With the death of the Great Khan Möngke, the third successor of Činggis Qaɣan, and the disintegration of the ulus states in the course of the 15th century, the Mongolian tribes were again dispersed over a vast area and obeyed the command of autonomous rulers fighting against each other. The only difference to the time before Činggis Qaɣan was that the latter had institutionalized the position of qaɣan (Great Khan), a title which gave nominal overlordship of all Mongolian tribes. Each claimant to this position could hope that the steppe tribes would follow him. Yet the greatest problem was that the Mongols still did not think in a concept of state or nation, but only in terms of leadership and loyalty to one individual leader, and fell back on the ancient principle of threatening the Chinese borderlands to obtain grain, silk, and tea.
The Mongol tribes in the post-Möngke era are usually divided into Eastern tribes and Western tribes. The Eastern Mongols were ruled by descendants of Möngke. The Western Mongols consisted mainly of the four tribes of the Oyirad (Oirats, in Chinese Elute 厄魯特 or Elute 額魯特), namely Qošod (Heshuote 和碩特), Torgud (Tu'erhute 土爾扈特), Jeyün Γar (Dzunghars, Zhunga'er 準噶爾), and Dörbed (Du'erbote 杜爾伯特), the latter also including Qoyid (Huite 輝特) and Čoros (Chuolosi 綽羅斯).
|Jeyün Γar (Dzunghars)||Zhunga'er 準噶爾|
The last emperor of the Yuan dynasty, Toɣon Temür (r. 1333–1370), and also the last claimant of the title of Great Khan over all Mongols, withdrew in 1368 to the home lands of the Mongols between the rivers Onon and Kerülün, supported by 60,000 men. In the Mongolian steppe, he upheld Qubilai's dynasty as the so-called Northern Yuan dynasty 北元 (1368-1402). Yet he and his direct successors were never able to combine authority with power, and most fell victim to internal quarrels.
At the same time, the Western Mongols gained independence from their Eastern overlords, and began to challenge the leadership of the Činggisids (Borjigid lineage). Around 1400 (1399 or 1401), Batula Čingsang (also called Maḥmūd, d. 1416?) from the tribe of the Čoros killed the fourth successor and grandson of Toɣon Temür, Elbeg (Nigülesügči Qaɣan, r. 1401-1402).
The Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) dealt with the Mongol tribes according to the ancient pattern of "using barbarians to fight against the barbarians" (yi yi zhi yi 以夷治夷, or similar), and supported one tribe against the other, thus provoking inter-tribal fights which diverted the Mongols from raids on Chinese land. This does not mean that the Mongols were impotent in the 15th century. The Yongle Emperor 永樂 (r. 1402-1424) launched six campaigns against the Mongols. The first campaign, against Aruɣtai, in 1409, ended in a defeat for the Ming, but a year later, when the emperor himself took over command, Öljei Temür was thrown back to River Onon. Batula Čingsang, khan of the Oyirad, used his chance and killed Öljei Temür, replacing him with the late khan's son, a puppet khan named Delbeg. In 1414, the Yongle Emperor defeated the Oyirad at River Tula. The tide had turned, and Aruɣtai killed Batula Čingsang and his protégé Delbeg. During his last campaign against the Eastern Mongols, the Yongle Emperor died.
The Mongols were by then dominated by the Oyirad leader Toɣon, a son of Batula Čingsang. He made Toɣto Buqa (Dayisung Qaɣan), a cousin of Delbeg, Great Khan.
The power of the Oyirads grew, and in 1440, Esen took over the rulership. His "empire" reached from Hami 哈密 in the west to the grounds of the Jurchen in the east. The zenith of his power was reached in 1449, when Mongol troops approached Beijing and captured the Ming emperor Yingzong 明英宗 (r. 1435-1449, 1457-1464) in the battle of Tumu 土木. The subsequent siege of Beijing was ill-prepared and was soon relinquished. In 1450, after Esen had released his imperial hostage, Toɣto Buqa from the Eastern Mongols saw his chance and attacked Esen Qan, but he was betrayed by his own brother, Prince (jinong) Aɣbarji, and was killed in 1452. According to legend, he died during the investiture ceremony before the ceremonial white tens of Činggis Qaɣan. According to another report, he was killed by his father-in-law.
Esen Qan thereupon adopted the title of Great Khan, but this step provoked resistance not just among the Eastern Mongols, which were led by Tögüs (Molon Qaɣan, a son of Toɣto Buqa), but also among the nobility of the Oyirad. Esen was killed in 1455 by a nobleman called Buqun from the Yüngsiyebü tribe. Molon Qaɣan, killed in 1454, was succeeded by his half-brother Mar Körgis (r. 1454-1463 or 1466), who fell also victim to bloody fights. As the latter two did not have sons, the title of Great Khan of the Eastern Mongols fell on Manduɣul (r. 1463-1467), a half-brother of Toɣto Buqa, and then to Batu Möngke (Dayan Qaɣan, r. 1470-1543, a great-grandson of Prince Aɣbarji), who successfully reunited the Eastern Mongolian tribes against China and the Oyirad. He was critically supported in his project by his wife, Manduqai Qatun (c. 1448-1492?) from the Tümed tribe.
Dayan Qaɣan was the ancestor of the most important Mongol leaders of the Qing period. During the 1480s, he several times defeated the Oyirads, and advanced in the years 1517 and 1523 closely into the direction of Beijing. The Ming troops were no match for the 15,000 elite cavalry of the Mongols (Veit 1986: 388). In 1532, he requested the status of a vassal of the Ming, a title which allowed him to bring tributes to the Chinese court and receive gifts and special rights, such as trade permissions.
The last years of Dayan Qaɣan's rule were overshadowed by disputes of rank. Dayan had divided the ten tümen ("legions" or "regiments" of 10,000 men) into two wings. The eastern (left) wing, including the Čaqar, Uriyangqan, and Qalqa, was directly subordinated to the Great Khan. The western (right) wing, including the Ordos, Tümed, Ulanjab, Asud, Qaračin, and Yüngsiyebü, was to be commanded by a jinong (prince, from Chinese jinwang 晉王 or jinong 濟農). Dayan wanted to make his son Ulus Bolud prince of the western wing, but the Ordos killed him. Only with greatest efforts, Dayan was able to subdue the western wing, and made the institution of jinong for it hereditary, thus depriving the western wing of the right to elect a leader from among themselves.
At the time of his death, when his grandson Bodi Alaɣ (r. 1543-1547) took over khanship, the left wing encompassed the Čaqar tribes of the Abaɣa, Abaɣanar, Aoqan, Dörben Keüked, Kesigten, Muumingɣan, Naiman, Ongniɣud, Qaɣučid, Sünid, Üjumüčin, and Urad, the banners of the Qalqa, including the Baɣarin, Jarud, Qonggirad, Bayaɣud, and Učirad, and the Uriyangqan with the tribes of the Aru Qorčin, Dörbed, Γorlos, Jalayid, and Qorčin. The right wing encompassed the Ordos, Tümed, Asud, Qaračin, and Yüngsiyebü.
|Left (Eastern) Wing (led by the Great Khan)||Right (Western) Wing (led by a jinong prince)|
|Abaɣa, Abaɣanar, Aoqan, Dörben Keüked, Kesigten, Muumingɣan, Naiman, Ongniɣud, Qaɣučid, Sünid, Üjumüčin, and Urad|
|Qalqa, incl. Baɣarin, Jarud, Qonggirad, Bayaɣud, and Učirad|
|Aru Qorčin, Dörbed, Γorlos, Jalayid, and Qorčin|
The most powerful rulers of the steppe after Dayan Qaɣan's death were Altan Qan (a grandson of Dayan) from the Tümed, and the leaders of the four khanates of the Qalqa. Altan Qan founded the first Mongolian city, Köke Qota (Guihua 歸化, today's Hohhot in Inner Mongolia), promoted agriculture, and attracted Chinese craftsmen. His military expeditions led into Qinghai (Köke Naɣur), Tibet, and Turfan. In 1552, he expelled the Oyirad from the ancient capital Qara Qorum, and thus opened central Mongolia to the Qalqa tribes. In 1547, when Darayisun was invested as Great Qan (qaɣan) over all Mongolian tribes, Altan Qan requested the title of protector over the Mongol empire. Altan Qan promoted the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) by all Mongolian tribes. This religion proved relatively attractive for the Mongolian leaders, as it constituted the belief of an advanced civilization and seemed to fit better to modern times than traditional shamanism. Yet monasteries and the Buddhist clergy also supported tribes leaders in their claims for power.
The contradiction between the dream of a united empire and the tribal quest for independence was the crux of the matter which made the rise of a new Mongol empire impossible. This can best be seen in the attitude of the Mongols towards a newly emerging power in the eastern forest belts of Manchuria, where the Jurchen tribes (in Mongolian called Jürčen, plural Jürčed) were unified in the late 16th century and would eventually force the Mongols into submission.
The ruler of the Jianzhou Jurchen 建州女真, Nurhaci, was in 1606 by the unified Qalqa tribes bestowed the title of Kundulun Qan (in Manchu Kundulen Han), and concluded treaties with various Mongolian tribes. The treaties ensured that merchants and travellers from both sides were legally protected. The growing military power of the Jurchen enabled them to exert power against Mongol tribes, paired with benevolence if the Mongols were willing to submit to the Genggiyen Han, as Nurhaci called himself since 1616. This policy was paired with a complex marriage policy (see heqin 和親), in which Jurchen (from 1635 on called Manchus) princesses married Mongol rulers, and Jurchen/Manchu princes and rulers took Mongol women in their "harem". The grandmother of the Kangxi Emperor 康熙 (r. 1661-1722), for instance, Grand Empress Dowager Xiaozhuangwen 孝莊文皇后 (1613-1688), hailed from the Qorčin tribe, and was a descendant of Činggis Qaɣan.
The Jurchen had not only cultural ties to the Mongols and adopted Mongolian as the written language (until 1599), but also had a common enemy in the Ming empire. By making the Mongols allies, the Manchus would have free their western flank for eventual attacks on China.
The last great pre-Qing unifier of the Mongols was Ligdan Qan (r. 1603–1634) of the Čaqar, a great-grandson of Dayan Qan. He was a patron of Buddhism in Mongolia and enforced the translation of Buddhist writings, mainly the Tibetan Kanjur (Tib. bKa’ ’gyur), into Mongolian. Yet his leadership was perceived by other tribes as a form of tyranny. In 1618, Ligdan declared war to the Ming empire, not just because of power politics, but also to increase the territory from which the Mongol tribes could be nourished with agricultural produce. Ligdan's expansionist policy was at odds with that of Nurhaci, the Jurchen khan, who pursued the same method of pushing forward the borders of his empire in directon of Ming territory. A personal component in the rivalry between Ligdan and Nurhaci consisted of the fact that the Jurchens had destroyed the tribe of the Yehe, from which Ligdan's wife hailed.
In 1619, Ligdan conquered the border market of Guangning 廣寧 (today's Beizhen 北鎭, Liaoning), and thus provoked action by Nurhaci, who announced to take Guangning for himself. In the following years, many Mongol tribes sided with Nurhaci in order to curtail the power of Ligdan. In 1628, he suffered heavy defeat by the Qaračin, Tümed, Ordos, Abaɣa, and some Qalqa tribes. To make things more complex, some Mongol tribes supported the Ming in this case. In 1632, the Jurchen ruler Hong Taiji (r. 1626-1643), successor of Nurhaci, appealed to all Mongolian tribes to unite against Ligdan Qan. The latter travelled to the historical tents of Činggis Qaɣan, were he cought up on his investiture as Great Khan. He died in 1634 in exile in Qinghai, and the rest of his supporters among the Qalqa tribes submitted to the Jurchen. At that occasion, the ancient imperial seal of the Yuan dynasty came into the hands of the Hong Taiji.
|Uqaɣantu Qaɣan (Wu-ha-ga-tu Han 烏哈噶圖汗)
Toɣan Temür (Tuo-huan Tie-mu-er 妥懽貼睦爾)
Dynastic title: Yuan Huizong 元惠宗, designated as Emperor Shun 元順皇帝, the Zhizheng Emperor 元至正帝, or the Gengshen Emperor 元庚申帝.
|Biligtü Qaɣan (Bi-li-ke-tu Han 必里克圖汗)
Ayuširidara (Ai-you-shi-li-da-la 愛猷識理達臘, 愛猷識里達臘)
Dynastic title: Yuan Zhaozong 元昭宗.
|Usqal Qaɣan (Wu-si-ha-le Ke-han 兀思哈勒可汗, Wu-sa-ha-er Han 烏薩哈爾汗)
Tegüs Temür (Tuo-gu-si Tie-mu-er 脱古思帖木兒)
Dynastic title: Yuan Yizong 元益宗, designated as Tianyuan Emperor 元天元帝.
|Joriɣtu Qaɣan (Zhuo-li-ke-tu Ke-han 卓里克圖可汗)
Yesüder (Ye-su-die-er 也速迭兒)
Decendant of of Ariɣ Buqa.
|Engke Qaɣan (En-ke Ke-han 恩克可汗)||(r. 1391-1394)|
|Nigülesügči Qaɣan (Ni-gu-lie-su-ke-qi Han 尼古埒蘇克齊汗)
Elbeg (E-le-bo-ke 額勒伯克)
|Toɣoɣan Qaɣan (Tuo-gu-han Ke-han 脱古罕可汗)
Gün Temür (Kun Tie-mu-er 坤帖木兒)
Usually called the last emperor/khan of the Northern Yuan.
|Örüg Temür Qaɣan (Wu-lei Tie-mu-er Han 兀雷帖木兒汗)
Ugeči (Gui-li-chi 鬼力赤)
Decendant of Ögedei.
|Öljei Temür Qaɣan (Wan-zhe Tie-mu-er Han 完者帖木兒汗)
Bunyaširi (Ben-ya-shi-li 本雅失里, Punyaśri)
|Delbeg Qaɣan (Da-li-ba 答里巴)||(r. 1415)|
|Oyiradai Qaɣan (Wo-yi-la-dai Han 斡亦剌歹汗, Wei-la-dai Han 衛拉岱汗)||(r. 1415–1425)|
|Adai Qaɣan (A-dai Han 阿岱汗, A-tai 阿台
Son of Orüg Temür.
|Tayisung Qaɣan (Dai-zong Han 岱總汗)
Toɣtoɣa Buqa (Tuo-tuo Bu-hua 脱脱不花)
Descendant of Qubilai.
|Agbarjin (A-ga-duo-er-ji 阿噶多爾濟)||(r. 1453)|
|Esen Taiši (Ye-xian Tai-shi 也先太師, E-sen 額森)
Khan of the Oyirad.
|Markörgis Qaɣan (Ma-ke-gu-er-ji-si 馬可古兒吉思, Ma-er-ke-er 麻兒可兒)
Ükegtü (Wu-ke-ke-tu Han 烏珂克圖汗)
|Molon Qaɣan (Mo-lun Han 摩倫汗)
Togus Möngke (Tuo-gu-si Meng-ke 脱古思猛可)
|Manduɣulun Qaɣan (Man-du-lu 滿都魯, Man-du-gu-le Han 滿都古勒汗), Ugaqatu Qaɣan (Wu-ge-ke-tu Han 烏格克圖汗)||(r. 1475–1478)|
|Dayan Khan (Da-yan Han 达延汗)
Batu Möngke (Ba-tu Meng-ke 巴圖蒙克)
|Bars Bolad Qaɣan or Bars Bolud Jinong (Ba-er-si bo-luo-te 巴爾斯博羅特, Ba-er-su Bo-luo 巴兒速孛羅), Sayin Araɣ Qaγan||(r. 1524)|
|Alaɣ Qaɣan (A-la-ke Han 阿剌克汗)
Bodi (Bo-di 博迪)
|Gödeng Qaɣan (Ku-teng Han 庫騰汗, Ku-deng Han 庫登汗)
Darayisung (Da-lai-sun 達賚孫)
|Jasaɣtu Qaɣan (Zha-sa-ke-tu Han 扎薩克圖汗)
Tümen (Tu-men 圖門)
|Sechen Qaɣan (Che-chen Han 徹辰汗)
Buyan (Bu-yan 布延)
|Ligdan Qaɣan (Lin-dan Han 林丹汗)
Dam Batur Taiyiji (Dan Ba-tu-er Tai-ji 丹巴圖爾台吉)
|Ejei Qaɣan (E-zhe 額哲)
|(r. 1634–1635, d. 1661)|
|Abunai (A-bu-nai 阿布奈)||(1661-1669, d. 1675)|
|Burni (Bu-er-ni 布爾尼)||(r. 1669-1675)|