Altan Khan

gigatos | May 25, 2022


Altan Khan (1507-1582) was the ruler of the Tümed, a Mongolian tribe. He was a direct descendant of Gengis 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, in the process, the area of the Chahar Mongols, most of what is now China”s Inner Mongolia province, became the emperor”s personal apanage. The leaders of the apanages functioned in practice as de facto equals of the emperors. Consequently, the emperor was known in the time of Altan Khan as the Emperor of the Chahar-Mongols.

Altan Khan united most of the eastern Mongols under his authority. He forced his nephew the emperor (khagan) Darayisung Gödeng Khan (1520-1557) to flee to the east with the entire population of the Chahar Mongols. In 1551, a compromise was reached. Altan Khan recognized the nominal authority of Darayisung Gödeng Khan as khagan who gave him the title Geegen Khan, the Magnificent.The territory lost to Altan Khan, however, he had to relinquish part of it and move his court even further east, placing it in the east of the present Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, directly bordering the territory of the Manchus.

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

An important instrument in this policy were the tribute missions. For the Mongolian tribes, these were the only means of conducting trade with any regularity in China”s interior and border cities. From the Chinese point of view, these were missions, where representatives of peoples on the periphery of the empire had the opportunity to recognize the supremacy of the Chinese emperors. The accommodation costs of the missions were also largely financed by the Chinese hosts. The size and frequency of those missions, thus essentially the potential regular volume of trade, 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 putting up 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 a number of border towns. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese went back on that commitment. The result was, another two decades of Mongol raids on the border and deeper inland would take place.

Around 1570, however, a more pragmatic policy prevailed. In 1571, an agreement was reached. In this agreement Altan Khan renounced raids and invasions of China. A number of marketplaces were opened for trade. Missions to Peking became possible once a year for a party of 150 people. Chinese merchants and officials in charge of them traveled to the border in large numbers, selling silk, furs, grain, and metal goods, such as kitchen utensils, and especially buying horses.

The Chinese Emperor Wanli(1563-1620) granted Altan Khan the title Shunyi Wang” (Obedient and Righteous Prince). Protocol titles were also given to 63 other Mongolian princes. Altan Khan delivered 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, that he had recruited Chinese, among others, to assist him in the organization of an administration over an empire that included several tribes is evidence of this. Their administrative and financial expertise allowed Altan Khan 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 a considerable number of temples were also realized after his conversion to Tibetan Buddhism.

Altan Khan is therefore best known for being the first important Mongolian 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 became greater. This 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 legislation that transcended 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 declining 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 beautiful Vajradhara, good, brilliant, praiseworthy ocean, abbreviated to ocean lama or dalai lama. Incidentally, it is a title that can be 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 also means ocean in Tibetan. 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. Sönam Gyatso also gave titles to other persons of the Mongolian nobility.

It is unclear, why the visit of precisely the most important lama of the gelug led to the future far-reaching consequences. From the literature it becomes clear, 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 bestowed upon 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 to the Chinese Ming dynasty. To profile his independence from that dynasty, Altan Khan would have chosen the relationship with the most important tulku of the gelug.

This alliance began the connection between various Mongolian tribal federations and, in particular, the gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which would continue in Tibetan history 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). Based on this, the supposed pattern-priest relationship of the 13th century would then be reconfirmed in that between Sönam Gyatso and Altan Khan.

Mongolian sources on the meeting with Sönam Gyatso have been preserved. Therefore, based on these, 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 the power of Altan Khan was also mainly personal, 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 culmination and fall would occur during the period of Ligdan Khan (1592-1634), the last emperor of the Northern Yuan Dynasty


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