A landlocked East Asian country sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia (Mongolian: Монгол Улс Mongol Uls) is sparsely populated, with around 3 million inhabitants spread over a territory more than twice the size of France/Texas.note Nowadays it is home to peaceful people, and hasn't caught the world's attention for good or ill in the past half-millennium. And yet, Mongolia was once the center of an empire that ruled the Old World from the Danube to the Pacific Ocean.
Because of its location in the great Eurasian steppeland, Mongolia has been inhabited by horse-riding nomads since prehistoric times. These nomads, usually divided in rival tribes, were sometimes unified under a strong visionary ruler, and at such times engaged in wars of conquest against the Chinese, their sedentary neighbors to the South. It was in order to protect themselves from such invasions that the Chinese built the Great Wall.
The various empires that arose in Mongolia include the Xiongnu Confederation (a little-understood nomadic people that have long been associated with the European Huns, though recent analysis casts doubt on the connection), the Xianbei Empire, the Rouran Khaganate and the Liao Dynasty. At the end of the 12th century, as the tribes had once again fallen into disunion, a ruthless and ambitious chieftain named Temujin imposed his rule, organized the Mongols into a brutally efficient war machine, and proclaimed himself Genghis Khan. He then embarked on a series of conquests that his sons and grandsons would continue, until most of the Eurasian landmass was under their domination. Along the way, they laid waste to pretty much every polities in Asia and Eastern Europe (Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Kievan Rus' were particularly hard hit) while those who didn't were turned into puppet states or tributaries (China, Korea, Vietnam). The 13th century section in the history books of all countries in the region can be summed up as "Mongols paid visit and wiped us". Further conquests were nevertheless averted, mainly due to political in-fighting but also by strong resistance of peoples in the periphery; the 1260 Battle of Ain Jalut/Spring of Goliath in modern-day Israel, pitting them against Mamluk Egypt, is often cited as the defining Point of No Return that prevented them from expanding to Africa, while for various reasons campaigns for Japan, Vietnam, the Malay Archipelago, and the Indian subcontinent floundered. The emergence of such a huge empire created what came to be called "Pax Mongolica", in which warfare was lessened and movement of goods and ideas were made easier through efficient transportation. This unfortunately also made diseases easier to move; the 14th century Black Death that affected 75-200 million people in Eurasia was most likely caused due to this freedom of movement.
The Mongol Empire fell apart, bit by bit, over the following century, with the tribes outside the Mongol heartland becoming assimilated into the native cultures; out of the four major empires that fragmented, threenote quietly merged with the local Muslim dynasties, while the remaining one, the Yuan dynasty, became just the latest addition to the "barbaric hordes civilized by China" gallery. The tribes would unify again on later occasions, but they never again managed to conquer so much territory. In the 17th century, the Mongols, who by then had largely adopted Tibetan Buddhism, became the vassals of the Qing Dynasty.
They regained their independence in 1921 as China was in the throes of the Warlord Era, but in short order they fell under the suzerainty of the Soviet Union. For better or worse, the move was a total necessity: even as late as the 1950s, after the Chinese Civil War, maps belonging to the Nationalist Chinese Government identified Mongolia as part of the Republic of China on the basis of being the successor to the Chinese Empire (in fact, the RoC government, even when confined to the island of Taiwan, has continued to recognize Mongolia as part of China well into 20th century. While some laws were changed between 2002 and 2006 to permit Mongolia to be treated as a de facto foreign country, the RoC Constitution has not been amended to make the recognition formal as of 2015). Between Chinese anxiousness to reincorporate Mongolia and Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the geographically huge but demographically small Mongolian People's Republic owed its continued independence to its role as a Soviet-endorsed buffer between the USSR and China. Mongolian politics and national defense was largely shaped on the basis of counting on this role while stuck between two of the largest countries in the world. During this period, the Mongols were led first by Damdin Sükhbaatar, for whom the capital (Ulanbaatar - "Red Hero") is named. Sükhbaatar is generally considered to be the Father of modern Mongolia. Unfortunately, he died of overwork in 1923 (though popular narratives suggest he was poisoned). The other important leader of Mongolia during this period was Khorloogiin Choibalsan, whose nickname "the Stalin of the Mongolia" should tell you everything you need to know about him.
In the 1950s, a small minority of Mongolian leaders, including the leader of the time, Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal, pursued the incorporation of Mongolia into the Soviet Union, but this was shot down by the rest of the ruling party and the USSR itself. The arrangement did ensure no further military action taken against Mongolia, even during the Sino-Soviet split.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia became a democracy, but it has found the transition from decades of collectivized economy difficult. These days, it is somewhat famous for its velociraptors (of the fossilized variety of course).
Mongols have a geographic distribution far outreaching the titular country. China actually houses twice as many Mongols as Mongolia has (6 million vs 3 million). This is because, like the Turks, what you call "Mongols" are just the largest bit of a group of related tribes (but unlike the Turks, the Mongols have only one nation-state). Most Mongolian and Chinese Mongols are part of the Khalkha tribe. The next largest, Oirats, are the Mongols you find in Central Asia and European Russia (they migrated there to escape the Ming dynasty and today are better known as Kalmyks). Buryats, the third largest, are found in Russia's Buryatia, which borders Mongolia. The other tribes are much smaller and primarily reside in either China or Mongolia. There are also descendants. When Genghis Khan invaded Afghanistan in 1221, some of his army decided to go native and settled in the Bamyan Valley. Their progeny is called the Hazaras.
The Mongolian language is a part of the Mongolic language family, which more or less consists of it and a couple of nearby languages with much fewer speakers. There has been proposals to connect it with other isolated Eurasian families (including the Turkic and Japonic families) as a part of the Altaic supergroup, but it's not definitively demonstrated. Nevertheless, clear parallels with the Turkic family can't be denied; the two families have the same geographical origin, and the Turks, who were (and are) numerically superior, lent extensive vocabulary, including such important terms as "khan", "Tengri", and "Genghis" itself.
Family names are nonexistent in Mongolia. Instead, Mongols appendix their fathers' names before their given names. Damdin Sükhbaatar is called Sükhbaatar both in public and private, while Damdin, his father's name, is only written in official documents. Mongols do have the concept of clans, which used to be important (claiming that you are a member of the Borjigin clan is something of a cliche among Central Asian warlords back in the day). However, it has little use today.
Sometimes one will encounter references to Inner Mongolia and/or Outer Mongolia. "Inner Mongolia" refers to that portion of the traditional Mongolian homelands which is now a province of China. "Outer Mongolia" is what is now the independent nation of Mongolia. One difference is the writing system: Outer Mongolia switched to using Cyrillic in the 1930s due to the influence of the Soviet Union, whereas those left outside the state continues to use the original, Aramaic-descended script (one of the few that is absolutely required to be written vertically; Japanese and Chinese, though properly vertical, are nowadays more common to be written horizontally). Another difference is that 80% of Inner Mongolia is ethnically Han Chinese, not Mongolian.
Works set in Mongolia:
- The Cave of the Yellow Dog is about a young girl who adopts a stray dog against her father's wishes.
- Close to Eden, aka Urga is a 1991 film about a Mongolian shepherd who befriends a stranded Russian truck driver. Set in Inner Mongolia.
- The Eagle Huntress, a 2016 documentary about a young girl training to be an eagle hunter, among the Kazakh people of western Mongolia.
- At least three Genghis Khan biopics.
- The Conqueror is a 1956 film most famous as a member of the WTH, Casting Agency? Hall of Fame. John Wayne played the lead role of Genghis Khan. Yes. John Wayne. Some have suggested that this film killed him, due to filming having taken place downwind of former nuclear testing areas. Of course, the fact that he was a chain smoker for decades might have played a role as well; that said, the cancer rate for the rest of the cast and crew was about double that of the general population.
- Genghis Khan is a 1965 film that is severely flawed but at least has Omar Sharif giving a much, much better performance than Wayne did.
- Mongol, a 2007 film directed by Sergei Bodrov, is a much better (and more historically accurate) film than either of its two predecessors.
- Joy, a tearjerker about an 8-year-old girl that undergoes a series of tragedies.
- Khadak is a 2006 Belgian film set in Mongolia with an all-Mongolian cast, about a nomadic family which is forced to leave the steppe behind and go work in a coal mine.
- Made In Mongolia, a 2015 film about two nomads who come to Ulaanbaatar and run afoul of a Corrupt Corporate Executive.
- My Beautiful Jinjiimaa is a Tearjerker film about a young deaf-mute woman living as a nomad on the steppe.
- My Way is a 2011 Korean war movie that is a fictionalized account of Yang Kyoungjong, a Korean conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army. Yang's first experience with war comes in the 1939 Battle of Khalkin Gol, when Soviet & Japanese forces fought on the Khalka River of what was then the Mongolian People's Republic.
- A Pearl in the Forest is about Buryat tribesmen fleeing Russia for Mongolia to escape the communes of Joseph Stalin, and the damage wreaked by a Buryat communist who returns to sniff out defectors in his home village.
- Skiptrace, a 2016 action/comedy starring Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville, features the two of them trying to cross Mongolia to reach China (And through there Hong Kong) after being brought to Russia. The film is about what you'd expect from two such leading men, but these sequences took the pains to film in Inner Mongolia with Mongol actors/extras.
- Storm Over Asia is a 1928 Soviet propaganda film about a Mongol herder who leads the people of the steppe in revolt against their British Evil Colonialist oppressors.
- The Story of the Weeping Camel is about a nomadic family trying to save the life of a rare white camel.
- Tsogt Taij is a 1945 Mongolian film about a Real Life Mongolian prince who fought for Mongolian independence against the Chinese and Tibetans.
- The Way Back, directed by Peter Weir, is about a group of escapees from Stalin's gulag who flee into Mongolia, then have to cross the Gobi Desert on their way to China. It doesn't go well.
- Conqueror: A series of novels about the Mongol Empire.
- Blue Wolf by Inoue Yasushi is a fictionalized biography of Genghis Khan
- The poem "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a fanciful portrait of Mongol conqueror Kublai Khan's summer palace in "Xanadu"—now Shangdu, and located in Inner Mongolia.
- "The Private Life of Genghis Khan" is a humorous short story by Douglas Adams depicting the mighty Khan as a Henpecked Husband.
Live Action TV
- The Brave episode 8 "Stealth" goes to Mongolia and the Altai Mountains as the protagonists are dispatched to recover the wreckage of a crashed Russian stealth drone. However, it turns out the drone's crash site is actually just barely a mile inside of Chinese borders, which greatly complicates the mission.
- Masashi Ozawa, who is actually Japanese, was billed from Mongolia as Killer Khan.
- Age of Empires II: The campaign of Genghis Khan shows his rise to power, by uniting Mongolia, and his conquest of Asia to Europe.
- Phantom of Inferno's main heroine, Ein, is Mongolian, and her ending of the visual novel and the end of 2009 anime are set there.
The Mongolian flag