Northern Yuan Dynasty

Northern Yuan Dynasty


The Mongol Borjigin clan governed the Northern Yuan, which was situated on the Mongolian Plateau. It existed as a rump kingdom after China's Yuan dynasty collapsed in 1368 and survived until 1635 when the Jurchen-led Later Jin dynasty conquered it. The Northern Yuan dynasty started with the collapse of Yuan authority in China and the withdrawal of the Yuan remnants to the Mongolian steppe, headed by Toghon Temur (Emperor Huizong of Yuan). During this time, there were factional conflicts, and the Great Khan's position was frequently reduced to a ceremonial one. In the 15th century, Dayan Khan and Mandukhai Khatun unified the whole Mongol country. The decentralization of imperial power was induced by the former's division of his empire as fiefs among his sons and relatives. Despite this decentralization, the Dayan Khanid nobility maintained exceptional peace, and intra-Chinggisid civil conflict was rare until Ligdan Khan (1604–1634), who saw much of his authority eroded in his feuds with the Mongol tribes and was conquered by the Manchus. During the latter sixty years of this period, Tibetan Buddhism became further ingrained in Mongolian society.


Various titles have been given to the rule between 1368 and 1635, including the Northern Yuan (dynasty). Between 1368 to 1388, the dynastic term "Great Yuan" was formally used, as did the preceding Yuan dynasty. Following the death of Uskhal Khan Tögus Temur, his successor Jorightu Khan Yesuder abandoned the "Great Yuan" dynasty name as well as other Chinese-style imperial titles; therefore, the term "Northern Yuan" is often used to refer exclusively to the years 1368-1388. The name "Northern Yuan" is derived from the Chinese phrase Běi Yuán, which uses the prefix "Northern" to differentiate between the Yuan dynasty in 1271 and the government that lasted until 1368. During the reign of Dayan Khan, whose regnal name "Dayan" was derived from the Chinese word Dà Yuán, the "Great Yuan" dynastic title was temporarily reinstated. Furthermore, evidence suggests that Taisun Khan and Esen Taishi utilized the "Great Yuan" dynastic name and Chinese imperial titles throughout their reign. For historical purposes, the phrase "Northern Yuan (dynasty)" is commonly used in English to refer to 1368 to 1635. Apart from "Great Yuan" (before 1388 and throughout Dayan Khan's reign), the Mongols named their country "Ikh Mongol Uls," or "Great Mongol State." In some contemporary sources, it is also known as "Post-Imperial Mongolia," the "Mongol(ian) Khaganate," or the "Mongol(ian) Khanate," however most of these English titles can also apply to the Mongol Empire or the Yuan dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries. This time is also known as "The Forty and the Four" in Mongolian chronicles, referring to forty tumen Eastern Mongols (Eastern Mongolia) and four tumen Western Mongols. Mongolian historiography also use terms such as "time of political disunity," "period of tiny khagans," "Mongolia's period of political disturbance," and "Mongolia's 14th–17th century," among others.



The Northern Yuan dynasty was a descendant of Kublai Khan's Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). The Yuan dynasty governed all of China proper for almost a century after defeating the Song dynasty in 1279. The Mongols had governed Northern China for more than 40 years before the Yuan dynasty, defeating the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty in 1234. When the Yellow River overflowed and shifted course in 1344, causing extensive droughts, floods, and impassability of the Grand Canal, Yuan rule in China began to crumble. The Red Turban Rebellion occurred in the Huai River region in 1351, resulting in Zhu Yuanzhang, a Han farmer who later created the Ming dynasty in South China (1368–1644). A Ming army attacked the Yuan capital Khanbaliq or Dadu in 1368.

Retreat to Mongolian Steppe (From 1368 to 1388)

When Ming armies approached Dadu, Toghon Temur (1333–1370), the final emperor of the Yuan, escaped north to Shangdu (present-day Inner Mongolia). He failed to reclaim Dadu and died two years later in Yingchang (now Inner Mongolia) (1370). The Ming captured Yingchang immediately after his death. After the loss of Yingchang in 1370, the Mongols fled to the Karakorum, where they continued to refer to themselves as the Great Yuan, which was later renamed the Northern Yuan. In 1372, the Ming army followed the Yuan remnants into Mongolia, but Biligtu Khan Ayushiridara (1370–1378) and his commander Köke Temur destroyed them. Naghachu, a Mongol officer from Liaoyang province's Biligtu Khan, attacked Liaodong in 1375, intending to restore Mongol dominance in China. Naghachu finally submitted to the Ming dynasty in 1387–1388, although holding southern Manchuria. In 1381–1382, the Ming fought and executed Yuan loyalists headed by the Kublaid prince Basalawarmi (the Prince of Liang) in Yunnan and Guizhou. The Ming attacked Northern Yuan in 1380 and sacked the Karakorum but were finally forced to retreat. Around 70,000 Mongols were kidnapped. In 1387, the Ming conquered the Uriankhai Mongols, and the next year, they destroyed Uskhal Khan Tögus Temur in a decisive battle near the Buir Lake. The loss of Uskhal Khan essentially broke Yuan control in the steppes, allowing the Western Oirat Mongols to ascend to power in the Northern Yuan realm and become kingmakers. The Northern Yuan's Genghisid rulers bolstered their claim to China by clinging to the title of Emperor (or Great Khan) of the Great Yuan to fight the Ming, who had seized power in China by this time. The traditional Chinese political orthodoxy also rejected the Yuan's legitimacy in China even as Ming saw the former Yuan as a legitimate dynasty. Heaven blessed their kings to govern as emperor of China (see Mandate of Heaven).

Oirat Domination (From 1388 to 1478)

Jorightu Khan Yesuder, a descendant of Arik Böke (Tolui's son), took over the Northern Yuan throne in 1388 with the help of the Oirats. One of Uskhal Khan's subordinates, Gunashiri, a descendant of Chagatai Khan, established his tiny kingdom in Hami named Kara Del the next year. In the ensuing century, a succession of Genghisid monarchs ascended to the throne, many of whom were only figureheads installed on the throne by the most powerful warlords. Thus, the term "time of tiny kings" appears towards the end of the 14th century. The Western Mongols were on one side, and the Eastern Mongols were on the other. While the Oirats chose their khans from the descendants of Ariq Böke and other princes, Arugtai of the Asud backed the ancient Kublaid khans. The Mongols were temporarily reunited under the leadership of the House of Ogedei. The Mongols were finally divided into three groups: the Oirats in the west, the Uriankhai in the northeast, and the Khorchin in the middle. In the 1390s, the Uriankhai submitted to the Ming dynasty. They were split into three guards by the Ming: Doyin, Tai'nin, and Fuyu. Relations between the Yuan and the Ming dynasty were characterized by intermittent bursts of violence interspersed with calm and border trade periods. Örug Temur Khan (Guilichi) abolished the dynastic term Great Yuan in 1402, but he was defeated in 1403 by ljei Temur Khan (Bunyashiri, r. 1403–1412), Tamerlane's protégé (d. 1405). The majority of Arugtai chingsang's Mongol nobles allied with Öljei Temur. The Yongle Emperor (r. 1402–1424) sent an ultimatum to Öljei Temur, requesting that he recognize the Ming dynasty as a suzerain power. As a result of Öljei Temur's refusal, the Ming dynasty waged many battles against the Mongols.

A Ming force of 100,000 troops reached Mongolia in 1409 but was defeated at the Battle of Kherlen by ljei Temur and Arugtai. The Yongle Emperor personally led an invasion into Mongolia the next year, defeating the Mongols. The Oirats, led by Bahamu (Mahmud) (d. 1417), enthroned an Ariq Bökid Delbeg Khan in 1412 after the death of Öljei Temur. The Ming had first backed the Oirats in their power struggle with the eastern Mongols, but as the Oirats grew stronger, the Ming withdrew their assistance. Arugtai regained control after 1417, and Yongle waged war against him in 1422 and 1423. In 1433, Toghan, Bahamu's successor, drove Arugtai east of the Greater Khingan range. The next year, the Oirats assassinated him west of Baotou. Adai Khan (r. 1425–1438), Arugtai's ally, staged a desperate struggle in Ejene before being assassinated as well. Toghan died in the same year that he defeated Adai. The Oirats reached their pinnacle of dominance under his son Esen Taishi (r. 1438–1454). He pushed Moghulistan back and crushed the Uriankhai Three Guards, Kara Del, and the Jurchens with his puppet khans. In what became known as the Tumu Crisis, he beat a 500,000-strong Ming army with only 20,000 horseback riders and seized the Zhengtong Emperor.

Esen, however, was unable to capture Beijing, the Ming capital, following this incredible triumph. The next year, the two sides reached an agreement, and the imprisoned emperor was permitted to return home. After killing the rebellious Tayisung Khan (r. 1433–1453) and his brother Agbarjin in 1453, Esen became Yuan Emperor and khan. This sparked considerable dissatisfaction among the Genghisids, culminating in Esen's execution in 1455 after a series of revolts. His death marked the beginning of the Oirats' fall, which would last until the Dzungar Khanate's emergence in the 17th century. From Esen's death until 1481, several Kharchin warlords, Belguteids, and Ordos Mongols fought over succession and enthroned their Genghisid khans. Some of them are referred to as Uyghurs by Mongolian chroniclers, and they may have had links to the Hami oasis. Manduulun Khan (1475–1478) effectively triumphed over most Mongol warlords during his rule before dying in 1478.

Restoration (1479–1600)

Manduulun's young Khatun Mandukhai declared Batumongke, a seven-year-old child of Genghisid ancestry, as khan. Mandukhai worked tirelessly to bring the Mongol tribes under his authority. The new khan was given the title Dayan, which means "Great Yuan." Mandukhai and Dayan Khan vanquished the Oirats and Taishis who governed the Yellow River Mongols. When Dayan Khan named his son, Ulusbold, as jinong (crown prince), one of them assassinated Dayan Khan's son and revolted. With the help of his friends Unebolad wang and the Four Oirats, Dayan Khan ultimately conquered the southern Mongols in 1510. He eliminated the traditional Yuan court titles like Taishi, chingsang, pingchan, and chiyuan by making another of his sons jinong. Dayan put pressure on the Ming dynasty from 1495 onwards, which shut off border commerce and murdered his envoys. The Uriankhai Three Guards, who had previously surrendered to the Ming, were subdued by Dayan as he entered Ming territory. As a result, the Tumed Mongols dominated the Ordos area, eventually expanding their territory into northern Qinghai. Dayan almost attacked Beijing itself in 1517. Mongol troops attacked the Ming dynasty not just in the north but also in the hitherto peaceful west.

At the same time, the Ming dynasty lost Kara Del as a protectorate to the Turpan Khanate. Dayan continued to beat the Ming in warfare until he died in 1543. The Northern Yuan spanned from the Siberian tundra and Lake Baikal in the north, over the Gobi, to the Yellow River's border and south into the Ordos under Dayan's rule. The fields stretched eastward from Manchuria's woods, across the Altai Mountains, and into Central Asia's steppes. The restructuring of the Mongols by Dayan Khan into six Eastern Mongol tumens (meaning "ten thousand") and four Oirats tumens had far-reaching consequences for Mongol society's growth.

  • Wing (Left)
    • Khalkha tumen
      • Khataghin, Jalaid, Eljigin, Besud, Gorlos, Khökhuid (Khukhuid) are the seven northern otog.
      • Uriankhai was later added. Jaruud, Baarin, Ujeed (Uchirad), Hongirad and Bayagud are the five southern otog.
    • Chahar tumen
      • Abaga, Aokhan, Abaganar, Durved, Daurs, Hishigten, Muumyangan, Naiman, Onnigud, Huuchid, Sunud, Urad and Uzemchin
    • Uriankhai tumen: Later, the tumen was disbanded.
  • Wing (Right)
    • Tumed tumen
    • Ordos tumen
    • Yunsheebuu tumen
  • Four tumen Oirats
  • Choros, Durvud, Olots, Khoid, Torghut, Khoshut, Baatud Ur (Ör) Mongol, Barga, Buryats and Mongols.

His 11 sons were awarded the six Eastern Mongol tumens, while the four Oirat tumens were controlled by taishi nobles. Gersenji Khongtaiji of the Jalayir, his youngest son, became king of the Khalkha Mongols, the biggest of the six tumens. The tumens served as both military troops and tribal administrative bodies in the hopes of receiving Dayan Khan's taijis. The South Khalkha in eastern Inner Mongolia and Doyin Uriyangkhan of the Three Guards were assigned to the Northern Khalkha people and Uriyankhan. The northern Uriankhai people were subdued in 1538 after a revolt and were mainly absorbed by the northern Khalkha. His choice to split the six tumens among his sons, or taijis, and local tabunangs, or taijis' sons in law, produced a decentralized structure of Borjigin authority that ensured domestic stability and external development for a century. Despite this dispersion, the new Mongol authority established by Dayan Khan was remarkably united.

Final Reunification

The Northern Yuan began to fall apart again after Dayan Khan's death under the two following khans. In all of the old Dayan Khan's territories, new regional circles of taijis and local tabunangs (imperial sons-in-law) of the taijis developed by 1540. The three right-wing tumens were under the control of the khagan and the jinong. Darayisung Gödeng Khan (reigned from 1547 to 1557) had to give his relatives Altan, who ruled the Tumed, and Bayaskhul, who ruled the Kharchin, khan titles. With the help of Altan Khan, Abtai Sain Khan, and Khutughtai Sechen Khongtaiji of Ordos, the kingdom was reunified under Tumen Jasagtu Khan (reigned from  1558 to 1592). To the east, Jasagtu fought the Uriankhai and Daghur Mongols and conquered the Jurchens. Many of the Oirat tribes were brought under Abtai and Sechen's control. Altan captured huge swaths of Qinghai and delegated command to one of his sons. Jasagtu also attempted to unite the Mongols by writing a new code of law in the ancient Mongol alphabet, derived from the Uyghur script. The Mongols were compelled to loot China's provinces due to a succession of smallpox outbreaks and a shortage of commerce. The Ming began trading with the three Right-Wing Tumens in 1571. The Uriankhai Three Guards were no longer a separate organization by the end of the 16th century. After they relocated to the Nonni River, the Khorchin absorbed their Fuyu. The Five Khalkhas absorbed two others, Doyin and Tai'nin.

Conversion to Buddhism

Even though Yuan rulers had previously accepted Buddhism, most Mongols continued to believe in shamanism. Around the Right-Wing Tumens, large-scale conversion to Tibetan Buddhism began in 1575. Jasagtu appointed a Tibetan Buddhist chaplain from the Karmapa order and declared Buddhism to be Mongolia's official religion. The 3rd Dalai Lama visited Altan and Sechen in 1577, kicking off the conversion of the Tumed and Ordos Mongols to Buddhism. Soon after, the Oirats converted to Buddhism as well. To proselytize, a large number of Tibetan lamas travelled to Mongolia.

Fall (From 1600 to 1635)

The Northern Yuan tumens had ceased to operate as a cohesive unit by the reign of Ligdan Khan (r. 1604–1634). Ligdan solely ruled over the Chahar tumen, and the Khalkha and Oirat Mongols had lost faith in him. Ligdan established the Chaghan Baishin (White House) as a new capital in Chahar territory, encouraging the construction of Buddhist temples, the translation of Tibetan literature, and commerce with the Ming dynasty. Under Nurhaci's rule, the Jurchens surged to the forefront of East Asian powers in 1616. The Jurchens were not nomads but tribal people who had embraced Chinese farming methods while sharing many similarities with the Mongols. Nurhaci sought friends among the Khorchin Mongols, Ligdan's subjects, to invade the Ming dynasty. From 1612 until 1624, the rulers of Khorchin, Jarud, and the southern Khalkha Mongols formed a formal alliance with the Jurchens. In 1625, Ligdan launched an attack on the Jurchens' Mongol allies. Ligdan was beaten and pushed back by the Jurchen-Mongol army. The relationship was solidified the next year when Uuba Noyan of the Khorchin had his younger brother marry Nurhaci's daughters. As a result, a large number of Jurchens married Mongols. To compel opposition, Ligdan placed his administrators over the tumens and established an elite military band. At Zhaocheng in 1628, Ligdan beat the Khorchins and Jurchen auxiliary but escaped a major Jurchen punitive mission. Only Tsogt Taiji (1581–1637) backed the Great Khan, while the rest of Khalkha's nobility stayed silent. The Khamag Mongols' Ambaghai and his Jurchen Mongol allies conquered the Chahars in 1632 and kidnapped Ligdan's family. Ligdan's power over non-Chahar tumens was revoked. In 1634, Ligdan died while on his trip to Qinghai to chastise the Gelug order. His son, Ejei Khan, surrendered to the Qing dynasty the next year (February 1635) and was believed to hand over the Mongol Imperial Seal to Qing emperor Hong Taiji.

From west to east, the Mongols created four Khanates after Ligdan Khan's death in 1634:

  • Sholoi Ubashi, Geresandza's great-grandson, created the Altan Khan of Khalkhas in the far west.
  • The Dzasagtu Khans are a khanate created by Laikhor-khan, an Altan Khan's cousin.
  • Abatai, another grandson, created the Tushetu Khans in Ulaanbaatar. This was the highest-ranking branch.
  • Sholoi, a great-grandson, created the Sechen Khans near the eastern end of current Mongolia.


Outer Mongolia

Ambaghai declared himself khagan of all Mongols in 1636, but by that time, the Manchus had conquered all of Inner Mongolia, and Ambaghai was now under Manchu control. Ejei Khan, Ligdan's son, died in unexplained circumstances. His brother Abunai, who refused to attend Manchu court, was awarded his status. Burni, Abunai's son, revolted against the Manchus in 1675, but the insurrection was crushed, and Burni was killed in combat. The Chahar Mongols were, after that, put under the direct control of the Qing rulers. The Tusheet Khan Gombodorj preserved his independence and suzerainty over the Sechen and Jasagtu khans in Outer Mongolia. In Jasagtu territory, however, another autonomous entity known as Altan Khan of the Khalkha arose. The Mongols needed to find a new source of authority after losing Inner Mongolia and the Imperial Mongol Seal.

Consequently, Gombodorj's brother became the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, Mongolia's Gelug Buddhist spiritual leader, in 1639. By delivering tribute, Gombodorj attempted to maintain amicable ties with the growing Manchus. He also ceased supplying the Ming dynasty with horses. After the Manchus destroyed the Ming in 1644 and captured Beijing, diplomacy failed. A Mongol noyan revolted against the Qing in 1646 but was defeated by overwhelming odds. Gombodorj fought the Qing with 50,000 cavalries in 1647, but neither side was able to win a decisive victory. Despite significant casualties on both sides, the Mongol army made up a higher proportion of their entire troops than the Qing, indicating that the Mongols no longer had the human resources to engage the Qing in combat directly. Gombodorj died in the mid-seventeenth century and was replaced by his young and inexperienced son Chikhundorj. The Qing began meddling in Tusheet matters in 1655 when they appointed their lamas in Tusheet territory. As a result, Outer Mongolia eventually came under Qing authority.

Dzungar Khanate

Meanwhile, the Oirats in the west unified under Kharkhul in 1600–1620. The Dzungar Khanate was founded in 1635 by the Oirats, led by Kharkhul's son Erdeni Batur. Their conflicts with the Altan Khans contributed to their unity. Galdan Boshugtu Khan of the Dzungars deployed his orda near the Altai Mountains to plan an attack after the Jasagtu Khan Shira lost part of his people to the Tusheet Khan Chikhundorj. In 1687, Chikhundorj assaulted the Khalkhas' right side and killed Shira. In 1688, Galdan sent soldiers against Chikhundorj, commanded by his younger brother Dorji-jav, but they were beaten, and Dorji-jav was slain in combat. Chikhundorj then assassinated Jasagtu Khan's Degdeehei Mergen Ahai, who was on his way to Galdan. Galdan forged favourable connections with the Russians, who were already at war with Chikhundorj over lands around Lake Baikal, to revenge his brother's murder. Galdan led 30,000 Dzungar warriors into Outer Mongolia in 1688, armed with Russian weapons, and destroyed Chikhundorj in three days. Meanwhile, the Siberian Cossacks assaulted and destroyed a 10,000-strong Khalkha force near Lake Baikal. Chakhundorji and his brother Jebtsundamba Khutuktu Zanabazar escaped across the Gobi Desert to the Qing dynasty. They surrendered to the Kangxi Emperor after two terrible fights with the Dzungars near Erdene Zuu Monastery and Tomor. Galdan controlled control of Outer Mongolia to the edge of Manchuria in 1690 when he turned his focus east to Beijing. The Qing were concerned about the Dzungar state's progress. Therefore the Kangxi Emperor (Enh-Amgalan khaan-in Mongolian) blocked Galdan.

Galdan led a force of 20,000 men over the Kherlen River in late summer 1690, facing a Qing army at the Battle of Ulan Butung, 350 kilometres north of Beijing near the Liao River's western headwaters. Galdan was forced to flee and saved from demolition by the Qing army's lack of resources and competence to pursue him. The Kangxi Emperor marched 100,000 soldiers into Mongolia in 1696. Galdan attempted to flee the Kherlen but was ambushed by a Qing force approaching from the west. In the Battle of Jao Modo, which took place near the upper Tuul River, he was defeated. Galdan's wife, Anu, was slain, and the Qing army took 20,000 cattle and 40,000 sheep. Galdan and a small group of supporters escaped. On April 4, 1697, he perished in the Altai Mountains near Khovd. His cousin Tsewang Rabtan, who had revolted in 1689, was already in charge of Dzungaria in 1691. Therefore, the Qing Empire annexed outer Mongolia, and the Khalkha chiefs were reintegrated into the Qing Empire as vassals. Ulaanbaatar was fortified with a Qing garrison. The Qing soldiers took Hami but did not make it into Dzungaria. The Dzungars eventually advanced into Tibet and Kazakhstan, but in 1755, the Qing dynasty conquered them as well, and by 1758, all opposition had been destroyed.

Last updated: 2021-October-28
Tags: Mongol Empire Yuan Dynasty
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