John Florens | Mar 8, 2023

Table of Content


The Oirat Mongols was a Mongolian tribal federation. It became the Mongols' most powerful federation in the 15th century during the Northern Yuan Dynasty. The 16th century saw a marked loss of power.

Traditionally, the Oirats were divided into four tribes: Dörbet, Torgut, Khoshut and Dzhungars, recognizable as a separate political entity from the 16th century onward. From the late 17th century, the Dzhungars were still the only independent Mongolian power in Central Asia until 1757. There is no reliable data on the number of Mongols present in the 21st century that can trace their ancestry back to that of the Oirats.

The Oirat Mongols were originally a forest people who lived in the areas west of Lake Baikal. Their name may be based on the Mongolian Oi meaning forest. The main means of livelihood for the Oirat were hunting and fishing. Pastoral nomadism was not common among them during this period. To the north and south of their territory lived Turkic-speaking peoples such as the Kyrgyz and the Naimans. To the east and west of the Oirats lived Mongolian groups such as the Merkid and the Tumad.

The Oirats formed a clearly distinguishable group with a completely different dialect from that of neighboring other Mongolian groups. The political power of the shamans among the Oirat was great. The term Beki (shaman) indicates, that their main tribal chief around 1200, Khudukha-Beki, was also the leading shaman.

The first mention of the Oirats is in the Jami al-Tawarikh a work by the Persian historian Rashīd al-Dīn Tabīb (1247-1318) that deals, among other things, with the rise of Dzhengis Khan. The knowledge that the Oirats fiercely resisted Dzhengis Khan in the early 13th century comes mainly from that document. After a defeat in 1208, the Oirats surrendered to Dzhengis Khan. In 1217, the Oirats were part of a campaign by Jochi (1185-1226), a son of Dzhengis Khan, to subdue the other forest peoples.

After the death of Dzhengis Khan, the area of the Oirats came to be in a very strategic location: at the intersection of four huge apanages that belonged to his sons. The area of Tolui Khan lay southeast of the Oirats; the area of Ögedei to the southwest; the area of Chagatai Khan to the west and that of Jochi to the northwest. This division formed the basis for the creation of the four major khanates of the Yuan, Il Khanate, the Kipchak Khanate and the Khanate of Chagatai.

In 1260, the Oirats sided with Ariq Boke in his conflict with Kublai Khan. After Ariq Boke's defeat, they remained more or less loyal to Kublai Khan's successors until the end of the Yuan dynasty in 1368.

After the fall of that dynasty and the establishment of China's Ming dynasty, most Mongols returned to their original habitats. The dynasty continued in the Northern Yuan Dynasty. The right to bear the title emperor (khagan) of that dynasty was formally reserved only for direct descendants of Dzhengis Khan in the male line. These could only be found in the tribal federations of the eastern Mongols. Among the chiefs of the Oirats, a western tribal federation, that lineage was absent.

The group, which would somewhat later come to be referred to as Chahar-Mongols settled - globally - in the area that is now the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. The group largest in size, the Khalkha Mongols in the area that now forms - globally - the Republic of Mongolia. The Oirat Mongols settled west of that, broadly in the area west of the Altaj Mountains and north of the Tianshan Mountains. The only exception was the group of Mongols who had already settled in the area of Kokonor in Amdo during the period of Dzhengis Khan and around the middle of the 13th century. This area fell outside the boundaries of the Ming dynasty and this is where Mongols settled there remained.

In the late 14th century, major conflicts arose between the Oirat and Eastern Mongols. In 1399, Elbeg Nigülesügchi Khan, the fifth emperor of the Northern Yuan Dynasty was defeated and killed by Ugetchi Khashikha and Batula, the then chiefs of the Oirat. This event marked the beginning of the balance of power between the Mongol tribal federations in the 15th century, with the Oirat having a clear superiority over the eastern tribal federations during that century.

In the first half of the 15th century, Esen tayisi (?-1455) managed to make the Oirat a powerful federation. He created an empire from northern Korea in the east to the area around the Hami oasis on the Silk Road. The westernmost border of the area was formed by the Irtysh River. In 1449, Esen led a raid into northern China. In the process, the Emperor Zhengtong (1427-1464) was captured. However, the Chinese government refused to pay the requested ransom, and a brother of Zhentong became the new emperor. Esen's troops managed to advance to the walls of Beijing, but were eventually forced to retreat.

In 1451, Esen reached the height of his power when he defeated the emperor of the Northern Yuan dynasty Tayisung Khan Toghtoa Bukha. The latter was assassinated in 1452. In 1453 he had himself proclaimed khagan of the dynasty and had already intended to transfer that title to his son Amasanj. This was unacceptable to a large majority of the Mongols. Esen could not claim direct descent from Dzhengis Khan. This eventually led to a revolt by some of his generals and the assassination of Esen in 1455.

After his death, the empire he created fell apart again. The eastern Mongols under Dayan Khan inflicted several heavy defeats on the Oirats in the early 16th century. It would take until the 17th century before one of the Oirats' tribes, the Dzhungars, again became a factor of significance.Beginning in 1600, the Oirats fought a battle of over half a century with the Altyn Khan.

Traditionally, the Oirats were divided into four tribes: Dörbet, Torgut, Khoshut and Dzhungarians. All four tribes converted to Tibetan Buddhism during the 16th century.

It became the custom among Mongolian nobility from that time on to send at least one son to Tibet for study and perhaps to become a monk. Several decades later, one of those sons was Zaya Pandita (1599-1662), a prince from the tribe of the Khoshut. After training in Tibet, he left again for the Mongolian territory.

He had been one of the initiators of the last major gathering of virtually all Mongolian tribes in 1640. The purpose of the meeting was to create a great pan-Mongol federation that would present a united front against external enemies such as Russia and the Manchus. It was the last time the idea of the renewed creation of one great Mongolian nation was discussed. The eternal tribal conflict between the various Mongolian tribal federations made the attempt unrealistic beforehand.

After 1640, Zaya Pandita focused mainly on missionary work among the Oirats. He developed for them a writing system, the Oiratic script and managed to translate about 200 more canonical writings into Oiratic before his death.

In the first half of the 17th century, there was a decades-long civil war in Tibet. In it, the gelug tradition of the Dalai Lamas was on the verge of almost total elimination several times. With the help of military intervention by Güshri Khan of the Khoshut Mongols, the gelug finally managed to achieve victory in that civil war around 1642. That was the beginning of the period of gelug dominance that would last in historic Tibet until 1950. As a result of that intervention and the role that the Khoshut would subsequently play in Tibet, about 100,000 Khoshut migrated to the Kokonor area in the decades after 1642.

In the early 18th century, Tibet became a battleground for mutual strife among the tribes of the Oirat Federation. A period of rule by Lhabzang of the Khoshut over Tibet was violently ended by Tsewang Rabtan of the Dzhungars. The moment the Chinese emperor began to see this as a threat to the security of the empire, it resulted in Tibet effectively becoming a Chinese protectorate from 1720.

However, the four tribes of the Oirats had major rivalries among themselves even earlier, such as over ownership and use of grazing land.

In 1630, almost the entire tribe of the Torgut under the leadership of Kho Urluk (?-1644) decided to migrate to the Wolga Delta region and was followed by a significant portion of the Dörbet. There was evident discontent among the Oirat tribes over the attempts of Khara Khula of the tribe of the Dzhoengars to gain the entire political and military control of the tribal federation.

A major reason probably also lay in the desire to obtain uncontested grazing land. The territory of the Torgut was increasingly hemmed in by increasing influence of Russians to the north, Kazakhs to the south and that of Dzhungarians to the east. It is also possible that the Torgut in particular were no longer willing to participate in the ongoing military power struggle between eastern and western Mongols that had re-emerged in the early 17th century.

Most settled in the area originally belonging to the Nogai Horde, which was expelled. In the 18th century, under their greatest leader Ayuki Khan (1669-1724), they controlled a territory of over 600,000 km² in the steppes north of the Caspian Sea.

The migrants at first had a not unfavorable status of autonomy there. Because of the decline of that autonomous status, increasing pressure from German settlers on their grazing lands and pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church to convert them, over 200,000 people undertook the journey back to their original habitat in 1771. About half of them died during this trek.

Only the Oirats who remained behind in Russia are called Kalmucks.

Khara Khula's son, Erdeni Batuur, but especially his grandson Galdan (1644-1697), the leaders of the Dzhungars in the 17th century, managed to establish a great empire in Central Asia centered on the area that is now the Chinese province of Sinkiang. Galdan's eldest brother,Sengge, managed to inflict a decisive defeat on the Altyn Khan's canary in 1662. In 1687, Galdan invaded the territory of the Khalka-Mongols and wreaked havoc among the Khalkhas. Virtually the entire Khalkha people crossed the Gobi Desert and put themselves under the protection of the Qing Emperor Kangxi.

This led to the acceptance of their formal submission to the emperor in 1691. As a result, the area that is now the republic of Mongolia would be part of the Chinese empire until 1911.

In 1689, China and Russia concluded the treaty of Nertshinsk. With this, Kangxi prevented Galdan from ever forming a military alliance with the Russians. In 1690, Galdan once again invaded the Khalka region. The Russians indeed appeared to refuse any support. That was also when Kangxi decided to engage in military combat with Galdan himself. Five military campaigns followed against Galdan, who was killed by one of his own generals during the last one in 1697.

However, Galdan's successors were still seen by the Chinese emperors as a threat to the empire, also because they continued to intervene in Tibet. This eventually led to the final military campaign against the Dzhungars in 1755. For some years after that, a policy was implemented that aimed to eliminate the Dzhungars as a people. From mid-1757, this was moderated somewhat. The remaining Dzhungarians in the Sinkiang area were hereafter called Oolods. A 1999 census in that province cites a figure of 25,000 Oolods.

In the area that is now the Altaj Republic of Russia, a new religious movement known as Burkhanism emerged in the early 20th century. (Burkhan is the Mongolian word for Buddha, but can also more generally denote the word god.)

It was a movement whose undercurrent opposed the arrival of more and more Russian settlers in the area. In 1904, a certain Chet Chelpan claimed to have received visions of a rider dressed in white on a white horse. This person, whom he called Ak-Burkhan (White Burkhan) announced the very imminent arrival of a messiah named Oirat Khan. Chet Chelpan managed to organize thousands of people who prayed in rallies for the coming of Oirat Khan. The gatherings were suppressed by Russian settlers. Chet Chelpan was arrested, but released after a year when the tsarist government was convinced that the movement posed no security threat.

In 1926, Russian painter Nikolai Rjorich traveled through the Altaj. He then painted Oirat-Messenger of the White Burkhan, based on his interpretation of Burkhanism.

In 1918, some leaders in the Altaj founded the "Karakorum Regional Committee" with the intention of creating an independent republic of Oirat. With the arrival of the Bolsheviks in the area in 1922, the movement was dissolved.


  1. Oirats
  2. Oirat-Mongolen
  3. ^ Robert de Vaugondy〈亞洲圖〉 國立臺灣歷史博物館典藏網
  4. ^ Owen Lattimore, The Desert Road to Turkestan. (For Lattimore, Euleuths are "the great western group of tribes which marks in all probability a primitive racial cleavage" (p. 101 in the ca. 1929 edition). Lattimore further (p. 139 refers to Samuel Couling of The Encyclopaedia Sinica (1917), according to whom the spelling "Eleuth" was due to French missionaries, representing the sound of something like Ölöt. Into Chinese, the same name was transcribed as (Pinyin: Elute; Mongolian: Olot).))
  5. ^ M.Sanjdorj, History of the Mongolian People's Republic, Volume I, 1966
  6. В Китае ойраты включаются официально в состав монголов. Почти все «монголы» в СУАР и провинции Цинхай являются ойратами и говорят на ойрато-монгольских языках
  7. Der Begriff Jüün Ghar, d. h. „linker Flügel“ soll zunächst im 17. Jh. für alle Oiratenstämme gegolten haben und sich später auf den Stamm der Khoros bzw. Ölöt beschränkt haben. Vgl. R. Grousset: Empire of the Steppes, S. 520; M. Weiers: Geschichte der Mongolen, S. 185, 210.
  8. Der Begriff wurde bereits seit dem 14. Jahrhundert von islamischen Historikern für die Oiraten verwendet und später von den Russen für an der Wolga siedelnde Splittergruppen der Oiraten übernommen. Vgl. M. Weiers: Geschichte der Mongolen, S. 165, 185.
  9. Laut K. Kollmar-Paulenz: Die Mongolen, S. 95 rechnen zeitgenössische chinesische Quellen vor, dass von den etwa 600.000 Dschungaren 30 % ermordet wurden, 20 % zu den Russen und Kasachen flohen und 40 % an den Blattern starben.
  10. Atwood 2004 ↓, s. 419 – 420.
  11. Di Cosmo, Frank i Golden 2009 ↓, s. 161 – 165.
  12. Atwood 2004 ↓, s. 420 – 421.

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