed as these groups warred with each other and
repulsed the vain efforts of the fragmented Chinese kingdoms south of
the Yangtze River to reconquer the region.

By the end of the fourth century, the region between the Yangtze and
the Gobi, including much of modern Xinjiang, was dominated by the Toba.
Emerging as the partially sinicized state of Dai between A.D. 338 and
376 in the Shanxi area, the Toba established control over the region as
the Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386-533). Northern Wei armies drove back
the Ruruan
(referred to as Ruanruan or Juan-Juan by Chinese chroniclers), a newly
arising nomadic Mongol people in the steppes north of the Altai
Mountains, and reconstructed the Great Wall. During the fourth century
also, the Huns left the steppes north of the Aral Sea to invade Europe. By the middle of the fifth century, Northern Wei had penetrated into the Tarim Basin
in Inner Asia, as had the Chinese in the second century. As the empire
grew, however, Toba tribal customs were supplanted by those of the
Chinese, an evolution not accepted by all Toba.

The Ruruan, only temporarily repelled by Northern Wei, had driven
the Xiongnu toward the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea and were
making raids into China. In the late fifth century, the Ruruan
established a powerful nomadic empire spreading generally farther north
of Northern Wei. It was probably the Ruruan who first used the title khan.

Rise of the Türk

Northern Wei was disintegrating rapidly because of revolts of
semi-tribal Toba military forces that were opposed to being sinicized,
when disaster struck the flourishing Ruruan Empire. The Türk,
known as Tujue to Chinese chroniclers, revolted against their Ruruan
rulers. The uprising began in the Altai Mountains, where many of the
Türk were serfs working the iron mines. Thus, from the outset of their
revolt, they had the advantage of controlling what had been one of the
major bases of Ruruan power. Between 546 and 553, the Türks overthrew
the Ruruan and established themselves as the most powerful force in
North Asia and Inner Asia. This was the beginning of a pattern of
conquest that was to have a significant effect upon Eurasian history
for more than 1,000 years. The Türk were the first people to use this
later wide-spread name. They are also the earliest Inner Asian people
whose language is known, because they left behind Orkhon inscriptions
in a runic-like script, which was deciphered in 1896.

It was not long before the tribes in the region north of the
Gobi--the Eastern Türk--were following invasion routes into China used
in previous centuries by Xiongnu, Xianbei, Toba, and Ruruan. Like their
predecessors who had inhabited the mountains and the steppes, the
attention of the Türk quickly was attracted by the wealth of China. At
first these new raiders encountered little resistance, but toward the
end of the sixth century, as China slowly began to recover from
centuries of disunity, border defenses stiffened. The original Türk
state split into eastern and western parts, with some of the Eastern
Türk acknowledging Chinese overlordship.

For a brief period at the beginning of the seventh century, a new
consolidation of the Türk, under the Western Türk ruler Tardu, again
threatened China. In 601 Tardu's army besieged Chang'an (modern Xi'an),
then the capital of China. Tardu was turned back, however, and, upon
his death two years later, the Türk state again fragmented. The Eastern
Türk nonetheless continued their depredations, occasionally threatening

Tang dynasty

From 629 to 648, a reunited China--under the Tang Dynasty
(A.D. 618-906) --destroyed the power of the Eastern Türk north of the
Gobi; established suzerainty over the Kitan, a semi-nomadic Mongol
people who lived in areas that became the modern Chinese provinces of
Heilongjiang and Jilin; and formed an alliance with the Uyghurs,
who inhabited the region between the Altai Mountains and Lake Balkash.
Between 641 and 648, the Tang conquered the Western Türk,
reestablishing Chinese sovereignty over Xinjiang and exacting tribute
from west of the Pamir Mountains. The Türk empire finally ended in 744.

For more than a century, the Tang retained control of Central Asia
and Mongolia and parts of Inner Asia. Both sides of the Great Wall came
under Tang rule. During this century, the Tang expanded Chinese control
into the Oxus Valley. At the same time, their allies and nominal
vassals, the Uyghurs, conquered much of western and northern Mongolia
until, by the middle of the eighth century, the Uyghur seminomadic
empire extended from Lake Balkash to Lake Baykal.

Despite these crippling losses, the Tang recovered and, with
considerable Uyghur assistance, held their frontiers. Tang dependence
upon their northern allies was apparently a source of embarrassment to
the Chinese, who surreptitiously encouraged the Kirghiz and the Karluks
to attack the Uyghurs, driving them south into the Tarim Basin. As a
result of the Kirghiz action, the Uyghur empire collapsed in 846. Some
of the Uyghurs emigrated to Chinese Turkistan (the Turpan region),
where they established a flourishing kingdom that freely submitted to Chinggis Khan
several centuries later. Ironically, this weakening of the Uyghurs
undoubtedly hastened the decline and fall of the Tang Dynasty over the
next fifty years.

Kitan and Jurchen Free of Uyghur restraint, the Mongolic Kitan
expanded in all directions in the latter half of the ninth century and
the early years of the tenth century. By 925 the Kitan ruled eastern
Mongolia, most of Manchuria, and much of China north of the Huang He.
In the recurrent process of sinicization, by the middle of the tenth
century Kitan chieftains had established themselves as emperors of
northern China; their rule was known as the Liao Dynasty (916-1125).

The period of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was one of
consolidation, preceding the most momentous era in Mongol history, the
era of Chinggis Khan. During those centuries, the vast region of
deserts, mountains, and grazing land was inhabited by people resembling
each other in racial, cultural, and linguistic characteristics;
ethnologically they were essentially Mongol. The similarites among the
Mongols, Türk, Tangut, and Tatars
who inhabited this region causes considerable ethnic and historical
confusion. Generally, the Mongols and the closely related Tatars
inhabited the northern and the eastern areas; the Türk (who already had
begun to spread over western Asia and southeastern Europe) were in the
west and the southwest; the Tangut, who were more closely related to
the Tibetans than were the other nomads and who were not a Turkic
people, were in eastern Xinjiang, Gansu, and western Inner Mongolia.
The Liao state was homogeneous, and the Kitan had begun to lose their
nomadic characteristics. The Kitan built cities and exerted dominion
over their agricultural subjects as a means of consolidating their
empire. To the west and the northwest of Liao were many other Mongol
tribes, linked together in various tenuous alliances and groupings, but
with little national cohesiveness. In Gansu and eastern Xinjiang, the
Tangut--who had taken advantage of the Tang decline--had formed a
state, Western Xia
or Xixia (1038-1227), nominally under Chinese suzerainty. Xinjiang was
dominated by the Uyghurs, who were loosely allied with the Chinese.

The people of Mongolia at this time were predominantly spirit
worshipers, with shamans providing spiritual and religious guidance to
the people and tribal leaders. There had been some infusion of
Buddhism, which had spread from Xinjiang, but it did not yet have a
strong influence. Nestorian
Christianity also had penetrated Inner Asia. Some Mongolian tribes
converted to Nestorian Christianity. The Kerait were ruled by Marquz
(Marcus) around 1200. They lived in the center of present Mongolia. Genghiz Khan
was married to a Christian Mongolian woman. When the Mongolians reached
Syria, they were seen as Christian allies, which they were not. The
Crusaders and Mongolians were allies against the Muslims in the 13th
century Middle East.

In the eleventh century, the Kitan completed the conquest of China
north of the Huang He. Despite close cultural ties between the Kitan
and Western Xia that led the latter to become increasingly sinicized,
during the remainder of that century and the early years of the twelfth
century, the two Mongol groups were frequently at war with each other
and with the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) of China. The Uyghurs of the
Turpan region often were involved in these wars, usually aiding the
Chinese against Western Xia.

A Tungusic people, the Jurchen, ancestors of the Manchu, formed an
alliance with the Song and reduced the Kitan Empire to vassal status in
a seven-year war (1115-1122). The Jurchen leader proclaimed himself the
founder of a new era, the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). Scarcely pausing in
their conquests, the Tunguzic Jurchen
subdued neighboring Koryo (Korea) in 1226 and invaded the territory of
their former allies, the Song, to precipitate a series of wars with
China that continued through the remainder of the century. Meanwhile,
the defeated Kitan Liao ruler had fled with the small remnant of his
army to the Tarim Basin, where he allied himself with the Uyghurs and
established the Karakitai state (known also as the Western Liao Dynasty, 1124-1234), which soon controlled both sides of the Pamir Mountains. The Jurchen turned their attention to the Mongols who, in 1139 and in 1147, warded them off.

Shiwei and Menggu

The Shiwei, though little is known, have been considered the
ancestors of the Mongols according to ancient Chinese records. During
the fifth century, they occupied the area east of the Greater Khinggan
Range, what is the Hulun Buir, Ergune, Nonni, Middle Amur,
and the Zeya Watersheds. They may have been divided into five to twenty
tribes. They were said to be dressed in fish skins. They collected
harvests of wheat and millet, and also kept dogs, pigs, oxen, and
horses, but no sheep. Records say they lived purely on hunting. Fur and
skins were traded with the neighboring kingdoms. They may have been
nomadic, staying in the marshy lowlands in the winter and the mountains
during the summer. The burial was by exposure in trees like the Kitans.
Their language is described as being similar to Manchu-Tungusic
languages and Khitan. The Türk dynasties (550-740 installed tuduns, or
govenors over the Shiwei and collected tribute. Other Shiwei may have
stayed and become the Ewenkis. The Kitans conquered the Shiwei during
the late 9th century. One Shiwei tribe, living near the Amur and Ergune
rivers, was called the "Menggu" (Mongol). A few scholars believe they,
other Shiwei tribes, and many other peoples from the area moved west
from the forest to the Mongolian proper steppe.

As the Menggu may have crossed the Khinngan Range, the became not
nomadic hunter-gatherers but pastoralists. They traded with many other
neighboring peoples. The Menggu were not the exclusive ancestors of the
Mongols. Othe clans and tribes later joined the Mongol tribe gradually.
The Mongol Tribe appeared independently during the 11th century from
the Chinese histories. Along with many other peoples, the Mongols ruled
the present day Mongolian plateau. After the fall of the Kitans and the
Liao Dynasty, the Mongols were a dominant steppe people organized
loosely of many tribes.


  • This article contains material from the Library of Congress Country Studies, which are United States government publications in the public domain. - Mongolia
  • the Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire, Atwood, Christopher P. 2004

See also

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