The Mongol Conquests
13th ~ 14th Centuries
Mongols on the Move
The Virtues of Continuous Conquest
When a tribesman became the personal supporter of a leader, he swore his absolute obedience to him only during wartime. After a successful battle, the khan had first pick of captured women and horses, and his supporters then divided the remaining plunder. In peacetime, a personal supporter promised simply not to act counter to his leader’s interests. As a result, the khan had every reason to be at war, when he could command the obedience of his troops by distributing booty to them, and no incentive to be at peace, when his troops would not obey him. Only continuous conquest, coupled with a steady supply of booty, could hold such an army together. For a leader to stop moving was tantamount to disbanding his troops. [The Open Empire, 312]
Chinggis Khan
Rise to Power

Sometime around 1167, The Origins of Chinggis Khan reports, a son was born to a chieftain’s family living in the forests east of Lake Baikal in what is now the People’s Republic of Mongolia. His father’s personal supporters abandoned the nine-year-old Chinggis, his mother, and his siblings on his father’s death, and they were forced to live in the forest. Although it was initially a disadvantage to be fatherless, Chinggis began launching his own campaign to win followers. As he grew up he was able to resume contact with his father’s supporters. His father’s friend gave him his daughter in marriage, and she brought a gift of a coat of black sable. Chinggis then gave the fur coat to a sworn brother of his father’s, who promised, in the words of The Origin:
In Return for the coat of black sables
I shall collect for thee
Thy people which have separated themselves.
In return for the coat of black sables
I shall gather for thee
Thy people which have dispersed themselves.
[The Open Empire, 312-3]

The Conquest of Europe
By 1215, the Mongols took all of north China from the Jin dynasty, leaving the Jurchen only a narrow band of land around the Huai River valley. ... After taking north China, the Mongols turned away from the rice paddies of South China to conquer the Eurasian steppe, the terrain with which they were most familiar. It took them only thirty years to cut a swath through the grasslands of Europe and Asia. By 1219 they had taken Russia and by 1222, all of north India.
Chinggis’s death gave Europe a two-year respite, but he had secured the consent of his four sons concerning the succession. The conquests resumed when a khuriltai council acknowledge his son Ögödei (reigned 1229-1241) as the new khan in 1229. Georgia, Persia, and Armenia fell in 1231, and Kiev and Hungary followed in 1236. Finally the conquests ended in 1241 with Ögödei’s death. This plunged the Mongols into a succession dispute that was resolved only 1264 with the division of the empire into quadrants, one each for the descendants of Chinggis’s four sons. [The Open Empire, 313-4]
The Mongols took territory with breathtaking speed. Although the army numbered only one hundred thirty thousand, its impact was that of a much larger force. Each soldier, equipped with several horses, could ride for three or four days without tiring his mounts. Atop the riderless mounts sat dummy soldiers, who appeared to swell the ranks of the attackers. [The Open Empire, 314-5]
An Englishman’s Account
Matthew Paris (1200-1259)

Swarming like locusts over the face of the earth, they have brought terrible devastation to the eastern parts (of Europe), laying them waste with fire and carnage ... they have razed cities, cut down forests, overthrown fortresses, pulled up vines, destroyed gardens, killed townspeople and peasants. ...

For they are inhuman and beastly, rather monsters than men, thirsting for and drinking blood, tearing and devouring the flesh of dogs and men, dressed in ox-hides, armed with plates of iron, short and stout, thickset, strong, invincible, indefatigable, their backs unprotected. ...

They are without human laws, know no comforts, are more ferocious than lions or bears. ... And so they come with the swiftness of lightning to the confines of Christendom, ravaging and slaughtering, striking everyone with terror and incomparable horror. [The Open Empire, 315]
It was in hopes of encouraging rapid surrender that the Mongols behaved so viciously. In 1221, after a son-in-law of Chinggis had died in the fighting outside the city of Herat in Afghanistan, the Mongols gave the order, as recounted by the Persian historian Juvaini (1226-1283), “that the town should be laid waste in such a manner that the site could be ploughed upon; and that in the exaction of vengeance not even cats and dogs should be left alive.” Only the four hundred craftsmen who were sent to the capital in Mongolia survived. Everyone else was killed, and the Mongols severed the victims’ heads from their bodies, forming separate piles for men, women, and children. They took every action possible to cultivate a reputation for senseless violence. ... A brilliant strategic device, terror as used by the Mongols created a climate of fear that enabled the Mongol armies to conquer new territory without having to fight for it. [The Open Empire, 316]

  • Why were the Mongols so ferocious?
  • Was  Matthew Paris correct when he likened them to animals who live without human laws, or is Valerie Hansen right when she characterizes their use of terror as a brilliant strategic device?
In 1253 William of Rubruck set off for the capital of the Mongols at Kara Khorum to convert them to Christianity. ... William’s account carefully distinguishes between what he himself saw, what others told him, and what was hearsay. The reader of his account feels the sting of the biting Christmas wind that swept across the steppe and tastes the frustration of trying to convert the Mongols to Roman Catholicism. No one can doubt that William went where he said he did and saw what he records. ... Rubruck’s account hardly circulated during his lifetime, and very few people knew about it. [The Open Empire, 317-8]
In contrast, Marco Polo’s account, which was written forty years after Rubruck’s, was one of the most widely read books in Europe, circulating first in manuscripts that were hand-copied and then, after Gutenberg’s discovery of moveable type (at least four centuries after the Chinese ...), as an early published book. While some scholars argue furiously that Travels offers better information about the places Polo visited than any other book, others, equally certain, counter that the book contains many factual errors. In fact, both scholarly camps can find evidence to support their differing views: some parts of Polo’s account are accurate, others are not.
       Travels does make some false claims. Polo asserts that he built the catapults that made it possible for the Mongols to take Xiangyang in 1268 — two years before his arrival in China. He also says that he served as governor of Yangzhou, but the complete Chinese-language lists of governors do not give his name.
Still, other indications support Polo’s claim to have visited China. It is certainly the case that the Polos traveled outside of Italy. By 1264, Italian merchants had established an outpost in the city of Tabriz in Iran. Marco’s father and uncle left Constantinople in 1261 and returned to Venice in 1271. They traveled again in 1271, this time with Marco, and returned to Venice only in 1295, on a ship with a Chinese princess who was to be married to a Middle Eastern king. Polo’s description of their journey tallies with Chinese accounts, which do not, however, explicitly mention the Polos by name. Moreover, when Polo died, his will listed his possessions, one of which was a paiza tablet of authority, a travel pass that allowed the bearer to travel throughout the Mongol empire as the khan’s representative. Polo must have received the pass from the Mongol ruler. [The Open Empire, 318-9]
The scholars who argue for the reliability of Polo’s book also have persuasive evidence. Polo occasionally relates kernels of important information. One scholar has recently shown that Polo’s description of Chinese paper money is the most detailed account in any language: it explains how the Chinese made, employed, and replaced the notes. Marco reports practices with which people in Europe could not have been familiar: a spirit medium who specializes in finding lost or stolen goods or the Chinese custom of equipping the dead with “horses and slaves, male and femal, and camels and cloth of gold in great abundance — all made of paper!” [The Open Empire, 321]
Marco Polo wrote his account in prison during 1298 and 1299, assisted by Rusticello de Pisa, who specialized in romances, and who, like many modern ghostwriters, felt no compunction about embellishing the truth to enhance the readability of his account. Rusticello simply lifted Khubilai’s welcome to Marco from his own version of an Arthurian legend recounting when Tristan first goes to court. Further undercutting his credibility, Polo’s account is repetitive. In almost every city in China he records, “The inhabitants are idolators and burn their dead. They are subject to the Great Khan and use paper money,” or some variation of this formula. [The Open Empire, 319]
However distorted parts of Travels may be, the book testifies to the cultural brilliance of China under the Mongols, especially in comparison to the Europe of Polo’s time. William of Rubruck found Karakorum sorely lacking, but Polo sees the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou (which he calls Kinsai) as “without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world.” It was a city of many bridges and waterways, with markets everywhere. Polo’s description captures life in the Chinese capital, complete with numerous urban amenities like hospitals, fire brigades, pleasure boats, paved roads, public baths, and stone houses. His book, with its vivid description of China’s riches, became a best seller for all times, a book so well known that Christopher Columbus carried it with him on his voyages to the New World. In contrast, William of Rubruck’s scrupulously accurate and much more informative account languished largely unread. [The Open Empire, 321-2]
The Conquest of China
The Yuan Dynasty ( 1276-1368)
The watery terrain of south China proved a formidable obstacle to the Mongols’ fast-moving forces, accustomed as they were to the steppe. After the final defeat of the Jurchen armies and the fall of their capital in 1234, the Mongol armies began a sustained attack against south China. It would take forty years for the Mongols to defeat the last of the Southern Song armies. The ferocious armies and swift cavalry of the Mongols faced the much larger army and navy of the Chinese. Cut off from supplies of fresh horses, the Chinese never managed to adapt to the horse warfare of the Mongols, while the Mongols, incongruous as it seems for a nomadic people, managed to organize a navy capable of defeating the Chinese in less than a decade. [The Open Empire, 322]
Although vastly outnumbered by the Chinese, the Mongols had proven themselves more skillful horsemen and better innovators. They had won the prize of south China, but they did not reckon with the difficulties of ruling a sedentary civilization, far different from their own tribal society. [The Open Empire, 324]
Governing China
The [Mongol] tribesmen knew how to sack cities, collect plunder, and move on, yet they had no experience governing conquered territory. With China in their thrall, they had to develop a new strategy. Distrustful of the Chinese, the Mongols preferred to deal with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia — the Khitans, the Tanguts, and the Uighurs among others — who could speak both Mongolian and Chinese. They called these people the people of various categories, or semu people. ...
       Chinggis’s son, Ögödei, placed Yelü [Chucai (1189-1243)] in charge of taxation in 1229, and Yelü drew on his experiences as a Jin-dynasty official to structure the Mongols’ financial policies in north China. ... Yelü also tried to implement other traditional measures, like a census and the civil service examinations, but the Mongol administration lacked the manpower to enforce these measures. After 1235, when Yelü lost power at court, these attempts to govern in the Chinese style stopped. ... Only after the conquest of the south did the Mongols once again tackle the problem of governing China. Yelü had already identified the major differences between the Chinese and Mongolian administrations: taxation and government recruitment. Because the Mongols usually collected plunder once a city had fallen, the Chinese practice of annual, low-level taxes was new to them. So too was the Chinese practice of recruitment through the civil service examination. 
[The Open Empire, 324-5]
Dual Government
Khubilai and his advisers followed the Liao precedent of dual government in that they envisioned separate societies — non-Chinese and Chinese — under Mongol rule. The Mongols divided the population of China into four groups: themselves, the people of various categories, the northern Chinese, and the southern Chinese. ... Suspicious of the Chinese, they forbade intermarriage between Mongols and Chinese, although much mixing actually occurred.
       Numbering only two million during the course of the Yuan dynasty, the Mongols lacked enough men to serve as officials. They hoped to appoint a Mongol and a Chinese to all high offices, with the two men to govern in tandem, but when no qualified Mongol was available, they appointed a western or Central Asian instead. 
[The Open Empire, 325-7]
The Mongols’ decision to suspend the civil service examinations had the greatest effect on educated Chinese families, who had devoted themselves to placing at least one son in the bureaucracy. In one stroke, the Mongols cut off the primary route to office. Chinese families adjusted quickly. Some accepted classification into the category of Confucian households whose job it was to teach in local schools, although teaching did not offer the same rewards it had in former periods when so many boys studied for the civil service examinations. Others obtained positions as clerks in the government offices where they could serve two thirty-month terms as county clerks, and then three successive terms as a clerk to a subprefect. Under the Mongol regulations, the same man could serve twelve and a half years and continue to be a clerk. The long service required and the low salary one could earn, however, discouraged many from this route. [The Open Empire, 327]
Reinstating the Exam System
A long period of instability followed Khubilai’s death in 1294, even in the absence of war or rebellion. The legacy of tanistry meant the Mongol royal clan had no orderly means of determining the succession. From 1294-1333, nine emperors ruled, but only one, Emperor Ayurbarwada (reigned 1313-1320), succeeded in naming his successor. Ayurbarwada’s reign offered a brief respite from the infighting, which resumed after his son’s death in 1323. The other eight emperors were overthrown, with two killed. All nine emperors encountered severe financial problems. ...
As a child, the emperor Ayurbarwada had studied with Confucian tutors, who instilled in him the love of traditional Chinese learning. One of his first acts on taking office was to reinstate the civil service examinations. ... In 1315 when the examinations were held, the Mongols and Central Asians sat for a different examination than did the Chinese. The peoples of various categories were required to answer detailed questions on Zhu Xi’s editions of the The Four Books: The Great Learning and The Mean (two individual chapters Zhu Xi had taken from The Book of Rites) as well as The Analects and Mencius. They also had to write a five-hundred character essay on a contemporary issue. Theirs was a much more truncated syllabus than scholars in previous dynasties had been required to master, and it was also a much less demanding examination than that for the Chinese. The Chinese had to write detailed short essays three-hundred characters long about Zhu’s commentaries to The Four Books. In addition, they had to select one of the longer classics from among The Book of Songs, The Book of Documents, The Book of Rites, and The Spring and Autumn Annals, on which they wrote a five-hundred-character essay. Finally they had to draft a one-thousand-character essay on a modern problem of governance. ...
Even after the reestablishment of the examinations, most offices continued to be filled by appointments or on the basis of heredity. The Chinese taking the exams faced much more difficult odds than the Mongols and the Central Asians who did so. The regulations specified that half the successful candidates (fifty men) would be Mongols or Central Asian; the remaining fifty would be Chinese. But fifty successful candidates were drawn from a Chinese population of 85 million, and fifty from the Mongol and Central Asian population of some two million. ... By 1333 only 2 percent of the officials serving the Mongols, some 550 men, had received their positions after passing the civil service examinations. ... [T]his figure shows that most Chinese scholars could not hope to pass the examinations in the Yuan dynasty. Although very few Chinese passed the examinations, many served in the Mongol administration, often in a lower capacity as a clerk, but sometimes in higher appointed positions. [The Open Empire, 331-3]
The Fall of the Mongols
In 1331 an epidemic in the province of Hubei wiped out nine-tenths of the population. Two years later, in both the Yangzi and Huai River valleys, some 400,000 people perished. The death toll in China under the Mongol dynasty was high. Scholars estimate the combined population of north and south China to have been between 110 million and 120 million at the time of the Mongol invasion. In 1290 the Mongol census takers counted fewer than 59 million people. ...
Scholars have traditionally thought the Mongol invasions caused the drop, but the American world historian, William H. McNeill, offered another explanation for the massive losses. The shift of trade routes away from the desert silk routes to the grasslands facilitated the spread of the plague bacillus. As the Mongols traveled overland, infected fleas rode in the Mongols’ grain bags attached to their saddles. The plague, which originated in the lowlands near the Himalayas, arrived in China in 1331 and simmered there until the 1350s when more epidemics ravaged the nation. In some areas, two-thirds of the people were reported to have died. ... The massive deaths resulting from the plague led to drastic revenue shortfalls for the central government. [The Open Empire, 339-40]
Great disorder marked the last years of the Mongol reign. No place was safe from the rebels. ... Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398) was a peasant who joined the rebels in the 1350s. With each victory against the government troops, he rose up in the ranks of the rebels’ army and emerged the triumphant founder of a new dynasty in 1368. The era of the Mongol rule had come to a close. [The Open Empire, 342-3]
Influences on Chinese Culture
  • Linguistic: Vernacular Writing
  • Literature: Plays
  • Examinations: Zhu Xi
  • Society: The Gentry
  • Painting ...
Yuan Dynasty Painting
One of the great turning points in the history of Chinese art took place under Mongol rule, when artists began to paint subjects that stood for more than simply the object depicted. Ni Zan … repeatedly used the same three elements — trees, rocks, and a blank expanse of water — to paint landscapes that expressed human relationships. In many of his pictures bamboo trees possessed the qualities of human individuals. [The Open Empire, First Edition, 364]
Zhao Mengfu

Guan Daosheng
Ni Zan
Now, my bamboo painting is nothing more than the writing down of the untrammeled feelings in my breast. Why should I trouble myself over whether it resembles something or doesn’t, whether the leaves are thick or sparse, the branches slanting of straight? [The Open Empire, First Edition, 365]