Mongols (mŏngˈgəlz, –gōlz) [key], Asian people, numbering about 6 million and distributed mainly in the Republic of Mongolia, the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China, and Kalmykia and the Buryat Republic of Russia. Traditionally the Mongols were a predominantly pastoral people, following their herds of horses, cattle, camels, and sheep on a seasonal round of pasturage, and, when encamped, living in felt-covered yurts. Shamanism was the traditional religion of the Mongols, but Buddhism was introduced in the 16th cent.; competition between the two produced Lamaism, a combination of both. The Mongols have a written language; the earliest extant work written in Mongolian dates from 1240. The origin of the Mongols is obscure, but it is believed that many of the so-called Huns, who invaded Europe, as well as the Khitan, who founded a dynasty (916–1125) in N China, may have been Mongols. However, it was not until the early 13th cent. and the creation of the Mongol empire by Jenghiz Khan that the numerous Mongol tribes, hitherto loosely confederated and constantly feuding, emerged in world history as a powerful and unified nation. The Yasa (Jasagh), or imperial code, was promulgated. It laid down the organizational lines of the Mongol nation, the administration of the army, and criminal, commercial, and civil codes of law. As administrators the Mongols employed many Uigurs, whose script they adopted. From their capital at Karakorum the Mongol hordes swept W into Europe and E into China, and by c.1260 the sons of Jenghiz Khan ruled a far-flung Eurasian empire that was divided into four khanates. They were the Great Khanate, which comprised all of China and most of E Asia (including Korea) and which under Kublai Khan came to be known as the Yüan dynasty; the Jagatai khanate in Turkistan; the Kipchack khanate, or the Empire of the Golden Horde, founded by Batu Khan in Russia; and a khanate in Persia. Actually, the Mongol hordes (particularly those who conquered Russia and penetrated as far as Hungary and Germany) included large elements of Turkic peoples; they came to be known collectively as Tatars. Timur, who conquered most of the Jagatai khanate in the 14th cent. and founded a new empire, claimed descent from Jenghiz Khan, as did Babur, who in the 16th cent. founded the Mughal (i.e., Mongol) empire in India. The Mongols were completely expelled from China by 1382 and soon thereafter lapsed into relative obscurity.
See H. H. Vreeland, Mongol Community and Kinship Structure (2d ed. 1957); E. D. Philips, The Mongols (1969); F. W. Cleaves, ed. and tr., The Secret History of the Mongols (1982).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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