Diplomacy, Empire, and the Reform of Nomadic Polities: How the Zunghar Successfully Transformed Central Eurasia from 1676 to 1745

Event details

PhD Seminar

Date & time

Monday 14 May 2018


Talanoa Room


R. Spencer Haines


R. Spencer Haines

At the dawn of the 17th century, a diverse assortment of nomadic polities shared the steppes of Central Eurasia. These locally established khanates, confederations, and tumen were in constant competition with one another to control the nomadic peoples of a vast and sparsely populated region, while the sedentary Tsardom of Russia and Later Jin kingdom steadily increased their influence along the frontiers. In an era when political authority was tremendously fragmented and nomads felt that their traditional world was fading away, the militaristic Zunghar embarked upon an ambitious struggle that would eventually lead them to become the last in a long line of nomadic groups to create an empire ruling over the temperate grasslands of Central Eurasia. As part of the Oirat Confederation (fl. 1623 – 1697), early Zunghar leaders ruthlessly expanded their influence to bring the Altai, Turkestan, as well as large parts of the Kazak and Mongol steppes firmly under their sway. Then, in the late 17th century, the Zunghar Empire (fl. 1697 – 1755) rose from the ashes of the defunct Oirat Confederation to exercise direct hegemonic control over the huge expanse of territory between the Aral Sea, the forests of Siberia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayan mountain range. The Zunghar stand out as the only successful example of a nomadic polity to fend off repeated invasion attempts from surrounding gunpowder empires and usher in a period of domestic prosperity, yet little explanation has been provided to substantiate how they were actually able to unify such a large segment of the steppe population. Why were other nomadic polities of the time, many with larger populations and greater access to valuable resources, not able to emulate this impressive feat? What made the Zunghar fundamentally different and ultimately more successful in their empire building efforts during 17th and 18th centuries than all other nomadic polities?

This dissertation explains how the actions of a handful of trailblazers from the Zunghar branch of the Oirat Confederation became directly responsible for the birth and rapid expansion of the last nomadic empire to exist in Central Eurasia, as their leaders responded to the rapidly evolving geopolitical situation in region by radically breaking with strongly held political and cultural traditions. Over the course of more than a century, a chain of visionary Zunghar leaders successfully mirrored the military, economic, and diplomatic strategies of their advanced sedentary neighbours, combining them with those of past nomadic empires in a bid to reconstruct the very substance of the anachronistic steppe polity model. While neighbouring nomadic polities either consciously or unconsciously avoided foreign inventions and techniques as being in conflict with their existing dispositions, which led directly to them being sidelined by the rapidly increasing pace of technological change and subsequently co-opted by sedentary empires, the Zunghar instead showed themselves particularly open to new ideas and implementing innovative reforms. Over time, this marked difference allowed the Zunghar to avoid collapse and go on to direct local developments, shape regional histories, and ultimately influence larger global processes during the 17th and 18th centuries. By adopting new enhanced and replacement technologies, as well as prioritising the creation of a culture of continuous innovation, the Zunghar were able to enjoy a golden age of military triumph and economic prosperity well into the 18th century.

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