ANU Mongolia Institute Lunchtime Online Seminar with R Spencer Haines


R Spencer Haines


Virtual event


Friday, 16 October, 2020 - 12:00 to 13:00

R. Spencer Haines will present the next ANU Mongolia Institute lunchtime seminar to discuss the rise of the Zunghar nomadic polity in Central Asia during the 17th Century AD.

This will also constitute Mr Haines’ doctoral thesis presentation.

This is an online event held via Zoom. Please register at Eventbrite.


Crises, Charismatic Leadership, and Self-Strengthening Reforms: How the Nomadic Zunghar came to Dominate Central Eurasia (17th and 18th Centuries)

The 17th century witnessed the rise of an aggressive form of imperialism that led to appallingly high levels of violence, bloodshed, and warfare in Central Eurasia. Employing advanced gunpowder weapons in large numbers, the Russian and Qing empires began to expand their territorial reach over the steppes of the region for the first time in recorded history. Increasingly hemmed in by these advancing sedentary empires, nomadic peoples appeared to be anachronisms lacking the political will and technological knowhow to avoid being conquered. Yet, narratives of pervasive nomadic decline overlook the leading role played by the Zunghar branch of the Oirat peoples in resisting the territorial annexation attempts of outside powers. The Zunghar stand out as the only successful example of a nomadic polity to fight off repeated invasions and usher in a golden age of military triumph and economic prosperity lasting well into the 18th century.

Using archival records and primary source materials from Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Xinjiang (China), this presentation examines the circumstances that led to the emergence of a line of extraordinary Zunghar rulers in the late 17th century. It was these charismatic leaders that went on to implement a series of self-strengthening military, economic, cultural, and political reforms, which allowed the Zunghar to exert hegemony over Central Eurasia for a century. Militarily, the Zunghar pioneered the ‘Military Revolution’ in Central Eurasia after perfecting the process of manufacturing their own indigenously-created gunpowder weapons. Economically, they proved capable of reorienting their economy from almost total reliance on nomadic pastoralism towards a more balanced mix of agro-pastoralism and manufacturing. Politically, the leaders of the Zunghar put in place a host of innovative technologies of domination, including imposing an empire-wide system of laws and policies to boost the use of the Oirat language. The Zunghar also undertook steps aimed at modifying the identities and behaviours of their vassals, in order to gain acquiescence without having to constantly resort to coercive measures. Nevertheless, the era of Zunghar hegemony over Central Eurasia came to an abrupt end in the mid-18th century after a highly contagious strain of smallpox spread rapidly throughout their empire.

Although the ambitious self-strengthening reforms pursued by charismatic rulers of the Zunghar to preserve their independence ultimately failed, they still left an indelible mark on the history of the Central Eurasia. Not only did they serve as inspiration for the Oirat-led independence movements of the early 20th century, but the circumstances that led to the rise and fall of Zunghar-dominated empires have since reappeared in the region. History is now repeating itself and Central Eurasia is once again witnessing the re-emergence of strands of imperialism, revival of charismatic authority as a preferred style of leadership, imposition of policies aimed at diluting ethnic identities, as well as worsening droughts, dzud, and a deadly pandemic.

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Read more about the ANU Mongolia Institute’s 2020 online seminar series here.

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