Altan Khan

Orfeas Katsoulis | Jan 23, 2023

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Altan Khan (1507-1582) was the ruler of the Tümed, a Mongolian tribe. He was a direct descendant of Dzhengis Khan (1162-1227). Altan Khan managed to unite most of the eastern Mongols under his rule.

Altan Khan was the second son of the Emperor Barsbolad Jinong Khan of the Northern Yuan Dynasty and the grandson of the Emperor Dayan Khan. After the death of the latter, the empire he created was divided into apanages among his nine sons. Increasingly, this included the area of the Chahar Mongols, most of today's Inner Mongolia province of China, which became the emperor's personal apanage. In practice, the leaders of the apanages acted as de facto equals of the emperors. Consequently, the emperor was known as the Emperor of the Chahar Mongols during the time of Altan Khan.

Altan Khan united most of the eastern Mongols under his rule. He forced his nephew the emperor (khagan) Darayisung Gödeng Khan (1520-1557) to flee eastward with the entire people of the Chahar Mongols. A compromise was reached in 1551. Altan Khan recognized the nominal authority of Darayisung Gödeng Khan as khagan who gave him the title Geegen Khan, the Magnificent. However, he had to relinquish some of the territory lost to Altan Khan and move his court even further east, placing it in the east of what is now China's Inner Mongolia province, directly bordering Manchu territory.

Early in his reign, Altan Khan sought opportunities for trade with the empire of China's Ming dynasty.

An important tool in this policy were the tribute missions. For the Mongolian tribes, these were the only opportunity to be able to trade with some regularity in the Chinese interior and border cities. From the Chinese point of view, they were missions, giving representatives of peoples on the periphery of the empire the opportunity to recognize the supremacy of the Chinese emperors. The subsistence expenses of the missions were also largely financed by the Chinese hosts. The size and frequency of those missions, thus essentially also the potential regular trade volume, was therefore determined by the Chinese.

Altan Khan was constantly dissatisfied with the opportunities for trade he was given. Throughout the decade between 1540 and 1550, he conducted raids along the Chinese border. The Ming responded to this mainly by erecting further fortifications for garrisons along and near the Great Wall of China. In 1550, Altan Khan managed to evade the fortifications and get as far as the walls of Beijing. Because of this pressure, the Chinese agreed to allow trade in some border towns. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese backtracked on that commitment. The result was, another two decades of Mongol raids on the border and deeper inland.

Around 1570, however, a more pragmatic policy prevailed. In 1571, an agreement was reached. In this agreement, Altan Khan renounced raids and invasions in China. A number of market places were opened for trade. Missions to Peking became possible once a year for a company of 150 people. Chinese traders and officials in charge traveled in large numbers to the border and sold silk, furs, grain and metal goods, such as kitchen tools, and bought horses in particular.

The Chinese Emperor Wanli(1563-1620) granted Altan Khan the title Shunyi Wang' (Obedient and Just Prince). 63 other Mongolian princes were also given protocol titles. Altan Khan handed over a number of Chinese who had worked for him as deserters to Chinese authority.

Altan Khan was therefore more advanced than his predecessors in the 15th century. The fact, among others, that he had recruited Chinese to assist him in the organization of an administration over an empire that included several tribes is a testament to this. Their administrative and financial expertise gave Altan Khan the ability to try to realize an idea of something like a Mongolian state. Altan Khan also built a capital, Köke qota, near present-day Hohhot, where after his conversion to Tibetan Buddhism, a considerable number of temples were also realized.

Altan Khan is therefore best known for having been the first important Mongol ruler to convert to Tibetan Buddhism. Like several Mongol rulers after him, he must have realized that more than military strength was needed to make his conquests more lasting. As the empire continued to expand, the need for a more professional administration grew. That required at least some form of literacy, which the shamans of the old, animistic religion could not provide. The expansion of the empire, which also gave Altan Khan authority over ethnic tribes other than the Tümed necessitated a form of a law that rose above that of custom in a tribal society. Buddhism with trained scholars, its methods of translation, the presence of libraries in monasteries had much more potential in this regard than shamanism.

Tibetan missionaries had been active in various Mongolian regions for decades. After turning down an initial invitation from Altan Khan, Sönam Gyatso, (1543-1588)the foremost lama of the Gelug tradition arrived at his court in 1578. He preached Buddhism there, and Altan Khan and his court converted to it.

Altan Khan gave Sönam Gyatso the title magnificent Vajradhara, good, brilliant, praiseworthy ocean, abbreviated to ocean lama or dalai lama. Incidentally, it is a title found in Mongolian sources as early as the 13th century as Ocean Khan.

A more trivial explanation is that the name Gyatso in Sönam Gyatso in Tibetan also means ocean. Altan Khan might have addressed Sönam Gyatso with the Mongolian translation of his name when first greeting him. That led to Dalai Lama. Sönam Gyatso gave Altan Khan the title Dharmaraja, Great Brahma of the Gods. Other persons of Mongolian nobility were also given titles by Sönam Gyatso.

It is unclear, why the visit of precisely the most important lama of the gelug led to the future far-reaching consequences. It is clear from the literature, that other lamas from other traditions also paid regular visits to Altan Khan. It is known that Gyalpo Künga Tashi of the kagyüt tradition visited the Altan Khan twice. Solemn titles were also given to each other during this trip. Even after 1578, the Altan Khan continued to receive lamas from other traditions. One explanation could be, that the karmapa, the head of the kagyüt tradition, at that time clearly the most influential and powerful tulku of Tibetan Buddhism, had close ties with the Chinese Ming dynasty. To profile his independence from that dynasty, Altan Khan would have chosen the relationship with the gelug's most important tulku.

With this alliance began the connection between various Mongolian tribal federations and, in particular, the gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which would continue in the history of Tibet until the mid-18th century. In the late 16th century it would lead, among other things, to the - controversial - selection of Yönten Gyatso, (1589-1616) a great-grandson of Altan Khan as the fourth Dalai Lama.

An often described element in the encounter with Altan Khan is the supposed fact, that Sönam Gyatso declared Altan Khan to be the reincarnation of Kublai Khan (1215-1294) and Altan Khan declared Sönam Gyatso to be the reincarnation of Phagspa (1235-1280). On this basis, the supposed pattern-priest relationship of the 13th century would then be reconfirmed in that between Sönam Gyatso and Altan Khan.

Mongolian sources about the encounter with Sönam Gyatso have been preserved. Based on these, then, contemporary historians conclude that this part of their encounter did not take place in a factual sense. In a strictly historical sense, this is a fiction that was added to his biography of Sönam Gyatso by the fifth Dalai Lama over 70 years later and then became part of the myth.

In the end, it turned out that even so, Altan Khan's power was mainly a personal one, depending on his own initiative and entrepreneurial drive. After his death in 1582, the influence of the Tümed declined sharply. That of the Chahar-Mongols experienced a temporary revival in their new territories. Its peak and fall would occur during the period of Ligdan Khan (1592-1634), the last emperor of the Northern Yuan dynasty


  1. Altan Khan
  2. Altan Khan
  3. In de wetenschappelijke literatuur wordt de naam Altan Khan ook wel gehanteerd voor een kanaat in de 16e en 17e eeuw in het noordwesten van het gebied van de huidige republiek Mongolië. De heersers van dat kanaat worden soms benoemd als de Altan Khan van de Khalkha-Mongolen.Dat leidt vaak tot verwarring met de Altan Khan in dit artikel. Het kanaat van de 16e en 17e eeuw wordt in deze encyclopedie behandeld in het artikel Altyn Khan
  4. ^ a b c John W. Dardess (2012). Ming China, 1368-1644: A Concise History of a Resilient Empire. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-4422-0491-1.
  5. ^ Stein, R. A. (1972). Tibetan Civilization, pp. 81-82. Stanford University Press, Stanford California. ISBN 978-0-8047-0806-7 (cloth); ISBN 978-0-8047-0901-9 (paper).
  6. ^ Richardson, Hugh E. (1984). Tibet & its History. Second Edition, Revised and Updated, p. 41. Shambhala, Boston & London. ISBN 978-0-87773-376-8 (pbk).
  7. Stein, R. A. (1972). Tibetan Civilization, pp. 81-82. Stanford University Press, Stanford California. ISBN 0-8047-0806-1 (cloth); ISBN 0-8047-0901-7 (paper).
  8. a b et c (en) L. Chuluunbaatar, Political, economic and religious relations between Mongolia and Tibet, in Tibet and Her Neighbours : A History. McKay Alex (éd.), 2003, Londres, Edition Hansjörg Mayer, p. 151-153
  9. (Schwieger 2014, p. 33) « Although the Mongolian word dalai is equivalent to the Tibetan word gyatso, meaning "ocean", and would therefore seem to refer to this component in the names of the Dalai Lamas (exept for the first one), it was constructed in analogy to the older Mongolian title dalai-yin-qan, "Ocean Qan". »