The Zunghar–Qing Wars and colonization in Central Asia

Society & Culture

In the late-17th century, the Qing empire and Zunghar Khanate both sought to expand their territory. They would clash in Mongolia, with dominion over Central Asia at stake.

This Week in China’s History: June 12, 1696

Discussions of imperialism and China usually focus on the actions of European colonialists of the 19th century, for good reason. The Qing dynasty never itself became a colony, as many of its Asian neighbors did, but its autonomy gradually eroded. Russia, France, Germany, Japan, and especially Great Britain “carved the melon” by claiming pieces of the Manchus’ empire in the late 1800s. Those states, and others including the United States, claimed “extraterritoriality” that permitted their citizens to live effectively as colonizers even while Qing sovereignty remained, formally, in place.

But two centuries before that, it was the Manchus that were the imperial power. Their expansion south and west to conquer China (the subject of last week’s column) marked the most populous era of the Qing dynasty, with the longest and bloodiest conquest as well, but it was not the only imperial expansion. This week, we take a look at a battle in “a terrible place” in the Mongolian desert that was a turning point in a decades-long campaign by the Qing to subjugate the Mongolian Zunghars, a key aspect in the Qing expansion that would eventually incorporate Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang into the empire.

Tibet and recently Xinjiang have attracted much more attention as scholars note the irony that 20th-century Chinese nationalists adopted the outline of a non-Chinese empire to establish the borders of their Republic (which then became the People’s Republic). Perhaps because parts of Mongolia gained independence in the 20th century, relatively less attention has been paid to issues of Mongol identity and ethnicity. All of these campaigns are part of Peter C. Perdue’s groundbreaking 2005 work, China Marches West, the first book in English detailing the Manchu expansion into Central Asia.

Neither of the protagonists — the Qing Kangxi emperor nor the Zunghar Khan Galdan — were Chinese, and few of the events I describe occurred in areas that have historically, ethnically, or linguistically been “Chinese.” Filing this in a column on “This Week in China’s History” may be the sort of retroactive nationalism that Jim Millward discussed in his Medium essay that I referred to in a fall 2020 column about the establishment of the Yuan capital at what is now Beijing.

In a review of historian Ge Zhaoguang’s recent book (translated by Michael Gibbs Hill) with a title no less ambitious than What is China?, Perdue writes, “A history of China that only includes the Han cultural core will provide a narrow account of what is now a vast, modern nation-state.” At the same time, he warns that “a history of China that includes the territories conquered by the Qing dynasty can’t hope to do justice to Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongols, Manchus and Han alike.” Near the end of his review, Perdue proposes a broader understanding of what China means, one that “would not seek to define the unity of Chinese civilization, but to celebrate its multiplicity….It would include women, non-Han peoples and non-elite traditions without trying to co-opt them into an orthodoxy.” With this suggestion in mind, I put this encounter between Mongols and Manchus into “China’s history” with an eye toward inclusion, not dominion.

So what of these non-Han actors? Of Kangxi, much has been written, including several references in this column (especially his valedictory edict), but Galdan is less well known. Born, coincidentally, in 1644, the year that the Qing established itself in Beijing, Galdan was of royal Mongol lineage, and was sent to Lhasa as a boy, where he studied under the Dalai Lama.

Galdan’s brother, Sengge, was king of the Zunghar Khanate, a confederation of Mongol-Oirat tribes that had established itself in 1634. Although its fate was far different, the Zunghar empire was for a time a rival to its larger and longer-lasting neighbors, the Romanov dynasty, founded in 1613, and the Manchu Qing, established in 1636. Beginning within decades of one another, these dynasties came together in central Asia, seeking, at various times, hegemony, accommodation, and dominion.

After his brother’s assassination in 1670, Galdan came back from Tibet and avenged Sengge’s murder by defeating his rivals. Not satisfied with this title, Galdan began expanding his territory, and by 1681 the Zunghar Khanate was a formidable rival to the also-expanding Qing empire. Most of what is today Xinjiang, large parts of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, and smaller parts of Russia were held by the Zunghars.

Galdan eyed even greater goals. Located between the Qing and Zunghars, much of present-day Mongolia was controlled by the Khalka Mongols. After years of tense relations, Galdan invaded Khalka territory in 1688, sending its leader and people to seek the protection of the Qing. A Zunghar Khanate that incorporated Khalka territory would be nearly as large as the Qing dynasty, and a unified Mongol empire was not something the Manchus could tolerate. Kangxi led a first war against the Zunghars in 1690, which ended in a Qing victory at Ulun Butung, just 200 miles north of Beijing, but Galdan’s forces were able to escape and avoid destruction.

Galdan obsessed the Kangxi emperor. The two had begun on amicable terms, and Galdan had even agreed to offer tribute to the Manchus, but over time it became clear that Galdan would remain dangerous. Jonathan Spence in Emperor of China: Self-portrait of K’ang-hsi described the intelligence Kangxi collected on his rival, “assess[ing] his character, his age and family situation, his problems with the Moslems, and his love of wine and women…his overconfidence, his gullibility, and inability to think far ahead.” For five years after the unfinished victory of 1690, he planned a campaign that would eliminate the Mongol king to his west as a threat.

The outcome of the Zunghar-Qing Wars makes it easy to consider Galdan as a nuisance, futilely harassing the Qing’s borders, but in the 1690s, the conflict was existential for all sides. At stake was nothing less than hegemony, or at least primacy, in Central Asia. But the 1690 defeat left Galdan vulnerable. He tried, repeatedly, to find supporters against the Manchus — approaching various Mongol princes, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and even Russians — but was left with few prospects. He even renewed his pledge of loyalty to the Qing to buy time, but Kangxi was now committed to nothing short of extermination.

Long supply lines across difficult terrain had enabled Galdan to escape in 1690, so this time Kangxi tried to lure his opponent closer to Beijing. When it was clear Galdan would not venture too near, the emperor decided on overwhelming force. Not one but three Qing armies set out toward the Zunghars in the spring of 1696. The three combined armies comprised nearly 75,000 troops. Kangxi personally led the central army that set out from the capital, as impressive as any early modern force: more than 32,000 soldiers, 3,000 horses, and 1,300 carts following with supplies. Kangxi also brought more than 200 heavy cannon — each weighing up to 11,000 pounds — and 100 or more smaller cannons, still weighing 1,000 pounds or more. Six of Kangxi’s sons rode as commanders. Two European Jesuits accompanied the emperor as advisors.

The stage seemed set for an epic battle. Intelligence suggested that Galdan had 10,000 soldiers, and that many more in support. Rumors of 60,000 Russian troops that would fight alongside the Zunghars worried the Qing commanders, but the emperor persisted.

When the battle was joined, it was not an epic. The Russians were just a rumor, and Galdan’s forces were nowhere near the expected force. The Qing troops, too, were no longer the impressive display that had departed the capital. Months of travel through snow, rain, and mud had depleted them greatly. When they finally met on June 12, Galdan had 5,000 soldiers, armed with just 2,000 fowling pieces. The Manchu main army never reached them; the Western army of Prince Fiyanggu surrounded the Zunghars, bombarded them with heavy artillery from higher ground, and then wiped out the survivors with arrows at close range.

The Battle of Jao Modo was not the end of Galdan, nor of the Zunghar wars. Galdan fled, with just 40 or 50 survivors, and lived another year, after provoking yet another campaign by Kangxi to defeat him. Galdan died, reports suggest, of plague, or poisoned by political rivals. Qing histories insisted that he took his own life, contributing to the myth of the inevitability of Manchu conquest — which would itself be overwhelmed by the supposed inevitability of European domination two centuries later.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.