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Caught Between the Russians and the Manchus


Seventeenth-century incense burner
Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

By the early seventeenth century, the power of the khan was greatly weakened, and the pattern of decentralized rule reemerged. Small tribes within each tumen became petty realms ruled over by individual princes. Division of inheritances further weakened the overall power structure, and tumen subdivisions (battalions, referred to in later Mongol history as banners--see Glossary--or koshuus in Mongol) were widely dispersed and therefore fragmented. At the same time that Mongol rule was disintegrating, tsarist Russia in the west and the Manchus in the east were expanding steadily. The Mongol and the Turkic peoples, traditionally conquerors, could now be conquered themselves not because their warlike proclivities had decreased, but because the art of war had progressed beyond the capacity of essentially nomadic peoples. Their economic resources would not permit the production or the purchase of muskets and cannon, against which their cavalry could not stand.

A new process of conquest began when most of what is now northeastern China was consolidated by the Manchus. Essentially nomadic in origin, the Manchus were descended from the Jurchen, who earlier had established the Jin Empire. Early in the seventeenth century, under their leader Nurhaci, the Manchus began to press into southern Mongolia.

The westward movement of the Manchu soon involved them in a struggle with the last of the great khans, Ligdan Khan of the Chahar Mongols. Ligdan had been attempting to reestablish Chahar predominance among the Khalkha, particularly among those tribes inhabiting the region south of the Gobi. These efforts alarmed his neighbors, who called upon Nurhaci for assistance. For several years, it appeared that the Manchu conqueror had met his match because Ligdan possessed some of the military prowess of his ancestors. Although he could not prevent the Manchus from gaining control of the territory of the neighboring Ordos Mongols, Ligdan beat back Manchu efforts to move farther west. After his death in 1634, however, Mongol resistance to the Manchus collapsed in southern Mongolia. This is the period of the Mongolian national hero, Tsogto Taji, who is said to have been the only northern Mongol aristocrat to have led his subjects against the Manchus in defense of the southern Mongols.

Meanwhile, many of the Torgut, the westernmost of the Oirad Mongols, began to migrate westward in approximately 1620. Possibly the movement was a reaction to the growing dominance of the Dzungar Mongols, an Oirad subclan and neighbors of the Torgut to the south. In any event, the Torgut fought their way through Kirghiz and Kazakh territory, to cross the Embe River. Becoming better known as the Kalmyk tribe, they subsequently settled in the Trans-Volga steppe and raided Russian settlements on both sides of the river. Finally submitting to Russia in 1646, they maintained autonomy under their own khan. They became an excellent source of light cavalry for the Russians, who later used them in campaigns against the Crimean Tatars and in Inner Asia.

The Mongol interest in Tibet that had been aroused in Altan's campaigns seems to have been transmitted to the Dzungar. They inhabited a region east of Lake Balkash that extended eastward into northern Xinjiang. They carried out a number of campaigns into Tibet, and by 1636 they had established a virtual protectorate over the region. Because of the generally high quality of their leadership at this time, the Dzungar dominated Mongolia for much of the seventeenth century.

Farther east, the religious revival begun by Altan had continued unabated, and it was perhaps the greatest single influence on Mongol life and culture during the seventeenth and succeeding centuries. In 1635 the khan of the Tushetu tribe proclaimed that his son was the reincarnation of an ancient and respected scholar, who had achieved such a state of virtue that he had become known as a buddha. Thus the young Tushetu prince was named the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu or Living Buddha, becoming the highest ecclesiastical figure in Mongolia. This was the beginning of a line of theocratic leaders that was to continue unbroken for nearly three centuries. The successors of the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu were also believed to be reincarnations, and all were found among the Tushetu.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, Russian exploration and annexation had become very worrisome to the Mongols and the Turks to the southwest. In response to this pressure, in 1672 Ayuka Khan of the Torgut Mongols raided through western Siberia, across the Urals and the Volga, and into Russia. He then made peace with the Russians on terms that enabled him to continue to control his lands in relative tranquility for the remainder of the century.

Later in the seventeenth century, a new effort toward Mongol unity was attempted by Galdan Khan of the Dzungar. He conquered most of Kashgar, Yarkand, and Khotan (Hotan) from the Kirghiz, and he expanded into Kazakh territory. In about 1682, intending to conquer the Khalkha, he turned eastward. In 1688 the hardpressed Khalkha appealed to the Manchus for aid. The Manchus were more than pleased to respond, and a Chinese-Manchu army marched to help. A development that further integrated the Mongols into the Manchu apparatus was the Manchus' adoption of the Mongol banner system, which combined administrative and military functions.

By this time, the Manchus had conquered all of China and had established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) with its capital in Beijing. They had become concerned over the steady Russian expansion eastward that, up to this time, had remained far to the north. The Russians had carefully avoided the still-formidable Torgut, who inhabited the region that now comprises central Siberia. In this way, the Russians had reached the Amur Valley and the Pacific Ocean by mid-century. In the period between 1641 and 1652, the Russians gradually conquered the Buryat Mongols, thereby gaining control of the region around Lake Baykal. The Manchus observed with considerable apprehension Russia's growing pressure on the Turkic peoples and the Mongols of Inner Asia. As early as 1653, there were clashes between Manchus and Russians in the Amur Valley. In 1660 the Manchus ejected the Russians from the Amur region, only to see them reappear when the Manchus became occupied with internal troubles in southern China.

In 1683 a second Manchu military expedition began systematic operations to eject the Russians, and in 1685 it seized the Russian stronghold at Albazin. But later that year, when the Manchus withdrew, the Russians reconstructed the fortifications. The Manchus began to prepare for a more extensive war. It was at this time that the Khalkha appealed to the Manchus for aid. The Manchus promptly responded, seeing an opportunity to gain control of Mongolia as a base for possible war with Russia.

This move was probably understood by the Russians. They were conducting a campaign in Europe, and they decided that the dispute with China must be settled peacefully. This led to the Sino-Russian Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, in which the Russians agreed to abandon Albazin and the area north of the Amur River. The terms of that treaty were supplemented in 1727 by the Treaty of Kyakhta, which further delineated the Sino-Russian border.

Data as of June 1989

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