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Mongolia - Early History

Polities of Inner Asia

namefromtoSize [km2]
Xiongnu 199 B.C.A.D. 155 4,031,200
Wu-Huan 100 B.C.A.D. 218 400,000
Xianbei A.D. 155235 4,500,000
Jujan A.D. 380555 4,031,200
Toba-Wei A.D. 386581 1,488,700
Turk I A.D. 552630 2,106,000
Turk II A.D. 683744 2,106,000
Bohai / Balhae A.D. 698926 438,000
Uighur A.D. 745840 1,466,200
Khitan / Liao A.D. 9071125 2,535,800
Xi Xia A.D. 9901227 637,900
Jurchen Chin A.D. 11151234 1,716,000
Kara-Khitai A.D. 11431211 2,511,900
Mongol A.D. 12061368 29,491,900
Zunghar A.D. 16251757 3,600,000
The history of Central Asia before the days of Jingis Khan is singularly complicated and obscure; and to make a way among its mazes, one can only do so profitably by concentrating our attention on the larger empires which then flourished, and integrating the scattered facts that have survived today about the lesser powers around them.

The polities of the pastoralists of Inner Asia are generally viewed as ephemeral and relatively unimportant compared to the complex urban societies of China and the Middle East, where cities first emerged, fueled by highly productive and stable agricultural systems. Inner Asian polities were fundamentally unstable - they were more likely to terminate as time went on, consistent with mounting difficulties in collective action problem solving in both domestic and foreign policy. Domestically, the multi-ethnic composition of these polities posed diverse governance challenges, as did constant external pressures from China along the southern frontier.

The typical organizational form of Inner Asian polities is a tribal confederation, meaning a large coalition of local nomadic units under the leadership of a strong leader at the head of his own tribe or clan. The early Chinese historians characterized the northern peoples as barbarians and the lands they occupied as only barely suitable for human habitation. But the polities of the Inner Asian steppes are among the most influential in world history and among the least investigated by modern political and social scientists.

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 BC, 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 characteristics.

Although in the course of history other peoples displaced, or became intermingled with, the Yuezhi and the Xiongnu, their activities, conflicts, and internal and external relations established a pattern, with four principal themes, that continued almost unchanged--except for the conquest of Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries--until the eighteenth century.

First, among these four themes, there were constant fierce struggles involving neighboring tribes, engaged in frequently shifting alliances that did not always follow ethnic, racial, or linguistic lines. Second, during periods when China was united and strong, trade with Inner Asian peoples was allowed, and nomadic states either became vassals of the Chinese emperor, or they retreated beyond his reach into the northern steppes; conversely, when China appeared weak, raids were made into rich Chinese lands, sometimes resulting in retaliatory expeditions into Mongolia.

Third, occasional, transitory consolidation--of all or of large portions of the region under the control of a conqueror or a coalition of similar tribes -- took place; such temporary consolidations could result in a life-or- death struggle between major tribal groupings until one or the other was exterminated or was expelled from the region, or until they joined forces. Fourth, on several occasions, raids into northern China were so vast and successful that the victorious nomads settled in the conquered land, established dynasties, and eventually became absorbed--sinicized--by the more numerous Chinese.

The pattern was interrupted abruptly and dramatically late in the twelfth century and throughout the thirteenth century by Chinggis and his descendants. During the consolidation of Mongolia and some of the invasions of northern China, Chinggis created sophisticated military and political organizations, exceeding in skill, efficiency, and vigor the institutions of the most civilized nations of the time. Under him and his immediate successors, the Mongols conquered most of Eurasia.

After a century of Mongol dominance in Eurasia, the traditional patterns reasserted themselves. Mongols living outside Mongolia were absorbed by the conquered populations; Mongolia itself again became a land of incessantly warring nomadic tribes. True to the fourth pattern, a similar people, the Manchus, conquered China in the seventeenth century, and ultimately became sinicized. Here the pattern ended. The Manchu conquest of China came at a time when the West was beginning to have a significant impact on East Asia. Russian colonial expansionism was sweeping rapidly across Asia--at first passing north of Mongolia but bringing incessant pressure, from the west and the north, against Mongol tribes--and was beginning to establish firm footholds in Mongolian territory by conquest and the establishment of protectorates. At the same time, the dynamic Manchus also applied pressure from the east and the south. This pressure was partly the traditional attempt at control over nomadic threats from Mongolia, but it also was a response to the now clearly apparent threat of Russian expansionism.

"Polities of Inner Asia"

namefromtoSize [km2]
S. Ch'i A.D. 479502 2,147,000
Khwarazm A.D. 10981231 4,014,000
S. Sung A.D. 11271279 1,733,600
Claudio Cioffi-Revilla, J. Daniel Rogers, Steven P. Wilcox, and Jai Alterman provide an inventory of 18 "Polities in Inner Asia", which are depicted in a map as being centered in or near modern Mongolia. But of these, two are empires in Southern China with no apparent connection to Central Asia - Southern Ch'i and Southern Sung - while a third, the Khwarazm, is firmly based in Iran and Afganistan, with only a minor intrusion further inland.

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Page last modified: 01-07-2012 18:54:05 ZULU