Esen Taishi

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Esen Taishi
Emperor of the Northern Yuan Dynasty
SuccessorMarkörgis Khan
SpouseMakhtum Khanim
Full name
DynastyNorthern Yuan
FatherToghon Taishi
ReligionShamanism, converted to Islam nominally

Esen Taishi (Mongolian: Эсэн тайш; d. 1455)[1] was a powerful Oirat Taishi and de facto ruler of the Northern Yuan in 15th century Mongolia. He is best known for capturing the Emperor Yingzong of Ming of the Ming dynasty in 1450 after the Battle of Tumu Fortress and briefly reuniting the Mongols. The Four Oirat reached the peak of their power under his rule.

Youth and early career[edit]

Esen was born to his father, Toghan, the Choros taishi (grand preceptor, from 太師) who had expanded Oirat territory substantially, with more Mongol tribes acknowledging his supremacy. As an Oirat, Esen himself was not descended from Genghis Khan, which would hamper his claim to the title of great khan throughout his life.[2][3]

In his early campaigns he fought against the Chaghatayid khans of Moghulistan. Esen three times defeated and twice captured the Moghul ruler Uwais Khan (Ways Khan) (1418–1432).[4] Esen released him out of respect for his Chinggisid blood in both cases. The third time, Uwais Khan granted Esen his sister Makhtum Khanim, who bore his two sons. Esen nominally converted to Islam in order to marry the Muslim princess, but remained effectively a shamanist.[5]

After his father died in 1438, Esen inherited his position, taishi, for the reigning khan Taisun Khan (reigned 1433–52). Under Esen Taishi's leadership, the Mongols under Taisun Khan conquered the rest of Mongolia and received the submission of the Jurchens and Tuvans in Manchuria and Eastern Siberia. In the 1430s, Esen also took over control of the Mongol kingdom known as Kara Del in the Hami oasis between the Gobi and the Takla Makan deserts; after 1443–45 the Mongol empire reached the northern border of Korea.[6]

Conflict with the Ming[edit]

Esen's aggressive actions irritated and threatened the Ming dynasty (明朝). The Chinese Ming Dynasty had for some time pursued a "divide and rule" strategy in dealings with their northern neighbors, maintaining trade and tribute relationships, functioning as a kind of state-subsidized monopoly, with multiple leaders who they could then turn against one another by inciting jealousy or suggesting intrigue. A unified Mongolia under one ruler was, however, much less susceptible to such tactics. Many of the tribes brought under Oirat dominion by conquest had inhabited areas claimed by the Ming, and other tribes had been pushed south into Chinese territory seeking to escape Oirat subjugation. The Chagatayid Hami oasis, furthermore, had paid tribute to the emperor before Esen convinced its ruler to pay tribute to the Oirats instead. Throughout the 1440s, Esen increased both the frequency of tribute missions to China and the number of representatives sent on each mission, meaning that the Chinese were obliged to provide ever-more expensive hospitality to the Mongols, irrespective of the actual trade or tribute being negotiated. According to surviving Chinese accounts, the Oirats demanded more and more lucrative tribute and trade agreements further skewed in the Mongol favor.

One Chinese tactic for dealing with the situation, provoking rivalry between Mongol leaders, failed completely as they underestimated the degree of power Esen wielded and chose "rivals" too far below him in status for the strategy to be effective. Efforts to make Taisun Khan an effective opponent against Esen Taishi failed. In addition, their other main tactic, meeting each demand for increased tribute or trade value with a decrease, backfired as well.

Esen encouraged hundreds of Mongol, Hami, and Samarkand-based Muslim merchants to accompany his missions to the Ming Emperor. Beginning in 1439 Taisun Khan and Esen sent envoys to China, often numbering more than 1,000. In response to this inflation of numbers demanding gifts per capita, the Zhengtong Emperor (1427–64) 大明英宗正統皇帝(明英宗)decreased gifts to Esen and Taisun Khan, and closed border trade with the Mongols.

Invasion of Ming China[edit]

In retaliation for real and perceived insults, Esen Taishi led an invasion of northern China in 1449 that culminated in the capture of the Ming emperor during the Tumu Crisis 土木之變. The large-scale, three-pronged invasion began in July, with Taisun Khan leading the easternmost force to Liaodong, the grand councillor Alag attacking Xuanfu, and Esen himself leading the troops that sacked Datong in August. Another column of the Mongols invaded Ganzhou. Acting on extremely poor advice from one of his advisors, the emperor also chose to lead his own armies into battle, resulting in defeat and capture.

Initial Chinese failures[edit]

The campaign was a series of routs and massacres of Ming forces, even though imperial troops in the region are estimated to have numbered as many as 500,000 and Esen Taishi had brought only 20,000 cavalry, expecting mainly to engage in traditional Oirat border raiding. Datong lay next to the south side of the Great Wall of China (border of China), and is always an important fort city of China but was repeatedly invaded and colonized by Siberians and Mongols in history. After the initial attack on Datong, Esen pretended to retreat back into the Mongolian steppes. The emperor and his hastily raised army chased the invaders west and met an ambush upon arriving at Datong. Mongol horsemen harried the Chinese retreat back towards the wall for four days while hampered by thunderstorms.[citation needed] The imperial army eventually reached the Tumu Fortress. However rather than having secured a defensible position, the Chinese were trapped against the northern side of the fortress, and the Mongol horsemen annihilated the entire Ming army.

Capture of the Ming emperor[edit]

The Zhengtong Emperor, who was captured by Esen Taishi

Most of the remaining soldiers, as well as all officers and courtiers of rank except the emperor himself, were slaughtered. Esen was still some distance away, near Xianfu. Six weeks later, when the captured emperor was brought to his camp, Esen attempted to ransom the emperor back to the Chinese. According to some accounts, it was at this point that Esen was granted the title "Taishi."

In any case, the Ming refused to negotiate a ransom, perhaps in part because the emperor's brother (a prince referred to as Zhu Qiyu, later the Jingtai Emperor) was by then installed on the throne and not eager to give up his new position. Yu Qian 于謙, the defense minister of Ming, who was organizing Chinese resistance, commented that the emperor's life is not as important as the fate of the country; he also believed that ransoming the emperor might boost the Mongols' morale and reduce that of the Ming.

Laying siege to Peking[edit]

His ransom demand rebuffed, Esen still considered the emperor more valuable alive than dead. Probably because the acting emperor was content not to obtain his brother's freedom, Esen began laying siege to Beijing. Esen offered the emperor his sister in marriage, but the emperor refused. The disheartened garrison in Peking(now Beijing) under the command of Yu Qian soon turned their unfavorable situation around. Yu Qian ordered his forces to pretend that they had lost control of the city gate in order to lure Mongol horsemen into the city. Once a large portion of the Mongol force was inside, the gate was shut and the Mongols were ambushed. Esen's sworn blood brother was killed in the attack. Having failed to take the city, Esen was forced to retreat under pressure from his own troops and by the arrival of Ming reinforcements.


The Ming court elevated the Jingtai Emperor (reigned 1449–57) to the throne. Esen sent the captured emperor back in 1450. Since the Mongol economy relied on their trade-and-tribute relationship with China, Esen was obligated to reopen negotiations, now under a much weaker position. While Ming-Mongol trade did not cease entirely during the Tumu Crisis, as the incident has come to be called, Esen had not only failed to win better terms than the prior arrangements, he was forced to accept less favorable terms in return for resumption of more regular relations with the Ming. Esen and Taisun Khan again turned to invade Manchuria of East Siberia, devastating the area around the confluence of now the Nen River and Songhua River(Chinesefied names).

Reign and death[edit]

Taisun Khan and Esen Taishi quarreled over the designation of the heir to the throne. Esen wanted a son of his sister to be the successor of Taisun Khan, but Taisun nominated another son of the eastern Mongol khatun as his heir instead. Taisun Khan supported the Three guards and openly led his own forces against Esen in 1451, but they were outnumbered by Oirat loyalists and the nominal khan was caught and killed by eastern tribesmen as he attempted to retreat. Taisun Khan's brother Agbarjin jinong (viceroy), who married Esen's daughter Tsetseg, deserted to the Oirats and was promised the title of khagan of the Northern Yuan dynasty. However, Esen murdered him at a feast which he had been invited. Esen attempted to kill the baby of his daughter, Agbarjin's son, but she and Esen's grandmother, Samur Gunj, hid the infant prince, Batu-Mongke, who would be a direct ancestor of Dayan Khan. After eighteen months since his defeat of Taisun Khan, in 1453, Esen himself took the title of Great Khan of the Great Yuan (大元天盛大可汗).[7] At the same time the Oirats launched an invasion against Moghulistan, Tashkent, and Transoxiana.

The Ming emperor was among the first to acknowledge the new title, but the reaction of Esen's fellow Mongols, Oirat and otherwise, mostly ranged from disapproving to enraged. Though Esen's lineage was related to the royal line descended from Temüjin (Genghis Khan) through his grandmother Samur gunji (princess), it was unlikely that he would have been considered eligible for election as Khan, and in any case Esen ignored the usual selection process. Rather than the title of khan falling automatically to the eldest eligible male of the line, as in primogeniture, Mongol leaders were traditionally chosen by means of the kurultai, an elective monarchy system, with the members of a lineage voting to choose the title's successor from among themselves. This dissatisfaction soon escalated into open revolt against Esen.

Esen gave his son Amasanj the title of taishi, an action that led his powerful general Alag, who had expected to receive the title himself, into rebellion. Oirat leaders joined the rebellion against Esen, who was defeated in battle and murdered in 1455, a year after his assumption of the title of khan. After his death, the Oirat no longer held sway over Mongolia, which had come under their control through Esen's influence, and remained divided among themselves for many years. The 17th and 18th century Zunghar rulers considered themselves to be descendants of Esen Taishi.

See also[edit]



  • Grousset, René (1938). L'Empire des Steppes.
  1. ^ Robinson, "Politics, Force and Ethnicity in Ming China: Mongols and the Abortive Coup of 1461," 80.
  2. ^ Sinor 1997, p. 205.
  3. ^ Croner 2010, pp. 28-29.
  4. ^ Rene Grousset - The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, p. 506
  5. ^ The "Tarikhi-i-Rashidi" of Mirza Muhammad Haidar, Dughlát, a history of the Moghuls of Central Asia, an English version edited with commentary, notes and map by N. Elias, p. 398
  6. ^ Jack Weatherford- The secret history of the Mongol Queens, p. 324
  7. ^ Sechin Jagchid, Van Jay Symons - Peace, war, and trade along the Great Wall: Nomadic-Chinese interaction through two millennia, p. 49

Twitchett, Denis, Frederick W. Mote, & John K. Fairbank (eds.) (1998). The Cambridge History of China: Volume 8, the Ming Dynasty, Part 2, 1368–1644[permanent dead link]. Cambridge University Press. pp. 233–239. ISBN 0-521-24333-5. Google Print. Retrieved 2 November 2005.

Mancini, Robert David (publication year unknown). "Dharma Daishi, Great Teacher of Buddhism and the Martial Arts".

van der Kuijp, Leonard W.J. (1993). "Jambhala: an imperial envoy to Tibet during the late Yuan". The Journal of the American Oriental Society 113 (4), 538–?

Esen Taishi
House of Choros (Чорос) the 14th century-1755
 Died: 1455
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Khan of the Northern Yuan dynasty
Succeeded by
Markörgis Khan
Preceded by
Toghon Tayisi
Taishi of the Oirats
Succeeded by