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Early Chinese manuscripts refer to “turkic speaking peoples”, whom they called the Xiongnu, living in the area which is now Mongolia as early as the 4th or 5th century BC. A major war between these people and the Chinese, in which the Xiongnu warriors would charge on horseback, wielding lances and swords and firing arrows, was the motivation behind the building of the Great Wall of China.

From about 200 BC, warfare between the Chinese and the Xiongnu “barbarians” was almost continuous until the Chinese finally expelled their enemy around the middle of the first century AD. Other nomadic tribes, such as the Xianbei and the Turk arrived in Mongolia from the north, and the remnants of the Xiongnu moved west. Their descendants, the Huns, terrorised central Europe under Attila from 434 to 453 AD.

The Uigher tribe invaded Mongolia in 744 AD and allied themselves with the Tang Chinese, but their defeat by the Kirghiz in 840 AD allowed the Kitans, a Mongol tribe from north-east China, to take control. By the 10th century, the Kitans held much of Manchuria, eastern Mongolia and most of China north of the Yellow River. Even so the various Mongol tribes still waged wars among themselves. The Chinese finally defeated the Kitan empire in 1122 AD.

Sixty years later, a 20-year-old warrior named Temujin emerged as leader of the Borjigin Mongol clan. After 20 years of warfare, he succeeded in doing what no-one had done before – he united the Mongol tribes under his leadership. He was then named “universal king”, or Genghis Khan. From his new capital in Karakorum (now Harhorin) he invaded Russia, China and eastern Europe. By the time of his death in 1227, his empire extended from Beijing to the Caspian Sea.

He was succeeded by his son, Ogedei, and then by his grandson, Kublai Khan, who completed the conquest of China and established a winter capital in Dadu (now Beijing) and a summer capital in Xanadu (which no longer exists, but was in what is now inner Mongolia). Having done this, he concentrated on holding his empire together, building roads to link China with Russia and promoting trade both within the empire, and with neighbouring Europe. It was this flourishing empire which Marco Polo visited, and which inspired such poets as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

After Kublai Khan’s death in 1294, resentment against Mongol taxes built until the Ming dynasty Chinese expelled the Mongols from Beijing in the mid 14th century. The Mongol tribes began to war among themselves, leaving little opposition to the Manchu Qing warriors who used the newly invented muskets and cannon to defeat them in 1732. Mongolia was ruled by Qing dynasty Chinese from that time until it declared its independence in 1911.



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