Every nation on Earth, at some point or another, considers itself to be the baddest tribe out there. Maybe it's a new sword technology or a particularly fantastic military victory. A scientific breakthrough might do it. Religious fervor. The emergence of a Great Leader... All you have to do to topple these pretenders from the throne is whisper this name: Genghis. It's all over. Gold is taken, you'll have to make do with silver because no tribe can touch the Mongols (Měnggǔ zú, 蒙古族) in terms of pure baddass-izm, breadth of influence, or sudden, brutal impact on world society. The Vikings come close. Alexander had a great run. The US shock and awe campaign, although explosive, lacks true warrior ethos IMHO. And the newest pretender, the PRC, knows better than anyone what the deal is.
It wasn't just the piles of skulls left in the dust of thousands of horses. Or the vision of Mongol riders leaning down to suck blood from their steeds necks at full gallop. Or the ruthless bloody sieges and catastrophic defeats of the world's greatest armies. It was what came afterward.
Europe can thank Genghis and his horsemen for the Silk Road caravans rolled from Chang'an to Venice unmolested, transferring fresh blood, ideas and goods across Asia facilitating a rolling golden age that brought China, India, Persia, the Muslim Caliphate and eventually Europe into a new era.
China, a realm constantly shifting between chaos and central control in an unbreakable cycle, was shocked by absolute defeat into unity and went on to build a cohesive nation that has (geographically) changed little since the Ming Dynasty overthrew the last of the Yuan Emperors. The Mongols came like the furious Hand of God and dispatched the tired husks left over from the Chinese, Roman and Persian high points, but not a man, woman or child standing in their way during their initial breakout spoke of anything but demons and death. If they spoke at all.
A Confederation of Tribes
Like most modern terms, "Mongol" fails to adequately describe the nomadic peoples of northeast Asia's steppes. The Mongols were and continue to be divided into at least six different tribes, split more or less regionally into western, eastern, southern and northern Mongols. The tribes to the west have a closer relationship with the Turkic peoples (such as the Tartar, Uyghur and Tangut), whereas the eastern Mongols dealt more with Jurchens and Manchurians. These relationships have led to lighter-skinned, light-eyed "Yellow Mongols" in the west and darker "Brown Mongols" in the east. The southern Mongols are based around the Ordos Loop of the Yellow River, and have drifted from horses to plows throughout their centuries-long relationship with the Chinese.
The true origin of the Mongol people is lost to history and to Imperial Chinese oversimplification of the "barbarian horsemen" from the west and the north. The Mongols as we envision them were labeled as Xiongnu (Xiōngnú, 匈奴), Donghu (Dōnghú, 东胡) or Xianbei (Xiānbēi, 鲜卑) and most likely stemmed from the Khitan.
But history is fluid and it is the Now that counts. Today the tribes of the steppes are known as Mongols, refer to themselves primarily as Mongols and share an identity based on the legendary horsemen of the past. Time honored traditions like good yurt living, wrestling your neighbor, clear brain-freezing liquor, a spirituality that retains both Tibetan Buddhist qualities as well as the ancient Tengris traditions and a reputation for being tough that persists to this day.
The Mongol nation is divided now both regionally, as above, but also politically. The independent nation of Mongolia is the heart of Mongol culture with the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia to the south and the Russian state of Kalmyka as foreign centers of the Mongol peoples. The tribes are scattered across a horizontal band that runs from Korea to the Caspian Sea, but the highest concentration of Mongols anywhere is in China, with roughly 6 million people. In contrast, the nation of Mongolia has a population of just over 2.6 million.
The settled, walled, farming towns of the south encroached ever north, trading cash, women and land in vain attempts to keep peace at the border. The nomads spent half the time fighting amongst themselves and other half raiding into the south for fat city booty.The relationship ebbed and flowed with the balance of power: when China was unified and rich, the land south of the mountains and the Gobi Desert was usually occupied by settlers and soldiers. When China fractured and the tribes united, then settlers were driven off and border towns were put to the sword.
Ruins of the Great Wall drift across the 1.2 million sq km (over 460,000 sq mi) territory of Inner Mongolia, crumbling signs of the pendulum that swung here for centuries. The situation changed most recently in 1947, when Communist forces in the Soviet Union and China cooperated to split and occupy Mongolia, ridding themselves of an independent-minded nation straddling the border and creating a buffer to help stave off possible conflict. Inner Mongolia today is more than 80% Han Chinese, which may include a large number of sinicized Mongols.
Inner Mongolia Today
Inner Mongolia is now one of China's fastest developing regions and a popular tourist destination for bikers, hikers and campers. The capital, Hohhot, is the primary initial destination for first-timers to the province, but from there trips to the Inner Mongolian Grasslands or Baotou for a look at the Great Khan's Mausoleum are common ways to get a taste of life in Inner Mongolia. Life is strange out there, in a land of massive, empty cities in the middle of dusty plains and crumbling ruins that see the occasional bike race and herding family. The buffer between the nomads and the cities is still in many ways a no-man's land where two distinctly different cultures meet, fight, trade and intermarry.
Modern Mongols have moved to Beijing en masse as migrant workers—similar to Anhui farmers to Shanghai and everyone else to the Pearl River Delta—and those that stay in the border lands alternate between the nomadic traditions of their forefathers and the alluring lifestyle depicted on the television set. For a more in depth look into the complex relationship between the settlers and the nomads, check out Jiang Rong's novel Wolf Totem.