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Altan Khan

The Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography
Johan ElverskogJohan ELVERSKOG

Altan Khan Ālātǎn Hán 阿拉坦汗 1508–1582—Mongol ruler 

Altan Khan


Altan Khan was born in 1508 in Ordos, in Inner Mongolia, where his father was ruler. Following a tumultuous political situation, Altan became the most powerful Mongol ruler in the late sixteenth century, ruling the Tümed of southwestern Inner Mongolia. Although he tried many times to initiate trade with the Ming dynasty in China, his attempts at establishing ongoing relations with them ultimately failed. He is perhaps most famous for meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1578, thereby setting in motion the conversion of the Mongols to Buddhism.


Altan Khan was the most powerful Mongol ruler of the sixteenth century. He not only signed a peace deal with the Míng 明‎ dynasty (1368–1644) in 1571, but also met with the Dalai Lama in 1578, thereby setting in motion the conversion of the Mongols to Buddhism.

Altan (“Golden”) and his twin sister, Mönggön (“Silver”), were born on 20 January 1508 to the Mongol nobleman Barsubolod Sain Alag in Ordos, the area within the great bend of the Huang (Yellow) River that is now southwestern Inner Mongolia. At the time this area was not only ruled by Altan’s father, the jinong (viceroy) of Ordos, but it was also in open revolt against his grandfather Dayan Khan (c. 1480–c. 1517); namely, while Dayan ruled over eastern Inner Mongolia, he was once again trying to unify all the Mongols under one ruler, and it was this unification project that the Ordos Mongols were resisting. Nevertheless, against all odds Dayan Khan succeeded. After conquering all the Mongols he therefore divided them among his sons, creating the so-called Six Tümen. Yet this newly unified Mongol state was not to last because Altan, the ruler of one of these Tümen, was to both convert to Buddhism and become the most powerful Mongol ruler, which changed forever the religio-political structures of Mongol society. Moreover, these developments were in turn to change not only Sino-Mongol relations, but also pave the way for the rise of the Manchu Qīng 清 dynasty (1644–1911/1912).

The Mongol Empire

To make sense of these interlocking developments it is necessary to take a longer view of Chinese and Inner Asian history, beginning with the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century. In particular, rather than thinking of this empire as a unified whole stretching from Korea to the borders of Europe, as is often the case, let us see it as four virtually autonomous units operating under an ideological concept of Mongol unity. These four were the Golden Horde (Jīnzhàng hánguó 金帐汗国‎) in Russia, the Ilkhans in the Middle East, the Chaghataids in Central Asia, and finally the Yuán 元‎ dynasty (1279–1368) in China, which was conceived as the supreme ruler over the other three, especially during the reign of Khubilai (Qubilai) Khan 忽必烈汗‎ (1215–1294, r. 1260–1294 as Shìzǔ 世祖‎). Yet after his death, the relations between the four units began to fray and eventually they largely went their separate ways. The Golden Horde was eventually conquered and incorporated into czarist Russia; the Ilkhans morphed into the Timurids and then the Mughals of India; the Chaghataids became the Moghuls of Inner Asia; and the ruling elite of the Yuan became the Mongols when they were expelled from Beijing in 1368 by the forces of Emperor Hóngwǔ 洪武‎ (born Zhū Yuánzhāng 朱元璋‎; 1328–1398; r. 1368–1398), the founder of the Ming dynasty.

The Mongols, however, were not able to return to their old imperial capital of Karakorum on the Mongolian plateau because it was already occupied. Indeed, their ancestral homeland had been captured by the Oirad, an overarching designation for a group of peoples that had taken control over the plateau as the Mongols had become more and more embroiled in the affairs of China during the Yuan dynasty. The Mongols were therefore in limbo; they eventually established themselves, however, in the no-man’s-land between the Great Wall and the Gobi Desert, which is now the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. Nevertheless, two years after arriving as a refugee in this environmentally and politically marginal buffer zone, the last Yuan emperor, Togon Temür (1320–1370; r. 1333–1368, posthumous title Shùndì 顺帝‎), died of dysentery.

While his ignominious death symbolizes well the waning fortunes of the Mongols in the post-Yuan period, they were not completely powerless. Much of this had to do with the fact that they controlled the trade in Central Asian horses, which were essential for both the Ming military and its larger economy. Without them the Ming would quite literally have ground to a halt since Chinese soil lacks selenium, a vital mineral for the raising of strong horses. And the immensity of this trade is well reflected in the fact that annually the Ming bought nearly two million horses from the Mongols. Of course, for the Ming court it was intolerable that their national security was in the fickle hands of their enemies, and thus it had to be dealt with. The initial option was invasion and conquest, but every campaign of both emperors Hongwu and Yǒnglè 永乐‎ (r. 1402–1424) were resounding failures. In response to these failures the Ming court adopted a two-pronged strategy. The first was to find another source of horses, which they did by reestablishing the tea-for-horse trading network with Tibet. The second was to trade with the Mongols, but on their own terms. Their plan was to funnel all this trade through the small independent city-state of Hami, which in 1406 had been brought into the Ming system of frontier garrisons.

The Mongol khan Gülichi (r. 1402–1408), however, did not agree with these terms and he poisoned the Prince of Hami, who had made the deal with the Chinese. At this turn of events the Ming court was bewildered, but they still hoped to salvage the trade negotiations. Yet when their envoys were executed at the command of the new Mongol ruler Punyashri, the Ming court finally decided to circumvent the Mongols entirely. They therefore made contact with the Mongols’ archrival, the Oirad, and then not only bestowed titles and privileges upon the Oirad ruler but also opened up direct trade relations. The immediate consequence of this was that any power the Mongols had over the Ming simply evaporated, and both their wealth and power rapidly collapsed, while the Oirad rose in their place. Their power would reach its apogee during the reign of Esen (d. 1455), who in 1449 even captured Emperor Yīngzōng 英宗‎ (r. 1320–1323) at Tumu Fort 土木堡‎, fifty miles (eighty kilometers) northwest of Beijing; this event profoundly rattled the Ming court but emboldened Esen. He thus proclaimed himself khan and the rightful ruler of all the Mongols in 1453. While the Ming court hesitantly approved this move, the Mongols saw this action as a gross violation of the Chinggisid principle, which held that only direct descendants of Chinggis Khan (1162–1227; often spelled Genghis Khan) could ever become a true khan and hold the Mongol throne, and Esen was an Oirad. They therefore violently resisted, and after Esen’s death in 1455, the power of the Oirad weakened.

In their place rose the Mongols. Yet how the Mongols were actually able to rally themselves at this particular point in time is little understood. One factor in their favor, however, was the environment. Chinese sources recorded that on account of poor climatic conditions, northern China suffered severe famine during the 1450s and 1460s. The same conditions must clearly have affected both the Mongols and the Oirad, yet because the Oirad were on the Mongolian plateau, which has far greater weather extremes than Inner Mongolia, it is very likely that they were far worse off during these decades than the Mongols. Moreover, being closer to China, the Mongols could not only trade with the Chinese, but if need be they could also raid over the border. Regardless, it was during this time that the Mongol ruler Mandagul became khan and reigned briefly in the late 1470s. Upon his death, Bayan Möngke became khan, and upon Mongke’s death in 1484 his seven-year-old son, Batu Möngke, was married to Mandagul Khan’s widow, which enabled him to be recognized as the rightful ruler of all the Mongols.

Once the fortunes of the Mongols began to turn under this young ruler’s direction, he became as famous as Dayan Khan. His meteoric rise to power began with his consolidation of the Mongols living in eastern Inner Mongolia and his reorganization of them into the Three Eastern Tümen (Chakhar, Khalkha, and Uriyangkhan). Next came his greatest military achievement, the conquest of the Mongols of Ordos, who had taken advantage of the Tumu incident to occupy the area within the great bend of the Huang River. Having only recently moved into and taken over this territory, the Ordos Mongols did not initially want to ally themselves with Dayan Khan. Instead they violently resisted Dayan Khan’s project of unification. Ultimately, however, Dayan was victorious, and the Ordos Mongols were then organized into the Three Western Tümen (Ordos, Tümed, and Yüngshiyebü). And it was on account of this organizational reformulation of the Mongols into the Six Tümen under the authority of the Chinggisid ruler Dayan Khan that they were able to reassert their power against the Oirad.

Yet none of Dayan Khan’s children, who each ruled over one of these separate Tümen, had either the iron fist or the political savvy to keep the fractious Mongols together, thus devolving the political situation into a virtual civil war. Within this infighting, however, Altan was to rise to the top; but because he was the second child of Dayan Khan’s third son, he had no legitimate claim to the Mongol throne. He was instead simply the local ruler of the Tümed in the Ordos. But like Chinggis and Dayan Khan before him, he was ambitious, politically astute, and a military genius.

Altan Khan’s Rise to Power

Altan Khan recognized that the linchpin of his future success would be his relations with China and access to its markets. To this end he initially put all his military energy into consolidating control of Mongol territory, which ran all along the Ming dynasty’s northern border, so that he could use it as a launching pad to raid the riches of China. In so doing he not only forced the Mongul ruler Daraisun (r. 1548–1557) to recognize him as khan, but also pushed Daraisun and his people out of their traditional pastures, thereby setting in motion a massive migration. Most notably the Khalkha Mongols moved into the territory that was formerly occupied by the Oirad, which is now Outer Mongolia. The Oirad in turn were pushed farther west into the pastures north of the Tian Shan mountains where they came upon the remnants of the Moghuls and other nomadic groups, with whom they eventually forged the powerful empire of the Zünghars, which the Qing dynasty conquered in 1757.

Long before then, however, Altan was trying to deal with the Ming. At first Altan and his belligerent older brother, Mergen Jinong (1506–1542), thought the best strategy was simply to raid over the border and take what was needed. Although such a strategy provided the brothers with resources they could use to pay troops and forge alliances, Altan soon came to realize that it was shortsighted. To wit, while such raids provided certain immediate rewards, they also hardened the Chinese court’s determination to defend the border from such depredations. Altan therefore wanted to normalize trade relations by establishing markets along the Sino-Mongol border where goods could be bought and sold. Such a free market system, however, was not only potentially beyond the ever hypervigilant control of the Chinese state, but it was also antithetical to the traditional Chinese tribute system, in which trade with foreign countries was never simply an economic transaction; instead it was an elaborate piece of the imperial ideology to keep alive the illusion of China as the center of the universe. All trade was therefore imagined as being tribute presented to the Chinese emperor by subjects from afar, and the Chinese goods sold in return were simply the magnanimous gift of the Chinese sovereign. Since the Chinese market was so valuable, most foreign traders through history had been willing to put up with this charade, but Altan did not. He wanted open markets.

To this end, once his older brother passed away in 1542, Altan began sending envoys to the Ming court to discuss the possibilities of opening border markets. But the Chinese refused. Even when Weng Wanda (1498–1552), the military commander of the region just west of the capital and a key imperial advisor, wrote petitions in 1546 and 1547 in favor of opening trade with Altan, the emperor refused. Of course, the proper response to these overtures was an issue that greatly divided the Ming court. Nevertheless, Emperor Jiājìng’s 嘉靖‎ (r. 1522–1567) position of military containment and no-trade relations prevailed throughout the 1540s. Even in the face of growing dissent among court officials, the emperor’s personal animosity toward the Mongols—he even mandated that the characters for the word barbarian should be written in the smallest possible characters in all official records—continued to shape Sino-Mongol relations. In fact, it was within this context that the Ming dynasty began in earnest to build the Great Wall, perhaps the world’s greatest monument to xenophobia and trade protectionism ever built.

Altan KhanClick to view larger

Sixteenth century image of Altan Khan as icon of Bhuddism.

Even so, Altan tried to normalize trade relations throughout the 1540s. He persisted even after his trade envoys were publicly executed. After a decade of this one-sided and failed diplomacy, however, Altan launched an audacious attack on China. Yet it was not only the trade dispute that drove Altan to undertake this rash act: it also had not rained for 155 days, and the situation was dire. The Mongols were facing a severe famine, and the Ming court still refused to talk. Altan Khan thus invaded China, and by September he had surrounded Beijing and forced the Ming court to capitulate to his demands. The emperor agreed to the normalization of relations, and he allotted 100,000 taels of silver to purchase goods at two border markets at Datong in Shanxi Province and Xuanfu in today’s Xuanhua, Hebei Province.

These markets were seemingly a success; several leading Mongols, however, complained about the fact that only horses could be exchanged for satin and cotton fabrics at these markets. As a result, the markets excluded all but the nobility (which Chinese policy supported, because they believed the enriched nobles would in turn control the actions of the overwhelmingly poor majority). Following up on these suggestions, Shǐ Dào 史道‎, the official in charge of the markets, sent a memorial to the court requesting that sheep and cattle also be allowed to be traded for grain. The court, however, argued that Mongols do not eat grain, and thus this idea was simply a ruse to help feed the Chinese who had settled in Altan Khan’s territory. Shi Dao was therefore recalled in disgrace, and the markets closed, though a few sporadic markets continued to held through 1552. Yet after the Mongols began raiding again, the emperor abolished all border markets and forbade the matter ever to be brought up again for discussion. Nevertheless, in February 1553, Altan once more sent six envoys to request markets. The Ming court arrested all of them. Four were to die in jail, and two survived and were released in 1573.

Altan therefore realized that his ambitious plans for relations with China were over, and thus he turned his attention to securing his position on the Mongolian plateau. To this end he launched a massive campaign in 1558. He first marched through Ningxia and Gansu, where he conquered the Yellow Uygurs, and then turned north to present-day Xinjiang. There he first established relations with the Muslim rulers of Turpan and Hami. Then he campaigned against the Oirad in the Ili Valley and western Mongolia, which eventually resulted in the two sides establishing marriage relations and in the Oirad chiefs recognizing Altan as khan.

Dealing with the Chinese

After Altan Khan had secured his power across Inner Asia, he returned to Ordos, where his first course of action was to engage with the local Chinese community. Initially this group was comprised of members of the Buddhist White Lotus sect, which the Ming state ruthlessly persecuted. But over time it had come to include many other Chinese as well, such as those fleeing economic hardship or military service. Either way, the Mongols realized that such migrants were an economic boon and supported them by establishing twelve large and thirty-two small settlements where they could live and farm. Thus by the early 1560s there were fifty thousand Chinese in Altan Khan’s territory.

While Altan’s court recognized the value of these migrants, especially on account of their introduction of agriculture, the Mongols also wanted to entice educated Chinese who could help them deal with the Ming court. To this end the Mongols posted a sign: “All graduate scholars of the second rank who kindly join the barbarians will be treated very well and be my equals,” which elicited such a response that all the applicants had to be screened (Serruys 1959, 69). For the Mongols this brain drain was another boon since these scholars knew not only the “Ming system” (language, military, trade, etc.), and could therefore help Altan Khan’s court deal with China, but they also brought with them Chinese culture. Many of these Chinese were therefore brought into Altan Khan’s inner circle of advisors. Several became successful military leaders fighting against the Ming; others became teachers for the children of the Mongol elite, who studied the Chinese classics, and some became the architects and builders of Altan Khan’s palace, which was based on Chinese imperial precedent and constructed in the 1560s. It even had Chinese inscriptions over the two main gates reading kāi huà fǔ 开化府‎ (civilizing and developing government) and wēi zhèn huá yí 威震华夷‎ (overawe Chinese and barbarians).

But these Chinese literati were not the only ones promoting the power of Altan Khan. There was also a charismatic preacher and adept fortune-teller named Lǚ Hè 吕鹤‎, who not only acquired a large following of Ming Chinese by preaching a messianic message that claimed a massive Mongol invasion would result in the death of 70 percent of the Chinese population, but he also claimed to have an elixir that enabled one to survive without grain. Such a technological edge was clearly something that intrigued Altan Khan’s court, and, as with all the other recent Chinese technologies they had obtained, the Mongols also wanted this elixir—yet so, too, did the Ming court. As evidenced in the market disputes that arose in the early 1550s, the Ming court knew that grain was the key commodity in Sino-Mongol trade relations, and if this elixir worked, they would no longer have any leverage with Altan Khan and his growing Chinese community. Thus when they captured Lü He in Beijing in 1564, he was summarily executed.

The situation between the Ming and Altan Khan was therefore growing tense. In many ways it could easily have spiraled out of control as it had in 1550. Yet rather than descending into violent confrontation, the two sides signed a peace treaty in 1571. Of course, how and why this happened at this particular juncture in time has been much debated. Nevertheless, to explain this development, two factors need to be taken into consideration. The first was the Chinese community in Altan’s territory, which helped the Mongols to better understand how to deal with the Ming court; the second factor was the Ming court itself. After forty-five years on the throne the rabidly anti-Mongol Jiajing emperor had died, and during the transition period before the Emperor Wànlì 万历‎ (r. 1572–1620) was enthroned, many old debates were revived including how to best deal with the Mongols. The long-standing wisdom at the Ming court had been to isolate the Mongols and keep them at bay with both the Great Wall and a vast array of border garrisons, yet through the decades this strategy had always been questioned. Many had pointed out that maintaining border security was not only bankrupting the government but also was ineffective. As a result, they argued that opening up border markets and expanding the tribute system would ensure peace. Upon the death of the Jiajing emperor, this argument was given a new hearing.

One of the most prominent voices in this regard was Wáng Chónggǔ 王崇古‎ (1515–1589), who had made a name for himself as a young official by fighting piracy along China’s coast. The Jiajing court saw the Mongol situation in much the same light; therefore in 1559 they sent Wang to Shaanxi Province. Upon arriving, however, he quickly realized that the Sino-Mongol situation was not a question of piracy. Moreover, to resolve the escalating tensions on the border, Wang realized that the Ming strategy needed to change. But policy was set in Beijing, thus Wang’s options were limited. He could not, for example, unilaterally open border markets.

Even so, he did as much as possible to establish a relationship with Altan Khan by petitioning the court to agree to his sporadic requests. In particular, he was especially forceful in arguing that the Ming court should support Altan’s interest in Buddhism. Beginning in the 1550s, Altan had petitioned the court for Buddhist texts, statues, and even craftsmen to build temples, all of which had been rejected. Wang argued, however, that granting such requests would not only decrease border tensions but that the Mongol conversion to Buddhism would pacify their warlike tendencies. While this peace-through-Buddhism strategy was a pipe dream, Wang’s more engaged strategy was effective. And as the situation on the border improved, both Wang’s reputation and rank increased. By 1570 he was governor-general of Shanxi Province and in a perfect position to take advantage of the situation that unfolded when Altan Khan’s son defected to the Ming.

Daiching Ejei surrendered with his family at Báihú Fort 败胡堡‎ on 18 October 1570 because he felt wronged by his father. Altan had married a young woman named Noyanchu Jönggen, who had previously been promised to somebody else, and therefore another wife needed to be offered to the offended Mongol nobleman in order to ameliorate the situation. Altan thus offered him a granddaughter who was previously promised to Daiching Ejei, which in turn enraged Daiching and ultimately made him flee to China. Wang then realized that Daiching Ejei’s defection could be used to forge a Sino-Mongol peace accord. In particular, he aimed to use Daiching Ejei as not only bait for Altan to sue for peace but also as a lever to change the policies of the Ming court. In both cases he succeeded; on 13 June 1571 Altan Khan and representatives from the Ming court met just north of Datong to ratify a peace deal. In return for ceasing hostilities against China and handing over the leaders of the White Lotus for execution, the Ming granted Altan Khan the title Shùnyì Wáng 顺义王‎ (Obedient and Patriotic King), which allowed him to present tribute in Beijing, and opened several horse markets on the Ordos border. In addition both sides signed a thirteen-point agreement that dealt with issues of refugees and deserters, and in particular judicial matters concerning the punishment of Chinese and Mongols who committed crimes in the other’s territory.

A Crisis of Faith

The meeting between Altan Khan and the Dalai Lama in 1578 on the shores of Lake Kökenuur in the northern reaches of the Tibetan plateau has become an iconic moment in Eurasian history. Indeed, because the meeting was to become so important in later Mongol, Tibetan, and Qing imaginings of themselves, their religion, and their state, this meeting has often been presented as less an historical event than a powerful symbol. It is therefore important to recognize that the meeting of Altan Khan and the Dalai Lama was nothing unique; it was simply one of many such meetings. In fact, contrary to the common narrative of Gelukpa (the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism) exclusivity that this meeting entails, it is vital to recognize the pluralistic nature of Mongol religiosity—namely, the Dalai Lama and his Gelukpa order had no exclusive claim to the Mongols’ hearts and minds. They were simply one of a hodgepodge of religious specialists who provided their services at the Mongol court. With the subsequent rise of the Gelukpa during the Qing dynasty, however, this diffuse religiosity of Altan Khan’s court was to be readily forgotten. Instead, all that was to be remembered was that Altan Khan met the young Sonam Gyatsho, gave him the title of Dalai Lama, and thenceforth the Mongols were Gelukpa Buddhists.

The reality was slightly different. When Altan Khan passed away, for example, his funeral took place on the southern side of a mountain according to shamanic practices, and a Buddhist astrologer and Chinese feng shui master deduced his burial site. Such a pluralistic vision needs to be kept in mind when dealing with Altan Khan’s multifaceted approach to religion. Altan Khan, for example, had relations with numerous Tibetan lineages, including the Kagyü, which was the archrival of the Dalai Lama’s own Gelukpa order. Moreover, as seen earlier in this chapter, Altan Khan was interested in more than just Tibetan Buddhism. He had been a great supporter of the Chinese White Lotus Buddhist order, which offered him not only spiritual succor but also claimed to possess a mantra so powerful it could shatter the walls of a Chinese city. Yet their secret weapon did not fare much better than the grain-defying elixir of Lü He. When Altan Khan took the Chinese Buddhists out into the field, their mantras had no effect, and when the Chinese fortifications still stood after two days of chanting, Altan Khan apparently gave up on the White Lotus. Their future among the Mongols was therefore sealed when the Ming asked for their extradition in 1571; Altan acquiesced.

Altan KhanClick to view larger

The Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, received that title from Altan Khan. His predecessors received the titles of First and Second Dalai Lama retroactively.

The same kind of failure had also turned Altan Khan away from his shamans. They had advised him that 1547 was an auspicious year to inaugurate trade relations with the Ming, therefore Altan had tried to present one black-headed white horse, seven camels, and three thousand geldings. He also provided intelligence to the Ming court about another Mongol ruler’s impending attack on the garrison of Liaodong in present-day Liaoyang, in Liaoning Province. But the shamans were wrong. The Ming court still refused to open trade relations.

It was at this time that Altan turned to the White Lotus, but they too had failed, and now Altan Khan faced another crisis. In particular, the increased Sino-Mongol intercourse ushered in by the 1571 peace accord had been a double-edged sword. While it had brought normalization in trade relations and improved the economic situation among the Mongols, it had also enabled the urban diseases of China, especially smallpox, to run rampant across the steppe with devastating consequences. Indeed, these epidemics not only put a halt to the upsurge of the Mongols at this time and enabled the Manchus to rise in their place, but they also opened the door for Tibetan lamas and their vast repertoire of medical lore and tantric rituals to be invited back among the Mongols.

There were no doubt other reasons why Altan Khan turned to the Tibetans and their tantric Buddhism at this time, such as his definitive break with the White Lotus after the 1571 peace accord. The conventional narrative, however, has it that Altan’s turn toward Tibet happened on account of Asing Lama, a monk from the sacred mountain of Wutai Shan who appeared at the Mongol court in 1571. Asing supposedly not only introduced Altan and Noyanchu Jönggen to tantric Buddhism, but he also recommended that they that invite Sonam Gyatsho to Mongolia. While the later may be true, it is clear that Altan Khan did not need an introduction to Buddhism. Indeed, as noted above, he had long had contact with the lively tantric Buddhist scene that the Ming court supported in Beijing. Even so, it was probably the case that Altan’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism was furthered at this time since he had recently campaigned and conquered large areas of Amdo in Tibet. Thus his turn to the lamas and their Buddhism was not without political overtones.

By meeting with various Tibetan lamas, however, Altan Khan was not trying to unify the Mongols by harking back to the iconic meeting of Khubilai Khan and Pakpa Lama during the Yuan dynasty. This is precisely how later historians framed this meeting, but Altan Khan’s ambitions were always more local. As the second son of Dayan Khan’s third son, he could never claim to the rule the Chinggisid throne. He could not even claim to rule the Three Western Tümen of Ordos. He could only claim to be the ruler of the Tümed, his hereditary appanage in southwest Inner Mongolia. And even though he was the most powerful ruler among the Mongols during the late sixteenth century—and recognized as such by the Ming court—he never claimed to be anything other than the ruler of Tümed. Yet by consolidating his power over and against the rightful Chinggisid heir, and by having his local authority ritually recognized by Buddhist hierarchs, he changed the nature of Mongol society by putting an end to the Chinggisid principle of primogeniture. By abandoning the Chinggisid principle of one Mongol ruler enshrined by his grandfather Dayan Khan, the numerous descendants of Dayan Khan could thereby follow Altan’s lead, and by allying themselves with a Tibetan lama be proclaimed khan. And this is invariably what happened.

The particular religio-political model that Altan Khan had forged—one whereby local authority was conferred by Tibetan Buddhist hierarchs—was subsequently emulated by the Mongol leaders of the six different Tümen. Thus, in the wake of Altan Khan’s reign, rather than there being a unified group of Mongols, there instead came to be numerous independent Mongol groups that in turn came to fight not only with the Ming but also among themselves. But the subsequent Mongol civil war was only one consequence of Altan Khan’s particular innovations: on account of these competing khans allying themselves with different Buddhist orders, they were also drawn into competing sides in Tibet’s civil war. Chogtu Taiji of the Khalkha, for example, had allied himself with the Karmapa and his Kagyü lineage and launched an invasion of Tibet against the Dalai Lama and his Tümed allies.

On account of these competing religious and political alliances, the situation in Inner Asia quickly spun out of control in the beginning of the seventeenth century. Yet the crisis was not contained to this area. Indeed, much as the Ming dynasty’s economic and political weakness in the mid-sixteenth century had played an important role in setting these events in motion, it was subsequently the Ming that would suffer the ultimate fate of this deteriorating situation on the northern border. In 1644 the Ming would be conquered by the Manchus, who before the invasion had made alliances with several of the now independent local Mongol rulers as well as agreements with Tibetan lamas as Altan Khan had done. And this would continue throughout the course of the Qing dynasty. The legacy of Altan Khan, who had passed away in 1582, thus continued to profoundly shape Chinese history even though more often than not he is remembered for simply having met the Dalai Lama.


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