Mongols Raid Beijing

Mongols from the north and northwest of China raided the capital at Beijing for more than two decades, demanding trade privileges. The conflict ceased when a peace treaty was agreed between Altan, the Mongol leader or khan, and the Longqing emperor.

Summary of Event

After the eviction of the Mongolian government from Chinese soil at the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), these so-called northern barbarians remained a constant threat to the Chinese. Along the border between Mongolia and China, the Ming government established military garrisons as a defense mechanism, the most important of which were the garrisons at Datong and Xuanfu in the northern part of Shanxi Province. However, the soldiers stationed there were not well prepared for warfare, and the commanders were not loyal to the point that they would sacrifice their lives for the Ming court. Beijing, Mongol raids on
Mongol Empire;China and
Qiu Luan
Wang Chonggu
Batu Mongke
Qiu Luan
Wang Chonggu

Toward the end of the fifteenth century, the most powerful and influential leader among the various Mongolian tribes was Batu Mongke, who created the Mongolian confederation and ruled for thirty-two years. One of his grandsons, Altan, who after his father’s death inherited the land north of Shanxi, was an ambitious and power-hungry man who launched military campaigns against other Mongolian tribes, such as the Oyrats in the West. To gather supplies for his army, Altan led his troops to raid northern China, taking cotton, grains, and metal. From 1530 to the 1540’, Mongolia was devastated by repeated smallpox epidemics. The decade after this was filled with periods of severe drought and famine in southern Mongolia. To gather the resources for his military campaigns and to provide relief to his people after the natural disasters, Altan had no choice but to look southward to China.

The Ming Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);invasion by Mongols ruler Shizong, the Jiajing emperor, was not an efficient leader. During the early part of his reign, he was more concerned with securing an heir, for whom he appealed to the Daoist Shao Yuanzhi for prayers. After he had had several sons, the emperor turned his attention to acquiring the elixir of immortality, leaving the welfare of the country to his subjects. Jiajing was also prejudiced against the Mongols, who, to him, were barbarians and could not be trusted.

Between the years 1541 and 1545, rain was scanty in northern China. As a result, famine broke out in both Mongolia and the northern Chinese provinces. Altan, in an effort to relieve his people, requested trading privileges with China but was ignored. In 1547, Altan even suggested an alliance with the Ming court to fight against the eastern Mongols under Darayisun’s rule. The Jiaging emperor ordered divinations of the results of future campaigns against the Mongols; when these divinations proved to be in favor of the Ming, he ignored Altan, who then turned to Darayisun against the Chinese.

In July, 1550, the Mongols approached the Chinese garrison at Datong, where they received a bribe from the commandant Qiu Luan to go east. Qiu, fully aware of his men’s inability to ward off their enemies, persuaded the Mongols to go somewhere else. On September 26, the Mongols arrived at Gubei Pass, 40 miles (about 64 kilometers) northeast of Beijing. They then moved on to Tongzhou, northern terminal of the Grand Canal, where they camped for the night of September 30. On October 1, the Mongols besieged the city of Beijing and looted the suburbs.

Most of the resident troops in the Beijing capital were assigned construction projects and were not fit to fight. When reinforcements arrived, they were met with no provisions and starved. The Ming minister of war could do nothing except to wait for the Mongols to withdraw. They did so several days later, happily with the looted goods intact. In 1551, Altan requested trading privileges again, especially the establishment of horse fairs. The Chinese agreed to two horse fairs annually and hence the raiding stopped for six months. Yet when the Mongols suggested trading cattle and sheep for beans and grains, the Chinese not only denied this request but also stopped the horse fairs altogether. Thereupon the Mongols resumed their constant raiding. Between 1550 and 1566, the Mongols raided China every year.

The Jiajing emperor took advice from his subjects not only to consolidate the Great Wall but also to build an eastern wall to protect the southern suburbs in Beijing. At the same time, for his own safety he established a palace army, or nei wu fu, which comprised eunuchs Eunuchs, Chinese . None of these measures proved to be of any effect to curb the Mongols’ raids.

In 1556, a major earthquake took place in Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces, where revenues were not collected for years after. Earthquake, Chinese (1556) In the capital, the main audience palaces were burned down in 1557 and needed to be rebuilt. Burdened by the incessant encounters with the Mongols, the Ming national treasury was severely depleted over the years. Often, there was not enough money to sustain the border garrisons. In 1557, a garrison near Datong was abandoned for almost a year. During the twenty-one-year campaign with the Mongols (1550-1571), the Ming army won only once, in 1560.

In 1571, an opportunity for peace opened for the Chinese. Altan’s grandson defected to Wang Chonggu, the governor-general at Datong. Instead of treating him as a hostage, Wang respected him as a royal guest. For the release of his grandson, Wang proposed a negotiation with Altan in which the latter would commit to a solemn oath not to attack China again. Later a settlement was reached between Altan and the Longqing emperor, who unlike his father, the Jiajing emperor, had long ago wished to put an end to the hostility between the two nations. The peace treaty consisted of five main provisions:

Trade markets would be held on the frontiers. Horse fairs would be resumed.

The Mongols were allowed to bring five hundred horses as annual tributes and receive Chinese products in return.

Altan was granted the title of shunyiwang, or prince of obedience and righteousness.

Altan was to return some of the important defectors to the Ming court.

Altan would have lesser tribes as his subordinates.


The Jiajing emperor, Shizong, can be held responsible for the Mongols’ raids. Between the years 1539 and 1550, he did not attend court but left his business to the grand secretary and eunuchs. He devoted most of his time to the pursuit of immortality. In 1550, following the Daoist’ Daoism advice, the emperor ordered young virgins from the ages of eight to fifteen to be summoned to court to help him in his search for immortality. Shizong also ordered his subjects to search for the magic herb ningzhi, which was rumored to give miraculous effects. The reason he refused to trade with the Mongols was his fear of abetting the Chinese defectors living in Mongolian territories. By giving in to the Mongols, the Ming court would also be helping these defectors to erode Ming rule.

In reality, the trade treaty actually benefited both nations. The Chinese needed a great number of horses for their garrisons and armies, while the Mongols could use cotton, silk, grain, metal, and other daily goods. Sheep, cattle, and furs had been tribute items from Mongolia for years in the Ming court. “Tribute” here is a euphemism: These items were being exchanged for goods desired by the Mongols, and as a rule, all the cost of the tributes was assumed by the Chinese. Seen from this point of view, the peace treaty of 1571 was a covenant between the two nations that sanctioned and regularized trade. From 1571 until the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, contact and harmony were maintained between the two neighboring countries.

Further Reading

  • Cameron, Nigel, and Brian Brake. Peking: A Tale of Three Cities. Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1965. Discusses the sociopolitical issues of Beijing in three historical eras: from the ancient period to the Mongol rule, from the Ming to the Qing Dynasty, and from the Republic to the People’s Republic.
  • Mote, Fredrick W. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Part 3, “China and the Mongol World,” and Part 4, “The Restoration of Native Rule Under the Ming,” provide a history of the Mongol presence in China.
  • Twitchett, Denis, and Frederick W. Mote, eds. The Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, Part 2. Vol. 8 in The Cambridge History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Excellent coverage of Ming administration and government. Chapter 4, “Ming and Inner Asia,” examines the relationship between China and Mongolia.

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